An excerpt from Enfleshed: Making Monogamous Relationships Real
I worry about the state of our relationships. Such is why I am so focused on understanding eroticism. History has been unkind to the erotic, abusing, distorting, manipulating and perverting the very essence of it. Eroticism has been altogether adulterated. I believe the consequence of such shifting has resulted in the perpetual loneliness that humanity faces. It is because we do not understand eroticism that we do not know how to maintain relationships. The misinformation about the erotic has made it difficult for many to form a bond of meaning. The extreme result of this is that millions of people are forced to find contentment with isolation and pseudo-connections through the Internet.
This downfall has come as a result of how we have placed sex and love on a spectrum. A spectrum with deep grooves, preventing love from integrating with sex and preventing sex from being a transforming agent of connection. Eroticism is absent and sex and love are exclusive from one another on such a continuum. How can we even imagine such a notion? Love over here on one side, sex way over there on another, without anything bringing them together. This is unhealthy compartmentalization of the spectrum of mutual relation. So, why did we leave out the component necessary to bridge the two together?
Why have we silenced the loudness of eros that amplifies our love?
There’s a lot of history to unpack to answer such complex questions. One of the earliest attempts to answer the question, “What is eros?” can be found in Plato’s Symposium. Diotima informs Socrates that “Eros is the power that spans the chasm which divides.” Humanity has known for some time that eroticism plays a significant role in the way we relate to one another.
Even though it is Plato that we can attribute to the classifications of love types, we must not attribute to him the reductionism and altogether comparative exclusivity of eros. As Cynthia Bourgeault has pointed out, it was Anders Nygren— a Swedish theologian, that pronounced a way to relegate eros as secondary. In The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, she writes:
With one deft stroke of the theological scalpel, Nygren essentially divided the core energy of love into two separate species and assigned to erotic love (the only love humans are by definition capable of) a permanent second-class status that essentially negates its values as a spiritual path. It is hard to escape the implication that if one is following a path of passionate commitment to a beloved, one is on an inferior spiritual track, or no track at all. This despite love’s unassailable record as the more potent force at our disposal to unify the heart and transform the soul. (93)
The significance of this presentation upended 1200 years of instinctive recognition and acceptance of eros (and essential eroticism as a whole) in Christian spiritual theology. Nygren’s dualistic and opposing ideology shoved eros (and anything remotely erotic in nature) to the back of the line. Perhaps his intent was not so much to demonize eros or diminish its importance, but the damage was done, nonetheless. On the spectrum, eros was positioned nearest to lust, sin, depravity, fornication, and pornography.
Decades later, C. S. Lewis would recapitulate the distinction. In his book, The Four Loves, Lewis takes a closer look at eros, not to reduce it, but to demonstrate why this component of love reorganizes sexual desire.
Without Eros sexual desire, like every other desire, is a fact about ourselves. Within Eros it is about the Beloved. It becomes almost a mode of perception, entirely a mode of expression. It feels objective; something outside us, in the real world. That is why Eros, through the king of pleasures, always (at his height) has the air of regarding pleasure as the by-product…Anyway, whose pleasure? For one of the first things Eros does it to obliterate the distinction between giving and receiving. (122-23)
Eros reorganizes desire. Desire alone is situated on the satisfaction of its objective—to appropriate and possess. Within eros, desire takes pleasure out of the equation, and similarly, as I will later unpack, eros enables us to remove orgasm from the equation of sex, too. Lewis’s depiction minimizes the sharp distinction of Nygren’s seemingly oppositional preposition but did nothing to upend the constant fears surrounding sexuality, copulation, or expression. From my understanding, eros is what is needed to purify love and desire so that it becomes less about ourselves and solely other-oriented. Consider this: the grandest orientation of Otherness is our love for God, who is all in all. Eros is the lens that reveals this orientation. Eros also reduces fear, if not obliterating it altogether.
An ever-present fear— which I see first revealed in the Apostle Paul’s 1st letter to the church in Corinth, and continuing throughout history, is obvious: Fear of addiction to pleasure. Let’s be honest for a moment and consider pleasure as an addiction, specifically, sexual pleasure. How many of you reading this have finished a climatic evening by saying “That was amazing! Why don’t we do this more often? We should do this all the time.”? Plenty of us say that. But, 99% of us don’t actually set an intention to have earth-shattering, mind-blowing sex every single night. Why? For one, it’s a lot of preparation and time for many of us. We must make sure that the rest of our responsibilities are taken care of. We have jobs, kids, pets to care for, social engagements to attend, and bills to pay. Let us not forget also, that we have Netflix shows to watch; we don’t have a lot of hours in the day.
