catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 12 :: 2007.06.15 — 2007.06.29


Sex and spirit

Editor’s Note: The following article addresses sex in general, as well as sex outside of marriage, a topic that can be sensitive and divisive.  As the mission developer at a faith community called Extended Grace, Barbara Zielinski’s response to this issue is not necessarily what’s expected of someone in her position.  This piece is offered in order to generate discussion.  If you are inclined, please click on the link at the end of the article to engage in respectful and honest conversation about this topic.


I spoke about sex at Extended Grace for the first time in February of 2004. That Sunday night there was a young female college student in the community. My message confused her—it wasn’t what she expected to hear. So when we gathered for chat she offered a rather tenuous question—and you could tell from the slight shake in her voice that she was ready to be slapped down. “Are you saying,” she asked, “that sex can be okay outside of marriage?”

I hesitated. This was a direct question and there was no fancy talking around it. I looked at the people around the table trying to gauge their reactions, then it just came out. Yes! That is exactly what I am saying. And how liberating that felt. No dancing around the question. And how liberating it was for that young woman with whom I had many more conversations before she moved out of the state.

So tonight, just to get it out of the way in case any of you are uncertain and looking for clarification: Yes, I believe sex outside of marriage can be perfectly healthy and holy.

And in that belief, I directly challenge both the wisdom and the constraint of our culture’s current marriage ethic. Basically it says that if you are married, sex is acceptable and if you are not married, sex is bad. Such an ethic has nothing to say to teenagers, gays and lesbians, the elderly, the single—nothing to say to anyone who isn’t…well, married. And at the same time it assumes a whole host of abusive, demeaning and controlling behaviors are permissible, as long as or even because they take place within a legally recognized union. 

Instead, I argue that we really need to develop and live by a sexual ethic that places sexuality in the context of the divine and treats it with moral integrity. Such an ethic begins by recognizing that in order for sex to be healthy and holy, it must include full engagement of both the body and the soul.

There is a wonderful model for such an ethic in our scripture tonight taken from the passionate words of the Song of Songs. Here we find a compelling and graphic witness to the beauty of the human body, the goodness of sexual desire, and the power of love. But how many churches use this text to educate young people—or old people—about the exquisite value of sexual ecstasy?

We can give much credit for our sexual hang ups and taboos within the Christian tradition to St. Augustine who lived around 400AD and who is credited with the idea of “original sin.” St. Augustine found himself in a continual battle with his own unwanted sexual energy, leading him to conclude that sex was the sin of Adam. This part of our human nature was so primitive, he concluded, that we have no mental or spiritual control over it and it is, thus, "original sin".

Augustine thought that sexual intercourse was just as bad and uncontrollable whether one was married or not, but that an excuse could be made for it within marriage because then it served the purpose of producing legitimate children.  But this sex still provided the way in which original sin was passed from father to child as both guilt for Adam’s crime and the sickness or defect that gives human beings a sinful nature. 

Today a number of sexual taboos are being lifted and lots of people—even unmarried people—are having and presumably enjoying sex. Despite these cultural shifts, we still hear the church largely echoing St. Augustine’s doctrine. Sex is dangerous. Sexual desire is wrong. Female sexuality is destructive and evil. Male sexuality is predatory and uncontrollable. It is the task of every civilized human being to confine sexuality within very narrow limits.

Negative social conditioning about sex inevitably creates fear, and this fear is passed on from generation to generation by well-intentioned parents, teachers, and religious leaders. In early childhood most of us absorb disapproving attitudes about sex without even becoming aware of the process. As a result, we can find ourselves struggling with our ability to express our own sexuality and to love and open up to another. The warnings are all around us: Watch out—if you open up to love and sex more fully, you will get hurt.

When I was growing up those narrow limits meant that the only place it was even appropriate to consider sex was within marriage. Any other sex for any other reason or in any other circumstance was simply wrong. Those lessons and the veil of guilt they draped over me kept me from having important conversations with trusted elders, including my own mother, about my own blossoming sexuality. And they led me to make some pretty devastating choices in my life. Which is why I think we NEED to talk about sex—and we especially need to talk about in church and with our young people.

And the first lesson is that sex is a good gift of God, that we are all sexual beings and that our bodies—no matter the shape or size—are beautiful. To believe that God doesn’t like sex is like believing that God doesn’t like you. With this kind of foundation, we are almost certain to end up carrying shame for our own perfectly natural sexual desires and fulfillments. It doesn’t have to be that way. In the book The Ethical Slut, a woman shares her story of being a young girl when she discovered the joys of masturbation in the back seat of the family car, tucked under a warm blanket on a long trip. It felt so wonderful that she concluded that the existence of her clitoris was proof positive that God loved her.

