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God, Desire, and Asceticism

God and desire

In earlier posts, we have reintroduced ourselves to desire and made room within our theology for desire. We have discussed open and closed desires, which help us to understand whether we are using the force of our desire to grow or only to treading water. Now that the theory is in place, we can finally turn towards the way in which we shape our desire: the nuts and bolts practice. At this point, religion eagerly offers a solution: asceticism.

Ascetics will affirm almost everything I have said before, and then add a punchline that the only truly open and proper desire is the desire of God: therefore all other desires need to be checked, subjegated, and ultimately transcended. That is how, according to the ascetic, a truly godly desire is accomplished. … Continue Reading

God and Desire: Closed and Open Desires

February 23, 2012 Culture, Faith, Philosophy 1 Comment

God and desire

I’d like to submit a syllogism. First, God is living and creative. Second, to be holy is to be like God. Therefore, to be holy is to be living and creative. In the words of Leo Tolstoy, the lesson so many have learned from religion is that to be holy is to “deprive ourselves of food and sleep, let our bodies rot on an iron pillar, bend and unbend our bodies in endless genuflections, and do nothing for our fellow-creatures, which is but a type of slow suicide.” … Continue Reading

Are God and Desire Incompatible?

February 16, 2012 Culture, Faith, Philosophy 4 Comments

Theology. Desire. Church. Desire. God’s will. Desire.

Simply listing out these terms creates a kind of tension. Thinking about desire and the religious life evokes an image of a cold stone church with a black-robed pastor damning desire as a path to Hell. But desire has gotten a raw deal in our current religious climate: the prudishness and the fear of temptation has conflated “desire” with “covetousness”, and the result is that we have created an idol out of repression. We need a reboot on our theology of desire. We need it desperately. … Continue Reading

A Celebration of Seduction

March 18, 2011 Culture, Faith No Comments

Dr. Susan Block offers a fresh take on the Book of Esther

The Book of Esther tells how the Jewish people were saved from extermination by a beautiful young woman, Esther, who charmed her way into the graces of the Persian King Ahasuerus. The story is a familiar one to those who celebrate Purim, but Dr. Susan Block has a slightly different take.

“It started percolating in my pre-adolescent brain,” the Sunday school teacher-turned-sexologist told us over the phone tonight. “I loved dressing up as Esther and putting on Purim plays as a little kid in Hebrew school. Though nothing was ever said about the eroticism of the story – Esther is portrayed sometimes as a virgin even at the end of the story – I sensed she was a hot number and when I dressed as her, I felt like a hot number.” … Continue Reading

Clothe Yourself in Righteousness

November 29, 2010 Faith, Feature, Music, Nudity No Comments

Let’s play a theology game. I’ll make an argument, and then give you words to substitute into the argument. It’ll be fun!

The case for Biblical vegetarianism is found in Eden, the paradise of God’s original creation, where God created people as vegetarians (1:29). God only changed things after the situation went horribly wrong and as a condescension to the new reality of sin (9:3). As holy people we should be like those in Eden, which is like Heaven. Therefore, we should be vegetarian.

Now substitute in the following: nakedness, naked 2:25, 3:21. (Told you it would be fun.) … Continue Reading

A View of Heaven

November 22, 2010 Books, Culture, Faith No Comments

I’m not normally one for novels: I know enough make-believe people without having to meet them in the fiction shelves. But when I heard about Kimberly Cain’s Heaven, a novel about a theology-talking stripper, I was intrigued.

Heaven is a novel with pacing like a Dan Brown novel: the book’s many short chapters are shot through with scenes where the action stops and people have long conversations on interesting topics.

