This past week I had the great fortune of attending Stanford University’s Weiland Health Initiative Faith and Sexuality conference. It was a chance to discuss two topics that when put together may seem to make strange bedfellows. In discussing the intersection between sexuality and faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, we came to understand the power of sex in uniting and dividing. Perhaps one of the most eye-opening talks was given by the Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D., who discussed the sexual eclipsing of the erotic.
Rev. Johnson asked us to think about desire. Most often, desire is associated with two elements—food and sex. Our societal tendencies for going into overload mode with both have led to grave concerns. We are facing an obesity epidemic and there are discussions about whether sex addiction is a real condition. We have lost our ability to engage in moderation. With respect to sex, we are given hundreds of messages per day. In fact, when we were shown this image during the talk, I realized that while I’d actually used the exact same one in a lecture on eating disorders, I’d failed to recognize its violent aspects. This is just how normalized such images have become. We take them in, without stopping to question them.
Moving beyond imagery, Rev. Johnson explained that when people’s own experiences of sex do not align with the media hype of all that it could be, this becomes problematic. When the expectations of a sexual experience are set to be so high, we are bound to be disappointed. As a therapist, I would argue this could also be the beginning of various sexual dysfunctions. Rev. Johnson suggested four key reasons why sexuality and sexual intimacy tend to be troubled, fraught, or ambiguously valued.
The concept of “divine eroticism” was at the crux of Rev. Johnson’s talk. He explained how sex is about more than procreation and that this is where many theological debates get stuck. He discussed the fascinating notion of reclaiming the spiritual significance of the erotic from mystical traditions, or as he said, “what most Christians don’t learn in Sunday school.” The word “eros” is defined as the desire that draws us into encounter, intimacy, and union. While genital and sexual intimacy are one means of achieving this, there are other ways. Deep friendship, companionship with animals, giving of oneself to community are all forms of eros.
Rev. Johnson also discussed the Creator’s longing for communion with creation, as well as God’s love and desire for the individual. He talked about the hope inspired by Christian faith, sharing the following, “at last to be at home in our bodies without shame, at home with others without guilt, at home with God without fear.”
However, regardless of whether one even believes in a god, the conference speakers offered up many ways to think about faith and sexuality. The Rev. Daigan Gaither spoke about Buddhism and sexuality, with a focus on noticing our desires. What does it mean to achieve them? Does this desire fade to give way to another? What does it mean to hold your desire in awareness and simply do nothing about it? The study of self and desire he explained gives us many answers. For example, sex is not the only means of meeting certain needs. If it’s playfulness and attention you are seeking, flirtation may suffice. There are numerous types of connections we may have with people of a nonsexual manner that lead to fulfillment.
The resounding message of the conference for me was that such dialogues need to be had. Faith and sexuality do belong in the same conversations, as it can allow us to reclaim both. Faith need not be used to justify discrimination against sexual minorities, and sexuality need not be all about the hot and heavy romp between the sheets.
For more information see:
Biblical Sexuality and Gender: Renewing Christian Witness to the Gospel, The Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D., Pacific School of Religion, The Graduate Theological Union
Stanford Weiland Health Initiative: