The Stewardship of Sexuality

Presented by the Rev. Ann Stevenson and the Rev. Dr. Tad Meyer, husband and wife priests of the
Episcopal Church

In a men’s study group at Trinity-by-the-Cove, we read Huston Smith’s classic study of world religions and we delved into Hinduism and Buddhism. As I re-read Smith’s description of their basic theological and cultural beliefs and practices, I was struck once again by how healthy their attitude is toward human sexuality when placed beside the rather tortured notions that have plagued the history and theology of the Christian faith. Christians have always had a “love/hate” relationship with human sexuality, an ambivalence which is rooted in their experience with and reaction to the two major cultural influences that formed and shaped so much of early Christian practice and belief: the tenets of their parent religion Judaism and the traditions and understandings of the prevalent Greco/Roman world view.

In the Jewish tradition marriage was seen as an essential part of God’s creation and hence it shared the basic goodness of that creation. Furthermore, the primary purpose of marriage was procreation, the means by which human life was created and religious and familial traditions were sustained and passed on. Marriage and procreation were both seen as positive experiences, capable of conveying God’s blessing. Ironically, however, the essential link between the two, sexual activity, was shrouded in moral and theological ambiguity. Sex, even within the confines of marriage, was a very dangerous activity that had to be treated with caution and wariness.

The Jewish laws regarding sexual impurity clearly reveal the suspicions that enveloped the sexual act. As the Dutch theologian and historian Edward Schillebeeckx points out, those laws suggest that sexual relations were subject to a host of religious taboos “which cast a certain shadow on Israel’s essentially healthy view of marriage.” In the fifteenth chapter of Leviticus, we see that any discharge of semen or blood was the cause for ritual concern that entailed numerous cleansing acts and sacrifices to restore a state of ritual purity. The legal historian James Brundage has argued that sex itself was not seen as sinful but was conducive to sinfulness, capable of carrying the unsuspecting participant along the path of idolatry and the worship of false gods. Sex was seen as a brutish activity, fit for animals but only to be engaged by humans in service of the demands of procreation and the maintenance of the human race. Marital sex should not be pursued for pleasure or enjoyment but only in response to the need for reproduction. Unlike the tenets of other world religions, there was a certain latent fear of sexual activity.

This attitude toward sexual activity was far from unusual during the inter-Testamental period and was actually widespread throughout the cultures of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean regions. The reasoning behind these prejudices largely grew out of the contemporary understanding of male physiology. During the centuries preceding and succeeding the birth of the Christian era, young men of the privileged class grew up with a staggering sense of their intellectual and physical dominance, particularly over the opposite sex, and contemporary medical knowledge contributed significantly to that illusion. Biologically, the medical authorities suggested, males were those fetuses that had realized their full potential. They had amassed a decisive amount of "heat" and "vital spirit" in the early stages of life in the womb. Women were, by contrast, failed males, who had not received sufficient heat in the womb and hence were more soft, more liquid, more clammy and old. In order to maintain one’s manhood and manly authority, one had to retain one’s heat. Any diminution of that vital heat might manifest itself in feminine attributes or behavior. Love-making obviously required the expenditure of a tremendous quantity of heat. In the second century of the Common Era, the court physician of Rome Galen suggested that the philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) had concluded that sexual intercourse was never good for the health. Earlier, in the first century, the layman Celsus gave a somewhat more balanced view in his advice directed toward men of good health who wished to be both vigorous and their own masters: “Sexual intercourse neither should be avidly desired, nor should it be feared very much. Rarely performed, it revives the body, performed frequently, it weakens.” Frequent sexual activity was, therefore, a threat to one’s manhood rather than an expression of it. Athletes were encouraged not to have sex before competition for fear that it would deplete their masculine reserves, an argument which has echoed throughout the centuries. In a slightly different vein, the first-century orator Marcus Fabius Quintilianus believed that lawyers who wished to preserve their rich, persuasive masculine voices had to abstain from sexual activity prior to entering the courtroom. Any loss of heat would be realized in soft, womanish tones.

Within Judaism, there was one other attitude toward marital sexuality that deserves our consideration. Just as contemporary medical authorities saw sexual activity as a drain on the vital masculine heat, so some scholars believed that it sapped the spiritual strength and vision of the prophets. Philo of Alexandria, for example, suggested that following his encounter with God on Mount Sinai, Moses lost all interest in sexual relations. This contrast of spirituality and sexuality was a tradition that became very important to the early church. Like the vital heat of masculinity, prophecy required its own vital spirit which prophets had to protect and nourish as vigilantly as athletes and orators. Abstinence from sexual activity was a sure method of being a responsible steward of one’s spiritual gifts. The underlying message of this reasoning is quite clear. Spiritual authority as well as masculine authority thrives and blossoms best in an asexual environment.

Unfortunately many of these attitudes toward human sexuality and the misogyny that they inevitably bred are very much alive and well in certain Christian settings and environments. At best, they give birth to a rather puritanical and puerile attitude toward human sexuality which leaves in its wake a good deal of garden variety guilt and shame. At its worst, however, these negative attitudes toward human sexuality have provided justification for some truly heinous acts of repression, oppression and psychological and physical abuse. Suffice it so to say that in many Christian churches and traditions, it is often still difficult to find a truly positive understanding of human sexuality, one which truly celebrates its spiritual potential.

