[The second in a series of three discussion papers on Spirituality, Sexuality and Equality for the Open Sanctuary Discussion Forum]
We are not used to discussing sexuality publicly, especially in religious and spiritual circles. But perhaps in our day it is important to be able to do so. Our culture is changing rapidly. So I am daring to raise it in the OS Discussion Forum. I am particularly hoping someone(s) with more experience in traditions other than the Judaeo-Christian might be able to make a contribution. Then there is the growing general interest in the psychology of spirituality, such as Steve Taylor’s The Leap and books by Eckhart Tolle, ideas about spirituality apart from any particular tradition. My comments are entirely to encourage reflection and debate. I hope you can join us. I am keen to learn. There is a prize for everyone who reads the whole of this blog post!!!
I think it was Carl Jung who suggested that a link between spirituality and sexuality was that they are both autonomous forces in our lives. We don’t command them; they act on us. They happen. Hence we value them so much, mostly!; they are life giving, even if a little scary at times. Would that they were both so common; but they are not. The energies of sexuality are ubiquitous; no one escapes them. The energies of spirituality, as known in the West, are far more subtle, it would seem, and in our materialistic scientific culture traditional spirituality has not faired so well. This has changed to some extent with the use of psychedelic drugs and the increasing interest in shamanism. My narrative here comes out of a traditional western Judaeo/Christian perspective
Even those who claimed to explore the depths of the psyche can deny spirituality. Take Freud as the most obvious example. Libido for Freud was entirely sexual in nature, tempered in his later work by the death wish and his interest in eros, which he did see as a wider source of energy than libido. He rejected Jung’s belief that there were other major forces at work in the unconscious as dabbling in the occult. Science, as he saw it, could have no part in this. Modern day psychologists in their determination to be deemed scientific have even turned on Freud and the whole concept of the unconscious per se; to keep their work external and objective and ‘scientific’. Jung’s dream of the unconscious continuing to be explored clinically after his death in the spirit of a science that took the subjective seriously has not happened to any great extent; both Freudian and Jungian studies now exist as separate denominations on the side lines of our culture.
But then spirituality as something separate has probably always been overshadowed by sexuality, and the one confused with the other. In the temples of the ancient gods, sacred prostitution was widely practised, both male and female. It brought the god’s subjects into the rhythms of the forces of nature to ensure, amongst other things, good crops and fair weather. The sexual energies were amongst the forces of religion, along with the fear of violence from within and without the group or culture. Both invited the offering of sacrifice; the one death on an altar, the other ‘a little crucifixion’ on a bed! Our spirituality was, at least in part, our sexuality directed to a god.
It was into this ancient religious world that there came an anomaly. How it started we don’t know historically. The Hebrew Bible states that it began with Abraham, but it could have gone back to the early palaeolithic for all we know. It was just that the time was ripe for a different understanding of spirituality to begin its story with Abraham. In the midst of a world of many gods, inviting on the one hand devotees participation in the mysteries of life through sexual activity at the temple, and on the other demanding sacrifice of the first born to avert violent danger, Abraham looked up into heaven one night and heard a voice within him promising to make him the father of many nations. Or so the story goes. He did not succumb to schizophrenia; he believed and acted. The rest is history if you like. If you have ever thought that Abraham is lost to history, go to Israel and talk to both Jews and Palestinians.
Jews pride themselves that one of their great contributions to the ideas of the world is monotheism, the idea that there is only one god. This belief has not yet won the day, but it is worth noting that apart from Allah and some Hindu gods, and of course Yahweh and Christ, along with philosophical ideas about ‘God’, literally thousands of once powerful ancient gods are no more; they did not make it through to the modern world. But the Hebrews were possibly not the first monotheists. The Egyptian Pharaoh Ahknaton is usually thought of as the first monotheist, and it is interesting that he lived in the same general period as Moses. For Ahknaton the sun was the only god.
However, I think that what is far more significant about Hebrew faith is that with Abraham we have a whole new concept of spirituality emerging and a whole new idea of deity. God is a still small voice speaking into the heart of an individual, a tradition than can be followed right through the history of the Hebrews into the community of the Jews, and then into the Christian tradition. This god is invisible. He cannot be represented. He is an unseen force who can talk with human beings. He is Spirit.
So it was then that when the tabernacle was built in the wilderness, and eventually the Temple in Jerusalem, their God Yahweh was installed between the two seraphim or angels, above the Ark of the Covenant. But the space was empty. There was no image of a god there, just empty space. This was something entirely new.
Further to that, this invisible God had no truck with mixing sexuality with the spiritual experience he claimed to be or give. His closest devotees, the prophets, had no doubt about that. Here was an unseen autonomous force that could relate personally and intimately but was different from the forces of our sexuality. And the prophets paid dearly for this insistence; the call of the Baals to engage in the sympathetic rhythms of nature remained very strong and constantly attracted good Hebrew souls to prefer participation mystique, to what Yahweh offered. It took the building of the Temple and pretty outrageous political manoeuvres by the priestly devotees of Yahweh to centralise worship in animal sacrifice, including the demolition of all the sacrificial High Places in preference to the Temple in Jerusalem, and so to bring some management into the affairs of this invisible god.
