Drs John Meteyard and Irene Alexander wrote as staff at Christian Heritage College. This article was presented as a paper at the Contemporary Issues in Ministry Conference, 2002, at Christian Heritage College, Brisbane.
Human sexuality and spirituality are very close to another – both have to do with intimate relationship, both have to do with deep desire, both have to do with nakedness – being known for who we truly are. Often human brokenness is especially evident in these two areas. Sadly, the Christian tradition has often taken a very negative view of human sexuality. This paper attempts to outline several theological principles that could form a more positive and integrationist perspective for human sexual experience and expression. In particular the relationship between sexuality and spirituality is examined and several possible ministry applications of such an approach considered.
The Importance of Sexuality
The Bible is very up front about sex, sexual temptation, sexual fulfilment, sexual sin. On the one hand our society is soaked in sexual images and on the other we still don’t really talk about it openly and freely.
Genesis 2 makes it clear that we are sexual beings. When the pharisees asked Jesus about divorce his answer was ‘Divorce is not God’s idea. God’s idea is that we are male and female and that we marry and become one flesh.’ God is up front about the fact that we are sexual beings. And that being sexual is good. It was only after the sixth day, after he had made them male and female, and told them to multiply that he saw ‘that it was very good’. Some cults have a twisted idea that the sin in the garden was a sexual one. The Bible does not suggest any such thing.
God could have made us angels without sexuality, he could have made reproduction occur as it does in the plant kingdom, he could have made mating as quick as it is in the animal kingdom. He didn’t – he gave us bodies that enjoy beauty for the eye, music for the ear, food for the tongue, touch for our bodies. He made us sexual and intercourse ecstatic. He gave us bodies and expected us to dance!
So our sexuality is part of how God made us. It is part of our identity. Part of how we relate. Part of how we experience our humanness and our world. Part of what energises us.
The relationship Between Sexuality and Spirituality
In their book, Authentic Human Sexuality, Jack and Judy Balswick (1998) suggest that the intricate connection of human sexuality and spirituality is one of six basic biblical principles that underlie authentic and godly sexual understanding and expression (p. 37). MacKnee (1997) goes so far as to suggest that the two lie so close together that it may not be possible to arouse either our sexuality or spirituality without arousing the other (p. 216)! In a fascinating disclosure sex-therapist David Schnarch (1997) relates how in his work both his own spiritual consciousness and that of many of his clients have been heightened and aroused (p 391). What then is it that connects these two most basic and important aspects of our humanness?
First, it is important to recognise that both sexuality and spirituality are primarily and deeply about connection and communion. Comiskey (1988) argues strongly that at its core human sexuality is not a lustful, seductive exercise. Indeed our sexuality arises from a God-inspired desire within each of us to break out of isolation and aloneness and relate deeply and intimately with another. Thus, even as our spirituality yearns for completion in relationship with Another greater than ourselves, so too does our sexuality cry out for a companion to ease our aloneness (p. 37). Dalbey (1988) agrees arguing that our sexuality is part of the Imago Dei at the very core of our humanness. Sexual desire, he says, must first be understood as the ‘voice of the Creator Spirit-God crying out, “Come back, return from your separateness to the oneness out of which I created you.”’ In essence the triune God is relational and communal, and as beings made in His image our sexuality demonstrates that we too long for community and connection.
A second aspect of the core connection between our sexuality and our spirituality is the desire to reunite the masculine and feminine that were separated at the time of Creation, and have often been at enmity with each other following the Fall and the curse (Gen 2 & 3).
Dalbey (1988) explains this longing particularly well.
We are drawn to each other not to make babies, … but because from the roots of our creation we share a sacred memory of the species, a ancient inner-recall that at one time we were man-and-woman, Adam-and-Eve, in one body. And so even now the very power of the Creating God is drawing us back to that primal state so we know God completely, as God was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be (p 82).
