Theology

The Good News About Our Longings: Sexuality and Spirituality

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In 2016, following the death of the pop icon, Prince, The New York Times published an article entitled, “Prince’s Holy Lust.” It says there are “two keys to understanding the man and his music: his sexuality and his spirituality.” The article goes on to say that for Prince, a Jehovah’s Witness,

the love of God and the sexual urges we feel are one and the same somehow. For him it all comes from the same root inside a human being. God planted these urges and it’s never wrong to feel that way. The urge itself is a holy urge.

We might look at Prince’s life and conclude that his understanding of sexuality and spirituality didn’t reflect the sexual ethic of Jesus and the Kingdom of God, but one thing that we can all learn from Prince is the integration of these two powerful realities of life. Prince would consistently integrate these two themes in his songs—and that’s what we need to pay attention to if we are to navigate this well. Whether or not we agree with his conclusions, Prince was right: There is a connection between our sexuality and spirituality.

At the core of this interplay between sexuality and spirituality is desire and longing. What we do with our sexual desires and longings says a lot about what we believe about God. Which is why we need to clearly define terms.

Defining spirituality and sexuality can seem like a daunting task because there’s lots of confusion with these words, so in offering a simple way forward, I have found Deb Hirsch’s definitions (found in her book, Redeeming Sex) instructive. She writes:

Spirituality: Can be described as a vast longing that drives us beyond ourselves in an attempt to connect with, to probe, and to understand our world. Beyond that, it is the inner compulsion to connect with the Eternal Other that is God. Essentially, it is a longing to know and be known by God (on physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual levels).

Sexuality: Can be described as the deep desire and longing that drives us beyond ourselves in an attempt to connect with, to understand, that which is other than ourselves. Essentially, it is a longing to know and be known by other people (on physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual levels). 

The Church has not often integrated these two dimensions of life well. Consequently, we have damaged our public witness, as well as diminished our personal lives in God. Instead of a robust intersection between spirituality and sexuality, we have cut them off from each other.

Author Ron Rolheiser notes that throughout history, there has been a “divorce between Religion and Eros.” He writes,

like all divorces it was painful and in all divorces the property got divided up: religion got to keep God and the secular got to keep sex. The secular got passion and God got chastity.

It’s important to note that in his usage of the word “chastity,” Rolheiser is critiquing popular notions of how chastity is understood, not diminishing it as a powerful and sacred way of life. But his point is well taken.

The question is, how do we “remarry” religion and eros? Or said another way, how do we join spirituality and sexuality in ways that lead to greater wholeness in our relationship with God and with others?

How do we join spirituality and sexuality in ways that lead to greater wholeness in our relationship with God and with others? Click To Tweet

Three Diets By Which to Understand Sexuality and Spirituality

There are essentially three directions we can go on this journey. Catholic theologian Christopher West names these directions “Diets.” These three diets speak to the Church, the world, and to a way of life informed by the gospel. They are frameworks to help us better grasp the disintegration as well as the integration of our humanity. In this regard, my goal in this article is not an attempt to resolve the dilemma of disintegration between spirituality and sexuality, but to offer a way to frame the conversation. The “diets” West offers are the Starvation Diet, the Fast Food Diet, and the Banquet.

I’ll briefly unpack each of them.

1. The Starvation Diet

A large portion of the Church lives on the Starvation Diet. It’s the diet that sees our longings and desires (particularly our sexual longings and desires) as areas of our humanity that need to be redirected, suppressed, or ignored. This kind of theology permeates our churches so much so that to even talk about desire, sex, longings, eros is done in whispers. Within the starvation diet, sex and sexuality are territories to be avoided at all costs. Instead of the church being the community and place to help people make sense of their longings, it teaches that the longings are antithetical to a robust spirituality. Sadly, the Church (one could argue, especially the evangelical church) historically has not done a good job teaching on sexuality and desire.

