A patient and I recently had a conversation on sensuality and sexuality, and I suggested the following five important considerations on the topic, each from a distinctly Christian perspective.
- Sexuality should be understood more broadly than it is usually construed. In other words, our sexuality has more to do with who we are than merely something we may do.
- The oldest heresy in Christian history is called Docetism, a form of gnosticism. Specifically, Docetism was the heretical claim that Jesus wasn’t fully human, that he was merely an angel in human disguise.
Indeed, this heretical, dualistic split between spirit and flesh has plagued Christianity throughout its history, with spirit being considered good and flesh bad.
The Greek word for “flesh,” sarx, is used in two different ways in the New Testament. When John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh,” sarx is there being used in a good way, referring as it does to the Incarnation, the humanity of God in Jesus as the Christ.
Whereas, when Paul (in Galatians 5) speaks of “the works of the flesh,” he is using sarx in a negative way, as a kind of hyper-sensual/materialistic/hedonistic, even addictive way of living that the Bible considers less than living.
In fact, the Bible speaks, figuratively, of human creation as an inseparable blend of spirit and flesh.
As in Genesis 2:7, where God “breathes” (spirit, in Hebrew) into “dust” to create humanity. Or as in 1 Corinthians 15, where the Christian witness to resurrection embraces this same non-dualistic conviction. In the Bible, there is no such thing ever – in this life or beyond it – as a disembodied spirit.
- Given the history of scandalous sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic Church has taken a big hit for its celibate requirement of priests – even though there isn’t necessarily any validated connection between celibacy and sexual abuse.
In Matthew 19:12, Jesus declares that “some have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.”
This is not a denial of anyone’s sexuality. It is rather understood as a charism (a “gift,” according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 7) that can, as a spiritual discipline, be practiced and developed in ways meant to enhance and bless.
Indeed, the most authentically “spiritual” Catholic priests I have known have, in their celibacy, nonetheless been exceedingly passionate persons, their highly sensitized sexuality having been redirected toward their vocation. In fact, their self-understanding is that of actually being married – in their case, to the Church.
- The sexual ethic, from a Christian perspective, is: “Thou shalt not exploit, nor allow thyself to be exploited.”
This can even be understood as the most literal of contextual translations of the seventh commandment in the Decalogue of Exodus 20, or Jesus’ synthesizing of Jewish law as “loving God, including one’s neighbor as oneself” (Mark 12, Matthew 22, Luke 10).
Few of us ever develop as sexual persons apart from having exploited or having been exploited, in some way or other, to whatever degree. Such is the trial-and-error process of human development.
Nevertheless, the goal remains: that of at least minimizing exploitation in one’s sexual relations. That’s why such an ethic is considered teleological. For if we may never fully reach the goal, it yet evokes our striving.
In Christian theology and ethics, the commitment of marriage is considered the optimal context for the expression of one’s sexuality in minimally exploitative ways.
Except that anyone who has ever been a marriage counselor can testify to how, even in the sanctity of marriage, such exploitation can still (and, tragically, often does) occur (a subject Paul also addresses in 1 Corinthians 7).
- In the Bible, there is no spirituality without morality, nor morality apart from spirituality. Nowhere is this ethical understanding more clearly expressed than in 1 Corinthians in chapters 12-13: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love (agape) …” One’s morality is a consequence of one’s relationship to God, just as one’s relationship to God is meant to be expressed morally.
Hence, the essential connection between one’s spirituality and one’s sexuality, the purpose of our spirituality not being exclusive to, nor even a diminishing of, our sexuality.
Rather, the former is meant to embrace and enhance the latter as the vital gift it is, God’s having created us to be fully human. Just as when we fail – sexually or otherwise – it is not from being human; it is, instead, when we believe, feel, think or act in ways that are less than human.
Granted, our sexuality can be expressed – often, too easily and just as tragically – in ways that are hurtful, if not disastrous to ourselves and others, a minimizing, even a forfeiting of our humanity.
But to forsake our sexuality, in whatever way or other, in the name of spirituality – this may lead to even worse consequences.