Sexual Anxiety

It's important to get our sexuality and spirituality in line with each other.

Posted Feb 02, 2009

Last week I gave a series of lectures to a group of pastoral counselors, hospital chaplains, and theology professors, and their students. I spoke for about two and a half hours about their calling to the seriously ill and emphasized the need for a spiritual counselor to understand narrative, ritual, and symbol.

Along the way, I mentioned that a problem we run into in hospitals is the person who was brought up in a judgmental, moralistic, and literalistic religion and who may have a negative attitude toward his body and his life in general. I noted that in the Gospels, especially in the Gospels that were not included in the New Testament, Jesus is sometimes shown to be almost an Epicurean. I joked that if I were the pastor of a church, I'd called it "Jesus the Epicurean." In passing I referred to the Gospel of Philip, where it is said that Jesus kissed Mary Magdalen (according to the Leloup translation).

The next day I happened to be in conversation with one of the professors, and he told me that he had asked two of his students what they got out of my lectures. Both immediately said that they were offended by the remark about Jesus kissing Mary. "Out of two and half hours of ideas about offering spiritual guidance in a hospital, you focused on that single reference?" he said to them. They nodded.

During my thirty years of practicing psychotherapy, I heard person after person telling the story of how their sexuality was repressed, depressed, and suppressed by their religion. I saw the harm this repression did to their marriages and their outlook on life. Cumulatively, I see its negative impact on American life.

The repression of one's sexuality leads to a certain kind of depression and that in turn leads to meanness of spirit. You see it at PTA meetings, local government meetings, and in comments of the public after news items online. You see it in a widespread absence of civility in our society, in a compulsive interest in sex online and in the media, and in sexist and abusive treatment of women.

It was curious to me that a passing remark should have bothered the two students so much. In a state of sexual anxiety even a mild remark about sex leaps into awareness and draws forth condemnation. It's as though the very people who don't want to have sex in sight anywhere can't help but notice its slightest appearance. They aren't comfortable with it enough to lower their guard.

I was especially concerned to hear this story because it involved young men in training to be spiritual counselors in a hospital. In their condition of sexual anxiety what kind of guidance could they offer sick patients? A person's attitude about sex affects everything he does. Sex is a primary fuel for life. It is particularly implicated in treatment of the ill, since the body is so explicitly involved.

I'm about to publish a book on the Gospels. During the writing of this book, as I read the Gospels rather closely, I saw no sexual anxiety and no basis for it in those who preach and try to live the Gospel values. Jesus is a forgiving, accepting, tolerate, and joyous figure. He seems remarkably comfortable with two streams or dimensions of life: ordinary earthly existence and intense spiritual awareness. Frequently he tells others to relax. He cooks for his friends, dines with questionable people, and in one non-canonical text, dances with his students.

When I give talks to church groups, I often give them an equation to consider. I ask them what it would take from their spirituality to be comfortable with their sexuality, and what it would take from their sexuality to be fully engaged spiritually. If either our sexuality or our spirituality are anxious and troubled, then both are going to be weakened. We need to work out a way to be anxiety-free both in sexuality and spirituality.

If you are a spiritual leader or in training to be one, you face the important task of sorting these issues out, so that you don't act out your anxieties with your patients. Getting to that point requires self-analysis and self-confrontation and good ideas. To be a deep resource for others, you have to have your sexuality in a comfort zone, not perfectly but adequately. You can have your eyes pointed toward heaven, but you also need to be at home on earth and in your body.