The urge to merge: spirituality and sexuality
By Paul Tonson
A starter for an intentional conversation
The creative energy for this paper is a conversation between one’s experience of the sexual and one’s experience of the spiritual aspects of life. My reflections are existential and not predicated on any worldview. They are intended to be relevant to people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. I have avoided making discriminatory assumptions about the nature of male and female sexuality and differences of desire and practice between partners.
I am assuming a spiritual aspect of life experience that is grounded in lived human experience. I do not think that a human being possesses a spirit or soul. This is a compartmentalization of life perpetuated by Greek philosophy that is no longer meaningful. Rather I understand spirituality as a consciousness and a mindfulness of one’s own inner subjectivity, motivations and ethics, of one’s connectedness to the other and to nature, and of one’s need for meaning in life.
Here is the first parallel in that sexuality is similarly a consciousness, of one’s own body and physicality and one’s yearning for physical connection with another person as a means to a mutually satisfying relationship. We first create connection in both arenas by candid and trusting conversation with appreciative and dispassionate enquiry.
Outward and inward aspects of connectedness
In a loving relationship, partners experience the urge to merge, to develop their connectedness both emotionally and physically. Sexual connectedness is an outward link between bodies while spiritual connectedness is a sense of an inward link that exists independently of physical connection. In both realms connectedness signifies a mutual trust to enter the private physical and mental spaces of one’s partner.
Regarding sexual connection, a healthy perspective is represented by the title of a popular book by Alex Comfort (rev. ed. 2002) in his book titles ‘The Joy of Sex’ and ‘More Joy…’ made explicit a key element of connectedness. On the sexual side it is about playfulness and indulgence in the erotic. On the spiritual side of connection is the joy of mutual empathy, understanding and intention, the joy of mutual belonging. The intense physical connection of sex can express the intensity and depth of human love for another person.
The subsections in this paper intentionally recognise the range of attitudes and activities that a couple may need to appreciate about both the spiritual realm of life and the sexual.
The flesh and the spirit in Christian tradition
Sadly the above integrating understanding of sexuality and spirituality has not been the viewpoint of the Christian church. Some parts of the New Testament set up an unhealthy polarity between flesh and spirit. Both Catholic and Protestant teaching has been moralistic and negative about sex of all kinds. However, the Hebrew Bible offers conceptions of both sexuality and spirituality that are a basis for a joyful expression of human love and passion.
From Genesis 1 we find the affirmation that male and female equally are “made in the image and likeness of God” and are to “be fruitful and multiply’. Without assuming any particular GOD concept, we may consider that our capacity for deep connection with another person is a transcendent experience to be enjoyed and honoured.
The influence of Greek thought on the nascent Hebrew sect called Christian did not overwhelm the teaching of Jesus that the Kingdom of Heaven is within, not somewhere else. Spirituality like sexuality is embodied. Within a biblical perspective, sexuality is to be treated with an attitude not of tolerance but of embrace. This applies as much to homosexual as to heterosexual love.
The biblical vision for human life is for each person to be whole with an integrity of body and spirit with a spiritual balance between our physical, social, emotional and mental lives. To my mind all four of these aspects of human life are channels to express both spirituality and sexuality.
The premise of this paper about the link between the sexual and the spiritual was proposed centuries ago in medieval Christianity that pictured a commitment to Christ as an intimate relationship. The vow of chastity was based on a positive sense of communion between the believer and the Lord. Some could effectively channel the energy of libido into other fruitful outlets and caring relationships. But most of us are working on enjoying and balancing our sexual and spiritual aspects.
An evocative statement from the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer offers a useful contribution to our perspective where at their wedding a couple declare: “With my body I thee worship.” These words signify that a willing and enthusiastic offering of one’s body and one’s self to one’s partner sexually is central to a sexual spiritual partnership.
Attitudes before Actions
The words spirituality and sexuality refer to qualities of human experience expressed in action. But underlying all actions are attitudes which generate the outward physical and social expression of our sexual and spiritual awareness. In both arenas, attitudes based on social factors have an immediate impact. We act according to what other people think of us or expect of us and vice versa.
We may wonder how we will lose our virginity, or face social pressure around sexual performance. Our own attitudes also have a large impact on the sexual performance aspect of a relationship.
Similarly religious communities have often been focused on the steps of baptism and confirmation or conversion through which a person affirms a particular belief and a spiritual commitment. We may be preoccupied either with what religion can do for us, what others expect us to do, or what can we do to make a difference in the world.
Throughout life there is a conversation between our inner life and the outer world. Through this conversation, the formation of both our spiritual and our sexual identity and character takes place. It is natural for humans to be experimental about all aspects of living and to use their ‘discovery channel’ as well as learning from influential people or media. In our longing for life and meaning, we have the freedom to immerse and indulge ourselves in rich spiritual and sexual experiences appropriate to our comfort zone.
Many studies have treated the concept of stages in religious and spiritual understanding that people experience. Similarly our attitudes and actions regarding sexuality continue to develop well beyond puberty and young adulthood. It may take years to understand and come to terms with one’s own sexuality and identity.
This paper aims to give priority to the formation of appropriate attitudes that will lead to a joyful expression of spirituality and sexuality.
Naiveté and Knowledge are both valuable
While attitudes are more basic, sexual knowledge is also important. In our society, media of all kinds ensure that there is no shortage of certain kinds of information about sex. In Cosmo and Cleo magazines and on Google without resorting to porn we can read about all kinds of sexual technique. Information about religious practices and beliefs is also readily available.
However in both realms, children and even older people may be sheltered from important information by the attitudes of their parents or shamed by their peers. It is not always easy to explore spiritual traditions or sexual experience and to decide our own beliefs and actions.
