Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sermon: "The Godly Erotic" (Delivered 2-11-07)

Opening Words
The New England Primer, one of the first children’s books published in the United States began like this: “[A is for Adam.] In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” If you read on, the Primer taught that “[F is for fool.] The idle fool is whipped at school.”

Such thinking still survives today, telling us that our nature is inherently sinful, that our physical bodies are dirty, that without constant vigilance (and an occasional whipping) we will regress into lustful depravity.

The liberal religious theology of Unitarian Universalism has always stood against this way of thinking. It has started with the premise that our nature and nature itself are, by nature, good – or at the very least neutral. And from there it has instructed us that our rightful response to the good gifts of our life is gratitude rather resentment, and that our bodies and our minds are gifts to be used well, not feared and not maligned.

On this day, when we turn our thoughts to love, to relationships, to sensuality, to our innate capacity for goodness, let us also turn our thoughts to the divine, to God and Goddess, to Eros and Aphrodite, to all that animates and enchants our earth and our nature.

As we gather without scorn or shame, let us worship together.

“Though there are Christian theologians who have viewed sexuality positively, much Christian writing still implies that sexuality is dangerous unless it is controlled within well-defined boundaries. According to nearly all denominational pronouncements, only in heterosexual marriage can sexual intimacy be deemed moral and good. The church-sanctioned rejection of same sex intimacy expresses fear that sexuality is dangerous. Boundless passion for boundless intimacy and joy is equated with defection from God’s loving rule. Same-sex love is a radically out-of-bounds form of sexual expression. It is apostasy – the unforgivable sin.

“Hidden within this suspicion of sexuality lies the view that the ideal relation to God resembles a monogamous, heterosexual marriage in which the male is superior and the female inferior. In this binary construction of gender, regarded as ordained by God at creation, the soul plays the part of the wife and is stereotypically female: passive, empty, dependent, and above all, obedient. God plays the part of the husband and is stereotypically male: authoritative, active, providential, and, above all, commanding. The soul depends on God for meaning, direction, and survival. Any intimacy outside this holy bond transgresses right relationship with a jealous God. The soul who passionately loves anyone or anything else has committed adultery. Thus, to take pleasure in the world, to feel sensually involved, or to enjoy the life of the body is to have ‘loved another.’ Those who break out of the power structure of patriarchal marriage and its binary construction of gender have committed the worst form of sin: love of one’s own kind instead of submission to one’s superior.

“If desiring intimacy with one’s own kind is sin, then love for the world, for the earth from which we are made, is a disordered love. Everyone who passionately loves this earth is ‘queer.’” [From the essay “You shall be like a watered garden” in Rebecca Parker, Blessing the World, p. 43-44]
Christian spirituality is not for straight men… or lesbians. At least not according to Dr. Jeffrey Kripal. Now a professor at Rice University, I had the honor of taking a class with Kripal when he taught at Harvard. He is a uniquely brilliant, insightful, and compassionate scholar. Kripal began his class by explaining that as a straight man he found Christian spirituality frustrating.

The reason for this was that the most ardent practitioners of Christian spirituality describe their experiences in physically sexual terms. They talk of being touched by God, of being letting Jesus inside them, of being penetrated by the spirit. They speak of a mystical union with the divine, of ecstasy, of being held in loving arms. And, as a straight man, Kripal didn’t necessarily feel this way about a male God. As a Catholic, Kripal wanted to know God, just not in the Biblical sense. (Well, in the Biblical sense, but not that Biblical sense.) Kripal observed that those around him having intense, rapturous religious Catholic experiences tended to be either straight women or gay men. Kripal writes, “My struggle with Catholicism has never been simply a matter of belief. It has always been a matter of (sexual) being, a profound crisis or conflict between two orders of being: my heterosexual existence and the tradition’s homoerotic structure.” [Kripal, p. 155]

So, Kripal did the math. He traveled to India. Hinduism had female deities and he figured he would be comfortable discovering the ecstasy of mystical union with a female deity. Kripal chose to study Ramakrishna, the founder of modern Hinduism, who was a devotee of the goddess Kali. (Kali is sort of the Angelina Jolie of goddesses.) Surprisingly, he found Ramakrishna’s mysticism to be homoerotic in nature.

