Last year, there was palpable resistance as I walked into the classroom to teach the Year One course. Set in a small room amidst bookshelves overstuffed with hardbacks lazily ordered, the class was meant to be intimate, approachable and warm. The giggles and blushes of a fifth-grade sex ed. class would have been preferable to the stiff silence that met me as I began to talk about the importance of our sexuality, and what it tells us about God. Instead of the openness I had (somewhat naïvely) hoped for, the attitudes of my students were typified in the bemused question that one woman interjected mid-lecture: “How will telling the story of my sexuality help me know God better? I just don’t see it.”
And that’s the thing. For the most part, we just don’t see it. If you’ve come from almost any Protestant spiritual tradition, the connection between our sexuality and God is less than clear. If you’ve come from a conservative tradition, not only is the connection difficult to see; it’s almost antithetical to what you might perceive as a biblical understanding of spirituality. Unfortunately, whether it’s tradition or a simple neglect of the subject, the impulses of our bodies (be they toward food, drink or physical intimacy) rarely make their way into the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Or better said, they’re there, in the body of the pastor or the priest, but he or she does as much as practically possible to make sure they don’t interfere.
Jesus says, “Eat. This is my body, broken for you. Drink. This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” Even as Jesus instituted the Last Supper, what liturgically structured churches call the Eucharist, he addressed our deepest needs—food, drink and intimacy: Take My body into your body.
And yet, we still need to be shocked back into the realization that we are bodies that need, and need to touch. We have been created as both sensual (able to touch, feel and sense things physical) and sexual (created gendered and with physical drives for connection and intimacy.) We live such isolated lives that we’re missing those truths.
02. Practice Gnostics
Compared to common life a century ago, we in the West are a shockingly touch-deprived society. The study of “personal space” (a phrase we now overuse) didn’t develop until the twentieth century, and was based, originally, on observations of the interactions of zoo animals. It wasn’t until Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, wrote about “proxemics” or “personal spaces” in 1966 that we even had words to describe what it meant to be uncomfortable in close proximity to someone else.
Nearly fifty years later, technology and transportation improvements mean that we are afforded the luxury of a bubble of space all our own in which we can live, controlling the ways in which we touch or are touched by others. Today, we can go through days, weeks and even months without touching another human being. We correspond electronically, which detaching ourselves from the physicality of communication. We drive rather than walk to the places we need to visit, and with bench seats fading from the auto design landscape, we don’t even slide into our driving companions on a sharp curve any more.
More often than not, we protect ourselves not just from any kind of person-to-person touch, but from any other kind of unbidden touch as well. We are less and less likely simply to deal with the inconveniences of the weather—instead we isolate ourselves from it almost completely. Most office buildings no longer have windows that can open—we can watch the wind blow, but we can’t feel it ruffle our hair. Even our clothing industry reflects this trend toward physical isolation. The more affluent and isolated we become, the less our clothing is designed to stand up to any weather conditions other than those brought about by the vagaries of air conditioning and central heating. You can’t walk through a blustery parking lot, let alone a muddy field, in most of today’s fashions. We are disconnected from earth, wind, rain, and more and more, our own bodies.
Despite the fact that incarnation and embodiment play a central role in our faith, the church as a whole has not been of great help, especially recently. We rarely, if ever, talk about our bodies or about touch. When we do, it is often in the context of purity, safety or abstinence—for ourselves, our children and our teens. Please hear me clearly here. I support safety for our children, believe in abstinence before marriage and understand the risks involved as we pursue purity in an age where impure things are more than readily available. That said, the church as a whole has shaped our relationship to touch and to sexuality in the negative, focusing on how we should control and repress our bodies. We live out our physicality and sexuality under the aegis of what they should not be, instead of what they could be. Functionally, we act as if it would be a lot more convenient if we just skipped the whole body thing all together. We are, quite often, practical Gnostics.Gnosticism is a complicated and varied set of beliefs that suggest there is “secret knowledge” given to only a few, through specific, hidden means. This stands directly in opposition to biblical revelation. Some of the tenets of Gnosticism are that knowledge is the highest good, and that Christ only appeared to have a body. This belief sprang from the idea that all matter is inherently base and evil, and that the spirit, mind and intuitions are, in fact, where all that is pure and good resides. Since Christ was without sin and uncontaminated by evil, Gnostics conclude that Jesus must have only appeared to have a body. Many Christians today treat their bodies as if they are evil, base things, only meant to be endured until the resurrection, without redeemable qualities or faculties. This is, very simply put, practical Gnosticism.
