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