Sex serves a lot of purposes. Procreation is one. Pleasure is another. Feeling accepted and loved and finding emotional fulfillment is yet another. And beyond that is its role in the Spirituality.

David Scherer, Agape, who sings our gathering song sent me an e-mail last week. In it he wrote:

I have trouble embracing a philosophy which creates dualism with spirit and flesh. I think sensuality is something wonderful that is not to be freed from, but engaged and integrated into our spirituality. In fact, I’d say it already is if we want it to be or not. That is one of the bones for me to pick with Christianity…some people seem to really ignore the Jewish understanding of spirituality being what we do with our bodies, not just concepts to think about.

The way we use our bodies is an expression of spirituality. We may make the choice to express our spirituality through a decision for celibacy. Such a decision is absolutely valid and commendable. Despite overwhelming cultural messages to the contrary, one can indeed be whole without a sexual partner, and all of the world’s religious traditions have seen value in claiming this way of life.

There are other ways to use our bodies to express our spirituality: dancing, athletics, fasting and feasting are just some examples. Yet another way is by pursuing the path of sexual transcendence in which we move outside the boundaries of our individual selves to receive this world in a way that is motivated by love and speaks of God’s own passionate creativity. 

We cannot talk about sex without also pointing out the fine line between sex that heals and sex that wounds. The human animal is the only one that can direct their sexual energy wherever they want. Some choose to use this energy in abusive and negative ways; some waste it and disperse it indiscriminately. There are many ways in which we can express sexual energy, both positively and negatively.

But sacred sex only happens when two people make themselves vulnerable to each other. It cannot happen when one person is being exploited, when love is withheld, or when it is used as a means to any other end than mutual reverence and delight.

It is when we bring the Spirit back to sex, that we can honor our sexuality as a bridge between the body and the soul. When combined with love, sexual energy is the most powerful stimulus of all, a rich treasure of joy, happiness and passion. But it remains a virtue only to the degree that is used with wisdom, compassion and understanding. With this powerful force comes a responsibility to use the extra energy gained in loving and positive ways.

Beverly Lanzetta in her book Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology writes:

As sexual beings, our creativity and passion are not separate from the mystical or contemplative, but expressions of the mutual interpenetration, co-equality and co-intimacy that exist between spirit and body…sexual love can be viewed as a type of infused contemplation. Here there is fusion—an intimate dance of spirit and body… Whether sexual intimacy is lived out through physical intercourse, spiritual love, or unimagined expressions of human creativity, it overflows from our core of goodness and generosity in loving imitation of how God loves.

The Taoists observed that the way of nature is interactive and full of creative, life-giving, sexual energy. Rain penetrates the earth, giving birth to trees and flowers; rivers caress rocks; the ocean plunges into the sand; and the sunshine is absorbed into the womb of the earth, giving birth to all life. Sexual energy is the creative force that permeates the universe. Life springs forth from balancing sexual energies through the combination of yin and yang.

In the Art of Sexual Ecstasy, author Margot Anand reflects that

The desire to unite sexually with another human being is a reflection of our underlying spiritual need to experience wholeness and complete intimacy, transcending the individual’s sense of separateness and isolation. It is a need to return to the original source of creation, to the oneness we experienced in our mother’s womb and beyond that to a oneness within the self.

Sexual union without this sacred element rarely satisfies our needs and then only does so fleetingly. But with the sacred element added, it is possible for us to experience a connection with the life force itself, with our deepest creative impulses.

Vikas Malkani, an Indian spiritual guide and author says,

Making love can become a giving, expressing, selfless act, which is a form of prayer in itself. Through the body, the hearts are touched; the emotions opened, needs and desire expressed, fears released, security given and souls merged. Through the act of physical sharing, God is revered and remembered. Making love goes from the physical to the emotional and finally to spiritual level where it becomes a prayer to the Divine.

Sexuality as a sacred practice is about trusting, receiving and penetrating each other completely. It is about the circulation of energy and divine light from your body into your partners. It is, in the words of David Deida, “the ongoing communion of consciousness and light.”

In that union with each other and with the divine, we create and emit energy that has holy power. Sacred sex is a portal through which we experience divine love and then offer that love back so that it infuses all of our relationships and sanctifies the world.  Namaste.

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