The lack of sound teaching in this area flows out of an age old theological distortion that sees the body and pleasure as impediments to true spirituality. In a word, it’s Gnosticism. We feel guilty when pleasure is experienced. And not just sexually. As a pastor of a multiethnic, multigenerational church, I have heard many stories of people who feel guilty experiencing all kinds of pleasure. In a related way, this is why practicing the Sabbath is so hard for many. Sabbath is about worship of God and cultivation of delight. Yet, most have been formed in ways that show little value of delight, to our detriment.

The Starvation Diet leads to the suppression of sexual desire, establishing a culture where people can’t be honest about longings, loneliness, and passion. As a result, many live in the shadows. Consequently, in order to survive, many who subscribe to this diet end up living secret lives, looking for outlets to meet their longings.

2. The Fast Food Diet

The Fast Food Diet is the diet of a world that has reduced all of life to pleasure and immediate gratification through the indulgence of sexual desire. This diet says, whatever your desire, you deserve to have it met. Does is feel right? Then go for it! The Fast Food Diet, in a phrase, is about the flippant posture people have toward sex and sexuality. It’s the inability or refusal to see sex as a sacred fire, that, when not treated with care, leads to entire lives and communities being burned. The Fast Food Diet places humanity at the center of sexual desire. There is no discernment regarding our bodies. Our souls are split from our bodies in a similar, but different way from the Starvation Diet. In the Starvation Diet, the soul is exalted to the point of denying the body. In the Fast Food Diet, the body is exalted to the point of denying the soul.

The danger of the Fast Food Diet is that it’s a cheap imitation of the Banquet (the third diet). Although you might feel full for a moment, too much fast food makes you sick.

The other danger is the empty hope we project onto the fulfillment of sexual desire. While we have legitimate needs to connect (as Hirsch notes above), the Fast Food Diet doesn’t see the bigger picture. In the words of C.S. Lewis,

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men [sic] feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

The Starvation Diet has no theological imagination to see sexual desire as means towards God. The Fast Food Diet relegates God to sexual desire. Both are missing the point.

3. The Banquet

The gospel offers us a Banquet. The Kingdom of God is a feast. It’s a feast of communion with God which leads to a feast of communion with others. The gospel is the message that all of life, through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, is a gift to be enjoyed and ultimately points us to God—this includes sexual desire.

In the Banquet, we are reminded that from the very beginning humanity was made for community and intimacy with each other. We have often misplaced our longings and have reaped the consequences, yet the offer remains. The sexual desires we possess, when ordered rightly, bring us to communion with God.

In this respect, the love of God doesn’t remove our desires, it reorders them.

The Banquet is the recognition that we were created for ecstasy, but that ecstasy is only found in God. God is the ultimate source of our life, joy, and sexual desire. The starting point and the end point of our desires is God. Yet our desires must find a higher point to draw life from. Said succinctly, the love of God is to quench our spirituality and inform our sexuality.

A Third Way Forward

The work of good theology and spiritual formation is to live our lives rejecting the Starvation Diet for what it is, namely, the elimination of sexual desire for a greater goal, as well as to reject the Fast Food Diet for the ways sex becomes the ultimate object of our desire.

This in turn calls us to embrace a third way forward. The gospel reminds us that the Banquet is open to all who will have God order our desires in ways that lead to union with him and communion with others.

All of life is a gift to be enjoyed, but ultimately points us to God—this includes sexual desire. Click To Tweet
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25 responses to “The Current State of Cultural Engagement: Why We Need Kevin Vanhoozer’s “EveryDay Theology”

  1. david, in some ways this sounds like another rendering of “we are situated.” Until we recognize and understand how we are situated.. until we begin to see our seeing .. until we stand SOMEWHERE.. there is no possibility of perspective. The SOMEWHERE we stand in order to discern is in the community of faith. If we don’t in some way stand outside culture we will never “see” it. “We don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t fish” (Santayana). Of course, our standing in community isn’t a geographical location but primarily a spiritual/relational one.. but it extends to geography. btw.. Semiotics is apparently “hermeneutics” in relation to culture, but I’m new to the term. Is that what Kevins book is about?

