Spirituality of sex

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Christianity has shaped Western civilization. In light of that history, the title of this article may seem strange indeed. Christians find spiritual nourishment by sharing the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the body and blood of Christ. And following Jesus, Christians look forward to resurrection of the body: Heaven is not just a spiritual state, but a bodily one, as well.

So, understood according to the usage of his day, the teaching of Saint Paul was merely that evil and goodness are at odds, that the worldly and the godly are in tension. Jewish teaching to this day is sex-positive. Jewish couples are supposed to have sex on the Sabbath to hallow the day.

The Genesis command was to be fruitful and multiply. And without reference to marriage, children, or family, the collection of poems in the Song of Songs is a paean to sexual love and romance. Saint Paul does not deserve the bad rap he gets about sex. William Countryman argued cogently that the intent of Romans 1 was not to condemn homosexuality. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul does discourage marriage but only because he believed the world would Spirituality of sex end; and flexible in his counsel, he is still open to the variety of sexual practices of his day.

The final chapter of the genuinely Pauline letter to the Romans, for example, mentions by name twenty-nine disciples; among these are ten women, three of whom—Phoebe, Prisca, and Junia—held positions of honor and authority in the early Pauline churches. In its beginnings, Christianity was not sex-negative. These systems of thought were suspect of pleasure and were overly rationalistic.

Shortsighted in their appreciation of human sexuality, they focused on biological function and argued that sex was for begetting children and any other use was mistaken. The most brilliant minds of the Christian tradition rationalized that misunderstanding. Saint Augustine is the theological favorite of Protestantism, and Saint Thomas Aquinas is the great theologian of Catholicism. Both understood rationality to be the crowning glory of humanity, and both were wary Spirituality of sex sex.

At the point of orgasm, they reasoned, one momentarily loses rationality, and the risk of such loss can only be justified for a serious reason. The desire to conceive would be the only sufficient reason. Wariness about sex through those early centuries is understandable.

Before modern medicine, perhaps a quarter of all women eventually died in childbirth. No effective contraceptive was available. Children born out of wedlock were social pariahs. A non-virgin woman would be hard pressed to Spirituality of sex find a husband and needed economic support. Sexually transmitted diseases had no cure. Sexual urges were thought to reduce people to the level of an animal.

On many fronts, sex was thought to be, and in fact was, dangerous. But why has religion remained rabidly sex-negative even today? Repeated studies show that the more religious people are, the more opposed to sex they tend to be. A nearly hysterical religious op- position to sex—for example, the enlistment of hundreds of millions of American tax dollars to promote sexual abstinence nationally and globally—makes one wonder what is really going on.

There is no easy ing for this religious curiosity. To explain social attitudes is difficult in the best of cases and, perhaps, impossible in a time of rapid change, like our own. Yale historian John Boswell argued that Christianity has basically followed secular mores regarding sexual matters.

Far from setting the pace, Christianity tended merely to give it spiritual approval. Today, when a truly theological discussion of homosexuality has arisen, Christianity faces a novel challenge: to Spirituality of sex out sexual issues theologically in the face of mushrooming new evidence.

In fact, such sorting out has already been done. Theological arguments to legitimate sexual diversity—biblical, historical, biological, medical, psychological, sociological, anthropological, ethical—are there for anyone who wants them. Yet the religions refuse to adjust their teaching.

Why so? The causes are multiple, complex, and intertwined. A listing of likely ones will shed some light on this conundrum. Sexuality has been a topic of study for barely a century. In the past century we have learned more about sex than during all of prior human history. Sexual orientation, transsexualism, transvestism, intersexuality—these topics never fit into traditional notions of sex, yet today they are known as relatively common, non-pathological, natural variations.

Religionists are Spirituality of sex up short to have to face these issues, and, despite their weighty moral obligation to provide competent spiritual leadership, many members of the clergy simply do not know, or are unwilling to admit, the recently learned facts. Emotions cloud thinking. If truth be told, the heart usually rules the head. So some religious leaders—especially seniors, who tend to hold the influential positions but who grew up in former generations with deeply engrained restrictive sexual attitudes—may actually be humanly incapable of transcending their prejudices.

Besides, most younger clergy also grew up in sexual repression. It will take generations before comfort with sex becomes typical of our society. Deep psychological healing often requires years of psychotherapy. The human psyche is not built to sustain such rapid-fire assault. By any historical standard, the achievements of sexual liberation, even if halted today, would remain remarkable. In fact, then, it is not to be expected that people in general or their religions will change their sexual attitudes quickly. Sexual exploration is a normal aspect of adolescence.

In that exploration many people do things that later weigh on their consciences—especially men and especially regarding homosexual play. My human sexuality class in rural, Bible-Belt Georgia, for example, almost always rates as true, without debate, that same-sex experimentation is a normal facet of their culture. Carl Jung noted that homosexual people tend to be spiritually sensitive. So they are likely to be overrepresented in the ministry. Estimates of homosexual Catholic priests range from 30 to 60 percent and more.