Even if we do access lots of information, this does not equate to a mature understanding. With limited spiritual and sexual experiences of our own we may have naïve and unhelpful ideas about ‘God’ in our lives, or about the relational and emotional aspects of sex.
Nevertheless, the naivete of childhood and of adolescence is a precious thing to be treasured, not lamented. Each individual should have access to information but be free to explore it when they are ready. A loving couple may have added joy beginning their relationship in a relatively unsophisticated state that lets them learn first from each other rather than from books and videos. The real life of a partner is a rich arena of knowledge that can enhance one’s own sensitivity and attitudes as powerfully as any media information.
Saying ‘No’ and saying ‘Yes’
There are ethical issues that arise in both sexuality and spirituality. To be ethical means to take responsibility for our choices and to make choices out of love and respect for others. We need the capacity to say No and to say Yes.
The rights and wrongs of the ‘no’ or ‘yes’ in a sexual relationship should be determined wholly by the nature of the relationship, not by the prevailing freedoms or taboos of one’s particular culture. Beyond the age of consent we are free to have sex with anyone but this does not mean it will be an enriching experiencing. Saying ‘no’ or ‘yes’ takes account of the nature of sexual engagement as a bonding experience and as a measure of personal commitment.
For these reasons, partners must be able to say no, and should not cave in to pressure in their sexual behaviour, whether it is peer pressure or the influence of social attitudes, pressure from the partner, or pressure from one’s own desires.
In the spiritual realm there are many people who have said yes to an emotional appeal and subsequently been hurt to the extent of broken relationships. For those people, it will be helpful to understand what in religious faith is attractive and even seductive, but also to learn how to be committed in a transformative way that is personally affirming. Saying yes and saying no both are key capacities each one of us needs to respond fruitfully to passionate appeals of a religious or political nature.
Lust and Love
Physical desire or lust for one’s partner, the urge to merge, is a normal human experience. In childhood and adolescence, the physical sensations of sex may dominate our thoughts. As we become used to sexual arousal, our thoughts and fantasies and imagination play a greater part. So Hugh Heffner of Playboy magazine stated that the biggest sex organ is the brain to acknowledge that how we think about sexuality is a key aspect to sexual performance. Lust becomes a problem when it is preoccupied with ‘me’ and not the other.
Parallel to lust as a physical desire are the emotional feelings of longing and yearning which have a spiritual element. We may enhance our lust with love and affection and the desire to give joy and pleasure to the other person. A couple may usefully share with each other deepest yearnings and their longing for a life that is rich in meaning and for relationships that are enduring and deeply sustaining.
Losing your virginity – arrival and departure
For both gay and straight people, the experience of sexual penetration is one of the most significant life experiences, a rite of passage. Whether it happens early or late, it will fit within a pattern of deepening intimacy, including smiling, eye contact, expressions of romantic feeling, touching, holding hands, kissing, massaging, petting, mutual masturbation and oral intercourse. At each point a sense of mutual trust and self-giving is active.
For this paper, the question arises whether there is a watershed experience of losing one’s virginity in a spiritual sense. On the journey of spiritual awareness, there may come a recognition that an individual life is not intended to be autonomous and solely self-directed. Some may make a response to Christ or God, sometimes as a conversion. Others may experience a major turning point in life as a grateful response for the privilege of life sets them on a new course of generous and altruistic living. For some this may be a deeply felt penetration into their lives that they are connected to a world of opportunity and need.
We may observe that in adolescence, having sex and losing one’s virginity may be a major goal. But after the fact comes the realization that it was only a starting point to a lifelong learning. So also a spiritual turning point such as conversion, that has been sometimes described as getting saved, is only the beginning of lifelong character formation. What seemed ahead of time like an arrival point takes on more the character of a point of departure.
De jure and de facto marriage
In our society there is no longer any general assumption that a wedding ceremony in itself is needed to legitimate the sexual relationship of a couple or even their role as parents. In any case whatever legitimation marriage provides, it does not ensure true love or effective parenting. The key issue is not having a legal relationship but having a right relationship.
A move from de jure to de facto has also occurred in religious commitments. In Christianity, confirmation has lost its attraction for people baptised as infants and even the baptizing of infants is has greatly diminished. While this is unsettling for formal religious authorities, it invites us to focus not on the form but on the substance of faith and religious expression. When the externals of religion seem of little consequence an individual, one may still ask what is enduring about the religious heritage into which you were born.
Formation as a Couple
As young people emerge from the culture and religion imposed by their parents, many of them become less religiously active and they struggle to find whether any enduring spiritual value remains. Meanwhile the freedom to explore their sexuality seems to offer a lot more interest and satisfaction. A couple who have enjoyed sexual intimacy may discover that whether they intended it or not, some level of bonding has taken place. They may yearn to be together again. Now the formation of the sexual and spiritual identity of each individual prior to a relationship, leads on to the formation of the relationship between the couple.
At each stage in their relationship, a loving couple will recognise that they have no qualms about some of the earlier stages of sexual expression that at first were tentative, even daunting. Whether or not a couple get married, only a considerable period of trust will bring the freedom of complete abandonment to the joy of sex with each other.
However prior to sexual intimacy and beyond it are the elements of conversation in which the couple are intimate and trusting about their similar or different and even conflicting attitudes. There is a bonding that emerges from the conversation with a desire to be together again to talk. This formation of friendship can occur and develop without any sexual attraction. In my view this is a spiritual experience in that it is an inward connection.
It is not rocket science to say that a couple will best sustain and develop their bond where they maintain a balance of sexual intimacy to share their bodies and reflective conversation to share their minds and hearts.
Disclaimer: views represented in SOFiA articles are entirely the view of the respective authors and in no way represent an official SOFiA position. They are intended to stimulate thought, rather than present a final word on any topic.