You didn’t know that religion was like this, did you? Indeed, all spirituality has elements that touch upon the sexual and the erotic, just as all religion has to account for the sexual power it elicits. It has been widely suggested that the Christian church’s oppression of women, persecution of gays, and Sisyphean preoccupation with controlling sexual behavior is directly linked to the desire, anxiety, frustration, jealousy, shame, and panic experienced by straight men wanting union with God. Mark Jordan writes, “Christian churches seem cunningly designed to condemn same-sex desire and to elicit it, to persecute it and instruct it…. Perhaps it is more clearly seen as the paradox of the Catholic Jesus, the paradox created by an officially homophobic religion in which an all-male clergy sacrifices male flesh before images of God as an almost naked man.” [Kripal, p. 147]

A friend of mine drew my attention to an interfaith gathering held in Jerusalem a year or two ago. At this gathering, interfaith cooperation was manifested between orthodox Christians, orthodox Jews, and Muslim religious leaders as they joined together to oppose same-sex marriage. Viewing a picture of the participants my friend offered the snarky comment: “Men in dresses and silly hats join together to oppose gay marriage.”

You know, I was thinking this week that I don’t think I’ve ever preached about love. There’s no excuse for that. I’ve never preached about sex either, which is perhaps easier to excuse. I have preached about God. God will come up in my sermon this morning, this sermon about love and sexuality, and love of God, and sexuality and religion, and something I call “The Godly Erotic.”

But, let’s start with the basics. The ancient Greeks had many words for love. The ancient Greeks spoke of love in terms of philia, agape, and eros.

By Philia they meant the expression of friendly love. Today we speak of anglophiles, lovers of English; Francophiles, lovers of French; and, bibliophiles, lovers of books. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Philology is the love of words. Philocrites, the pseudonym of a Unitarian blogger, means “a lover of criticism.” (How very Unitarian of him!) When you say that you love to watch football, that you love to travel, that you love the symphony: that’s “philia.”

Agape is moral love. It is love that is self-sacrificing, other-centered, principled, and humanitarian. C. S. Lewis, in his book, Four Loves called agape the highest expression of love. The biography of Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian civil right activist who died in Selma is titled, “No greater love.” No greater agape. When love is mentioned in John 3:16, (“For God so loved the world…”) it is agape, too. In fact, it is pretty much all agape in the New Testament. When Jesus says love one another as I have loved you, it is agape, not eros.

Which brings us to eros, erotic love, which has traditionally been given short-shrift. In contrast to agape, which is self-less and self-sacrificing, eros is expressive and creative.

The theology that I am about to share with you is not terribly original or contemporary. For decades and decades, feminist theologians have offered critiques of patriarchy in religion, challenging the church’s teachings about power and gender, sin and salvation, body and sexuality. This project has been varied and multi-faceted.

Some saw the church as terminally patriarchal and sought to create a system of symbolic meaning that was gendered female. The goddess replaced God; the moon emerged alongside the sun; the earth was no longer material and sinful, but enchanted, magical, and divine.

Other feminist theologians did not renounce the church, but sought to reclaim the place of women in the church. Great attention was paid to Marian theology, to female mystics and saints, and to women of the Bible. Sometimes this meant exploring parts of church history deemed unorthodox, such as the Gnostic’s conception of Sophia and the Divine feminine. Think of The Da Vinci Code.

But I want to focus on the work of the feminist theologian, Rebecca Parker, whose work challenged the suppression of erotic love and the elevation of agapic love. In her 1992 essay “Making Love as a Means of Grace”, Parker begins by explaining that the church, from Saint Augustine on, made a distinction between spirit and matter. This was very dualistic thinking, to separate heaven from earth. God became good and the earth became sinful. The spirit became holy and the body became evil. This way of thinking was very unfortunate, on one level. It allowed us to treat the earth materialistically and also encouraged negative attitudes towards sex. (In another way this dualistic thinking wasn’t all bad. I once heard Suzanne Meyer opine that by removing the divine from nature, scientific understanding became possible. By removing the divine from the body, modern medicine became possible.) But the project of some feminist theologians has been to reclaim the divine nature of both body and earth.

