Meta 140. 1999/09/15. Approximately 2350 words.
In this posting, we continue our discussion of sexuality, science, andreligion, following-up on Meta 137 in which Michael Ruse wrote on”Philosophy and Sex: Not a Happy Couple.”
Below is column from Jay Johnson, who is a Christian theologian andAnglican priest from Berkeley, CA. Johnson discusses Augustine, Aquinas,and Trinitarian and Incarnational theologies, in trying to articulate apositive vision of human embodiment, including our sexuality, as part of alarger spiritual practice.
[Here we were reminded recently on thediscussion list thatJudaism, in contrast perhaps to Christianity, promotes conjugal lovemakingas a Mitzvah, a religious obligation and good deed, and especially so onthe Sabbath].
These essays by Johnson and Ruse are an outgrowth of their talks at theIRAS conference this past August on Star Island <http://www.iras.org>. Theseven-day conference focused on “Sexuality and Human Nature.” The sciencepart of this discussion is simply to recognize that sex is a very complexand powerful component of our evolutionary, biological, neurological, andsocial natures.
Johnson and Ruse will follow-up with two further exchanges on Meta in thecoming weeks. As always, you are invited to also join the discussion on, which is a new, higher volume and lightly-moderateddiscussion list. Send your messages to <email@example.com>. Ifyou don’t want to subscribe to Reiterations, you can always just take apeek on the web page at <http://www.meta-list.org> to follow theconversation.
Let me take this opportunity to welcome all of the Meta subscribers onAmerica Online back into the fold. For part of July, all of August, andsome of September, America Online was blocking Meta postings as part of itsanti-spam efforts. I learned of this about two weeks ago and have beenable to work with AOL to remove the filters. If you want to catch-up onwhat you’ve missed, go to the Meta archives at <http://www.meta-list.org>.
Please feel free to forward these or any Meta postings in their entirety toyour friends, students, colleagues, and spouses.
— Billy Grassie
From: Jay E. Johnson <firstname.lastname@example.org>Subject: The Possibility of Sex as a Christian Spiritual Practice
The relationship between Christianity and sexuality presents acomplex landscape, both difficult to map and rich with possibilities forunderstanding sex as a spiritual practice. Rather than focusing on what is”allowed” for Christians regarding sex, I want to consider in these briefobservations whether we can discern a positive relationship betweenChristian traditions and sexuality more generally.
To suggest that Christianity and sex presents anything other thana negative relationship (“if you really must do it, just don’t enjoy it toomuch”) runs against the grain of both popular assumptions and anincreasingly large quarter of academic discourse. Even a cursory glance atChristian traditions can paint a rather bleak picture. As far as we know,for example, Jesus himself was unmarried and childless, and the longhistory in the church of an officially celibate, all-male clergy, at leastcasts some suspicion on my overall goal.
In what follows I want to outline some rather broad steps toward aconstructive move in Christian theology with reference to sexuality.Projects in “constructive theology” begin with a kind of deconstruction ofprevailing assumptions about a given topic or issue. This deconstructionof assumptions might then yield some constructive insights from historicaltraditions for our contemporary context.
Steps toward a constructive theological move with reference tosexuality must begin, I believe, with a consideration and deconstruction ofthe Augustinian and Thomistic “flavors” of received Christian traditions.Many of the problems in the relationship between sex and Christianity stem,in large measure, from how these traditions have been received andperceived through centuries-long filters. A host of cultural and politicalfactors contribute to those filters, which makes discerning any “pure”Christian tradition nearly impossible.
The predominant Augustinian flavor of received Christiantraditions emerges from understanding Augustine primarily as a Neoplatonistfor whom being human presents a set of fundamental problems to overcome.Reading Augustine in this way, he does not live very comfortably, either inhis own body or in this world generally. Instead, he strives against both,longing for release to the spiritual (read “disembodied”) realm of the nextworld, his true home.
“Our hearts are restless,” Augustine wrote, in an oft-citedpassage, “until they find their rest in you, O God.” Humanity asfundamentally, even quintessentially restless comes as a result of ourunabated acquiescence to desire, especially sexual desire.