Secondly, even ultra-enlightened sex gods and goddesses need a break to rejuvenate and replenish energy. Sex is a recharge to the system, but as our bodies age and we become less agile, that kind of moving and grooving can be as wearisome as deadlifting and bench pressing. Also, nothing would get done if we just stayed in bed having sex all day. Sex becomes an addiction when it prevents you from maintaining your responsibilities and duties.
If addiction were to develop, of any sort, that could keep us from focusing on what matters. It could divide our attention and devotion. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians addresses the nature of true apostleship, and servants of Christ cannot be servants to sexual desire. The people of Corinth needed structure, methods of application, practices, and prescriptions so they could reorganize their belief systems to follow the ways of Jesus (or Paul, in some areas, apparently). Paul obliged by giving them general remedies for daily interferences with worship and church building by contrasting Roman-Greco practices with Christ-like practices, distinguishing “worldly practices” from Kingdom practices. The operative word is “general.” These generalities were given to a people of a different time, a different culture, and a different understanding. Most pointedly, as many scholars have argued, Paul’s instructions were for those who wished to follow the practices of Christ (and Paul) and the other Apostles—his advice was not meant to be a general practice for all people. And we collectively know so much more about mutual relations than we once did. We know that love need not divide the heart and that loving others does not keep us from being fully devoted to God.
Paul’s great concession was that he granted a license to sex only in marriage, and only if one must— “if they cannot control themselves, they should marry.” (1 Corinth 7:9) Paul was clear: “I wish that all of you were as I am.” (7:7) Abstinence was the preferred way of life and the easiest path to God. With every new society, new practice, or new religion; new parameters must be set as a means to control societies—to prevent chaos. To protect civilization, or in Paul’s case, the birth of Christianity; morality must be redefined.
Redefining morality begins with the most primal urges and placing parameters around our natural instincts so that we would not be engulfed by the pleasure that surely, we are all familiar with. But what if the Apostle Paul was wrong, or misguided, or misinformed? Perhaps Paul felt like he could not devote himself to God if he allowed his sexual desires to be satisfied, but that certainly doesn’t mean that everyone would face such a dilemma. And anyway, as Lewis stated: “For one of the first things Eros does it to obliterate the distinction between giving and receiving.” It’s possible that Paul couldn’t see that loving our partners is loving God. Dualism did him dirty.
As I continue to research eroticism, it becomes apparent that from anthropological, philosophical, theological, sociological, and psychological views, what we think we know about eroticism is limited and narrow. Not only that, but Christianity has demonized eroticism in such a cowardly way that presenting positive perspectives (backed by ancient and modern scholarly works) is about as useful as convincing Calvinists that hell doesn’t exist. So, we believe what we want to believe and continue to do so because few dared to believe anything different.
We are at a crossroads of erotic theology.
In the universe in which love is the encompassing, fully embodied, ever-expanding material/energy of all existence, eroticism is the transcendent phenomenon that develops the understanding of this love. Bourgeault portends: “Without the quicksilver of eros nothing transforms.” (94) Eroticism is fully embodied, transformative power that assists us with developing the art of lovemaking. Sadly, however, not only have we had significant religious and political influences coloring the views of eroticism, but our development skills have grossly regressed. It’s as if we have lost the desire to see more than one aspect. With monotheism came mono-perspective, and the curiosity and wonderment of eroticism and eros love were soiled, molested, and relegated to sin as a result of the tasting of the Forbidden Fruit.
Perhaps we could try a new view or a new metaphor to help us better understand this force of Other-oriented desire that exists in a triune paradigm. Love cannot be so easily reduced. Love does not operate in a dualism. If God is to be understood as Trinity, let us try to understand eros triangularly.
In a vivid depiction, Octavio Paz poetically integrates the components of love through articulate imagery that we can all understand. From The Double Flame Love and Eroticism:
Sex is the root, eroticism is the stem, and love the flower. And the fruit? The fruits of love are intangible. This is one of love’s mysteries.
Pushback of this idea is inevitable. We don’t put sex in the “love” category unless it has been granted license by spousal agreement. In many aspects, I understand this cautionary method of stabilizing sex in a way that distinctly severs love from sex. With sex trafficking, sexual abuse in and outside of the church, and sexual assaults plaguing our society (and the world), we want to be careful that we don’t make the claim that all sex is love. Lewis was clear to establish a boundary that echoes this sentiment.
