Sex & God: Accepting the Sexual Soul

Feb 01, 2010 • Causes, Culture, Faith

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

  • Anaiis

    Robert, you have eloquently expressed such a huge part of my beliefs in such a well-crafted piece, I don’t really have words to respond just… whoa.

  • Semper

    Interesting! I just started re-reading Saint Augustine, who definitely played a part in the soul/body separation, influenced as he was by the Neoplatonists.

  • Robert

    Yeah, in many ways Augustine never really left the Neoplatonist camp, and without a doubt he is a bulwark of body-deriding thought in the Christian church tradition. It’s important not to give him too much credit/blame, though—the Christian tradition already had a well-worn groove along these lines, I *think* stemming from Origen, the most influential heretic in Christian history.

  • Anaiis

    This is interesting: I have always held Augustine accountable for this. I look forward to a moment free of deadlines to pick your brain further on the matter!

  • Robert

    Augustine’s a bit late to the game: I’m studying the Cappadocians right now (a century before Augustine), and they’re already pretty firmly in the Neoplatonic camp and believe you have to get away from the body’s vicissitudes and tune yourself to “higher” things to be spiritual/holy.

    Origen was the earliest one (that I know of, anyway) to really push the spirit-in-a-human-suit idea — but he also had the idea of reincarnation and angels getting bored of Heaven, so he’s an interesting one on a lot of counts. He ended up being declared a heretic about a hundred years after Augustine’s death.

  • alex green

    So, Robert, I’m in total agreement with you. But that fucks me. Because I’m a full blown Jesus freak with an enormous appetite for sex (which I believe is wholly devine) and I’ve been fortunate enough to be dating complete non-losers as of late.

    The idea that our soul is connected to our body is quintessential to the reasoning for God saying to wait until it’s final. Because the physical act of sex is the uniting and tying of our souls and it will (obviously) hurt like hell if we later rip those souls apart by the physical seperation of our bodies.

    So what do I do with that in this time in this country? Hm, Robert? What?

  • Robert

    Alex—I’m glad to hear from you. I was really hoping to hear comments like yours, and that’s part of the reason I’m writing for Sex and the 405.

    The essence of being a Christian is to hurt like Hell: even Jesus wept. As Christians, we long for God like an absent lover, who visited us once—long enough for us to know each other in the flesh—and then has left us with a promise to return to us sometime in the future. We are to be in solidarity with the oppressed and the poor—do you think that is all roses and cherries? Being a Christian, we reject the validity of self-satisfaction under a legalistic checklist; we also refuse the life of whim and detachment. We live in an unresolvable tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of God’s salvation. In short, being a Christian is a rough road, and a lot of things hurt like Hell.

    The Christian question is—is it worth it? You are binding yourself to this person in some sense: at the profane level, this person will now become a part of your personal history and thereby be a part of what defines you; at the sacred level, the two of you will have shared a kind of proto-communion. Is the expression of God’s goodness through sex worth that kind of commitment? Is having sex with this person an act you can take before God in the eschaton with integrity and without shame?

    In this whole conversation, it is also important to also remember that we should not be stumbling blocks for our brothers and sisters—even if we understand sex to be a reflection of God’s goodness, if someone else thinks it to be a sin, we need to be respectful of that (c.f. 1Corinthians 8; Song of Songs 2:7). This is not to say that we necessarily need to just pander and validate it in some kind of relativistic move, but we need to be sure we aren’t destroying others through our actions.

    Hope that helps.

  • alex green

    Thanks, Robert. It really does help. It gives me much food for thought. You’re a smartie!

  • Kimberly Cain

    Robert – I love it!!! It’s going to take a little time to read through your posts, but please keep doing what you’re doing. I’ve just released my first novel, Heaven, about the nature of God as seen through the eyes of Eve, an exotic dancer. I think you could have written some of the scenes! I’d love to send it to you for a review.