Aquinas, on the other hand, seizing on the rediscovery ofAristotle, found a way to mollify the received Augustinian picture of aproblematic humanity. For Aquinas, being human is not fundamentally aproblem, but it is fraught with danger on every side. Capitalizing onAristotle’s stress on teleology — a picture of the universe as marked withdirected purpose — Aquinas understood humanity as naturally orientedtoward God, hard-wired by God’s grace to be at home with God. Sexualdesire, in this view, is not necessarily a problem, but it can be if notpracticed according to its “natural” purpose.
These Augustinian and Thomistic flavors of Christian traditionsfound an added cultural imprimatur with the advent of modernity in westernEuropean society. A wide variety of social developments in the modernperiod, especially with reference to science, created a cultural lensthrough which most of us — consciously or not — tend to perceiveChristian traditions.
As Karl Bath took great pains to point out at the beginning ofthis century, the 18th and 19th century fostered a deep blend between theChristian gospel and modern western European cultural values. Withparticular reference to sex, unfettered pursuit of sexual desiredemonstrated a failure of will (as Augustine had argued), which thecultivation of “higher” society could overcome through chaste sexualrelations. Likewise, strictly defined, even “scientific” categories forboth sex and gender found theological support in a Thomistic-like appeal tothe “natural order of things.” The mix of modern western culturalparadigms and the Augustinian / Thomistic flavor of received Christiantraditions has restricted sex and sexuality within a narrowly defined sphere.
These prevailing assumptions serve to highlight a ratherpedestrian point: The modern intersection of Christianity and sexuality ismarked more by what is prohibited than what is permitted. A great deal ofwork has been offered over the last fifty years to expand those narrowdefinitions of recognizably appropriate sexual behavior for Christians (therelative ease with which many Christians now divorce and re-marry is justone example). Important work continues in this regard with reference to gayand lesbian relationships.
Rather than rehearsing those arguments, I am more interested in amuch larger set of questions. Given how Christianity has been received inthe modern West, what possible role — if any — can sex and sexuality playin the practice of a recognizably Christian spirituality? Indeed, I wouldargue that this larger question ought to precede any of the other questionswe might want to ask regarding “appropriate” sexual behavior for Christians.
This larger question meets a significant obstacle when Christianspirituality is understood primarily as an “other-worldly” and disembodiedendeavor, i.e., as preparation for Heaven. Nineteenth century liberalProtestants and the social gospel movement set in motion a trajectory whichcalled into question this other-worldly focus, a trajectory we can tracethrough the civil rights movement and the emergence of liberationtheologies. To invoke an old aphorism, this trajectory has endeavored toremind us that Christians cannot be so heavenly minded that we are of noearthly good.
These engagements between Christianity and the social order haverightly, in my view, stressed the goodness of creation itself and have,thereby, insisted on an essential relationship between the practice ofChristian faith and working for social justice. At the same time,relatively little attention has been paid in these movements to the role ofsex and sexuality.
I want to argue that the degree to which human beings feel at homeon this planet, and therefore willing to commit themselves to the work ofsocial justice, can be measured by the degree to which we feel at home inour sexual bodies. As we have received them in the modern West, Christiantraditions have employed sexuality negatively, as a symbolic measure ofone’s commitment to the Kingdom of God — the more one gives up sexually,the more that person is committed to the coming reign of God. Could wenow, finally, understand precisely the opposite? Could we, in other words,understand one’s comfort with sexuality as a positive measure of thatperson’s commitment to the embodied realities we seek to address asadvocates for social justice? Can sex itself contribute to a Christianspiritual practice?
I believe so, and without abandoning the received Christiantraditions which have made it necessary to struggle with this question inthe first place. At least three steps are necessary here to make this kindof constructive move in Christian theology.
