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Reuniting Sexuality and Spirituality

by James B. Nelson

Dr. Nelson is professor of Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minnesota. This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 25, 1987, pp. 187-190. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The title of this Christian Century series, After the Revolution: The Church and Sexual Ethics, suggests two things: that there has been a sexual revolution, and that the revolution is over. Though in some ways both claims are true, in other ways the revolution has just begun. Clearly the past quarter-century has witnessed significant changes in the cultural and religious understandings of sex roles, sex outside marriage, homosexuality, single-parent families, the explicit portrayal and discussion of sexual matters and so on. These shifts were spurred by a new American affluence, by the Pill, by the flood of women into the work force, by the destabilization of traditional values during the war in Vietnam, and by a new societal emphasis on self-fulfillment. None of these changes was total and none occurred without considerable resistance; yet it is evident that something of major importance happened.

Then, in the Orwellian year 1984, no less an authority than Time magazine declared that "The Revolution Is Over" (April 9). Veterans of the sexual revolution, said Time, are both bored and wounded. The one-night stand has lost its sheen, we were told. "Commitment" and "intimacy" are in (helped by the scourges of herpes and AIDS), and celibacy is again a respectable option. The "me generation" is giving way to the "we generation." Religious and political reaction has followed the rise of feminism, gay/lesbian activism and the plurality of family forms.

All this is true enough. But it is not that simple—particularly not in regard to religious attitudes. Some years ago Paul Ricoeur observed that there have been three major stages in the Western understanding of the relation of sexuality to religion (cf "Wonder, Eroticism and Enigma," in Sexuality and Identity, edited by Hendrik Ruitenbeek [Dell, 1970], pp. 13 ff.). The earliest stage closely identified the two forces, incorporating sexuality into religious myth and ritual. In the second stage, accompanying the rise of the great world religions, the two spheres were separated: the sacred became increasingly transcendent while sexuality was demythologized and confined to a small part of the earthly order (procreation within institutionalized marriage). Sexuality’s power was feared, restrained and disciplined.

Ricoeur notes that there now seems to be emerging a third period, marked by the desire to reunite sexuality with the experience of the sacred. This desire is prompted by a more wholistic understanding of the person and of the ways in which sexuality is present in all of human experience. If sexual expression is still seen as needing ordering and discipline, as it was in the second period, there is also, as there was in the first period, a sense of its spiritual power.

I, too, believe that we are edging into that third period—however unevenly. Of course, the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s was itself uneven: some of the constructive power of sexuality was released, and gains were made in sexual justice and equality, but at the same time some sexual experience was trivialized. Nevertheless, that revolution did create an important opening to the third period.

Perhaps never before in the history of the church has there been so much open ferment as there is now about issues of sexuality. The outpouring of treatises, debates, studies, pronouncements and movements bent on reforming religious-sexual attitudes (or protecting them from unwanted change) has been unprecedented. In all of these developments there are signs that a paradigmatic shift in the religious perceptions of human sexuality is under way. There are seven signs of this shift that I find particularly striking.

1. There has been a shift from theologies of sexuality to sexual theologies. Before the past two decades, the vast preponderance of Christian writers on sexuality assumed that the question before them was simply: What does Christianity (the Bible, the tradition, ecclesiastical authority, etc.) say about sexuality? Now we are also asking: What does our experience of human sexuality say about our perceptions of faith—our experience of God, our interpretations of Scripture and tradition, our ways of living out the gospel?

This shift derives in part from a recovery of 19th-century liberal theology’s emphasis on experience as important theological data—an emphasis now embraced by various forms of liberation theology. It derives, too, from the feminist and lesbian/gay movements, both of which have claimed that it is their consciousness of sexual oppression that has afforded them crucial insights about the ways of God in human relationships. The term "sexual theology," like the term "liberation theology," suggests this dialogical, two-directional investigation.

The two-way conversation model reminds us that theology cannot presume to look down upon human sexuality from some unaffected, Olympian vantage point. It reminds us that every theological perception contains some elements and perceptions conditioned by sexual experience, and every sexual experience is perceived and interpreted through religious lenses of some kind. The difference between a unidirectional and a dialogical method is the difference between a theology of sexuality and a sexual theology.