  2. Dave,

    Good challenging stuff here. I confess that spending the last 20 years since I was a teenager running from fundamentalist attitudes about culture that I have probably been too much on the other side that you critique. I’m still not sure I see anything wrong with the notion that “all truth is God’s truth.”

    I have always, though, had an unease with those who too readily see God in every cultural product (i.e. The Matrix is really the gospel in disguise). I confess to being made uneasy as well by some of the missional/emerging talk, such as the last up/rooted meeting I attended where some were talking as if the church was irrelevant and unneeded. I guess that’s your influence on me coming through. Anyway, I agree with you that we need the church.

    I look forward to your review of the book. I have it but haven’t gotten to read it yet. I hope you’ll be unpacking more, your thoughts concerning the need for practicing discernment and what that looks like on the ground.

  3. David,
    I found myself quoting #5, The Missional Mantra in a comment on my blog this morning. I think the mistake is to take the mantra and view from an individualistic perspective.

    It is about the church discerning what God is doing in the community – discernment that comes from prayer, discussion and real engagement with the culture. It also means actually living amongst the folk in that community.

  4. Len … I think you have it right (at least mostly right … the “geographical” for me is a little more central) … and as for semiotics …it refers to the study of signs, symbols … similar to hermeneutics but the two words have different histories of usage.
    Thansk Gordon for the personal insight ..as always … you articulated what I said in a way that helps to better understand what I was saying. That “all truth is God’s truth”phrase takes some unpacking, especiially the numerous assumptions about Truth that entails …
    And Bill… spot on dude! excellent clarifying remarks for me.

    Peace DF

  5. david, agree that geography is critical.. commitment is never merely theory but involves particular people in a particular place. I meant that geography itself is relative .. whether my church is here or there the call to covenant.. inward.. and missional engagement.. outward.. remains the same. It feels like we are moving toward a time when we are rediscovering more than community, and more than participation, we are rediscovering that the Spirit indwells community. Perhaps this is implicit in the rediscovery of Trinity, but I think in some ways it is also a distinct discovery.

  6. David,
    As I was reading this I was thinking of several conversations I have had recently. I am seeing many Christians leaving the “local” church. These Christians are maintaining ties to other Christians but not on Sunday morning. I am concerned that they will drift with time to who knows where without solid ties to a community of faith. But Sunday morning is not church, we are. I think we must be clear on what we mean when we say we don’t need church. If we are talking about a formal once a week program or singing and listening to a talk as church then we don’t need it. But if we are talking about regularly meeting with others of the body as church (whatever that may look like) then we can not do without it. I think many of our Sunday morning programs inhibit the community of faith. But I do agree with you that in isolation we can not know what God is doing that we should join in.

    I think we have created confusion in the minds of many Christians in that they cannot differentiate the church from a particular building or a certain set of rituals. We must somehow show them that church is the people and that our lives are given in worship. It is only within the community of faith that our lives of worship make sense and have meaning. We need to be meeting as often as we can with other Christians, not just once a week, to encourage each other as, and so, we live missionally.

  7. DF,

    “and as for semiotics …it refers to the study of signs, symbols … similar to hermeneutics but the two words have different histories of usage.”

    DANG IT! Lol – %$#& – Please don’t make such interesting statements and then not explain them!! I’ve heard from Eco that “semiotics” started with Locke (which was interesting and a bit surprising to me at the time…I think I understand a bit better now). But I don’t know much after that. And as for hermeneutics, I’m clueless as to where the term originated.

    And Len,

    “…we are rediscovering that the Spirit indwells community. Perhaps this is implicit in the rediscovery of Trinity…”

    Please pardon my naivetee…but…similar to my “complaint” to DF above…$#@* PLEASE don’t say such interesting stuff and then not explain yourself!! I’d guess that DF knows exactly what you mean when you say “rediscovering the Trinity,” but I don’t. But…it is VERY interesting to me…because I think that the notion of “personhood” is of central importance these days.

