Sex and Spirit
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Reading: Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) 1:2-4, 9-17; 4:9-15; 5:2-8
It was a Saturday night at the end of summer. Vacation was over, and the minister had a sermon to write. No inspiration. “Preach about something you really enjoyed this summer,” said his wife.
“I know! I’ll preach about water-skiing!” he replied. “You know, hanging on, riding the waves, keeping your balance. . .”
“Well, that’s a new record for dumb ideas,” she said. “I don’t want to be there when you give that sermon. I’ll just drop the kids.”
The minister knew his spouse was right, as usual. Then it hit him: inspiration. Something he’d really enjoyed that summer but also an important spiritual, moral topic—he’d preach about sex! Working all night, he wrote one of his most powerful sermons ever. At dawn he went to church to polish the final draft, leaving his wife a note on the breakfast table: “All-nighter. Gone to church.” When she saw it, she sighed and did exactly what she’d said she would do—dropped the kids at Sunday school and left. Later, as the service ended, she pulled up in the car. An elderly woman in the congregation spotted her and came over.
“My dear,” she said, “your husband preached the most inspired sermon! A daring theme, of course, but full of experience that I know you must have helped him acquire!”
“Not me!” the minister’s wife laughed. “Experience? Why, as far as I know, he’s only tried it four times. Once he fell off. Another time, he couldn’t get up again.” The elderly lady fainted. (For the record, I have informed my spouse as to the topic of my sermon this morning.)
Over the course of this week I have been devouring Science Writer, Mary Roach’s latest book, Bonk: the curious coupling of science and sex. The book is a delightful and revealing romp through the surprisingly obscure history of sexology. Roach has a very dry wit and a keen ability to point out the absurd. Much of the scientific research of sex has centered on the mechanics of it and how to fix it when some aspect of the mechanics has gone afoul. Sex is demystified into mere mechanics. Roach does lead up to (pardon the pun) the climax of her book as scientific research acknowledges the bold notion that effective, well-executed sex is not the best sex … it is more than the sum of the moving parts.
The story is told of a doctor was asked to address a gathering immediately following a lunch. After an insufferably long introduction that included mention of her topic, sexuality, she rose and went to the podium and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure,” and sat down.
Science, despite holding a largely mechanistic and reductionistic view of the whole affair, does at least provide an inroad to talking about this topic. Science helps us to demythologizes sex that we may begin conversations about what it is for and how to works. Our western religious culture, on the other hand, has pre-scripted any conversation on the topic of sex, confining the conversation to the concept of procreation: sex as the duty of a man and woman to perform in order to fulfill their marital obligations. Sadly, the religious culture around us to this day tries to maintain the image of sex as a filthy, sinful, unwholesome, dirty behavior that ought to be saved for the one you love after marriage. I don’t think these people have read their Bibles! At least not the Song of Songs!
Not all of western religion holds so negative an attitude toward sex. Our own OWL curriculum is far from the only example, yet it serves as a highly apt one all the same. Unitarian Universalists jointly created with the United Church of Christ, a faith-based comprehensive sexuality curriculum for our children and youth. “Our Whole Lives,” or OWL for short, is available for Kindergarten through High School levels – each level developmentally appropriate. The curriculum does not simply give youth the biology lesson, nor the six-year-olds just the ‘where did I come from’ speech. It also delves into values, relationships, faith, and community. Our congregation just finished its first ever grades 4-6 OWL class. We are planning to offer both the Jr. High and Sr. High age curriculums next year. (Here’s a plug: we need two more teachers – two more people willing to be trained in offering this curriculum. Talk with our Director of Religious Education if you are interested.) (And while I’m at it, I’ll let you know that there is an Adult OWL curriculum that we can offer – is that something you would want? Again, we would need volunteers willing to be trained as teachers. Speak with me after the service.)
Not all western religion holds a negative attitude toward sex, although the majority of them do. Exemplified so resoundingly by St. Paul in his first letter to the people in Corinth, “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” [7:9] Unitarian Universalist author and theologian Rebecca Parker wrote, in an essay entitled “Making Love as a Means of Grace,”
“Making love is not the be all and end all of life. It rarely approaches perfection and isn’t the most important thing we do. But it is far from the root of all sin. On the contrary, it can be life’s most delightful means of grace. As such, it should be held in honor among all people, and no church should legislate against its potential for undergirding all that is right, good, and joyful in our lives.” [Parker, Making Love as a Means of Grace, p. 140]
Sex when released of its shackles and allowed to be sacred, is natural, joyful, and beautiful – and indeed can be a path to grace, empowerment, and wholeness. Sex is deeply relational and intimate. We often speak of spirituality as our search for connection and for that powerful mix of intimacy and ultimacy. Well, we can use those same words to speak of sex: a longing for connection, a yearning for that moment when the profoundly intimate expands to touch the ultimate. I’m not equating orgasms to God here; I’m not trying to claim that the biological climax of sex is synonymous with spiritual experience. But somewhere beyond the biomechanics of sex, beyond the shame and prudish guilt overlay that Western religious culture has placed upon sex, beyond insecurity and uncomfortable feelings – there is a level at which sex is about giving joy to another person and even losing oneself in the experience of that giving and receiving. Holy stuff! But tricky. As Frederick Buechner once said sex is like nitroglycerin: you can use it either to blow up bridges or to heal human hearts.