Because of the all-male structure of the Catholic priesthood, this incidence of homosexuality is probably higher than that among non-Catholic clergy. Still, despite the de facto requirement of marriage for Protestant ministers, the incidence of homosexuality among them is also likely to be high. Overall, then, some clergy surely oppose homosexuality because they cannot accept the tendency in themselves. On the chopping block of historical change lie the rule of patriarchy, the relation- ship of man and woman, the notions of femininity and masculinity, the mythically powerful and financially encumbering heterosexual wedding, the popular understanding of marriage, and the Norman-Rockwellian myth of family.

Under discombobulating circumstances like these, it is understandable that religious leaders would tend toward conservatism and, impotent as anyone to restrain the historical trends, would focus on individuals, their private sex lives, and their fear-ridden relationship with God. Evidently and unfortunately, religious faith is not strong enough to allow that all people could be themselves and still live together in peace, joy, and mutual respect.

We are still incapable of conceiving a truly new world order. Radical postmodernism discredits the very notions of truth and goodness, and moderate postmodernism has, in the least, demonstrated the difficulty of approaching these traditional ideals. No consensus whatsoever on epistemology or ethics exists in our day. Even the possibility of correct knowing has been—self-contradictorily—argued unflinchingly.

No one—except, I believe, Bernard Lonergan—envisages a credible exit from this quandary. Nonetheless, better to have a dubious ethical teaching than none at all. So religion holds to its traditional position. This tendency is blatant in Roman Catholicism, which continues to insist that in every case sex must be open to conception. Thus, for want of a coherent alternative, religion insists on the faltering status quo. As cogently as historical research is ever likely to do, biblical scholarship shows that, understood in their original linguistic, historical, and cultural settings, the biblical texts were not addressing the questions of our day and did not even condemn same-sex acts per se in their day.

Although not all allow so lucid a conclusion, in the very least an honest person must admit that there is serious question about the meaning of those texts. This doubt should favor sexual diversity. Standard and long-standing religious principles apply in such cases. For example, Catholic teaching holds that it is not right to impose a moral burden on a person if the need for that burden is questionable: Lex dubia not obligat : A doubtful law has no binding power.

Yet neither of these religions cuts slack for lesbian and gay people. Evidently, just as possession is nine-tenths of the law, so established moral teaching outweighs recent insight. Thus, for all the reasons already noted and in opposition to their own traditional ethical principles, religions continue to comfortably oppose homosexuality.

Undoubtedly and disconcertingly, many religious leaders sincerely believe that sexual variations are harmful, wrong, godless, and sinful. Their reasons might be an un-self-conscious conglomerate of those listed above or others that pertain to generalized religious allegiance—such as belief in a particular religion, the voice of the pope, or the word of the Spirituality of sex, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon.

Although others— myself included—might see their stance as a fiction of blind conviction, the nobility of their spiritual commitment must be credited. Obviously, for the most part, religious discussion of homosexuality is not a rational affair. I know no other topic whose mere mention can make some people lose all perspective, succumb to amygda- loid rage, and go bonkers. The inevitable change of religious beliefs, judgments, and attitudes will be difficult.

While the slow process of change goes on, other spiritual leaders—open-minded, questioning, honest, and good willed—need to forge a new vision of the relationship between sexuality and spirituality. Such a vision will provide conservative religionists a coherent and ethical alternative. This they can embrace in good conscience when they finally begin to let go of their sex negativity. To such a vision, this article turns once again.

In their concern to limit sexual experience, Augustine and Aquinas were correct: Sexual experience does entail a momentary loss of rationality. But with more profound psychological awareness, the wisdom of our age asserts that such a temporary loss might be to the good.

Just as a needed vacation lets us return to everyday life with a new outlook, so, too, a respite from our over rationalized and over intellectualized pursuits can bring a new sense of wonder to daily living. To be human is to be ever becoming. Throughout our lives we create ourselves.

In the end each of us will be the one and only edition of ourselves. Our becoming depends on a shifting balance in the various facets of our make up. As a pause that gives new life, sex can provide an occasion to shift our inner balance. But what does this shift have to do with spiritual growth? Religion has traditionally conceived the human being as a combination of body and soul.

Similarly, psychology speaks of body and mind. The difference between mind and soul is not worth addressing at this point. Both concepts are sufficiently fuzzy that comparing them would be a wasted effort. Still, this much remains clear: A two-part model of the human being is too simple.

There is more going on in inner human experience—soul or mind—than just one thing. The one constantly urges us into new frontiers and toward further growth; the other seeks, rather, the comfort and security of a stable status quo. Lonergan calls the first intentional consciousness or the human spiritand the other, psyche. Thus, he projects a tripartite model of the human being: body, psyche, and spirit. Spirit is the self-transcending dimension of the human mind. We experience it most fundametally as wonder, marvel, awe. It prompts Spirituality of sex to be aware, to be self-aware, and even to be aware of our awareness.

Spirituality of sex

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