This Gnosticism is ironic, really, given that our whole theology revolves around the fact that Jesus lived and breathed and sweated and walked around and touched people. Most other faith traditions can get away with an aversion to or attempt to escape from the reality of our physical incarnation. Not Christians. The Nicene Creed—whether or not we recite it regularly—states that we believe in Christ’s physical birth, death, and resurrection. None of that happens without a body.
Stepping out from under cultural and historically accepted ways of acting is, however, extremely difficult. Especially if we don’t—as my skeptical students didn’t—have any understanding of why behaving or thinking any differently will help us to live a better life, understand God, be more connected to one another.
To some extent, the church has good reason to speak of our physicality in negative terms. Our sensuality and our sexuality (both our physical desire for sexual union and, as we’ll see later, our impulse for connection) are two desires that, if not integrated into our personhood in a healthy way, lead to the kinds of ravenous behaviors that destroy marriages and disgrace churches.
In that light, the reasons Christians have developed such a reputation for prudish mores and strict standards are both manifold and valid. Illicit affairs, addictions to pornography, inappropriate touching of small children—all have disastrous effects on families, churches, perpetrators, and victims. Disordered sexuality quite often leads to addiction, which can feed into other destructive behaviors and systems.
03. Reclaiming the Gift
It would be easy enough to stop there. In some ways, it feels safer to create boundaries of protection, to fence our sexuality the way the ancient rabbis fenced the law, creating layer upon layer of codes of behavior so that the central tenets of morality are in no danger of being violated.
And it may, indeed, be safer, but in order to maintain these boundaries we have to keep defining sexuality by what it cannot do, how we cannot express it, instead of defining it in the positive, as something we can move toward in joy.
It is here that I’d like to recognize and acknowledge that many of our readers have had sad—and perhaps deeply traumatizing—experiences of sexual abuse and misuse. As Samuel Hamilton-Poore writes in Supervision of Spiritual Directors: Engaging in Holy Mystery, it may be difficult “for some readers to see or experience sexuality as a gift. The statistics on the number of people who have endured sexual abuse, violation, and discrimination are truly staggering. Unless we find some way to affirm our sexuality as a divine gift, however, we may inadvertently compound the tragedy of sexual abuse and misconduct. Without affirmation, without seeing the gift, we allow our sexuality to be defined and demeaned by its misuse.”Samuel Hamilton-Poore, “The Given and the Gift: Sexuality and God’s Eros in Spiritual Direction and Supervision” by in Supervision of Spiritual Directors: Engaging in Holy Mystery, Mary Rose Bumpus, Ed, and Rebecca Bradburn Langer, ed. (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2005), 88.
The Gospel is an invitation to wholeness and to life. Because of the work of Christ, we are no longer defined by our sins (whatever sins they are); we are defined by Christ. The good news is that not only are we justified, but we are also being transformed ever increasingly into the likeness of God. That transformation, that work of God’s grace in and through us, isn’t limited to our souls or our behavior. It includes our total personhood, which means our bodies and our sexuality as well. And that means that a recovered, redeemed sexuality—a sexuality that we live into and celebrate—is possible. So what does that mean? What might a fully orbed experience of sexuality entail?
04. Recovering Sexuality
While it seems the most unlikely and scandalous place to start in the recovery of our connection to our bodies, sex and sexuality are one of the best places to start.
We can be practically disconnected, or generally disordered, about the way we eat, how much we drink, or how much sleep we get at night. We’re pretty good at ignoring God’s command to rest on the Sabbath, and for all intents and purposes we’ve completely ignored the fact that gluttony is one of the besetting sins not only of the Western culture but of the Western church. Sex, however, we find extremely difficult to ignore.
