We were thrilled to see the following post by Dr. Chelle Stearns, Associate Professor of Theology, featured on Patheos recently. Dr. Stearns’s article, “Sex and Life in the Spirit,” is part of an ongoing conversation Patheos is holding about the spirituality of sex, and we believe it raises important questions about shame, desire, and how we, as Christians, are to live as embodied humans surrounded by conflicting messages. You can read the original article here.
I don’t think my youth pastors or youth workers meant to shame me and my body when I was in my early teens, but it happened. They had all the best intentions, but I entered my young adulthood with an overriding sense that my bodily desires were a problem to be prayed away rather than an opportunity to become spiritually mature. I was taught that spirituality and my emerging sexuality were at odds with one another.
If I were to be generous and understanding, I would say that the youth workers at my Baptist church were just trying to help me navigate the stormy hormonal seas of adolescence. In a more critical mode, I would say that I was never actually taught about my own desire, but was instead told how to behave in the light of a more masculine experience of desire. It was instilled into me that my body was dangerous to the spiritual life of men, therefore I should hide my body, learn to say “no” to male advances, and thus help to contain male desire.
At youth group gatherings, it was not unusual to hear something along the lines of, “well, boys will be boys, but guys, if a girl lets you do what you want to do, then she is not worth your time.” I really wish I was making this last line up, but I heard it in so many guises throughout the years that this message is too loud to ignore.
I was also told that women really didn’t want sex. Now that I’m on this side of marriage and sexuality, it makes me wonder what would have happened if the matriarchs of the church had framed the conversation from an honest feminine perspective instead of by the male youth leaders, who were barely older than me at the time. The one thing I know is that through this messaging, my own, more feminine desires were ignored, shamed, and stifled. I was taught that my desires were “not male” and thus were not important; or maybe even non-existent.
Through this messaging, my own, more feminine desires were ignored, shamed, and stifled.
When I looked to popular media, I learned that feminine sexuality was either prudish and something to be conquered (e.g., Sandy in Grease) or, in contrast, amazingly voracious and “available” like a pornographic male fantasy (e.g., Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, and any other of the other popular teeny bopper movies I watched in the ’80s. Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a little different because it actually called out some of the lies and harm of the “fantasy” of teenage sexuality, though I didn’t really understand the subtle brilliance of this critique until I was older).
Wherever I looked, inside or outside the church, the complex and nuanced story of maturing into a feminine body was scarce or non-existent. Popular culture seemed to say “get over it,” while the church preached “just don’t do it.” There was no guidance as to how one could develop into a spiritual yet sexual being.
Some of the confusion about how to talk about sex and bodies in the Christian tradition comes from a dualistic interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:18-20; that is, that “spiritual” is nonmaterial and thus good, and “flesh” is material and thus bad:
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (NIV)
This passage has often been used as a wedge between the “spiritual” life and the “fleshly” life, as if our bodily selves are not to be included in our spirituality. Or, even worse, our fleshly selves are at war with our spiritual selves. The consequence is that, in my youth, I believed I was a bifurcated being and was never sure what to do with the messiness of my embodied existence. I was embarrassed by my desires and passions and was not sure what to do with my body when I went to church. It was as if I was burdened, rather than blessed, with my very fleshiness and hunger for life and love. And yet, this passage actually teaches that this very fleshiness is where the Spirit of the Lord chooses to dwell. How could I have missed that? (For more on this passage, listen to this chapel talk: “To Whom Do You Belong?”)
In Listening to the Spirit in the Text, biblical scholar Gordon Fee argues that Paul’s intention in 1 Corinthians is not to downgrade the body or to establish some kind of hierarchy for “spiritual” persons (see pp. 33-47). Instead, he is admonishing the Corinthians to claim their identity as persons of the Spirit. To be spiritual is not to belong to some sort of exclusive club or society but to be in relationship to the Holy Spirit, to which all manner of persons are welcome and invited. Moreover, the Spirit is the builder of relationships. If we are Spirit people (those who belong to the Spirit), then we are shaped spiritually by our relationships with one another and with God. In other words, the “shape” of one’s spirituality consists of one’s practice of engaging with God, with other people, and with all of creation. We are, then, defined by the vitality of our relationships.
We are shaped spiritually by our relationships with one another and with God.
I wish that my youth leaders had talked more about the goodness of my desire for deep and healthy relationship, and that the shape of my friendships as a teenager provided a window into the well-being of my future sexual life. I also wish they had connected my sexuality to life in the Spirit. 2 Timothy 1:7 is helpful here: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.” If only I had known when I was 16 that the Spirit would give me power to choose the good in my relationships, make me less timid in my search for love, and enliven and discipline my desire. If my body is truly the temple of the Holy Spirit, then my sexuality is an opportunity for spiritual formation rather than an aspect of my life to be shamed and hidden. Desire and sexuality are not impediments to the spiritual life but, instead, the very means by which God draws us closer.