Sexual experience can occur without Eros, without being ‘in love’, and Eros includes other things besides sexual activity…I am inquiring…into one uniquely human variation…which develops within ‘love’—what I call Eros. The carnal or animally sexual element within Eros, I intend to call Venus. And I mean by Venus what is sexual not in some cryptic or rarified sense—such as a depth-psychologist might explore—but in a perfectly obvious sense; what is known to be sexual by those who experience it; what could be proved to be sexual by the simplest observations. Sexuality may operate without Eros or as part of Eros. (The Four Loves, 117-18)
In ancient Greco-Roman cultures, Venus—Aphrodite— is goddess of love, sex, sexual desire, beauty, and fertility, as well as wine and in some cases, drunkenness. But she is associated with Lucifer as “Morning Star.” In classical mythology, Lucifer or “light-bringer” was also the Latin name for the planet Venus. Venus’s ties to seductive powers, potent aphrodisiacs, and her reputation as “the changer of hearts” presented a contrariety for the Apostle Paul’s trajectory of ushering in a new kind of belief. Paul’s explicit demand to reject worldly temptations, sexual immorality, along with his concerns for married life, details a more ascetic—Stoic—way of life for the newly baptized Christ-followers. Practices that insist that we revere our body as a temple of the Holy Spirit all the while keeping our temples empty and closed off. I must ask: What’s the point of creating a temple if one cannot worship in it?
It’s understandable why Paul created the distinctions that he did when it comes to worldly practices and Kingdom practices. Pagan worship was practiced throughout the town squares, idols were erected as towering statues to pay tribute and honor to countless gods and goddesses. In some corners of ancient Rome, women were the domineering force and men were relegated to secondary status. Paul’s reiteration of Jesus’s message was that we are One. Unity along with an almost genderless mentality appears to be present in Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (NIV) One would suppose that to convince churches of this need for unity and oneness, we would need to stop identifying ourselves as separate, which included letting go of the idea one sex has a hierarchy.
It’s easy to see why Christianity had to separate itself from pagan practices (but, not so much from Stoic practices); following Jesus was to be like a rebirth, which meant letting go of attachments to idols such as Venus. I know many won’t agree, but I cannot help but see that Paul’s influences from Roman Stoicism are delicately interwoven into the first threads of the fabric of Christianity. Stoics prided themselves on their sexual chastity—their ability to delay gratification and redirect their urges into more productive means that benefit society, not just Self. A true Stoic wouldn’t give in to the trivial sexual desires. Given all the associations of Venus alone, combined with the charge that Christianity was to be a new way of religion and life, all old ways had to die away. Thus, all that we could have gleaned from the worship practices of Venus, to be possibly interpreted and integrated with how we understand eros; were eventually eroded not just by Christianity, but by eventual astringent Roman institutions and decrees.
Other forms of pushback would argue that love is the root— not sex, as everything that is of creation is so created in love and by love, for love. Both views can be accurate. Everything circles back to love—sex is no exception. God—or rather Love— is what planted the seed of sexual nature in our very being. Love is the dirt in which the seed is planted. The energy that forces the seed to burst out of its shell is pure Love. Yes, even the very seed planted is fundamentally Love.
Let’s consider the depiction Paz paints by breaking down the illustration.
When a seed is planted, it becomes one with the soil. As it becomes united with the dirt, it goes through programmed self-destruction, if you will, and then, the ultimate death and destruction of its original form. Even a very seed must experience death before it springs forth new life. Interestingly, Paz considers eroticism “the capricious servant of life and death.” (The Double Flame, 12) If we want to begin drawing parallels from Paz’s metaphor, this would be a good place to start.
Slowly, a tender seedling emerges and begins to penetrate the walls of its shell and gradually stretches itself upward toward the warmth and brightness of the sun. As it spreads upward, it also roots itself within the dirt. It can no longer survive without its attachment to the soil. The seed and the ground are interdividually two but one. But they have created something additional—the roots. In this pro-created sowing of seed into the earth, love plants love in love and give birth to love.
As this seedling continues to develop, it pushes its way through the topsoil and exposes itself to an entirely foreign environment. The girth of the stem expands vertically and horizontally. No longer hidden, the maturing stem is visible, exposed. Eroticism has grown out of the tender seedling of sex in order to hold the weight of a flower.
It is through the roots, however, that the plant obtains its nutrients. It pulls from the hidden veins underneath that pump life into its stem so that it can continue to develop. Therefore, it is so important that the seed of sexuality is planted in fertile, nutrient-dense soil with proper drainage. I am led to believe that God intentionally selected the proper place to plant such a seed.