I once heard a pastor friend joke that the way to pack the pews on a Sunday morning was to preach a sermon series about sex. Ironically, he was in the middle of preaching just such a series, and lo and behold, church attendance was up. When sales of the Christian classics (Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle or Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ) remain almost flat-lined, books on purity or self-control or how to have great Christian sex are more than hot off the presses. We’re driven to decode where the “lines” are in our dating relationships (not in itself a bad thing) and what the latest wisdom is on how to control our drive to ogle the opposite sex.
All of this talk about sex and purity and self-control titillates us quite thoroughly, and even occasionally convicts us, in a way that provides lasting change, about God’s best designs for our desires. But it essentially misses our point of deprivation, this odd disconnect that we still experience between the life we live in our bodies and the life we live in the Spirit. It misses the point because in all of this talk we keep skirting around a fact that we all know but are too busy covering up to admit: We are sexual beings. Our sexuality is an essential part of being human, a part that has gone sadly neglected by the church and scandalously overexposed by society.
Indeed as Lisa Graham McMinn writes, “Sexuality is intended by God to be neither incidental to nor detrimental to our spirituality, but rather a fully integrated and basic dimension of that spirituality . . . human sexuality . . . is most fundamentally the divine invitation to find our destinies not in loneliness but in deep connection . . . we experience our sexuality as the basic eros of our humanness that urges, invites, and lures us out of our loneliness into intimate communication and communion with God and the world.”Lisa Graham McMinn. Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 6.
Let me speak to one of the concerns that often arises when I speak or write on the topic of reclaiming our sexuality. It is true: Jesus—our Savior, Redeemer, Friend—never married and never had sex. This is important to remember, because we can go too far (as the Corinthians did) in our “permissions” around our sexual expressions. However, let me restate that what we’re talking about when we talk about sexuality is much more than genital intercourse. That Jesus did not have sex does not mean that he was not sexual.
While sex is one way that we express our sexuality, it is not the only way—and we’ve been tied up in knots about this ever since, well, the time of St. Augustine in the mid-400s. To say that sexuality is only about genital sex (or our thoughts about genital sex) is to strip the millions of single people in the world of their sexuality. A single person has just as many desires and longings and embodied feelings as a married person does—he or she is just as human. Just as Jesus was fully human. Which means that he was also a sexual being.
For some of us, that’s a scandalous and difficult thought—that Jesus had longings and felt desires just as we did, just as we do. Even more scandalous is that Jesus went about his life being a human being fully alive to his sexuality. He didn’t shuck it off as irrelevant. He didn’t live without the touch of others to keep himself more pure and holy. He was fully God and fully human, and he welcomed touches that the world around him thought thoroughly improper. (Think about the woman who wiped his feet with her hair or the way he touched the lepers who came to him.) Jesus connected with those around him because he loved us so much and knew how profoundly we were (and still are) cut off from ourselves, from one another and from our God. He came that we might, through his incredible sacrifice, be reconnected.
We need to realize that in our sexuality and sexual desires something much larger is going on. Sadly, most of us, myself included, aren’t only disconnected from our world and our God—we’re disconnected from ourselves. We’re disconnected from our desires and drives; we’re disconnected from the earthy reality of our physical bodies. We live our lives trying to control or sometimes completely suppress the things that our bodies ask for so insistently—intimacy and connection. Part of the journey of reconnecting means recognizing that sexuality is much more than just sex.
Our sexual longings aren’t about just wanting a physically intimate encounter with another human being. These longings tell us through the medium of our embodiment that we were made for relationship, with others and with God. When we cut ourselves off from relationship or fellowship, it is our bodies and their urges that are most often the most insistent forces in luring us back to community. Our sexuality invites us toward connection, and in its ultimate genital expression, toward covenanted union.
Theosis is the term theologians use to describe the attainment of likeness to or union with God. As sons and daughters of God, we are all called toward that union with God, not based on our own efforts, but on the transforming power of divine grace. Indwelt by the Spirit of God, it is toward this end that our true self longs, and our false self (or our flesh) resists.