Thursday, June 08, 2006
Sexuality and Spirituality are two sides of the same coin
‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’
Having been moved by Mata's (sorry still dont' know how to link - inept as i am, see on www.timesfool.blogspot.com) blog this morning, i thought i would throw a piece out there into blogland i penned last year...
Henri Nouwen once said that religion and sexuality, which are so often described as opponents, ‘merge into one and the same reality when they are seen as an expression of total self-surrender in love.’ I would suggest that the enabling action in this merge is something we call intimacy. This constitutes our living; it’s what we’re made for. It would be helpful therefore to explore intimacy’s relationship with both spirituality and sexuality in the hope that we can, with some Christ-like clarity, find a way forward with a subject which continues to have alarming consequences for the Church today. I make no attempt to present a cure-all for these difficulties, but for those who are willing to go beyond the quick-fix ‘remedies’ I hope this paper will offer stepping stones to a more reconciliatory journey.
We all experience within us what the Portuguese call saudade , which translates as ‘an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul.’ There is a specific spiritual hunger that millions share – a longing for personal intimacy (connection) to each other and the Divine. In times of crisis all of us reach for someone, or something greater than ourselves. C.S. Lewis describes this as ‘need love.’ It is the recognition that we need others physically, emotionally and spiritually; we need them if we are to know anything – especially ourselves. Intimacy though, particularly in a post-modern world is not easy to come by.
Elaine Storkey reminds us of this in her book ‘The Search for Intimacy’, where she suggests that ‘whilst intimacy is sought after it is also often elusive; all the more so because people are not always clear what they are looking for.’ The crisis is for many related to instability, of quickly changing normalities , with seemingly more fluid rather than fixed relationships. Here though, for me, lies the greatest of all relational frustrations, particularly with the Divine. Historically we have been taught that our relationship with God is fixed and stable. It is the most fluid and unpredictable relationship I have ever embarked upon. And yet, especially in the bleakest moments, I find myself echoing those beautiful words of Peter. When Jesus asks his disciples if they are going to leave him, he replies, ‘Lord where else can we go.’ The intimacy, whilst occasionally uncomfortable, is both deep and real.
There is a very important reason as to why the issue of intimacy within sexuality and spirituality needs to be addressed. For many relationship with one another and the Divine is often like talking to a wall, or worse still running into one. St. John of the Cross expresses the longing in these words:
‘Without support, yet well supported, though in pitch darkness, with no ray, entirely I am burned away.’
People are looking for assurance that someone hears when their cry of loneliness, despair and frustration shatters the already deafening silence. The last thing we need is to read a paper offering a ‘blueprint’ to intimacy, or indeed one that offers a kind of religious good luck charm – for one was never given. What we need are real stories of real people who have and are trying to deal with adversity. Of people who engage the difficult issues, offering from with in the engagement both challenge and comfort. We live in a world where the air is fast becoming too angry to breathe. There somehow has to be a way to pour hope into lives filled with anguish, which ultimately bring glimpses of triumph and peace. In short, we need pilgrims with unflinching honesty who are willing to take risks, who accept that there is no point in upsetting yourself if you’re not wiling to be different in order to make a difference – this process is called waking up.
In his book ‘Threshold God’, Cyril Ashton says that, ‘striving to understand the mystery of sexuality is a primary function of spirituality.’ Suggesting that, ‘the essential oneness between sexuality and spirituality is to do with their purpose.’ This is the waking bed. For too long now there has been a neurosis about sexuality, fuelled primarily by Christians from many changing paradigms, where sex is seen as an uncontrollable force, which will sweep every Christian into the abyss of depravity. Karen Armstrong suggests that:
‘We all have neuroses and emotional complexes which often contradict our rational beliefs and make us act destructively and in opposition to our ideals. In fact the higher our ideals are, the more likely we are to be neurotic about putting them into practice.’
We may find this helpful in our search for answers as to why, for the majority of Christians, sex is a dirty word. My opinion is that it is intimacy we fear most, because abandon, both to God and in sexual relations, is a journey few wish to travel. For it is a place of risk where faith is needed and comfort zones and pride are lost, a place that is over theologised but infrequently visited. The main reason for this is because the Church has failed to set people free spiritually to enjoy their sexuality.
This is unfortunate because the confusion of our culture has left a great opportunity for the Church to help re-establish the proper place and understanding of sex. Sadly much of our Christian tradition has shown nothing but embarrassment and contempt for this wonderful gift, and as the Christian faith has spread, ‘slowly too has the misogynism and sexual hatred of Christianity.’ From the early Church Fathers through to the Reformation and beyond, dogma has existed. Dogma has always fascinated me. I see it as a religious equivalent of ideology. A set of ideals, held with fervent zeal, to be true and upheld without argument – it just so happens that at a deeper level the issue is power, whereby there is control as to what people are permitted to experience and interpret. ‘Whatever view they meant to pass on to us, there is no doubt that the message actually conveyed is that sex is probably God’s greatest mistake,’ undoubtedly with this mindset securely in place there is little wonder sexuality and spirituality have been seen as opponents.