    Example. Everyone seems really enamored with existentialism these days. Which, I think, is partially what is leading folks into an interest in “narrative theology.” But existentialism asserts that the “event” occurs within “an impersonal transcendental field,” to quote Deluze through Badiou in reference to Sarte (see the first paragraph of the following link – http://parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia02/parrhesia02_badiou2.pdf).

    I myself take “narrative” to be important precisely because of a need for a return to both our’s and God’s “person” (to reference the idea of the Trinity). Interestingly, too – examine the term “modernity.” MODErnity. Not exactly trinitarian.

    🙂

    Jason

  8. pop-Tillichianism! I love it. And it is the subtle pop-Tillichianization of Christianity proposed by many of my emerging friends that irritates me. You know that we don’t see eye-to-eye on the primacy of mission in our ecclesiological categories, but I tend to see the sort of “let’s see the Kingdom at work in everything” impulse as destructive unless it can be profoundly anchored on Christ. It seems that, within the emerging conversation, that there are some drawn to the more “Yoderian” radically Christ-centered way of looking at things and the more “Tillichian” let’s be a part of where God is working everywhere way of looking at things. These aren’t opposites–one can hold to both impulses, but I sometimes wonder if, in our disdain for fundamentalism, many Emerging people aren’t taking the time to engage in a “third way” and are, instead, becoming the neo-liberals that many scared fundies say we are.

  9. Mark … on “we don’t see eye-to-eye on the primacy of mission in our ecclesiological categories” … I think we are very close… and getting closer… although we look and sound different from time to time… I think you can bring Tillich and Yoder together … but not without revising Tillich is significant ways. Of the two, I see you more alligned with Yoder .. where of course I am most comfortable as well. … Jason … dude .. I can’t explian that .. it’s too esoteric and requires too much blog space … Dan Jennings … thanks for the post … I can’t find anything in your post I don’t already agree with.

  10. D.F.,
    Its cool. I guess I was just fishing for something interesting to read. But I hope to read it from you in some blog or book or something someday. Or if I find it elsewhere (I’ve been wondering about it), then maybe I’ll put it on my blog or something.
    🙂
    Jason

  11. “Semiotics” was coined recently by Ron Martoia as “a hermeneutics of culture”.. I think he’s on to something. We need a word for that, and of course if we initiate the word we get to establish some parameters (which will eventually be subverted by a new “ism” lol). Granted it all depends on where you start out.. theology too is located ie I am of Tillich I am of Paul I am of Yoder 😉 Jason, like david I want to beg off its too much today but I will throw you a link. Visit my site and scroll down to June 2nd “the interpretive moment.”

  12. David,

    Outstanding post. I’m weary of the anti-fundamentalists who have merely traded one form of cultural accommodation for another.

    There are no simplistic solutions when it comes to embodying the Gospel in any culture. And most Christians are just too lazy to do the hard work necessary.

    Keep up the good work. Let’s have that lunch.

    Rod

  13. David, you said this in your post;
    “We need a primer, a book that explains the fine cultural discernments necessary for Christians to navigate the new cultural waters we are in.”

    I think we have one, its called the Bible. God tells us in the Bible how to be in the world, but not part of it. Seems to me, that is the key. We got to seek Him, allow Him to guide us, direct us, as we go out to navigate the culture. When we finally make up our minds that we are going to fully surrender to Him and His ways and His Word, only then can we be all that He would have us be and only then can we receive the wisdom and discernment we so desperately need to answer the culture around us.

    Answering the culture rooted in His Word.

    george

  14. This is a great post with lots of great comments that have followed. In connection with #5 you wrote, “We need the church as a place that shapes us to see and discern where God is working in the world.” It is true and I’d say we also need the church to help us remember that we are God’s people brought together by His Spirit and not just because we are a nice gang with common interests. I think that without the shaping that happens to us through our interaction with the local church we come in danger of thinking too much of what we are doing and forget that it is God who is acting in the world.

