“‘Put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth…’” (Genesis 24:2, NAB). This is one of those verses where even the Christians have to ask: “Did Abraham really say that?” In fact, he did, and he meant it.
Modern Americans keep a bipolar relationship with physical touch. On the one hand, it is enjoyable, and quite necessary, when it comes to sexual matters. On the other, touch can be uncomfortable, awkward, or downright threatening. As touch is very intimately connected with chastity, it is not surprising that our modern culture finds touch to be a difficult subject. Is physical contact always the beginning of a sexual relationship? Should we shy away from touch between the genders in order to preserve purity?
Most would say these are two very extreme questions; Jesus seems to agree, and extends to modern Christians a third (though no less difficult) question: can we view touch as a pure, love-giving, essential part of human life? A hint as to the answer is found in John’s account of the Last Supper: “So Simon Peter nodded to [John] to find out whom he meant. He leaned back against Jesus’ chest and said to him, ‘Master, who is it?’” (John 13:24-25, NAB)
The Bible offers us a treasury of similar examples. In those days, physical touch didn’t seem to be as nerve-wracking as it is to us. On multiple occasions Peter and Paul exhorted their brethren to greet each other with a “holy kiss.” In Ruth 1:14 we read: “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her” (NAB). By contrast, mother-in-law clinging isn’t exactly an accepted modern practice. What’s the disconnect here? Why is it that Americans view physical touch as a more aggressive form of communication than our ancestors and global brethren?
One answer could be the heavy puritanical influence that still persists in America. During courtship, Puritan customs encouraged physical distance between potential lovers. Another reason Americans hold touch in a kind of awe could be the strict hierarchical structures that formed during the Industrial Revolution. These structures meted out authority in very exact ways, and the ensuing jobsite inequality and formality may have heavily influenced the way touch was employed. Or again, the advancement of remote technology (such as cell phones and online video calls), and a host of other circumstances could be responsible for our present situation.
All that aside, the fact remains that touch is a charged topic in America, both on the sexual and non-sexual levels. It is obvious, too, that part of the challenge American Christians face today is the rampant misuse of sexualized content, including not only touch but images, words, and actions. These have crept into our daily lives, and have led to the over-sexualization of touch via a foundationally twisted view of the body. Unfortunately, the breakdown of sexual morality which the American Sexual Revolution gave us has led to an overflow of sexual content into the day-to-day activities of the modern Christian. The sex-equals-happiness mentality has distorted our philosophy so that now any sign of affection—tactile or otherwise—becomes a pursuit of this “happiness.” Our view of pure touch has been poisoned by this loss of boundaries.
But to get a real understanding of why touch is such an exotic thing in our culture (both sexual and non-sexual), we would be wise to understand what exactly touch does to us on a spiritual and emotional level; how it “touches” the soul itself.
By way of introduction, let us look at a harmless, lovable example of the amazing spiritual implications of touch: the image of a toddler in his mother’s arms. Touch in this intimate case, free as it is from all sexual implication, can be studied with a freer eye. The child commits an act of absolute trust by abandoning himself to the power and love of the other, certain of the fact that this physical affection will not be misguided, but will rather deepen in a real and powerful way the connection between mother and child. The mother, on her part, by warmly taking the child to herself, accepts the responsibility of care which the child requires to survive, and forms a veritable shelter for her child. We might say here that touch is a most grave and necessary ritual for the child, and from a neurological standpoint, this is quite true.
From this example, we can understand that touch is momentous because it singles out the individual. Bodies are an essential part of the human person and the sole differentiator between humans. If we only had souls without bodies, we would not be men, nor would there be any distinction between us. Indeed, Aquinas says, “The principle of individuation is matter.” (Aquinas, On Being and Essence). Touching another person calls this fact of individuality to mind. In other words, touching another calls them by name, for names are symbols and guardians of this same individuality.
But the body is essential to man for many other reasons, not least the fact that the senses are the beginning of knowledge for us. Is it any surprise, then, that our all-loving God would give us the power of touch to bring us closer to him? To this end, He chose to come among us on this physical earth so that men might touch Him, like the woman with the hemorrhage did in the fifth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. In fact, physical touch is a common pattern in many of Jesus’ healings. Still today He gives us many tangible symbols as reminders of His love and the unmatched saga of redemption, the water of baptism being a good example.
Let us step back and take another look at the nature of touch. Simply speaking, touch is an effective method of expressing love: it is a love language. Both in the sexual and non-sexual realms touch has a powerful impact on us, as we have formerly discussed. Neurologically speaking, touch is necessary for the development of children, and a lack of touch in the early years can lead to serious mental health concerns later in life. Touch makes us feel loved; it gives us an appreciation of our own personhood. Christians, after the example of John the Apostle at the Last Supper, should make use of physical contact as a way of singling out our friends, showing them our affection, and drawing our strength from within them. To understand the power of something so simple as an embrace, we need look no further than the parable of the Prodigal Son, when the father, by running to his long-lost love and embracing him warmly, begins the process of lifelong reconciliation in an instant.
Let us Christians not forget that sexual touch does play a crucial role in our lives. After all, did not God so ordain that the love of man and woman in marriage—and more specifically their physical embrace—should bring about the creation of another human being? Think about that for a moment. God uses touch to make more people like ourselves, who in turn have a chance to become more like Him, and to see Him forever in perfect happiness! And it all starts with the Godly touch of marriage.
In our sense of touch God has given us an enormous, terrible power, and by default, we thus have a responsibility to use it wisely. As an instrument of mere passion, touch can destroy our lives. But in the love of God, touch can bring the wounded soul into the eternal fragrance of charity.
Andrew Winter is a freshman.