Tuesday, October 18, 2016

No Excuse for Sex


A few days ago I had coffee with a friend who wanted some information on the work of the Body Electric School. I shared my own experience of how powerful BE’s work can be, and of the deep impact I’ve seen it make on others.
Later on, the talk turned to sex-positive Christianity. My friend brought up one of the best books of the 1970s on the subject: James Nelson’s Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology. (Nelson went on to write further important work on the subject: Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience (1983); The Intimate Connection: Male Sexuality and Masculine Spirituality (1988); Body Theology (1992).
Though Nelson’s book was a breath of fresh air in its day, I observed that he still felt the need to make a defensive plea that sex is fine because it’s in the service of another, more legitimate, good. I shared with my friend my general sense that even now, nearly forty years on, that’s pretty much the best you can hope for from official church discourse.
Conservative Christian theology still sees the excuse for sex being procreation and  the containment of lust, while traditional Christian marriage ceremonies still cite Paul’s dictum that the relation between man and wife is an allegory of that between Christ and the Church. (Try keeping that in mind in your bedroom.)
Most liberal Christian theological approaches are looser, but still can’t get past the notion that sex has to be justified.  Liberals mostly just shift to a broader understanding of what could rescue sex from, well, just being sex. Nobody who has to watch their back in Churchland is likely to say that sex needs no more justification as part of a lovingly created world than our impulse to eat, to sleep, to breathe, to seek out companionship, to create homes, to explore the world.
Of course our sexual choices have far-reaching ethical implications. But our sexual longings, our sexual expressions, shouldn’t be subject to a tyranny of surveillance about the end that justifies them any more than a dozen other aspects of our lives. Our erotic inclinations and experiences are rich material for reflection on the nature of our relations with our deepest selves, with others, with God. It’s the quality of those relations we should be paying attention to, not whether our experiences pass muster before the fact because we have an excuse for them. There’s no excuse for sex, and there doesn’t need to be.

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