What happens when we say that the world is not evil but good, that the body is not sinful but holy? Rebecca Parker quotes Audre Lorde, “Once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves capable of…. When we begin to live… in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense… we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.” [Parker, Making Love, p. 135]

Lourde continues, “In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, [and] self-denial.” [Parker, Making Love, p. 139]

Parker writes, “Sexual knowledge… knowledge bequeathed to us through our bodies, is gracious and saving knowledge. It releases us from a false sense of separation and alienation from the world. It baptizes us into the whole [of] creation and tells us we are good... And in some moments, making love gives us a sense of complete peace through the experience of immediate joy.” [Parker, Making Love, p. 140]

Ok, so how do we do this? Well, there is the obvious way. I will leave it up to you to figure out what is the right way for you to express sexuality and sensuality with your beloved and/or with yourself. But I do want to tell you how some of the theologians I have mentioned today describe “The Godly Erotic.” Remember, we are not talking about a self-denying, agapic love, but of an embodied erotic love. The Godly Erotic is whatever helps us to “become world in ourselves” to quote Susan Griffin. Sex is a way, but not the only way, to do this.

The scholars I have mentioned point to a number of activities beyond making love as avenues for the cultivation and expression of erotic power. They tend to name activities that are creative and imaginative – painting, writing, composing – as avenues to and channels for erotic energy. They also point to social justice work as an expression of the same. Since erotic love is not content with numbness, and is not content with suffering, it leads those who experience it in the fullest to work passionately to lessen suffering. Make love, not war, indeed. Martin Luther King said that love without power is anemic and sentimental, and that power without love is reckless and abusive.

Rebecca Parker witnessed and beautifully described the scene in San Francisco when, for a few short weeks in February 2004, the city recognized same-sex marriage.
“Overnight, beginning with Valentine’s Day weekend, San Francisco’s city hall become a sanctuary. With astonished grace, the hidden power of love revealed itself. From everywhere, pilgrims streamed to the newly born shrine. Couples who had been together for thirty or forty years legally sealed their commitment. New lovers made promises for a lifetime… Wedding processions of every conceivable kind promenaded up the steps of the city hall – top hats and lace, leather and organic cotton, sequined gown and T-shirts. They were accompanied by jazz, rock, African drums, classical string quartets, Chinese flutes, and church choirs. The hullabaloo went on for weeks. Day after day, festivities multiplied, filling the streets with balloons, flowers, and dancing. Eros unveiled its presence in a myriad of bodies, cultures, colors, and ages. It was an epiphany of happiness, an outbreak of affirmation for the goodness of human sexuality, an unexpected, wildly welcome yes to the deep power of committed love.” [Parker, Watered Garden, p. 41.]

Of course, that passage reads differently this week, as recent developments have shown that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newstrom was having problems with his own sexual ethics and his own relationships. His failings, I fear, will only arm those who advocate for a legalistic sexual morality which uses shame and assumes our inherent depravity. The truth, however, is that legalistic, sin-based, acts-centered approaches to sexual ethics are unhelpful. I commend to you the work of someone like Marie Fortune, whose book Love Does No Harm provides a framework for sexual ethics that isn’t rigid or grounded in a negative view of humanity.

In concluding, let me mention these delightful words by Rebecca Parker: “Making love is not the be all and end all of life. It rarely approaches perfection and isn’t the most important thing we do. But it is far from the root of all sin. On the contrary, it can be life’s most delightful means of grace. As such, it should be held in honor among all people, and no church should legislate against its potential for undergirding all that is right, good, and joyful in our lives.” [Parker, Making Love, p. 140]