But the prophets were not happy even with religion as sacrificial worship. The invisible god they served had little interest in solemn ceremonies and the spilling of animal’s blood so beloved by the priests. For the prophets this invisible god wanted a pure heart and acts of justice and fairness and a singular commitment to his Presence in their lives through prayer and fellowship. For the prophets it was a constant battle to keep calling the people back to the ‘true knowledge of Yahweh’. The people preferred religion and the cover up of their self-interested activities in sacrifice and solemn assembly, even at times the sacrifice of their own children, an abomination to the prophets.
The formation of the Jews out of the remnants of the Hebrews came about through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in the sixth century, and the 70 year exile in Babylon. Out of this huge disruption came the primary focus for Jews in the Law, the Torah, and with the re-building of the Temple, sacrifices also were resumed. The prophetic spirit went largely silent until John the Baptist and Christ, and any sense of explicit sexuality was no longer part of Jewish worship. The Baals had been defeated.
With the apostles, and it would seem especially St Paul and those who followed him, the forces of sexuality got further short shift. Even marriage was not affirmed by the great man; it was a concession to ‘burning with passion’. And so there grew up a cult of virginity and celibacy, which became one of the bases of the religious orders. It was as if it was believed sexuality was incompatible with spirituality. The struggles of St Jerome with his unfulfilled sexuality is one of the best documented examples of the tension between sexuality and spirituality that the Church oversaw. Another is the dark art of cover-up. Celibacy became official in the middle-ages so that children of the village priest could not sue the Church over property rights. And there are others, such as the cult of courtly love, down to our own day and the tragic scandal of clergy abuse of children. It could be said, and I think fairly, that the Reformation addressed sexuality more squarely. Marriage and family were central to Luther and to his vision of society.
The challenge now is to think about all this more deeply. What is it about intimate relationships, especially when they become sexual, that does or does not interplay with spirituality? I have found Aristotle’s analysis of friendship helpful. He saw three main types of friendship. Two are egocentric, friendship of pleasure and friendship of utility. They work as long as they are mutual: I’ll lend you my brush-cutter as long as I can borrow your lawn-mower; I’ll let my presence give you pleasure as long as your presence gives me pleasure. One is hetero-centric, centred in the other person. He called this primary friendship, and his dream was that such friendship might form the basis of the State; we all act in the interests of the other.
Transfer this understanding to the common Greek words for love. Where we get by with one word to cover a number of related aspects of relationships in English, the Greeks used at least four. We could say that Eros is most likely to undergird friendships of pleasure; Philadelphia friendships of utility; and Agape and to a lesser extent Storge, primary friendship. Of these forms of love, Agape is the love associated with the unconditional love of God in Christian theology. It is the form of love we human beings are called to in the New Testament. It is the form of love St Paul wrote about in his great Ode to Love in his first letter to the Corinthians, the very essence of the Holy Spirit and the key to the meaning of Christ’s death. To understand St Paul I think we have to sense the depth of his passion for Christ and Agape, and bring this up against the religious climate of the ancient world.
Take Corinth for example. In the heyday of the Temple to Aphrodite, admittedly some time before Paul’s visit, there were 1000 sacred prostitutes. To apply my analysis so far, Corinth
religiously was well and truly caught up in love as pleasure, in Eros, and the sorts of activities that can flow from this. It could be said Eros was managed by sacralizing it, taking it into the Temple. Not a bad idea, it could be said, because Eros can get out of hand. I think St Paul believed this. In fact when Dionysius was honoured it did seem to get out of hand. This was a direct confrontation to St Paul and his message of Christ and Agapaeic love, a spirituality that did not depend on sexuality.
So I think Paul did fear unmanaged and even sacralized Eros as capable of swamping and negating Agape and Storge. Rightly or wrongly he equated Eros with the flesh and Agape with the Spirit. You can see that quite clearly in his letter to the Galatians, chapter 5 where he compares the fruits of the Flesh versus the fruits of the Spirit. Unfortunately he goes for the extremes: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, etc. versus love, joy, peace, longsuffering, etc. He in effect sets the flesh up as against the spirit. While respecting his possible intention, and acknowledging his fear of Eros, we might legitimately suggest that the relationship between Eros and Agape is perhaps a lot more subtle. I could even suggest that his concern or fear about unmanaged Eros might be behind his strong condemnation of homosexuality in his letter to the Romans.
Some of us moderns would like to think we have a more tempered view of Eros. Eros can be a great well of energy to engage life; particularly important when someone is stepping out to engage the world and build their ego. It can be the primary energy behind great art and feats of courage and perseverance. But it is egocentric; in part maturing is about seeing and responding to the reality of the other person, taking on Storge at least. I heard a man once say that he preferred to have sex with a complete stranger; his only focus was then on his own pleasure and he didn’t have to think of the other person. Such egocentricity becomes dangerous when it leads to rape and child abuse; and even self destructive when it leads to self damaging behaviour such as drug taking and alcohol. Eros might be a great servant but a poor master. If it is not going to be tempered by or even incorporated into Storge or better still Agape, how is it going to be managed? Perhaps sacred prostitution may make a comeback!!
I hope I have written enough to stir some thoughts you would like to share at our Discussion Forum. There are many other aspects of the theme I have not raised of course, and if you are interested in one or other of those, I hope you will come along and share your thoughts.