Thus, to discover our true humanity we must be known by the opposite sex, as it is only together that we can fully begin to reflect the One in whose image we were created. Comiskey (1988) suggests that this becoming ‘one flesh’ (Gen 2: 24) is a powerful symbol of this coming together, as it is in the act of sexual intercourse that male and female merge bodies, souls, minds and spirits. United they complement each other and also create new life, thus bearing the image of the unified Creator most fully (p 40). MacKnee (1997) goes so far as to say that ‘one flesh’ sexuality manifests the image of God in a far more profound way than either gender ever could while standing alone (p 214).
A third aspect of the relationship between our sexuality and our spirituality as human beings lies in their common focus on self-disclosure and being ‘known’ by another. Reiss (1986) describes a major component of sexuality in terms of ‘self-disclosure’ or making known to another that which was previously hidden (p 33). At creation and before the Fall one of the great privileges of Adam and Eve was to walk with the Lord and with one another, ‘naked and unashamed’. This nakedness is a portrait of not only being ‘unclothed’ physically but also at the far more intimate levels of our soul, spirit and ‘core selves’.
This picture of spiritual intimacy between ourselves and our Lord was restored at the Cross when Jesus shed his blood and made a way for us to once again walk with the Father in closeness and communion (Heb 4: 14- 15). Similarly, as Schnarch (1997) indicates, sexual intimacy offers us the greatest opportunity to know ourselves and to know and be known by another (p 211). Our sexuality then is a key vehicle for disclosing core aspects of self as lovers look into each other’s eyes and soul while experiencing eroticism together. Significantly, ‘knowing’ is the term used in the King James version of the Old Testament to indicate sexual intercourse. To know sexually, therefore, is to be known and to know deeply and intimately. It is metaphorical of the way God desires us to know Him and been known by Him. As Harron (1981) eloquently explains both true sexuality and true spirituality require on the part of the person a willingness to ‘let go’ and abandon one’s self entirely and without inhibition to another.
A fourth area of interface between our sexuality and our spirituality that has been suggested is a similarity of energy source or energy flow. MacKnee (1997) in a fascinating consideration of this topic suggests that because of this similarity it is by positively embracing and integrating our sexuality that we can grow spiritually and in our spiritual understanding (p 215). As Johnson (1983) notes:
Romantic love is the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche. In our culture it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness and ecstasy (p xi).
In support of this it is not difficult to note that many of the songs we hear on the radio and television are actually songs of worship, with the messages that ‘I will die without you’ and ‘you make my life worth living’ belonging more to a relationship with God, than to a relationship with another human being. Johnson (1983) explains this paralleling of romantic/ sexual love and spiritual aspiration as a form of idolatry in which a human being becomes the object of adoration and thus a symbol of God Himself (p 55).
A number of authors take this point further and argue that this does not mean we should seek to abolish or denigrate romantic or sexual passion, but rather understand the deeper truth or reality that lies hidden in this most common of human experiences. For example, Moore (1985) describes an event when he experienced ‘a sudden sense of desire for no specific object at all’, an experience he believes to be the hallmark of elevated spirituality (p 80). Similarly, Schnarch (1991) when visiting a temple in India became (along with the others present) aroused ‘for nothing or anyone in particular’ (p 549). In the context of intense spiritual experiences and elevated spiritual awareness they both experienced desire but without object. Could it be that within the bounds of human sexuality lies the deeper call to know and be drawn passionately to the One who lies beyond the physical and material?
Johnson (1983) certainly takes this line and argues that ‘the reality that hides in romantic love is the fact of spiritual aspiration; the truth that the Western man unconsciously and involuntarily seeks in romantic love is the inner truth of his own soul’ (p 55). An interesting comment that anecdotally supports this possibility is given by Schnarch (1997) who explains that many of the clients who come to his sex therapy counselling practice leave with the unexpected and surprising adjunct of an awakened spiritual awareness and interest (p 391)!
If, due to this similarity of energy type and flow between sexuality and spirituality, it is difficult to awake one without awakening the other, it also appears to be the case that if one represses either their sexuality or spirituality they are in danger of thwarting the other as well. For example, Payne (1981) cites a number of examples amongst her clients of how sexual repression or a focus on auto-eroticism as against relational sexual expression can lead to an accompanying blockage of spiritual and creative energy.