Cyril Ashton is wise to suggest that the essential oneness between sexuality and spirituality is to do with their purpose, and it is an observation we need to unpack further. Their purpose originates in our ‘creatureliness and in our ontological relatedness to God.’ In other words, because we are made in the image of God there is no independent existence outside Him. So ultimately the search for intimacy is the search for God, which would explain the yearning undefined and the insatiable thirst for deeper relationship shared by many. Most though stop short in the search for intimacy itself because the search is a restless one which requires courage and maturity. Bernard of Clairvaux suggests that this ‘maturity is reached as the soul passes from the judgement of reason to that of spiritual affection.’
‘Love all for Jesus’ sake, but Jesus for Himself,’ says Thomas A Kempis. This is an important lesson in the waking bed. God’s desire to move us on to spiritual maturity is a stronger desire than perhaps we believe. Hannah Whitall Smith encourages us all to:
‘Grow dear friends grow, I beseech you, in God’s way which is the only effectual way. See to it that you are planted in grace, and then let the Divine husbandman cultivate you in His own way and by His own means.’
The Dalai Lama speaks of a condition of the existence of a cause. He says ‘because there is this, that ensues; because this came into being, that came into being.’ Sexuality and spirituality come into being as a result of another cause – the intimate Creator. I like this; it instils an awareness of a mysterious ‘still small voice’ that leads me on to the pathway of love and intimacy. It reminds me of that deep inner calling to something much bigger than I, where maturity can be nurtured and understanding can grow. St. Bernard of Clairvaux suggest that there are ‘four degrees of love’, which is the pathway to maturity. The first degree of love is the love of self for self’ sake, which Bernard links in a corrective fashion with Jesus’ commandment, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ The second is the love of God for self’s sake – loving God for His providence. The third is close to Thomas A Kempis’ observation, to love God for God’s sake. For no other reason other than you are compelled from within to do so - naked unadulterated love. The fourth is the love of self for God’s sake, the idea that ultimately we shall not love ourselves, except as we do for God’s own sake.
Here we face the heart of the waking process. Our mishandling of sexuality, spirituality, and ultimately intimacy, has come back to haunt us. We have devalued it by regarding it as dirty for too long, and repression is only a short term solution. The fact is authentic sex involves intimacy, it is a search for an understanding of the other at its deepest level, and there is something profoundly spiritual about that. I would venture to say there is something sacred about the whole thing.
‘Perhaps it is time to resacralise sexuality. Time to recover the deeply relational roots of our God-given capacity to love comprehensively. Time to recognise that we are not as free as we thought. That we have limits. Everything sacred needs some kind of guarding if it is not to lose its power and become common.’
Put simply, meeting with God is a matter of sublime intimacy, and good sex points the way. As a Church we want to affirm its goodness, but we don’t want to get too excited about it. There may be, to coin a phrase, trouble ahead. ‘We affirm the love but not the flesh. It’s a case of premature immaculation.’ It should be no surprise to us that the mystics frequently used sexual analogies to describe their encounters with God. ‘In these raptures it seems like the soul no longer animates the body. Here there is no way of resisting the union.’ Teresa of Avila describes the mystical union as the body caught in ecstasy as the soul is rapt away to God. Contemporary pioneer of the mystic, Etty Hillesum, suggests that even the prayer posture of kneeling is a physical expression of intimacy. She frequently compares spiritual intimacy with that of sexual intimacy. She says that having learned to kneel, ‘such a thing was more intimate than sex.’ It is a remarkable thing to give oneself completely to another.
When each partner gives themselves in total surrender to the other a uniting of incredible depth takes place. Orgasm, the climax of physical uniting, is a powerful and shaking experience and has a profound effect on the human spirit. Johann Christoph Arnold goes as far to say that, ‘here, the experience of the body is so forceful that it is difficult to distinguish it from the experience of The Spirit.’ There is good reason for spiritual intimacy to be intertwined with sexual expression and language. Sexual intimacy is one of the deepest forms of communication given, ‘and although the language is universal, the dialect is unique to that couple,’ revealing the deep interdependence between two people. There is little wonder, in my mind, why so many cannot separate the two. The beginning of wisdom regarding this subject will only come when we empty ourselves of ourselves. When we allow God to lead us into the kind of maturity St. Bernard describes – something sadly lacking in the Church at present, the road holds too much fear. Only with maturity will we be able to engage, in a helpful way, with people whose experience of sexuality and spirituality exist outside our own. Ignorance and intolerance continue to widen the gap we are supposed to ‘bridge’. This brings us poignantly to the most controversial thorn in the Church today - homosexuality.
