Seeking the Spirit in Sexuality

By Bruce Epperly

photo courtesy of ubiquity_zh via C.C. License at FlickrWhen considering the relationship of sexuality and spirituality, my initial response is: "It's complicated!" Following their Jewish parents, early Christian theologians affirmed that creation is good, bodies are good, and sexuality is good. The heart of Christian theology, the incarnation, proclaims that the "word was made flesh." And yet, Christian theologians, following Augustine, have connected sexual intercourse with the transmission of original sin and have implied that sexual activity is redemptive only if it is connected with procreation.  From this perspective, sexuality is a necessary evil, which is redemptive only if you "Just close your eyes and think about Jesus."  Heaven forbid that sexual expression be connected with joy and pleasure!

Like spirituality, sexuality is universal. We can't escape it and neither can God.  The body-affirming Genesis creation stories suggest that 1) humankind was created male and female in God's image, implying that God embraces sexuality in God's world-creating adventures and 2) the "first" humans were created for intimate partnership that included sexuality as well as creativity (the first humans were "naked and unashamed").  In fact, the passion for relationship and union that inspires spirituality also inspires sexuality.  Even persons who take vows of celibacy as part of their spiritual vocations experience the transformative energies of sexuality. 

Jesus' spirituality was holistic in nature: unique among spiritual teachers, his ministry aimed at healing people's bodies as well as spirits. Jesus' embodied ministry gives witness to the reality that body, mind, and spirit are intimately connected.  The Apostle Paul proclaimed that the "body is the temple of the Holy Spirit" and that we should "glorify God in our bodies."

Today, as I ponder the relationship of sexuality and spirituality, two images come to mind. The first revolves around Dan Brown's bestseller The DaVinci Code and its suggestion that Jesus and Mary of Magdalene were married and had offspring.  While the historicity of this claim may be doubtful, it raises important theological questions: "If Jesus had been married and had sexual intercourse, would this compromise his divinity or uniqueness as a spiritual teacher/savior?  Could Jesus participate in sexual union purely for the joy of it?"  Your answer to this question will reveal your understandings of the relationship of both spirituality and sexuality. 

While the Virgin Birth of Jesus was intended to portray Jesus' uniqueness, the ambiguity inherent in Christianity's understanding of sexuality is reflected in such ancient doctrines as the Immaculate Conception of Mary (she was conceived without sin; her parents having no pleasure but simply doing their duty to be "fruitful and multiply") and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.  Such notions would have surprised any Jew of the 1st century and run counter to the world-affirming vision of Genesis, the Hebraic tradition, the gospel notation that Mary had other children, and the embodied healing ministry of Jesus.  The ambiguous relationship between sexuality and spirituality is evidenced by the continuing prohibition of birth control or contraceptive devices among Roman Catholics, grounded in the belief that sexuality for the pure joy of it and for no other purpose than loving expression and pleasure is somehow sinful.

The second image regarding sexuality and spirituality involves the marriage on Easter Monday of two friends in New Hampshire, a state that affirms marriage equality for all people.  Their marriage, recognized explicitly by only a few states and denominational families, testifies to the power of love to transform and unite.  Their relationship is holy, faithful, and committed to service to others.  We look forward to a religious celebration of their marriage in the near future.  This second image begs the question, "Does God have a sexual preference?  Does God prefer heterosexuality and merely tolerate homosexuality, or does God bless all loving relationships -- heterosexual, homosexual, celibate?  What if God appreciates human sexual diversity as an expression of the wondrous diversity of nature and not a deviation from the norm?" 

Theologically speaking, I believe that God is present, giving life and inspiration, to all humankind.  There are no "God-free" or "Godless" zones in the universe, and although we may turn away from God, embodying sexuality in ways that exploit, traumatize, oppress, and harm, the many expressions of sexuality exist on a continuum and reflect God's loving creativity as surely as the many religious traditions reflect God's aim at salvation in every culture.