A final point of relatedness between human sexuality and human spirituality is suggested by MacKnee (1997, p 213). If spirituality is to be considered as an integration of all aspects of the human person and the accompanying actualisation of the person’s fullest potential, with the reality that transcends our physical senses, then the role of sexuality in one’s spiritual development becomes obvious. In other words if God wants to relate to the whole person, know and be known by the whole person, then our sexuality must clearly be part of what we bring to authentic relationship with Him.
A Positive Integrationist Perspective on Sexuality
It would seem that while many Christians can accept theoretically that sexuality is a positive and important part of our nature, far fewer take the next step – that we can actually bring our sexuality into God’s presence. Often the Christian experience seems to be that we should leave our sexuality at the door of the church, forget about it during worship or leave it out of our prayers.
In their chapter on sexuality and prayer Ulanov and Ulanov (1988) give a suggestion as to why this may be:
Most things we leave out of our praying are things that frighten us, embarrass us, or make us ashamed. Sexuality needs to be faced and included in just those particular terms, with just those special variations that insist upon our individuality. God loves all of us, and therefore our sexual lives too. So we must bring to prayer the excitements, the wonders, the confusions and the bruises that make up our lives in this area, just as we would bring the issues and problems of the spirit and the soul.
It is important here to remember that our sexuality is not only part of being human – it is part of being created ‘very good’, a core aspect of the imago dei within each of us. Thus Henri Nouwen often spoke of ‘bringing my body (and sexuality) home’, or in other words not repressing it but rather making friends with it.
Sadly, for many people in this fallen world sexuality is not a positive and celebrated part of the human experience, but a source of brokenness and shame. Nouwen (1992) reminds us that our sexuality and our brokenness often lie very close together, because our deepest needs often become sexualised- in other words we begin to look for a sexual answer to what are deeply spiritual longings and become wounded and disillusioned in the process (p 70). The Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well (Jn 4) is a good example of this common human pattern. She had six husbands and de factos but was told by Jesus that it was only water from the spiritual well that he alone could give to her which could quench her deepest thirst. And as MacKnee (1997) reminds us just as sexuality can lead to communion and intimacy, so too in our fallenness can we use our sexuality selfishly in the exploitation of others (p 217).
As Carnes (1987) and others have pointed out if, in our shame and brokenness or even in the desire to be more ‘holy’, we deny the ‘shadow’ element in our lives of our unwanted sexuality, we run the risk of becoming unable to control our sexual urges and even falling under the bondage of compulsive, sinful sexual practices. Similarly, Nouwen (1988) states, ‘if I keep my sexual life a hidden life (just for myself), it will gradually be split off from the rest of my life and become a dangerous force’ (p 169).
How then is it possible to reconcile this apparent paradox? How can we ‘bring our bodies and sexuality home’, while still recognising how broken and shameful we often feel about this core part of humanness?
According to Nouwen (1992) the great joy of the Gospel is that it is indeed when we are most broken and shamed that the Father most wants us to bring this wounding and sin to Him:
The leaders and prophets of Israel, who were clearly chosen and blessed, all lived very broken lives. And we, the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, cannot escape our brokenness either… Our brokenness is always lived and experienced as highly personal, intimate and unique. Yes, fearsome as it may sound, as the Beloved ones, we are called to claim our unique brokenness, just as we have to claim our unique chosenness and unique blessedness..
It is obvious that our brokenness is often most painfully experienced with respect to our sexuality. My own and my friends’ struggles make it clear how central our sexuality is to the way we think and feel about ourselves. Our sexuality reveals to us our enormous yearning for communion. The desires of our body – to be touched, embraced and safely held – belong to the deepest longings of the heart, and are very concrete signs of our search for oneness. (p 70)
Brokenness and sexuality – both have to do with the most intimate aspects of myself – my vulnerability, my nakedness – and yet it is possible to be naked and not ashamed. Our calling in God is to find out that we can be broken, we can be naked, we can be our true selves, yet without shame. This is the environment where it is possible to integrate and embrace our sexuality with all its bruises, uncertainties, wounds and difficulties.