In Heaven, those topics are on sexuality and spirituality. The spirituality is of a predominantly Christian sort, but it’s the kind of Christian spirituality found among the refugee camps of those disaffected souls who chafed on the boundaries of their parents’ church. … Continue Reading

Let There Be Sex

February 12, 2010 Culture, Faith No Comments

Without a doubt, the beginning of the Bible is the most controversial text in Western culture. Despite the controversies, it seems as if most people haven’t actually looked at Genesis 1 and 2 very carefully. For instance, there seems to be something already in existence at the beginning of Genesis 1: “the deep” and “the waters” are presumed to exist before Creation happens. So the Bible doesn’t portray God creating ex nihilo, and that’s true whether hundreds of years of tradition likes it or not.

Also oft-surprising is that Genesis 1 and 2 contain two modes of creation by God: if you read through the two chapters as a narrative, God first creates everything by decree and then creates everything by building up reality from the clay of Eden. And in both of these modes, the creation culminates in the creation of the human pairing — and even more, in the explicit charge to have sex!

To make that argument, I need to back up a second and clear some smoke.

If you check, the first creation account seems to go past the end of Genesis 1 up to Genesis 2:3. Despite this bleed-over, the first account is sometimes called “Genesis 1″ and the second account is sometimes called “Genesis 2″, leading to a bit of slop and confusion about where “Genesis 1″ ends. While I know there’s a good reason for that alternative numbering, I am sticking to the canonical numbering used in the Christian Bible: when I say “Genesis 1″ here, I mean very precisely the first chapter of Genesis.

Genesis 1 begins with God in the dark, and the world hidden beneath a sheet of water in that darkness. God’s breath moves over that sheet of water, and He whispers, “Let there be light.” But the world can’t see the light when it appears — it is blurry, mixed with the darkness. God separates the light and the darkness and then separates the sheet of water, revealing the dry land beneath it. Through God’s words alone, the life potential within that dry land is called forth. Through God’s words alone, the lesser and greater lights are hung in the sky, the sea explodes with sea monsters and living creatures, and then the dry land is populated with all the varieties of animals.

Then, in the climax of Genesis 1, God creates humanity — “male and female he created them.” The first words that He gives to humanity are a charge to have sex, and in no uncertain terms: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth”. Now, the sex there is intertwined with the idea of procreation — sex and bearing children are simply indivisible concepts. While we contemporary readers may want to address these ideas separately, we need to realize we’re in a unique historical situation: pervasive, safe, and reliable birth control is a purely 20th century concept, and so it’s only recently that we have the luxury of divorcing sex and bearing children. Since the ancient Hebrews didn’t have the pill and weren’t too keen on homosexuality, the idea of sex is tied up with having babies — but for all those caveats, the sex is still definitely there, and it is how the story of creation ends.

Genesis 2 (as the Bible counts it) begins with God at rest. The world has been created with seeds resting in the ground, but there had never been water nor anyone to work the ground. God calls forth a stream to water the ground, and forms The Human to work the ground. God breathes the very breath of life into the face of The Human, and The Human comes to life. God plants The Human in the Garden of Eden, with every plant that is beautiful to see and delicious to eat. But The Human is alone, and while all the rest of creation may have been declared good by God, here God says, “It is not good that The Human should be alone.” With every physical need taken care of, with all the most beautiful and delicious plants, with all the animals of the world, with every comfort and power second only to God Himself, The Human is still alone, and that is not good. And so God causes The Human to sleep, and splits The Human in two, into man and woman.

The man apparently won the wishbone contest and inherited the identity of The Human. When the man awakes, he sees the woman, and then we get the first recorded human quote — an exclamation of long-awaited love: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” Even having been split in two, The Human is ecstatic at having a partner to touch, and to relate to in a very present, physical way. We are then told: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” Here we have another mode of God’s creation culminating in a praise of the human creative power in sex. This time, the praise is based on the innate need for each of us to be near another physically, to be touched in love and to join back together to become one flesh. Here at the headwaters of the Bible, we find an acknowledgment of the loneliness that defines our existence and a story explaining why that loneliness is assuaged through joining ourselves physically with another: in a real sense, we are seeking the half of our body that is missing.