Let us notice how much development takes place in the stem. Little nodules poke out from various points of the main stem, growing additional stems to act as arms to hold the weight of the eventual fruit of the flower. But even as the bud forms, the stem continues to grow more stems, sprout more leaves, and add more support to its base. It effortlessly extends itself over and beyond itself to its surroundings while absorbing all the moisture from the ground and sunlight from the sky that it can. Eroticism grows and develops within us in a similar way. As we grow older, we absorb from our surroundings ideas, fantasies, and expectations of how we bridge our sexuality with love in a relationship.
As the bud begins to plump, it goes through a similar bursting of life as the seed. Brimming with energy, it slowly emerges from out of its protective covering, seductively unfolding petals, stripping down to reveal its stigma and style, and its “sex organs.” In our adolescence, as our bodies begin to lengthen and plump, bursting with energy—reaching for more, we become more curious about our sexuality and attractions to Other. It is in early adulthood that we begin stripping down our own petals, either literal or metaphorical, and come to understand more readily our sexuality, desires, and the stigmas that have accompanied our experiences. This stripping down must be continually nourished. Which means we must water our blooming bud to ensure blossoming fruits.
Imagine if we only watered the flower blossom. What would happen? Without the nutrients from the soil, the flower would not get the nourishment it needs. That doesn’t mean that we can just sprinkle wet dirt over the flower blossom. We must water at the base of the plant. The roots draw in the moisture and combined with the nutrients of the soil, the stem acts as a straw to draw up both to the head of the flower.
We often muddy up love with sex when we try to just sprinkle wet dirt over our flower, don’t we? We fail to consider the importance of where and how the flower came to be. And when we fail to incorporate our sexuality with our spirituality, by way of eros, we essentially select a blossom, cut it from its stem, and place it on a pile of dirt thinking it will produce fruits, nonetheless. Many relationships have often resembled this depiction: More focus is put on love than sex and eroticism, and instead of integrating eros, we sprinkle the love with sex once in a while believing that to be the way to keep love’s fruit in bloom. Without a proper support system to deliver what is needed to produce fruit, our relationships produce duds instead of buds.
All of this is to say that we must care for our gardens—not by plucking eroticism out as though it were a weed, strangling our tender blossoms, but by allowing the stem of eroticism to continue to sprout new leaves. For love to continue to flower, she must be allowed to sprawl out all over the garden bed, reaching out for more ways to support the bountiful blossoming. Her roots must be cared for, diligently.
In practical application, caring for the roots of sex starts with acknowledging that they are there. We must admit that our nature is indeed sexual. From there, we must also readily accept that nature, and all that we know of it, cannot be fully understood—absolutely. There remain too many unanswered questions for us to be certain about anything. Therefore, we must also accept that sex itself cannot be fully understood. Of course, this leads to a practical conclusion in which we must also accept that neither eroticism nor love will ever fully be understood. Here I am reminded of the sharp words of French philosopher and Roman Catholic theologian Jean-Luc Marion, in which he capitulates on the concept of love operating under its own rationality, further expounding on the idea as to why love cannot be so easily understood.
A concept of love must be able to give a rationality to all that nonerotic thought disqualifies as irrational and degrades to madness: certainly desire and oaths, abandonment and promises, sexual enjoyment and its suspension, jealousy and lies, children and death, all of these events escape a certain definition of rationality—one that fits with the things of the world, objects of order and of measure, and with their calculations and their production. But this clean getaway surely does not imply that these events lie in exile outside all rationality; it suggests rather that they fall under another figure of reason, a “greater rationality”—that which does not limit itself to the world of things nor the production of objects, but which instead rules our hearts, our individuality, our life and our death, in short that which defines us deep down in all that concerns us in the final instance…Love falls under an erotic rationality.
(The Erotic Phenomenon, 5)
Love—and by extension, eroticism, and sex— operate on a higher frequency of understanding— a love logic. Without reproducible syllogisms, however, the subjective nature of such a proclamation is altogether dismissed and replaced with logical formatting on the one hand and Christianized conceptions of impracticality (and in some instances, buffoonery) on the other. From what I can glean, our society is torn on the importance of sexual identity, expression, and embodiment—our society is erotic deficient. This deficiency is a result of the attempts to rationalize the erotic phenomenon that cannot be understood until it is experienced. What society fears more than sex is the unknown. For that reason, academia has provided us with an abundance of pedant theorizing and very few experiential epiphanies.
