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