Theology of sexuality vs. sexual theology

In response to a previous request, Katie Dawson pointed me to some resources about – to use my term – progressive sexual theology. In addition to a couple book titles, she sent a link to this course page for a class at a Canadian university.

I read some of the links on the page. The general tenor of the sexual theology – to be much too brief about it – is (1) we were created as sexual beings, (2) the church has forced on us a body/spirit divide, (3) God wants us to have joy and pleasure, (4) traditional sexual morals are patriarchal, (5) sexual experience is spiritual for many people, (6) people in the Bible had sex a lot and seemed to like it.

Overall, my impression is that the dominant source of the theologizing is experience. Most of the articles I read scarcely mention biblical sources for the conclusions reached. Here is perhaps not a typical passage but one that left an impression on me. It is a report by a pastor in the United Church of Canada on attending a conference for sex educators, counselors, and therapists.

The first keynote speech pulled the wool off the insincerity to which I had grown accustomed. In a delightfully frank exchange, world-renowned American sexologists Gina Ogden and Beverly Whipple presented data proving that sex is deeply spiritual.

Ogden, whose charisma could melt the ice off any soul, broke new ground in the field of sexology when she conducted a massive survey about the spirituality of sex. Instead of asking the usual below-the-belt questions (How often? How many climaxes?), Ogden inquired about the spiritual nature of sex, the connection between spiritual and sexual ecstasy and the conditions that make sex spiritually satisfying.

“The response,” she said, “was overwhelming.” Of the 3,810 respondents, 67 percent said that sex needs to be spiritual to be satisfying, 47 percent reported that they experienced God during sexual ecstasy and 45 percent claimed they experienced sexual energy during spiritual ecstasy. Remarkably, 1,465 of the respondents not only completed the surve but attached letters describing their sexual experiences. Of the 4,400 phrases they used, only 23 mentioned genitals. In fact, the language that they used to describe their most joyous sex was distinctly spiritual: “bliss,” “a joining of hearts,” “a revelation,” “a gift from God.”

“The clinical language of sexual science shrinks sex to what can be counted or measured — pulses, spasms, hormone levels, goals. In some ways, the language of spiritual experience comes closest to expressing the fullness of our sexual response for it is the language of connection and ecstasy,” Ogden writes in her latest book, The Heart & Soul of Sex (Shambhala Publications). “There are emotional and spiritual subtleties [in sexual experience] that engage our minds, hearts and spirits as well as our bodies.”

Note the emphasis on experience as the source of definition for what is spiritual. (A quote about Baalism by Eugene Peterson kept popping into my head as I read this.)

In a more explicitly theological mode, this article from a seminary professor explains the shifts he saw happening in the late 1980s.

Before the past two decades, the vast preponderance of Christian writers on sexuality assumed that the question before them was simply: What does Christianity (the Bible, the tradition, ecclesiastical authority, etc.) say about sexuality? Now we are also asking: What does our experience of human sexuality say about our perceptions of faith—our experience of God, our interpretations of Scripture and tradition, our ways of living out the gospel?

This shift derives in part from a recovery of 19th-century liberal theology’s emphasis on experience as important theological data—an emphasis now embraced by various forms of liberation theology. It derives, too, from the feminist and lesbian/gay movements, both of which have claimed that it is their consciousness of sexual oppression that has afforded them crucial insights about the ways of God in human relationships. The term “sexual theology,” like the term “liberation theology,” suggests this dialogical, two-directional investigation.

The two-way conversation model reminds us that theology cannot presume to look down upon human sexuality from some unaffected, Olympian vantage point. It reminds us that every theological perception contains some elements and perceptions conditioned by sexual experience, and every sexual experience is perceived and interpreted through religious lenses of some kind. The difference between a unidirectional and a dialogical method is the difference between a theology of sexuality and a sexual theology.

The first paragraph of the quote seems most telling to me. Bible, tradition, and church are pushed back to make room for experience as an equal – if not primary – source for theology. (This is why so many get edgy about the term “experience” in the much debated Wesleyan Quadrilateral, even though Wesley used the word in a much different way than the above writer.)