Despite our best efforts to shatter preconceived notions, the idea that our erotic self is to remain hidden apprehends the articulation necessary to reveal it. Western culture has been taught that our sexuality is private, that our expressions of love are to be private, and that in order to maintain spousal love in its purest form, we are to remain tight-lipped about it. But, as scholars Friedman and Irwin so ardently articulated, “eros is not a private experience.” (Christian Feminism, Eros, and Power in Right Relation, CrossCurrents, vol. 40, 391) And it was a Protestant theologian and Asian American feminist scholar Rita Nakashima Brock, that suggested eros is a process “constantly flowing, and growing in relationships.” (Journeys of the Heart, 53)
We must ask ourselves how, or rather, why would we want to privatize the growing and flowing of such energy and power? Why would we hide love when it was meant to be seen, smelled, touched, tasted, and heard? The erotic cannot be private. It is to be experienced with all five senses and it is to be shared. (Heyward, 93-94) In a society that prides itself on the importance of privacy, eroticism stands in opposition to those that like our curtains, fences, and walls.
The pronounced fears of eroticization are overarching. Our Americanized ways of anticipating enemy threats mean that we are always preparing to defend against the evils of exploitation. It is assumed, either explicitly or implicitly (depending on your persuasion), that any an aim to integrate eroticism with spirituality is to endorse extreme perversions—depraved fetishizations, pedophilia, bestiality, polygamy, arranged marriages, sex slavery, and so on. It’s not so much that we should dismiss such potential threats to eros, but more so, we must maintain perspective. This is especially true when we recognize that how we define eroticism depends on the morality of our culture. If we can assume that in general, we are not depraved or mentally disturbed people, then we can focus on the positivity of integrating eroticism without the paralyzing anxiety that A Brave New World is underfoot.
Further problematizing our ability to integrate eros with our spirituality is the new wave of sexual orientation glorification. A movement of self-aggrandizing pride that aims to separate collectives based on which biological parts of the body are currently attached, which body parts are desired, and which body parts are desired for use of sex. A mentality that relegates sexual identity solely to sexual organ preference and must be proclaimed in every exchange of words. For instance, because I conjugate, preferentially, with a penis, I am therefore cis-gendered female, heterosexual normative, and, it must be known that I identify as a woman. Otherwise stated: I like cock. Such simplistic deductions destroy the essence of eroticism, wetting down our sexuality to a point of root rot. As any good gardener will tell you, root rot is a bitch and can destroy the entire plant and pollute the soil if it goes unattended.
To prevent root rot, we must reject the false senses of identities that are tangled within deceptive methods of separation. There are many dangerous methods and actions that situate an aim to create a sense of inclusion and empathetic understanding, while dividing people into groups based on how they love another in the romantic sense. It’s a disparaging form of identity suppression that pimps itself out as identity expression, reserved only for those that the societal narrative calls “sexually marginalized.” But the truth is all of us are sexually marginalized. Our desires to express ourselves sexually, creatively, erotically, have always been met with louder megaphones to silence us. The bigger truth is that we all experience love differently, subjectively. How I love my partner will always be different to how everyone else loves their partner. How I fuck my partner will always be different than the way you fuck yours. Hell, some may not fuck at all!
The reality is, is that who you love and how you make love is not up for debate in any democratic sense. The idea that our society requires political attention, awareness, or intervention is just as facetious as the supposition that the Queer community is somehow different than the heterosexual community. We are all human, and as humans, we all face suffering, oppression, injustice, and prejudice for how we want to express ourselves sexually. I do realize that within the Queer community, violence rates are exceedingly higher for revelation of sexual orientation than with the heterosexual community. I know that once sexual orientation has been disclosed, it can lead to discrimination and division. There are many contextual situations that a heterosexual person may never experience, but we can hold compassion and understanding for those experiences without diminishing the absolute confusion that we all endure as we discover and develop our erotic selves.
The focus of this book is of unity within a relationship. Seeing the Other as the Self is how we can make our relationships real. This means we must critically examine any and all separatist ideologies that we value. We must ask ourselves why we value these ideas. We must ask how it meets the needs that we have. We can ask ourselves if relinquishing identifying labels would benefit how we relate to Other. (Indeed, a label liberation does wonders for all relationships.)
Our sexual identity is very important. It adds to the wholeness of who we are. We cannot and must not separate our sexuality from our spirituality. But how we identify our sexual orientation is not all that we are. As you will soon read in the following pages, eroticism is more than sexuality. Relationships that are truly authentic must hold space for vulnerability, empathy, and understanding. I believe that such space cannot be created unless we are willing to remove “I” from the equation of mutual relation. Relationships take on a “we” and “us” status. This does not mean that we lose ourselves or become some mutation of each other, but more so that we realize we are sharing space with the divine in all our relating. We no longer make any exchanges about selfish gain or self-satisfaction. We have an Other-oriented intention. We shift the focus from “me” because eros is not about “me”, it’s about a thirst for the Other.