Religion is sexy — at least some of the time. (To scholars of religion, all religion is “sexy” in an intellectual sense.)
Last year, I edited and prepared for press a new biography of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She was a leading figure in American religion in the 1920s, but a sex-related scandal in 1926 hurt her with the news media.
McPherson was widowed as a young woman, then briefly re-married. She was a “rock star” of religion, working larger and larger venues with thousands of people focused on her preaching and healings.
And after raising all of that divine energy, she was supposed to go home to her solitary bed. According to the author—in our private conversations—she did not always do so. Why am I not surprised? Maybe some day he will write that follow-up volume that tells all.
Interesting, a lot of today’s Pentecostal Christians do not know her name, although she founded one of its denominations. One of my students, a Pentecostal, said she had heard of her and thought of her as “scary”—but she did not know why.
All of this is a long introduction to a New York Times article: “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here.”
One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.
Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness.
The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Candidates for worship included actresses and prostitutes, as well as the sisters of practitioners.
Hatha originated as a way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts — including intercourse — to hasten rapturous bliss. In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality.
But it’s not just yoga and tantra. People get crushes on supposedly celibate Catholic priests, as Edie Falco’s character, Carmela, did in The Sopranos. And so on. It’s a issue for clergy, just as it is with psychotherapists.
As a polytheist, I would like to time-travel back to one of Sister Aimee’s healing services and see if she was channeling only Yeshua the radical rabbi or maybe someone else as well, someone known for lifting his devotees up and them hurling them down.
As polytheists, we know that some of the deities and some ritual practices carry a strong sexual charge. People who work these will feel the results. If we know that in advance—and if we can ways to use these energies that do not have bad social consequences—then Pagans won’t “find themselves less prone to surprise.”