Sex As Grace (Reflecting On A Discussion With College Men)

"Togetherness in Bed," rt69, Flickr C.C.

“Togetherness in Bed,” rt69, Flickr C.C.

This week, I decided to go through former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ famous essay “The Body’s Grace” with our men’s group that we formed in response to the crisis of sexual violence on our campus. Every time I read the essay, I understand it a little better. Williams’ prose is beautiful but it wanders all over the place and makes a few British cultural references I don’t get, so the first two or three times I read it, I didn’t really grasp his thesis. I think I got it this time and it’s pretty profound. Williams defines healthy sex as that which creates the deepest possible experience of embodied grace between two people (perhaps that should have been obvious from the title). If this is true, then for a religion that’s supposed to have grace as its foundation, sex ought to be one of the most important means of propagating that grace rather than an icky, dirty necessary evil for producing children and fulfilling binary gender roles.

What if instead of “biblical” moral legalism, the centerpiece of Christian sexual ethics were the idea that the sex in its fullest, richest form is embodied divine grace? Then we would understand sex as a gift God gives to humanity in order for us to experience in a completely physical way the unconditional love and delight with which God cherishes each of us. It is the physical embrace that God wants to give each of us so that we can go into the world as fully nurtured, beloved icons of his glory, instead of being anxious, tormented, resentful balls of dysfunctional fury that ravage human community.

Grace is often an abstract, predominantly cerebral concept in Christian discourse. We define it as something like “unconditional acceptance” or perhaps “God’s empowerment” for the more theologically sophisticated. In Wesleyan Christian theology, we talk about the way that Jesus’ cross offers us justifying grace that cancels the power of our sin, which allows us to receive sanctifying grace through which the Holy Spirit transforms our character. We can write all sorts of eloquent essays about how church sacraments like baptism and communion pour out God’s grace into our Christian community. But usually grace remains a cognitive idea, however beautiful we can make that idea sound.

There’s something unique about sitting on a bed naked with another person who is also naked. Sitting with your birth marks and body hair and warts and rolls of fat and scars. Knowing that you would be mortified if suddenly you discovered that hundreds of people were looking at your exposed body. But because your universe at that moment only includes one other person who is touching you and looking into your eyes with a delight that melts your shame and fear, you feel completely safe and loved. And your heart swells with a desire for the other person to feel completely safe and loved too. And as you bring your bodies together, you seek to abandon everything accept for your embrace of each other.

When sex is grace, it’s the most beautiful thing that humans do. But it usually isn’t grace. The same thing which can fill us with warm intimacy and safety is also the source of a dopamine burst that can be very physiologically addictive. The dopamine itself isn’t a bad thing, but it’s easy to lust after the dopamine fix and forget about the grace. So many people today get their dopamine fix by staring at an image or video on the internet and getting themselves off. Which cannot avoid having an impact on their ability to embody grace with another person. We had a spirited conversation in our men’s group about whether masturbation ruins sexual intimacy. I don’t think masturbation can be avoided, but I do think it can be indulged to the point of disfiguring us sexually especially when it happens in the context of consuming strangers’ bodies through pornography. Scientific studies have shown that excessive male masturbation, at least, causes impotence in interpersonal sex.

Sex as grace isn’t a quick fix; it’s a journey of relationship-building. Grace requires vulnerable authenticity. You cannot bullshit grace. The perilous risk of actually going “all in” spiritually and emotionally in a sexual encounter is that the other person might be bullshitting you. They might be saying things to make you feel unique and special that they’ll say with just as much fake emotion to a completely different person the next night. It’s devastating to experience what you think is unconditional acceptance and intimate connection only to learn that you were being played by someone who saw your body as a disposable piece of candy.

For this reason, many sexual encounters are smothered protectively in the thick spiritual contraception of irony. If you convince yourself that it’s nothing more than a fuck, then you can pretend like you don’t care about being accepted and loved in the way that every human needs. A society where sex is mostly just fucking with zero spiritual investment is a society that is sabotaging its mental health. A capitalist society where sex is the most important marketing tool for selling hundreds of products is a society that has economically incentivized the dehumanization of sex. Every time we fuck without soul, we are functioning as capitalist automatons who colonize even our bedrooms as a marketplace.

One of the biggest obstacles to sex being grace in our cultural context is the way that cisgender heterosexual men like me are socialized to measure their validity as men according to the number of women they are able to “bang.” We’ve been told that sex is a game in which we’re expected to push relentlessly for something the woman doesn’t want to give up. Rowan Williams defines sexual perversion as sex that seeks control rather than taking the risk of offering one’s body in self-surrender to another person. If sex is “wanting to hit that,” it’s the opposite of grace; it’s predation.

Many nice guys are sexual predators. “Nice guys” presume that sexual assault has to involve unequivocal physical violence that results in something like a black eye, torn clothing, claw marks, or at least a clear physical struggle. We think that we can keep pushing even when the signals we’re getting are negative until the woman objects vehemently enough that pushing further would require unequivocal physical violence. If sex involves pushing, manipulating, or cajoling, it’s predation, not grace.

So if sex is to be grace rather than predation or capitalist marketization, does it have to happen in the context of a committed relationship? Rowan Williams doesn’t think so. He writes:

An absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly. People do discover… a grace in encounters fraught with transitoriness and without much “promising” (in any sense): it may be just this that prompts them to want the fuller, longer exploration of the body’s grace that faithfulness offers.