Now, the next words we hear from the man are in Genesis 3, and they’re him blaming the woman for giving him the forbidden fruit: even the Bible seems cynical about marriage. These words from the man escalate the chain of events that end with misery and pain being introduced into the world. So it’s true that Creation isn’t all roses — but this Valentine’s day, let’s have a Genesis 2 kind of night and leave Genesis 3 for another time.

NOTE: Thanks to Terence Fretheim’s “God and World in the Old Testament” for inspiring this post.

Sex & God: Accepting the Sexual Soul

February 1, 2010 Causes, Culture, Faith 9 Comments

Sexuality and Christian spirituality have had a rocky relationship: from the Apostle Paul’s reluctant admission of marriage as a way to handle those who unfortunately “burn with passion” (1Cor 7) to medieval asceticism’s sexual renunciation to the contemporary puritanical disdain for sensuality, it seems like Christian spirituality and sex just don’t mix.

But for the sake of the argument, let’s assume God wasn’t screwing up or tormenting us in giving us this drive to the most intimate of physical connections with others. Instead, can we conceive as prayers those short, shallow breaths that come when we tangle ourselves in another person’s pleasure? Can we affirm sex despite a long history of critics?

If we look carefully at this criticism, it’s important to realize that asexuality was traditionally associated with the spiritual/mystical vein of Christianity. Some people have this idea that the church is somehow dependent upon condemning sexuality for its identity: Nietzsche was one of these people. The pseudo-historical argument along these lines is that purity codes within the Judaism of Jesus’s time and the Greek/Stoic sensibility of Paul put a strong damper on sex from the beginning, but that’s simply not true: sex shot through the early church.

The sexual tone to the early Christian witness was so strong, in fact, that Paul had to tell women to keep their clothes on in church when prophesying (1Cor 11:5-6,13-16) and had to explicitly rebuke the “orgies” and “debauchery” going on in Rome (Rom 13:12-14). So while Paul was certainly no fan of sex, it seems he was surrounded by people who were.

No, the early church was not particularly down on sex. Some itinerant or particularly zealous people took chastity as a spiritual gift, but it was widely accepted (even by Paul) that chastity was not for everyone. On this point, it’s curious to note that some women voluntarily went into chastity as a pro-feminine move. Seizing power through sex in this way was particularly prevalent among those women married to non-Christian husbands. That’s a seemingly bizarre tactic in a world shaped by the much-needed sexual liberation of the late 20th century.

Where sexuality became vilified was when the soul became divorced from the body, which was a product of Greek-style mysticism. While God in the Old Testament created us male and female and cared for us in our body and met us in our particular time and place, and while God came to us in the form of Jesus so that we might touch and feel God and witness the resurrection promised through the prophets, there was a moment shortly after the time of the canon when a foreign idea surfaced in Christianity. This idea, derived from Plato’s followers, asserted that that the soul was good and immortal and eternal while the body was bad and decaying and temporary.

Let’s disabuse ourselves right here and now of that idea. The bogus idea that the body is bad and the soul is good requires the ability to divorce the soul from the body—but no such divorce is possible. The soul and the body are in an inseparable dance, connected in the most fundamental ways.

Attempting to rip body and soul apart and consider each separately leaves both lacking. Talk about the soul without reference to the body results in a “soul of the gaps”: as science discovers more direct physical interplay in aspects attributed to the soul, the space left for a truly independent soul dwindles down to nothingness. Talk about the body without reference to the soul results in a mechanistic view that loses the big picture: our will shapes our physical reality in profound ways, and to see that we need only look at the shocking effectiveness of placebo treatments and the study showing that we make our own luck by believing we’re lucky.

By recovering the union of soul and body, we can recover the spiritual quality of the union of two people. In fact, when we reject Plato’s philosophy in favor of God’s revelation, we recover our ability to live and love our bodies again. We recover the divine in the day-to-day living, in the romance of candlelight, and in the eros of art. We recover the basic fact that there’s a wide world out there, and that it is Good. What that means for Christian conceptions of spirituality and for our own conception of sex are ideas for another time.