2. There has been a shift from understanding sexuality as either incidental to or detrimental to the experience of God toward understanding sexuality as intrinsic to the divine-human experience. Sexual dualism has marked much of the Christian tradition. In this dualism, spirit is opposed to body, with spirit assumed to be higher and superior and the body lower and inferior. The companion of this dualism has been sexism or patriarchy: men identify themselves essentially with the spirit (mind), while men identify women with the body (matter), and assume that the higher needs to control the lower.

Implicit in sexual dualism has been the notion of divine impassivity—the apathy of God. If the body is marked by passion and if spirit is passionless, then bodily hunger (eros) has no connection with the divine. God is without hunger, and the human hungers (of which sexuality, with its drive to connection and intimacy, is one of the most basic) seem to have no connection with our experience of God.

While the recent sexual revolution often seemed more intent on self-fulfillment through unfettered pleasure than on the quest for intimacy, it did prompt new theological reflection on the spiritual significance of sexual hunger. If some of our Protestant forebears of three centuries ago were right in believing that companionship, not procreation, is central in God’s design for sexuality, then the human hunger for physical and emotional intimacy is of enormous spiritual significance. It ought not be denigrated as unbecoming to the spiritual life. Thus theology has been giving new attention to the insight that sexuality is crucial to God’s design that creatures not dwell in isolation and loneliness but in communion and community.

Accompanying the attack on dualism has been the reclaiming of incarnational theology. This theology emphasizes that the most decisive experience of God is not in doctrine, creed or ideas but in the Word made flesh—and in the Word still becoming flesh. Here has been another opening to the possibility that sexuality is intrinsic to the experience of God. Such experience has been described by Nikos Kazantzakis: "Within me even the most metaphysical problem takes on a warm physical body which smells of sea, soil, and human sweat. The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh. Only then do I understand—when I can smell, see, and touch" (Report to Greco [Cassirer, 1965], p. 43).

3. There has been a shift from understanding sexual sin as a matter of wrong sexual acts to understanding sexual sin as alienation from our intended sexuality. The Christian tradition has had a pronounced tendency to define sexual sin as specific acts. This approach gained momentum during the early Middle Ages when penitential manuals were first written detailing the nature of specific sins and their proper penances. Those manuals paid the greatest attention to sexual matters. Indeed, in our heritage, "sin" and "morality" have had a markedly sexual focus (a "morals charge" never refers to an economic injustice!). Sexual sins thus became physiologically definable and capable of neat categorization. They were those particular acts either prohibited by scriptural texts or contrary to natural law—acts done with the wrong person, in the wrong way or for the wrong purpose.

Actually, Christian theology at its best has recognized that sin is not fundamentally an act but rather the condition of alienation or estrangement out of which harmful acts may arise. However, it has taken a long time for theology to acknowledge that sexual sin is fundamentally alienation from our divinely intended sexuality. To put it overly simply but I hope accurately: sexual sin lies not in being too sexual, but in being not sexual enough—in the way God has intended us to be. Such alienation, indeed, usually leads to harmful acts, but the sin is rooted in the prior condition.

Sexual sin lies in the dualistic alienation by which the body becomes an object, either to be constrained out of fear (the Victorian approach) or to be treated as a pleasure machine (the Playboy philosophy). It lies in the dualistic alienation by which females are kept from claiming their assertiveness and males kept from claiming their vulnerability. It lies in the alienation which finds expression in sexual violence, in Rambo-like militarism, in racism, in ecological abuse. The uncompleted sexual revolution began to recognize some of this. While in its superficial and exploitative moments it wanted to wipe away the category of sexual sin ("If it feels good, do it"), in its better moments it helped us see that sexual sin is really something different from, and more than, particular acts which can be neatly defined.

4. There has been a shift from understanding salvation as antisexual to knowing that there is "sexual salvation." Because spiritualistic dualism has conditioned so much of the Christian tradition, Christians have inherited a disembodied notion of salvation: salvation means release from the lower (fleshly) into the higher (spiritual) life. Accordingly, popular piety has typically viewed the saints as asexual beings, without sexual needs and desires and sometimes even without genitalia.

