The Common Good
May-June 2002

Managing the Erotic Life

by Rose Marie Berger | May-June 2002

In Boston, more Catholic priests made the news as serial pedophiles. In California, two pastors got 4 million hits in a week on their Web site for people addicted to pornography.

In Boston, more Catholic priests made the news as serial pedophiles. In California, two pastors got 4 million hits in a week on their Web site for people addicted to pornography. Twenty-three percent of the male Protestant pastors sampled in a Christianity Today survey admitted to sexually inappropriate behavior with someone other than their wives.

What's a Christian to do?

While some prefer to "just say no" to the bunny brand, most people need a safe place to ask honest questions about managing their erotic lives. Do we bury our sexuality in public, then practice prurient behavior in private? Do we let the culture set the boundaries of our sexual mores and ditch Christian teaching as hopelessly archaic? How do we develop healthy and holy sexual disciplines?

Historically, the Catholic church has laid down sexual laws that reflect a certain imperial attitude: Have as many children as possible in order to spread Catholicism far and wide. Protestant teaching emphasized that sex should be dour, painful, and an assigned duty of marriage. It was definitely not something one talked about. As Christians we have a lot of bad history to overcome. Maybe we should add "sex is good, sex is holy" to our daily prayers.

It's also true that sex is not the be-all-and-end-all experience that our culture makes it out to be. Television, movies, music, commercials, billboards, and certain American presidents all tell us that sex is a necessary part of being powerful. What we learn is that our sexuality is chattel bought and sold in the marketplace. It goes to the highest bidder.

How can we recover a sacred sexuality? Sex is one of a whole range of ways that we incarnate God. Sex can be recreational, relational, reproductive. It is primarily sacramental (which hopefully includes all of the above). We can be our best selves—and our worst selves—when we are our sexual selves.

While sex is not the ultimate life experience, it is too essential to hide or cede. The word itself has the same root as the words divide, saw, or cut through. It refers to what divides us (male and female), but also that thing that cuts through to the heart of life. Sexual attraction sweeps us into a funhouse of mutual fascination. Hormonally, we become "enthralled" with the other. This is "infatuation"—slipping into the world of illusion, the land of fools. Then we wake up. The charmed circle of fascination is breached. The love that lasts (in whatever form) must have a creative potential beyond itself.

PART OF MATURING is learning the delicate interplay of the erotic. As we grow we learn the differences between the lovely and frightening physicality of genital relations and orgasm called "sex" and the complex way that we understand our bodies, our genders, and our affections that make up our "sexuality." We learn the emotional, psychological, and spiritual ebb and flow of walking in the rain, dancing slowly, cooking and eating, engaging new ideas, filling a cathedral with the breath of our music. We find out what makes up our "sensual" selves.

Intimacy (etymologically linked to "intestines") is about the many ways we hold each other's inner core—in conflict, compassion, affection, and love. Intimacy requires that we risk finding out new information about ourselves. As we become more comfortable with our intimate relationships, we learn to accept their ambiguities. We wrestle with how to balance the compromise and personal integrity that intimacy requires—the necessary expanding and contracting of boundaries.

Too much of the church's teaching on sex has been about rules and regulations. That approach won't work any more. Read the story of Jacob and Laban in Genesis. Jacob starts out as a "righteous man"—a rule-follower—but in his 20 years of sexual intrigue with Laban over Rachel and Leah, Jacob breaks all the rules. It is in this crucible of sin, however, that God transforms Jacob into a "baal teshuva"—a man of mercy.

This is what God intends—a life-shaping narrative that allows sex, sexuality, and sensuality to be part of the sacred and complex interplay of light and shadow across the human heart. In recovering a sacred, respectful sexuality we make our bodies a fit dwelling place for God. It may not get as much press as sin, but it's a good definition of church.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. She blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com.

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