Robert Fischer is Sex and the 405′s spiritual scholar and cultural commentator. Behold the sacred and the profane — he’ll shy away from nothing. Well-versed in mathematics, computer science and religion, this man is a bona fide intellectual whose musings on sex and culture are delicate as they are incisive. How could we resist? How could you? Follow him on Twitter: @RobertFischer

Spirituality vs. Religion in the Bedroom

January 14, 2010 Culture, Faith, Research 2 Comments

Women seeking to connect with the transcendent have more sex, more sexual partners, and are less likely to use a condom.

That’s one way to read the results of a finding from a recent study from the University of Kentucky. Now, most of our empirical knowledge in psychology comes from experiments on white mice and undergrads, and this study is no exception: it was performed on 353 students “attending a large public university.”

Of those students, 88 percent were Caucasian, 82 percent were Protestant or Catholic, and the mean age was 20, with nobody over 29, so we’re talking about a young, predominantly white, predominantly Christian sample.

Given that kind of sample, it seems like a stretch to generalize this study into a catchy headline like “Spiritual Women Have More Sex” (like LiveScience did) or “Is Spirituality Harmful to Women’s Sexual Health?” (like Science and Religion Today did). Nonetheless, it is an interesting study.

Here are the findings, in all their academic glory:

Consistent with previous literature, religiousness was negatively associated with participants’ lifetime number of sexual partners and frequency of vaginal sex. […] Spirituality, on the other hand, demonstrated consistent and positive associations with female participants’ number of sexual partners, frequency of vaginal sex, and frequency of sex without a condom.

In non-academic speak: young women who are religious have less sex, but young women who are spiritual have more. After hearing about this study, my initial reaction was that spirituality was probably associated with other behaviors—drinking, drugs, etc.—which were really accounting for the difference. That’s certainly the impression my college experience has left me with. The researchers in this study were apparently thinking the same thing, though, because they checked for that. Even above and beyond these other factors, spirituality and sex seem to go hand in hand, whereas religiousness seems to repel sexual partners. So if religiousness and spirituality lead to opposite sex lives, what’s the difference between religious and spiritual takes on sex?

The measure of someone’s religiousness was based on test containing questions like this: “My religious beliefs lie behind my whole approach to life.” That question would be rated from 1 (not at all true) to 5 (totally true). The goal of this test is to figure out how much someone adheres day-to-day to their practices and beliefs.

The spirituality questions, on the other hand, measured a “personal search for connection with a larger sacredness.” Questions were things like: “In the quiet of my prayers and/or meditations, I find a sense of wholeness.”

So “religiousness” here is a measure of adherence to some set of standards, whereas “spirituality” here is searching for connectedness, a sense of universality, or an expectation of prayer fulfillment. According to this study’s data, it’s that first part of spirituality—connectedness—which the women seem to be searching for in both spirituality and in sex. That connectedness is unique to spirituality as opposed to religiousness: people who rated high in “connectedness” rated low in religiousness, but those who rated high in “universality” and “prayer fulfillment” also rated high on religiousness.

Like religiousness, universality and prayer fulfillment seemed to put a damper on the amount of sex: apparently women expecting “Dear God” to work in the church don’t work the “Oh God” in the bedroom.

By the way, the story for the men in this study is quite a bit different—spirituality has no association with the number of sexual partners or condom use, and is actually associated with less frequent sex. The paper’s authors find this unsurprising since “having sex to achieve emotional intimacy and union is relatively unique to women,” a fact that’s surprising to this emotional-intimacy-and-union-seeking man.

What do you think of the findings?

Image by Gisela Giardino.

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Sex and the 405 is what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.

Here you’ll find news about the latest research being conducted to figure out what drives desire, passion, and other sex habits; reviews of sex toys, porn and other sexy things; coverage of the latest sex-related news that have our mainstream media's panties up in a bunch; human interest pieces about sex and desire; interviews with people who love sex, or hate sex, or work in sex, or work to enable you to have better sex; opinion pieces that relate to sex and society; and the sex-related side of celebrity gossip. More...