For the religious litmus testers, this statement is more than enough to dismiss Rowan Williams’ sexual ethics completely since he’s hesitating to say that premarital sex is always and only a sin. But are we really going to say that two people cannot experience any grace in their bodies coming together if they don’t “put a ring on it” first? Is the bodily delight of sex without official church sanction inherently soul-corrupting and dehumanizing? Williams makes the point that “sexual union is not delivered from moral danger and ambiguity by satisfying a formal socio-religious criterion.”

One of the greatest bankruptcies of church teaching on sexuality is its nearly exclusive focus on satisfying the formal socio-religious criterion of marriage when there are so many possibilities for abuse and misery within the boundaries of that criterion. So many post-evangelical Christians in my generation grew up in a culture that guaranteed them amazing, healthy marital sex if they just waited for marriage. So many got married in their early twenties and divorced in their late twenties when their “biblical” purity culture teaching left them completely unequipped to handle the emotional complexities of marriage.

What about Williams’ provocative suggestion that the grace received in more casual sexual intimacy could inspire a person to seek a more intentional, committed form of embodied grace? What happens when moral legalism is not a factor in how people process their sexual intimacies? What if the question they ask instead is whether their sex was as gracious as it could have been? Can God offer healing grace to people through bodily delight and acceptance even when it happens in casual circumstances? And could that grace inspire them to seek more meaningful companionship in the future?

I can’t answer these questions because I have never experienced sex without the guilt of moral legalism. I don’t know to what degree my casual sexual encounters in my youth damaged me and to what degree I was damaged by the preemptive shame I carried into those encounters. One of the most beautiful encounters I had was a fling that happened at a music festival. It’s very hard for me to call that sin even though I was trained to narrate every problem I’ve had in my sex life as a result of my youthful indiscretions. Even if what I did at that festival was against church teaching, grace and beauty happened through that experience also.

At the same time, I do think that embodied grace is best expressed in a context of commitment and intentionality. Though people can experience bodily safety, joy, and acceptance in a sexual fling, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that our intimacy is safer and more authentic if we know that the partner with whom we’re sharing our bodies will still be there when we wake up the next day and won’t be immediately jumping into bed with somebody else.

What about the question of adultery? I don’t think anyone, no matter how radically sex-positive, would argue that adultery is okay. Adultery makes the grace of our shared intimacy a farce. If my partner cheats, it means that I wasn’t really accepted unconditionally. It’s a complete mockery of my vulnerability. Every ounce of affirmation and emotional security I received from the grace of our bodily delight is completely obliterated if my partner betrays our intimacy for another person’s body.

Sexual traditionalists usually argue that extramarital sex is problematic because it sets us up for wanting sex outside of our marriage when we get bored with our spouse. Though I don’t think that casual sex inherently makes people adulterous, I also don’t think this traditionalist concern should be dismissed too quickly.

Last year, I read a book called American Hookup about the sexual culture of (a subset of) today’s college students. After extensive research on college campuses around the country, the author shared that in the hookup culture that predominates college sexuality, it’s common practice to demote the level of intimacy with your hookup after the deed is done. So if you hook up with an acquaintance, you don’t acknowledge them at all when you see them on campus. If it’s a friend, they’re demoted to an acquaintance. A good friend becomes a casual friend. In this way, you’re able to ensure that the other person doesn’t have any ongoing relationship expectations based on your haphazard intimacy.

Though God can make grace happen anywhere, I don’t think a sexual culture that requires the denigration of intimacy in order to preserve expectation-free hookups is good sex. I realize that this is not necessarily the way casual sex happens in every community, but it seems reasonable to say that any kind of sex that intentionally sabotages intimacy is not psychologically healthy.

This fall, the rabbi for Tulane’s chapter of Hillel invited me to share my perspective on Christian spirituality for a class he was teaching. And of course he asked me about sex. I said to the students that there’s something clearly not right if you have to get drunk in order to be comfortably naked with somebody. If it weren’t psychologically jarring to jump into bed with somebody you don’t know at all, then you wouldn’t have to get drunk. So I told the students that If they’re not in the small percentage of our population who are committed to saving sex for marriage (which we still ought to view as an awesome, commendable feat), then at least let your sex be intentional enough that you can do it completely sober.

Finally, we should recognize that sex actually isn’t for everyone. There are asexual people who have their own ways of embodying grace with their friends as well as people who choose celibacy in order to experience God’s presence more intensely. In fact, some of the most incredible spiritual testimony has come from Christian saints like St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila who enjoyed powerful erotic mystical encounters with God that their celibacy made possible. Celibacy creates the potential for powerful divine encounters. But nothing in the Bible presents celibacy as the life that people with differently wired bodies must be forced to have in order to conform to a heteronormative gender complementarity that exists for its own sake. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul were celibate and they both present celibacy as a unique gift that few people have.

I think the church should be promoting celibacy but not in order to provide queer people a way to fit in a heteronormative box. Celibacy should be promoted for the sake of mysticism. In an age when Christianity has become so abstract and cerebral, we need more Christians who are willing to dedicate all their erotic energy directly to God through a celibate ascetic lifestyle. A major reason the church is dying is because it lacks mysticism. Without the mystery of the actual real presence of Christ in the church, the gospel is just another ideology people can use to justify themselves. The mystics help the church to remember that we serve a living God, not a colossal bureaucratic institution or a weaponized ancient book.

So to land the plane, if grace is the most important thing we’re supposed to be about as Christians, then why shouldn’t our sexual ethics be centered around grace? To me, the idea that sex is a powerful means by which God physically expresses our unconditional acceptance can work as a foundation for sexual ethics whether you have a traditionalist view of sex or a more progressive one. After my interactions with college students over the past four years, I don’t think the church will be able to reach future generations with authoritarian legalistic teaching about sex. But I think a compelling case can be made for the gift of sex as grace.

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