The first step consists in what I would call the rehabilitation oferos in Christian sensibilities, effecting a reconciliation between theerotic and what both Augustine and Aquinas would consider the positive roledesire plays in Christian faith. Here again, we are faced a host ofproblems, not the least of which is the almost-immediate identification inour public discourse between the erotic and the pornographic. Asinheritors of the Age of Reason and, in Anglo-American society, Puritansensibilities, we have been trained to believe that we really ought tosubmit our passions to the controlling guidance of rationality. Thebeguiling, driving desire we call eros threatens that goal on every front.
Nevertheless, we might still rehabilitate the erotic if weunderstand the kind of desire which the word eros was originally meant todescribe: The desire which draws us out of ourselves, the desire forencounter, contact, intimacy and union with another. For both Augustineand Aquinas, this kind of desire actually points to our longing for God.
The tendency in Christian traditions to “spiritualize” this desire(i.e., detach it from our physical bodies), requires the second step inthis constructive move: Returning to the importance of our own bodies.There is no small irony at work in this particular step. In what we havecome to call the “orthodox” position in Christian traditions, theologianshave insisted on the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus. At the sametime, this incarnational touchstone in theology has not fully translatedinto an overall embrace of our own physical “incarnations.”
Recovering this stress on incarnation in Christian traditions canhelp us to embrace what we learn from our bodies about desire itself. Byrisking the vulnerability of finding another desirable or attractive, weopen ourselves to the possibility of finding ourselves desired. In thismutual exchange we can discover important insights about God’s own desirefor us — insights which many in the history of Christian mysticism havestruggled to articulate.
The third step in my proposal combines the first two steps in aconsideration of the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Thecomplex history of Trinitarian theology could easily, to say the least,distract us here. Suffice it to say that with the doctrine of the Trinity,Christians have tried to insist that God, in God’s own self, relates.Moreover, this divine relational energy does not operate dualistically,one-on-one, and therefore closed to any further relationality. Rather,this divine relational energy operates triadically, the shared love betweenthe two as an equal third, opening up space for even broader relationality,constantly creating possibilities for new life.
Augustine was willing to entertain, for a time, the now classicimage of “the lover, the beloved, and the love that binds them” as anappropriate image for God’s own Trinitarian life. Eventually, however, heabandons this approach precisely because it is too closely bound to bodies. As Augustine put it in “De Trinitate”: “Let us tread the flesh underfootand mount up to the soul.”
The stubborn fact remains, of course, that human sexual relationsare indeed bodily and if these relations hold any theological and spiritualpromise for us, we cannot afford to trample our flesh underfoot. Indeed,paying attention to the dynamics of erotic, sexual relations may help us torecover important theological insights which have been repressed orforgotten over time.
These three steps clearly deserve attention in much greaterdetail. Even in outline form, however, they can point to at least thepossibility of understanding sex as a Christian spiritual practice. Herewe can make the attempt — admittedly a bold one for many Christians — toput some content to that claim. In both Judaism and Christianity we findthe idea that human beings are somehow made in the “image of God.” Bothtraditions — though Christianity more so than Judaism — have been atleast reluctant to locate that image in our physical bodies. Christiantraditions have danced around this issue by postulating creativity, orperhaps the intellect, as the locus for the “imago Dei.”
The time now seems ripe to name this “elephant in the living room”of Christian traditions and ponder the implications of taking a moreincarnational approach. How would the practice of Christian faith changeor look different, perhaps even be revitalized by understanding eroticembodiment as the location for God’s image in humanity? It could lead usto make a claim which Christian traditions have barely managed to avoid: Inthe moment of mutual erotic abandonment — the dynamic giving of one’s selfto another, which generates a kind of shared transcendence — in thatmoment we are participating in God’s own Trinitarian life.
Catching even a glimpse of the possibility that sex can be aChristian spiritual practice would, for many Christians, more deeply affirmthe union of matter and spirit, human and divine, earth and heaven — aunion which Christian traditions have tried to articulate and celebratefrom the very beginning.
The Rev’d Jay E. Johnson, Ph.D.Richmond, California————————————-
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”–Oscar Wilde
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