  15. More on topic than my previous comments…I get suspicious any time I ever even hear the term “cutlure” used in which a world/church divide is even implied. What do I mean by that? I don’t mean it in the Tillichian way. Quite the opposite, actually. I mean to say that the term “cutlure,” to me, is in itself a neutral term. There are lots of “cultures.” And a “Christian” and a “worldly” culture is one way to speak of cultural divides along certain lines, as delineated by the gospel story.

    But I see NO REASON WHATOSEVER to regard “culture” itself as specifically “worldly.” It makes NO SENSE whatever to me. At that point, if you ask me, the term cutlure, the tilling of the ground – the turning over/under of what is underneath/what does not apepar and what is over/what does apepar – itslef looses its true meaning. The question is not whether we are in our out of “culture,” which is a meaningless question. The question is what is being tilled from under the ground, which is a fruitful question.

    The problem arises, however, when we examine the consequences of asking meaningless questions about culutre. In one’s blindness of the true meaning of the term “culture,” he or she will end up with bad fruit, thanks to the dirty water being tilled up from underneath – due to lack of vigilance. Hence, I think, D.F.’s current book project.

  16. Regarding the quote: “We don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t fish” has been attributed to Santayana by Dr. Fitch and now his pal Len. But I cannot substantiate this connection to Santyana, can you? I’d really like to know. I’ve heard that John Perry Barlow of the Grateful Dead has been quoted as saying it. But most often i have found it is attributed to Marshall McLuhan who also remarked: “If you don’t like these ideas, I’ve got others.”

  17. fatted Calf … that was len who said that (the Santayana thing). I’m not that smart.
    The kid … simply and well said,
    Jason … culture as not “worldly”? Culture as neutral? Not to be too Foucaultian, but culture for me can never be nuetral. And when we say “worldly” we mjust always ask the question “worldly” according to who? Who is defining the world? For Christians certainly do believe in “the world” only because we’ve already defined what it means to be other than the world.It is only when we no longer have a sense of who we are, that the worldly adjective loses any sense of definition.

    And lastly .. to george, of Anonymous comment, Is the Bible a primer? An introductory text to lead us to something else beyond it? I know you didin’t mean that … but sometimes I believe we evangelicals tend to think of the BIble as giving us what we need to know in ordeer to go do something. As opposed to the story out of which we live out entire lives. When you say “God tells us in the Bible how to be in the world, but not part of it” does He? In other words has he told us how to live in relation to technology? capitalism? video games? If so, how come so many God honoring Spirit guided Christians disagree? Are you saying nothing else need be said here? That indeed it is now up to each individual in his or her own personal pursuit of holiness TO FIGURE THIS OUT? If so, I gently and humblky disagree. Indeed I suggest this is exactly what the Bible and the early church through the Spirit TOLD US NOT TO DO. George, am i wrong here?

    Blessings … peace and more conversation

  18. D.F.,

    Before I comment on your comment on my comment on your post (just wanted to say all that…its an entertaining summation of events), I think we have had a miscommunication, which should be clarified…if in fact we had such a miscommunication.

    You said: “Culture as neutral? Not to be too Foucaultian, but culture for me can never be nuetral.” I probably should have been more careful than to have used such a red-alert term as “neutral.” I didn’t mean it in the modern sense. I wasn’t referring, for example, to the rediculousness of a supposed “neutrality” of the modern journalist.

    I simply meant that the term “culture,” in an of itself, does not refer to “the world,” in the way that contemporary evangelicals usually refer to the term “culture.”

    To answer your question, then: “And when we say ‘worldly’ we mjust always ask the question ‘worldly’ according to who? Who is defining the world?” I am referring to contemporary evangelical usage of the term “world,” which I think is dumb. I think you would agree, no? That was the whole point of your post, so far as I can tell.