The sexual revolution helped convince many Christians that an incarnationalist faith embraces the redemption of alienated sexuality as well as other estranged dimensions of our lives. Justification by grace signifies God’s unconditional, unmerited, radical acceptance of the whole person: God, the Cosmic Lover, graciously embraces not just a person’s disembodied spirit but the whole fleshly self—the meanings of which theology is only beginning to explore.

Sanctification means growth in holiness (or wholeness and health—the root word is the same). Many have begun to realize that God intends increasing sexual wholeness to be part of our redemption. Like any other good belief, this view can be perverted, but it need not be. Sexual sanctification can mean growth in bodily self-acceptance, in the capacity for sensuousness, in the capacity for play, in the diffusion of the erotic throughout the body (rather than in its genitalization) and in the embrace of the androgynous possibility.

5. There has been a shift from an act-centered sexual ethics to a relational sexual ethics. For all of its over-simplifications, Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics (1966) prompted a good deal of ethical rethinking. More sophisticated approaches to contextual-relational ethics and an ethics of response/responsibility, differently expressed by such thinkers as H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Lehmann, had a major impact on ethical thought in the ‘60s.

Act-oriented sexual ethics had dominated most of the Christian tradition, bearing the assumption that the rightness or wrongness of a particular sexual expression could be ascertained by the intrinsic value or disvalue of the action itself, without serious consideration of the relational context. The alternative seemed normlessness and subjectivism, particularly dangerous in sexuality issues, where passions run high. A relational sexual ethics has appeared to many as a way of avoiding legalism on the one hand and normless subjectivism on the other.

Roman Catholic sexual ethics, with its strong natural law tradition and clearly defined ecclesiastical teaching authority, has been more inclined toward objective sexual norms than has Protestant ethics with its heavy scriptural orientation. Both, however, have been more objectivistic and act-focused in sexual issues than in any other moral sphere. In recent years, however, numerous persons in both traditions have moved toward a new and creative sexual ethics.

Act-oriented ethics has appeared inadequate not only in cases with unique contexts and meanings, but in light of a growing recognition that Christian sexual ethics has been inadequately integrated into a wholistic spirituality. If sexuality is the physiological and psychological grounding of our capacities to love, if our destiny after the image of the Cosmic Lover is to be lovers in the richest, fullest sense of that good word, then how does sexual ethics figure into our spiritual destiny? What are our creative and fitting sexual responses to the divine loving? What are the appropriate sexual meanings that will embody the meanings of Word becoming flesh?

These are the questions that seem increasingly appropriate to many. For example, in a promising and controversial book published ten years ago, a group of Roman Catholic scholars proposed that Catholic sexual ethics stop centering on procreation, natural law and the physical contours of sexual acts and focus instead on the creative growth toward personal integration. Such growth and integration, they suggested, would be promoted by sexual expressions that are self-liberating, other-enriching, honest, faithful, socially responsible, life-serving and joyous. These, the authors proposed, are marks of a gospel ethic of love (Anthony Kosnick et al., Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought [Paulist/Newman, 1977]). Rome’s clear retreat from such Vatican II directions as these is evidence that the paradigm shift is still very uneven. But countless members of the Catholic Church know that a significant change is under way.

6. There has been a shift from understanding the church as asexual to understanding it as a sexual community. Through most of the church’s history it has viewed sexuality as either incidental or inimical to its life. But the sexual revolution resulted in a growing self-consciousness and empowerment on the part of the sexually oppressed. Religious feminism articulated the ways in which the church has always been a sexual community—the ways it has incorporated patriarchy into its language, worship, theological imagery, leadership patterns and ethics. A rising gay/lesbian consciousness performed a similar function in regard to the church’s heterosexism. Gradually, other groups—singles (including the widowed and divorced), the aging, those with handicapping conditions, the ill—have begun to recognize how churchly assumptions and practices have sexually disenfranchised them.

