A homily delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA - September 5, 2007
Jesus Christ. The Buddha. The Prophet Mohammed. Lao Tzu.
What do you think of when you hear these names? Their spiritual teachings? The examples of their lives? I’ll wager that the last thing you think about is their lives as sexual human beings, with desires and passions like our own.
This is just one example of how our culture – even in so-called liberal quarters – persists in dividing sexuality and spirituality from one another. Eros, as passionate and primal love, was demoted by early Christian theologians who claimed that the “higher” spiritual love of agape was the ideal to which all people should aspire. In fact, this so-called split between physical passion and spiritual love owes more to the influence of Manichean and Stoic dualism on the thought of Augustine and other church fathers, and ignores how the Bible not only includes the Song of Solomon, but in many places uses the terms agape and eros interchangeably.
Granted, we have come a long way since then, both in theory and in practice. There is the fact that I can stand here and deliver this homily, in one of many churches which welcome people of all sexual and gender identities. Then there is our denomination’s shared work with the United Church of Christ in creating and presenting one of the most widely praised sexuality education series, “Our Whole Lives.” But it’s hard to overcome centuries of anti-sex dualism. Ours is still a rarified atmosphere here at Arlington Street Church, and much of the surrounding American culture would prefer not to talk seriously about sexuality, or to do so in embarrassed, even shameful whispers. Even supposedly progressive and enlightened individuals can be, and often are, reticent to discuss and come to terms with various aspects of human sexual expression.
This is the challenge to progressive spiritual communities such as ours. If sexuality is as important an aspect of our being as any other, then is it not as much spiritual as anything else? If it is a source of joy, pleasure and connection, then should we not then see it as a means by which we may embody the Divine within and amongst ourselves? And if we wish, in the words of lesbian feminist theologian Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, to reclaim Eros as a spiritual urge, then should we not dare to rethink the very presumptions by which we view the myriad ways that we and our fellow human beings express and connect through sexuality?
First: We need to create a safe space where people can talk about sexuality. In her book Our Tribe, Reverend Nancy Wilson talked about how, whenever representatives of the Metropolitan Community Church would attend meetings of the National Council of Churches, they would become impromptu counselors on sexuality and relationships, often having NCC delegates and staff knocking on their hotel room doors in the middle of the night, painfully in need of someone to talk to. Set aside the presumption that openly gay or lesbian people are somehow instant experts on sex. Why would people, many of them trained clergy and pastoral counselors themselves, turn to relative strangers in the middle of the night for advice and information on sex? Could it be that their own churches have failed to provide a safe space to ask and answer these questions? And when turning the lens on our own congregation and movement, to what extent do we provide sanctuary in this area of our lives, not only as a physical space of refuge, but a continuing process of reconciliation and renewal?
Second: We need to rethink what we mean by “sex.” We often confine sex to engaging in intercourse, or some form of genital contact. But what of our hands, our eyes, our mouths, our entire bodies? What of our thoughts and feelings and sensations? By confining the erotic to the mere genital, how much do we disembody sexuality from the rest of our selves, and reduce sex to a mere “thing” that we do? Consider how we express this in our language – how we talk about “having sex” with someone, instead of being sexual – and how your very thoughts and feelings might change if you likewise made that change in phrasing.
Third: We need to rethink the prerequisites for relating sexually with another. By this, I certainly do not mean that we should divorce the erotic from the emotional. On the contrary, I believe our world would be a better place if we engaged in more emotional investment – more caring, more consideration, more respect, more passion – in all we do. What I do question is the insistence that sexual expression requires such a highly idealized level of emotional commitment between partners. Mutual respect, mutual affection and mutual joy – absolutely! But why demand perfection, and then make people feel like failures when they can’t achieve it?
The fourth challenge I wish to offer is perhaps the most daunting: We need to continually question our own individual sexualities. In our effort to be an inclusive community, our acronym of sexual identities has increasingly expanded, and includes a “Q” for “questioning.” But, what if we were, all of us, always questioning, and in the process of doing so, always growing, changing, exploring and discovering?
I was fortunate to have parents who taught me very early about gays and lesbians, and in a nonjudgmental manner. As a teenager, I decided to take the step of deliberately questioning my own sexual orientation, even though I felt quite certain about it. I emerged still identifying as a heterosexual male, but with a deeper appreciation of the difficult process of coming out, and a healthier attitude towards gender roles and gender identity – that one needn’t be “macho” to be masculine.
What I regret is that I did not take this process even further, along other dimensions of sexuality, daring to explore the unconventional side of Eros until much later in life. Now that I have – and continue to do so -- I feel more whole, my sexuality more integrated in all aspects of my humanity, a part of me instead of apart from me. I have a greater appreciation for both the diversity and the unity of Eros, that our different sexualities cannot be so easily boxed into discreet categories, but fall along a continuum of possibilities. Most important, I have come to transcend merely thinking and believing at an intellectual level, to feel and know more profoundly through my physical, emotional and spiritual experiences of the erotic.
And so I stand before you, an example of the metanoia – that state of being transformed in the renewal of one’s mind – that can come from an authentic integration of sexuality and spirituality. My journey is certainly not complete, and it is one which humbles me. But with great challenges come great rewards, and if we are to help heal the wounds of the world, let us start with ourselves.