Some Applications for Ministry of a Positive Biblical View of Sexuality
Well known Christian speaker and identity in the area of sexuality, Sy Rogers (2002), has said that in his experience most teaching and discussion of sex in the evangelical church (when it is present at all) tends to be ‘sex-negative’. In other words it focuses on encouraging Christians not to sin sexually and to keep themselves sexually pure. This would certainly seem consistent with the experience of this author and many other long-term church members in Australia. Schnarch (1997) has suggested that one possible reason for this is the Christian tradition of viewing sex as inherently sinful and somehow not compatible or even oppositional to true spirituality (p 392).
What are the implications then of the ‘sex-positive’ view argued by this paper? What are the practical out-workings of ‘bringing our bodies and sexuality home’, both personally and within the Body of Christ?
The suggestions below are not meant to be a comprehensive list but do suggest a number of possible implications for both individual believers and for those in pastoral ministry.
1) We need to begin to teach openly on the subject of sexuality and balance messages about what we are not allowed to do sexually as Christians, with more positive and affirming messages about the biblical basis of sexuality, its compatibility with our spirituality and God’s desire for us to bring our sexuality and all its accompanying aspects into His presence.
2) We need to provide more permission and opportunities for Christians to talk openly about their sexuality in the context of their lives and faith. As Nouwen (1988) suggests that confession of one’s private life (including sexual life) and personal accountability within the context of loving spiritual community leads one to greater wholeness and health (p 217). It is certainly the experience of this author that in support groups for Christians experiencing compulsive sexual behaviours and other sexual difficulties that an environment to speak honestly but without shame is of incredible benefit.
3) Rather than avoid and ignore difficult issues associated with human sexuality the Church needs to begin to engage in meaningful dialogue concerning biblical theology and ethics. In a very challenging paper Rosenau (1997) encourages the wider Body to create an applied theology of sexuality and erotic pleasure.
4) Pastoral counsellors could perhaps begin to help church members to be authentic about their sexual struggles and to seek to discover the deeper meaning in their suffering. MacKnee (1997) for example cites examples of Christians whom he has counselled who have felt guilty about being caught in the ‘trap of masturbation’ and yet have made greater progress when they have focused on thanking God for their sexuality than they have when they have cried out to God to take away their desires (p 218).
5) Certainly it is appropriate to encourage married couples in the church to feel free to explore the good gift of their sexuality as a bridge to both greater relational and spiritual intimacy with God and with each other. Rosenau (1997) recommends that couples be given guidance on how to enhance their love-making through the teaching of simple intimacy and communication skills (p 5). And as Fuchs (1983) explains, ‘a man and woman can (learn to) celebrate through the fragile language of their bodies, the mystery of the world and of God’ (p 231).
6) Finally, an appreciation of sexual and romantic desire as a God-given metaphor pointing to the deeper and truer human need to find our fulfilment in our Creator, potentially opens up new and dynamic understandings of how God wants to relate to us as His people. As middle age woman mystic, Julian of Norwich, once wrote, ‘God wants to be thought of as our Lover. I must see myself so bound in love as if everything that has been done has been done for me.’ It is probable that such a realisation of God’s love could profoundly deepen the spiritual lives and passion of many modern day believers as well.
In summary it is important to recognise that human sexuality is a wonderful gift from our Creator and is seen by Him to be ‘very good’. Likewise our spirituality is part of the imago dei that separates human beings from the rest of the created order. It follows that the more that we are able to explore, integrate and embrace these two crucial aspects of the human experience the more we will be able to reclaim the God image with which we were created.
Accepting the relation between sexuality and spirituality offers a vehicle for a ‘post-conventional’ understanding of individual potential and relational growth. For too long the Christian church has depreciated sexuality as something anti-spiritual. Since humans were created with both sexual and spiritual dimensions, it is likely that integrating the two facets will reveal more of the mystery of being ‘fully human’ or whole (MacKnee, 1997, p 219).
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