Another impetus for claiming and reforming the church as a sexual community has come from the increasing desire to reunite sexuality and spirituality. The realization that Protestant worship has been marked by a masculinist focus on the spoken word and by a suspicion of bodily feelings suggested the need to explore and touch the varied senses more inclusively. The recognition that most theology has given only lip service to the incarnation, failing to take ongoing incarnationalism seriously in both method and content, inspired the effort to explore the doing and meaning of body theology. The fact that Christian education has seriously ignored sex education prompted the attempt to address sexual meanings as part of faith’s journey, for young and old. Much of the recent ferment in theology, ethics, worship, leadership, pastoral care and education has been a direct result of this effort to recognize and reform the church as a sexual community.

7. There has been a shift from understanding sexuality as a private issue to understanding it as a personal and public one. Sexual issues will always be deeply personal, but personal does not mean private. One mark of Victorian sexuality was its privatization. Not only was sexuality not to be talked about, it was to be confined to a small portion of one’s private life. But this, quite literally, was idiocy (the Greek root for idiot refers to the person who attempts to live the private life, ignorant of the public domain).

One of the church’s recent discoveries is the public dimension of sexuality issues. On the social-action agenda of mainline denominations today are sexual-justice issues regarding gender and sexual orientation. No longer foreign to church concern are issues of abortion, family planning and population control, sexual abuse and violence, pornography, prostitution, reproductive technologies, varied family forms, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy and the reassessment of men’s identity. All these issues are obviously sexual, and all are public.

Even newer than this development is the nascent discovery of sexual dimensions in issues that previously had not appeared to have sexual connections, such as social violence. Violence, whether in the form of crime in the streets, the arms race, or economic or foreign policy, has important sexual aspects. To be sure, the sources and manifestations of violence are complex But what do we make of competitiveness, the cult of winning, the armoring of emotions, the tendency to dichotomize reality, the abstraction from bodily concreteness and the exaggerated fear of death that is manifested in a morbid fascination with it? These phenomena feed social violence, and all are deeply related to distortions of sexuality, particularly of male sexuality.

Years ago James Weldon Johnson observed that sexuality is deeply implicated in race problems as well. Historically, white males’ categorization of women ("either virgins or whores") proceeded along racial lines: white women were symbols of delicacy and purity, whereas black women symbolized an animality which could be sexually and economically exploited. White male guilt was projected onto the black male, who was imagined as a dark, supersexual beast who must be punished and from whom white women must be protected. Black mothers nurtured their sons to be docile, hoping to protect them from white male wrath. That upbringing in turn complicated black marriages and led to certain destructive attempts to recover black "manliness. " We are the heirs of a distorted racial history in which sexual dynamics have been a major force.

Sexual dynamics are also pervasive and significant when we examine economic exploitation and ecological abuse. Two decades ago, Peirce Teilhard de Chardin observed: "The prevailing view has been that the body . . . is a fragment of the Universe, a piece completely detached from the rest and handed over to a spirit that informs it. In the future we shall have to say that the Body is the very Universality of things.... My matter is not a part of the Universe that I possess totaliter: it is the totality of the Universe possessed by me partialiter" (Science and Christ [Harper & Row, 1968], pp. 12 f). Theology has been slowly recognizing this fact.

The sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s is mostly over, and some of its superficial and exploitative forms of freedom have proved to be just that. Hurt, boredom and disease have sobered more than a few—and the forces of religious and political reaction rejoice. But this revolution was a harbinger of a much more significant change that Ricoeur foresaw. The change is just beginning. It is uneven, misunderstood and resisted, as well as eagerly welcomed and hoped-for. Nevertheless, in my view a paradigmatic shift is indeed under way.

This will not be the first time in Christian history that a major shift has taken place in the perception of sexuality. In the 17th century some Protestants—especially Puritans, Anglicans and Quakers—began to affirm that loving companionship, not procreation, is the central meaning of sexuality. This cultural-religious revolution is still unfinished. I take heart from the fact that even more far-reaching change is taking place as we investigate how sexuality and spirituality are part and parcel of each other, and as we affirm that the Word continues to become flesh and dwell among us. This revolution has just begun.


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