It is no accident that we chose to place this topic immediately following last week’s discussion of the stewardship of language. In an important and crucial sense, we need to see human sexual relationships in terms of language for that is exactly what it is and what it does and as we suggested last week, using language sensitively, appropriately and intentionally is absolutely essential for the creation and maintenance of a healthy intimate relationship. In language, the value, meaning and impact of words and phrases are dependent on their emotional and psychological context. Our intentions have a direct impact on what is spoken and what is heard. Remember when a parent or authority figure would say “I mean what I’m saying”? On the surface, it sounds a bit ridiculous – of course, we mean what we say – but we all know what that phrase underscored. It meant that they would do what they said they would do and there was no ambiguity between what was meant, what was said and what would happen next. In a strange sense, when we speak the language of our sexuality we need to make sure that we mean what we say, that what we intend and mean is the basis for our sexual expression.

We believe and affirm that God is love and we assert in our prayers, our liturgies and our outreach that God wants us to become vessels and vehicles of that divine love. As I said a few weeks ago, we are to carry on the work of the Incarnation, embodying and sharing that love made known to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Though the process of creation and evolution, God has given us certain gifts to assist us in this daunting task. Certainly the gift of language is an enormous asset in this holy work, allowing us to share with others our most treasured values, beliefs and experiences. Similarly, our sexuality is a precious gift that God has given us to express and experience that transforming love. Like any language, however, it is vulnerable to abuse. When we use our sexuality to satisfy our own physical or psychological needs rather than to express and experience that divinely inspired love, we abuse the gift.

Now before we go further, let me put a frame around that comment. In this instance, I am not speaking solely about sexual intercourse or romantic sexual exchanges. The language of human sexuality is not relegated solely to our genitalia. As one theologian/physician suggested, the largest and most powerful sexual organ in human beings is well about the waist line – it is the human brain. Our sexuality is such an integral and essential part of our physical and psychological make-up that I believe that every human exchange has a sexual aspect to it and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We connect with people through our bodies – our facial expressions, our movements, our touches and they can be powerful expressions of loving concern. How many of you have been in the hospital and received the comforting touch of a doctor, nurse or some other friend or care provider? How many of you have reached out yourself to comfort a friend with a touch or celebrated a reunion with a hug? We are sexual creatures and we relate to each other sexually, through the language of our bodies, and that is a marvelous gift when it is used to express or experience loving compassion and intimate connection.

With deft ease, however, this brilliant language can become an instrument of self-serving greed, domination or manipulation. I am equally sure that every person in this room has been hugged or kissed by someone whose touch made you cringe because you sensed the intentions behind that sexual expression and those intentions were not loving or supportive but self-serving. The language of our sexuality is a central and in some sense omnipresent part of our personality and it has enormous power when it is “spoken” within our human relationships and encounters. Think for a moment about people we regard as charismatic. I don’t think that many would argue that a large part of their charisma is often perceived through the lens of sexual attraction and power. Neuroscientists have suggested that the part of our brain that “deals” or is focused on issues of spiritual and religious belief is right next to that part of the brain that is the focus of our sexual perceptions and prowess and that is not really surprising to me.

To return once again to our tripartite model of the human personality, both the “I” – the personality and platform of action – and the “me” – the character and the source of our values and needs – play a large role in determining how we will use the language of our sexuality. In the realm of the “me” which was largely formed and shaped by what has been done to us, we will often replicate the sexual language that we experienced in our early childhood and adolescence for better or for worse. Our sexual needs have largely been formed and shaped by our early experiences of sexuality. We are all aware, for example, that abused children often become abusers themselves, a depressing but illuminating illustration of this dynamic. These sexual needs are then expressed through the personality of the “I” which learns to speak the language of sexuality in accordance with its own sexual gifts and liabilities. We all know folk who are very uncomfortable with their sexuality, even if their outward appearance is very attractive and even provocative. There are also people who are extremely comfortable with their sexuality and they express it almost unconsciously.

As we have learned, however, the realm of intimacy is the realm of the “self” which only appears when we are able to share both the “I” and the “me” in a way that enables us to create a shared space where we can truly be ourselves. I think there is not a more powerful tool to create that space than the language of sexuality but it must be done with enormous care, intentionality and vulnerability. Whether it be holding hands or sexual intercourse, the language of sexuality must be articulated as an expression of love and an invitation to intimacy. It must be a gift of love, a bodily expression of our deep desire to know and be known by another and it must also be a physical expression of vulnerability, communicating our willingness to open ourselves completely to another human being. At the risk of too much information, the moment that I first felt the power of the language of sexuality with Ann Stevenson was in a movie theater when we first held hands. It was an electric moment and one of intense intimacy that blossomed and grew over the course of the months ahead and continues to this day.

In summary, as Christians we need to reclaim the glory of our human sexuality and not be afraid to see ourselves as sexual creatures who have been given this glorious language by Almighty God to express and experience intimacy with each other and with God. Yes, God wants all of us, not just the parts we deem acceptable and we must constantly seek out ways to use the language of sexuality to deepen our own experience of God in prayer and practice. It is often interesting, for example, to see how you can use your body to enhance or amplify your prayer. Once again, Eastern religions have long known about the power of the body in meditation, contemplation and prayer and there is also a rich historical vein of bodily prayer and meditation within the Christian tradition as well. In truth, our sexuality is not something that is purely secular or worldly – of the “flesh” as Paul would say - but it is instead a holy and spiritual part of our being which can be offered to God through prayer and intentionality and can serve as wonderful spiritual conduit for the ebb and flow of intimacy in our lives.

Wendel W. Meyer