    To comment on your comment on my comment on your post, then (if we are now on the same page)…you said: “It is only when we no longer have a sense of who we are, that the worldly adjective loses any sense of definition.” I would agree. AND I would say that “a SENSE of who we are” would arise out of LIVING in a particular localized culture…in and through time.

    Where I’m not settled…myself…is exactly how the universal relates to the particular in this regard. What does Catholic “with a little c” mean, exactly? Although it may not be my concern anyway, since I’m just a human.

    So are we straight? Where are we?

    Blessings,

    Jason

  19. I think maybe I should clarify something, and provde a connection to something I had said previously. “I am referring to contemporary evangelical usage of the term ‘world,’ which I think is dumb.” When contemporary evangelicals use the term “world,” they are referring to “culture;” and when they say the term “culture,” which is severely noun-ized (I made that word up just now), they are referring to “the world.”

    So…when I was referring previously to the GROUND as offering some signifance to the term “culture,” I was referring to the act of tending the ground. Culture is the turning over/under of the ground. The ground of a place, of a “culture,” of a “context,” or of the human heart. Evangelicals usually use the term “cutlre” to refer to the localized site where the ground is tilled, which thus produces the particular “culture” to which contemporary evangelicals refer. To me, however, the tilling/turning (of the hoe, so to speak) itself is the “culture,” really…leading to particular “cultures” in particular places/environments.

  20. “For Christians certainly do believe in “the world” only because we’ve already defined what it means to be other than the world.It is only when we no longer have a sense of who we are, that the worldly adjective loses any sense of definition.”

    Dave,

    Are you saying here that we first begin with our own self-definition as it arises out of our understanding of who we are as the people of God shaped by the story of God? If so, then I think I can see how this really is a third way besides liberalism or fundamentalism.

    Liberalism defines itself by accomodating to the culture, while fundamentalism defines itself by reacting against the culture, but they both look to culture first and then define themselves in relation to what they see. If I understand you, you are saying that Christians should already have a self-definition that comes from the biblical story before we ever look at the culture. Then we engage culture from this vantage point, which allows us to neither lose our distinct identity, a la liberalism, nor to be constantly redefining our identity based on what we are reacting against, a la fundamentalism. Do I understand you correctly here? If so, then I’m on board.

  21. Gordon,

    I hope you don’t mind if I use your question/comment to help clarify my own point. I feel I can do this precisly BECAUSE your comment DOES NOT make me want to punch a wall. In other words, I like your point. But then your usage of the term “culture” still seems to exemplify what I mean when I refer to contemporary evangelical usage of the term “culture.” Hope you don’t mind, dude.

    The part of your comment that I like which doesn’t necessarily depend on a particular meaning of the term culture, in and of itself: “Are you saying here that we first begin with our own self-definition as it arises out of our understanding of who we are as the people of God shaped by the story of God? If so, then I think I can see how this really is a third way besides liberalism or fundamentalism.”

    The part with which I have some beef: “Liberalism defines itself by accomodating to the culture, while fundamentalism defines itself by reacting against the culture, but they both look to culture first and then define themselves in relation to what they see.”

    Again, I actually agree wtih your “point.” The “however”…obviously there’s value in using a word in a way that your audience understands you. You are here, “however,” using the term “culture” in the way that both liberals and conservatives use it (2 sides of the same coin, to reference a previous DF post) in order to form and or forge a third way between those two. I think I’m saying that we need a different meaning of the term culture alltogether. AND…that this need for a different meaning of the term “cutlre” in and of itself, is important.

    To a degree, then I’m “just playing a word game.” But at the same time, our words and their meanings are a kind of praxis in our use of them. This praxis is itself a kind of “tilling of the ground”…i.e….”culture” in the way that I mean to use the term.

    I hope that helped…DF…Gordon…whomever. Gordon – I WAS NOT INTENDING to ARGUE AGAINST you . I was ONLY using your comment to try and make my point more clearly. I actually agree with your point; I was sort of making a different point alltogether…although related. Thanks for providing the sounding board, so to speak 🙂

    Jason

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