If we ever needed some Christ-like clarity with an issue, it is this, and we need it fast. I lament against the bigots who act as judge and jury, whose actions merely fuel the fire of the incipient demise of the institutions they have built. I spoke recently with John Smith, Australian minister, and author of ‘On the side of the Angels.’ He said this, ‘that in our search for truth we will walk a very fine line to the self-righteous Pharisee…and that ultimately it’s more important to love than to be right.’
For as long as I can remember homosexual behaviour has been seen, particularly by those in the Church, as a uniquely awful perversion, existing as a consequence of humankind’s rebellion against God. The argument being that this expression goes against nature, against God’s creative design. The Scripture most used to support this is to be found in Romans 1: 26-28. Johann Christoph Arnold, who in most of his work is a much needed voice of salt and light in a tasteless and dark world, I feel assists in the burning of bridges we all someday have to cross. He also shares and voices the opinion of many who are in no position to be heard.
‘It is typical to hear people complain about the injustice of holding homosexuals responsible for an orientation or even a way of life that they themselves did not necessarily choose. But this is only an excuse for sin.’
Whilst I accept that to explain behaviour is one thing but to justify it is something altogether different, I can’t help but feel Johann is avoiding the big issue. For a difficulty remains; how does the Church proclaim the good news to the homosexual who does not see their persuasion as a mark of rebellion? As Rowan Williams reminds us, ‘they are told that they are tolerated, even respected; but their own account of themselves before God is not to be recognised.’ The whole issue has become rather polarised, and we are a long way from God’s call, exemplified in Christ. Jesus said, ‘love your enemies’ (and that is what homosexuals are to many Christians). He did not say, redefine them as people with alternative worldviews.
Men must learn to love one another. ‘A man needs a woman but he needs a man too, and I don’t see how you can really live an honest life without waking up to that.’ John is of the opinion, and I think he may be correct, that the gender debate has been hijacked. A minority has managed to bring us to this extreme at which the Church finds herself, the fear of showing freedom of physical expression. John concludes that, ‘I am everlastingly thankful to my father for teaching me how to cry, and for Jesus for teaching me why I should.’ There is a beautiful story that seems to capture what I am trying to say. It involves a certain Rich Mullins who, one night, accepts a lift from a relative stranger from a small town back to his campsite.
‘And so we got in his car, and just as we pulled out from under the last light in town, the guy said, “You know what, I should probably tell you that I’m gay.” And I said, “Oh, I should probably tell you that I’m a Christian.” And he said, “Well if you want out of the car…” I said, “Why?” and he said, “Well I’m gay and you’re a Christian.” I said, “It’s still five miles and it’s still dark.” He said, “I thought Christians hated gays.” And I said, “That’s funny, I thought Christians were supposed to love. I thought that was our first command.” He said, “Well I thought God hated gays.” And I said, “That’s really funny, because I thought God was love.” And then he asked me the big one. He said, “Do you think I will go to hell for being gay?”…then I said to him, “No, you won’t go to hell for being gay, any more than I’ll go to hell for being a liar. Nobody goes to hell because of what they do. We go to hell because we reject the grace that God so longs to give us, regardless of what we do.”
The kind of love Jesus describes in the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’ is far more dangerous than we have allowed it to be. It requires an intimate expression that pushes and expands our boundaries. It may demand of us that we revise our position concerning the sexual expression of the homosexual, who are after all just like the rest of us, trying to find a way of being faithful and obedient in the light of the revelation we’re given. Rowan Williams’ hope is that ultimately ‘what we disagree about is how knowledge-in-Christ is mediated and made actual in the Church’s life. Intolerance and fear in our communities contribute to an alarmingly high rate of self-hatred, violence and even suicide. If we remain silent, we help perpetuate the tragedy.
‘Many have gone astray through not understanding how to continue a good beginning.’
The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. It can only be real when lived amidst the pains and joys of the here and now. It is said there are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the cold hard truth, and the reality is that because the needs of this subject are so overwhelming, instead of shocking us into action, we often find ourselves callous and insensitive. More and more the only way I find I can make any sense of anything is through Jesus, and it is with Him and the wisdom of Henri Nouwen I conclude this paper. When Jesus says, ‘Make your home in me as I make mine in you’, He offers us an intimate place that we can truly call home. Home is a place where we do not have to be afraid, that place where we are free. Home is where we can rest and be healed – the place of intimate love. I cannot separate the sexual and spiritual in the journey to God. The two are with me every moment of my existence, and if I’m honest enough, nearly always as a reflection of one another. We all have much to be healed of as we journey on, and the only hospital potentially capable of providing this, is the Home of God.
The home of God needs to demonstrate that God is the source of sexual and spiritual intimacy, and help people break down barriers, which cut them off from God and other people. These barriers must and will come down. C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully. He says,
‘To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that…the spring comes down slowly; but the great thing is that the corner has turned. There is, of course, this indifference, that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether they will respond or not. We can. We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into these “high mid-summer pomps” in which our leader, The Son of Man, already dwells, and to which He is calling us. It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.’