My conclusions are what I’m trying to find is a theology of sexuality, but what is dominant in the places I’m looking is sexual theology. This is a difference that probably explains a great deal why we have a hard time being in conversation about these questions.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Theology of sexuality vs. sexual theology

  1. I understand your frustration, John. And, it does seem to support the notion that there is a deep divide in Christianity today between those in this type of Schleiermacher-influenced Experience theology, and those of us who still look to the Scriptures as a shaping influence on our faith.

    Are you aware of Justin Lee and the Gay Christian network? The stuff you find over there maybe be far more helpful than what you are encountering at Reconciling Ministries, etc. http://www.gaychristian.net/

    Justin’s old personal web site is also still up: http://www.angelfire.com/nc/yakkow/

  2. I have not been intentionally holding out on you. The links have been on my Sexuality Issues page right from the start, and maybe I should have pointed them put to you sooner. Also check out the videos that Justin has put together. They have a Gay Christian Net YouTube channel.

    I guess I don’t mention him more often because… with all due respect… and I really mean that… I can’t quite get there… at least at this point in time. Justin is a wonderful guy and he understands evangelical Christianity. He also gets a lot of flack from secular gays for his advocacy of chastity and monogamy.

    Another good resource for evangelicals that acknowledges differing views: “Bridging The Gap:
    conversations on befriending our gay neighbours” http://www.newdirection.ca/content.xjp?id=599

  3. I seem to be suffering from an obsessive need to explain myself….

    I don’t entirely agree with Justin or Ron, though I respect them both. Ron is a conservative Roman Catholic. In that view, sex is procreative & non- procreative sex is not sex, it’s sin. That is not at all my view.

  4. so, I’m wrestling with the distinction between a theology of sexuality and a sexual theology. I think you are saying that the second comes from the knowledge of God we gain through sexual experience. And then the two articles that you found helpful were about scripture and what it says about homosexuality in particular.

    So – in searching for this theology, you are looking for something that has the scriptures as its primary source, correct? (which, of course is very Wesleyan).

    My question is – how can you come to conclusions 1,2,3, and 6 in that list of general statements about sexual theology without the bible? Without understanding that God created us one for another, without taking seriously that we are to love God with our whole selves – body and mind and spirit, without reading the affirmations of Song of Songs, without paying attention to the ways sex was used and abused in the actual biblical texts.

    It may be that these theologies are knocking tradition pretty hard, but I’m not sure that they are ignoring the biblical text.

    1. Katie,

      On theology of sexuality vs. sexual theology, I’m pretty much lifting that from the second quote. But I think you sum up what that guy is saying well.

      Good point about the biblical background. My list is a very impressionistic list after reading 6 or 7 articles on that page you gave me the link, too.

      It may be that the conclusions are grounded in Scripture, but the writers did not bother to make the connections explicit all the time. (And the limitation of the page Craig sent me to is that it is about one narrow area of theology about sex, which is what I’m trying to get away from.)

      Part of the issue – as I think about it – is how much of this is written as oppositional or in reaction to the tradition. How about a from-the-ground up theology that starts with the Bible?

      Song of Songs is an interesting case. Let’s set that side-by-side with Genesis and the Torah and stories like David and Bathsheba (and all those OT couples) and the prophetic metaphors of marriage between God and Israel and what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount and and what Jesus says to the adulterous woman and what Paul and Peter (and Jesus) say about sex and celibacy and divorce and marriage.

      There is no simple picture here. Sex is integral to our created nature but also dangerous. It is pleasurable but also an enticement to sin. It is always carefully hedged in with rules and structures – unless you worship Baal or the Greek pagans.

      To get back the original concern. Arguments often tend to knock down tradition but do not really replace it with a full theology. They just say, “Well, this does not mean what you thought it meant.” Okay, so where is the line? Or are we saying there are no lines? That does not seem biblical to me.

      I’m sure I’m rambling horribly here. But this is where I tend to end up when I get into this issue.

      1. “There is no simple picture here.”

        I think that is it exactly. The bible actually doesn’t have a cohesive picture of sexuality any more than it does marriage. So maybe we do have to look more to the overall arch and tenor of the scriptures and use that to interpret, like John Wesley suggests.

        Perhaps in that case, Justin’s argument of the law of love is the best we might manage for a “ground-up” biblical theology. Or at the very least, a line in the sand.

        I think one of the things I appreciate about the Body and Soul book I linked is that it layed out some good principles – some lines in the sand if you will – based on biblical notions of justice, relationships, covenants, and love.

Comments are closed.