The idea of profanity fits here. Theologians like Paul Tillich and Mircea Eliade make an interesting distinction between the Sacred, the Profane, and the Demonic. The opposite of the sacred is the demonic. The profane is that which is a distortion of the sacred, a twisting of what is meant to be beautiful and holy into that which is ugly and vulgar. Profanity is closer to the Sacred that it is to Demonic, in the understanding of these theologians. Profanity, in common usage, is to swear, to say a curse word. But even those synonyms are also deeply theological, aren’t they. Our swear words usually center around one or two central themes, the most prominent being sex and body parts related to sex. I don’t want to take you too far along this line of thinking; I only point this out to show that sex is a deeply sacred act that is easily twisted into something ugly. Sex is sacred and thus readily susceptible to profanity.
So, biologically it is natural – a point even the standard public school health class acknowledges and affirms. And now I am adding that theologically it is sacred. Which brings us back to my complaints against the western religious culture: because according to that religious understanding that which is natural can not be sacred. For them, the sacred is supernatural, it is outside of nature. There is a dualistic split between spirit and matter in church teaching – mostly beginning with Augustine. Heaven is good and the earth is fallen, sinful. The spirit is holy, the body is evil. Agape love is ‘Christian’ love, Eros love is fornication. Add to that the notion that Original Sin comes into the world through sex, that somehow sex – not even sex you get to have, but the sex your parents had to conceive you – sex is the root of all sin and evil in the world.
But what if the world is not evil but good? What if we see that the human body is natural and beautiful – that we each have the capacity to choose good and evil? What if sex is not the root of all sin but an act of connection, a gift of love? What if Eros and Agape work together? Not in the sense of “friends with benefits.’ But in the sense that sexual energy – erotic energy – rather than being repressed can be our inner fuel to serve life. This is what a vow of abstinence is striving for – to build life rather than deny it. Rebecca Parker, in that essay I mentioned earlier, quotes Audre Lorde,
“When we begin to live… in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense… we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.” [Ibid, p. 135]
In short, sex is empowering. When you see your sensual self as being in touch with reality, you uncover an inner power to offer the world. Lorde continues, “In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, [and] self-denial.” [Ibid, p. 139]
Thus, according to Rebecca Parker and Audre Lorde, sexuality teaches us of our power, that joy and struggle are each relational in nature. Our bodies teach us that we have the power to each beyond our isolation and give joy to another person, that we have the power to affect another person. This actually serves as a foundation of ethics, of right-relations.
Now, in all this I don’t want to lose sight of the reality that just because sex can be all these wonderful things, it doesn’t mean it always is. Remember profanity and the ways in which beautiful and holy things are made to be ugly and vulgar. Indeed, there are so many ways to hurt another person; the use of sex to hurt is particularly malicious. In the end, I suppose I am not all that different from the priests and theologians of old who would decry the misuse of God’s great gift. We just have a different lists of what constitutes misuse. Some will argue that the only good use of sex is for procreation, others will argue that sex is meant to be enjoyed. I struggle to articulate an answer to recognize both and more.
Sex for the sake of procreation is beautiful. That we have the capacity to participate in the creation of new life is awesome. We have the power to make babies! And we have the means at our disposal to choose to have babies or not. It is empowering. But if procreation is valued above everything else in sex then there is a great deal of cruelty that can be committed in the name of sex. Procreation is beautiful but it is not the whole story.
Sex for the sake of enjoyment is elegant. Sex is supposed to feel good; we’re designed to enjoy it. When we are released from confining stigmas and controlling rules about how we should be experiencing it, sex can open up to a great pleasure. But if pleasure is valued above everything else in sex then there is a great deal of cruelty that can be committed in the name of sex. Enjoyment is elegant but it is not the whole story.
Sex is also about giving pleasure. Sex is about the relationship between two people. When the value of that relationship is given the higher priority, then the procreation and enjoyment elements raise to a higher level. You tap into your power and into the depths of connection with the other. Eco-feminist and Wiccan author, Starhawk, writes,
“In sex we merge, give way, become one with another, allow ourselves to be caressed, pleasured, enfolded, allow our sense of separation to dissolve. But in sex we also feel our impact on another, we see our own faces reflected in another’s eyes, feel ourselves confirmed, and sense our power, as separate human beings, to make another feel.” (Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark, p.138)
Poets say that to love another person is to know God. Mystics speak of the strange mingling of self and universe when you breathe in air or consume food with certain intention. Surely it is possible to conceive of sex as a strange mingling of this sort. In an effort to bring joy to the one you love, to awaken a power within this other person whom you love, to feel an ancient rhythm of passion between and within you and the one you love – is surely to transcend yourself and this other person whom you love. We speak of spiritual practices that bring you closer to yourself and to the earth and to other people and to God – gardening, walking, breathing, justice-making. We speak of various activities that can, with intention, be spiritual disciplines that can deepen you, center you, and connect you to that which is beyond you. Sex is on that list. As a practice done in right-relation and with intention, sex can take you there.
In a world without end, may it be so.