Spiritual Beings

Over the last few weeks, I have been participating in a discussions group/small group through Cedar Ridge Community Church. I attended Cedar Ridge during college and think that overall it’s a great church. Cedar Ridge has attempted, and been quite successful at (I feel), faithfully inviting people into community, not just a Sunday worship experience. The church is situated on a beautiful 60 acre property, and part of their vision has been to re-farm some of that land in order to give food away.

The church is currently discussing sexuality and how each of us is in need of healing, as well as what sexuality has to do with community. The discussion group I joined (called a “Discipleship Group”) spends each week discussing parallel topics and themes from the Sunday sermons. I’ve enjoyed it, but public discussions of sexuality seem to often come with a set of assumptions that I’m not always comfortable with. One of those assumptions, that I think negatively affects both our perception of sexuality and our willingness to change ideas or practices, is that we are “sexual beings.”

This term, “sexual beings,” is a positive term for many progressive Christians. On the one hand, it is a way of rejecting the hatred of sex and body that used to be associated with conservative Christianity. The stereotype of Christians is that they think sex is bad, or so the Christian cliche goes, and so we have to assert that God made sex and sex is good. What’s ironic in that, to me, is that evangelical Christians have been saying that for years and I think these days it’s more of a perceived stereotype than anything else. But so-called progressive Christians often take it a step further and say that we are “sexual beings.”

My knee-jerk reaction to this label is one of caution and concern, in part because “sexual being” is a mainstream term, not peculiar to the Church. In other words, if the Church/Scripture is not the origin of this significant label, we ought to be careful about applying it. “Sexual being” carries a lot of weight. It places sex as the defining attribute of us as humans. Compare it to similar such terms. “Sentient being” categorizes humans primarily as beings who can reason. If I said we were “sinful beings,” it would seem like I was saying that we are known and defined primarily by our sin.

Each of the above labels isn’t entirely inaccurate if they are merely adjectives. They can be simultaneously true and seemingly not contradictory. Humans reason, sin, and experience sexuality. But my experience with conversations around sexuality is that “sexual being” is rarely used merely as a descriptor. It is used to ask people to change their persepective and see sexuality as who we are. This is a dangerous perspective, especially when it seems like mainstream culture is telling us the exact same thing. We are told, daily, that our sexuality is what makes us significant, and therefore to be human we need to indulge in it. Conveniently, believing that we are sexual beings coincides with the popular economic idiom, “Sex sells.” If enough people believe that they are defined by their sexuality, they will buy more. Within sexuality, society has now created “sexual identity” as a subset within the assumption that we are sexual beings. You are now charged not only with fulfilling your sexual desires as part of what it means to be human, you need to have an identity within that which really says who you are. You are either gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, queer; those are your identity options.

This is not to diminish the struggle and challenge for people who find themselves with minority sexual orientation. But shouldn’t we, as Christians, be wary of the labels and identities presented to us by mainstream culture? I fully admit that the Church has not done its job in instilling people with a better sense of identity, and I wonder if buying into the sexual being nomenclature contributes to that problem, not assuages it. We don’t want church to be a place that uses sex to sell its goods (even if it is good stuff!).

Teilhard de Chardin is quoted as saying, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I would say the same thing–we are not sexual beings having  a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings who experience sexuality. We learn from the gospels that to be fully human, as Jesus was, we don’t need to experience sex. Sex is not who we are. It’s a part of our created-ness, but it is not our being-ness. If we accept that sex is one way of expressing love, as I said here, and that our divine image-bearing is the defining characteristic of human existence, it might help us with the rest of the discussions about sexuality.

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9 comments

  1. Bill Samuel · May 17, 2010

    Brian, I doubt the pastors are aware of this understanding of the term. In fact, it’s not a term that I’ve ever heard much.

    However, I share a concern that this series – unlike series we’ve had about other aspects of life – has not really challenged what mainstream culture teaches. It seems unbalanced in that it emphasizes not pointing fingers and singling out sexual sins as greater than other sins, which is a valid point, without providing much guidance on how to find our way to putting our sexuality under Christ and resist unhealthy messages from mainstream culture.

    At its best, CRCC is post-liberal and post-conservative, operating outside of their paradigms and pointing towards transformation through Christ. However, this series has been pretty straight liberal, as well as being obsessively repetitive. I think it’s largely hitting at an error that those coming have already recognized and left, and failing to address in a meaningful way what members and attenders are really struggling with in this area.

    The theme is Towards Sexual Wholeness, which is a valid theme. There is still one week to go, but so far I haven’t seen much to point us towards what sexual wholeness looks like, and how we move towards it while facing societal pressure in a different direction.

    In over 5 years at CRCC, this has been the first series that has disappointed me.

    • brianjgorman · May 17, 2010

      HI Bill,
      I didn’t mean to imply that anyone is necessarily trying to talk about sexuality this way. More what I meant is that people (and not just at CRCC) use that phrase in particular without necessarily realizing that they are saying something quite significant. I admire Cedar Ridge for trying to address wholeness. My observations in this post are more a conglomeration of things I’ve heard from different conversations, both during this series and other places.

      I think Wendell Berry’s thoughts on the relationship of sexuality and community are very helpful insights into the whole issue.

  2. Rob Arner · May 17, 2010

    Hi there Brian (and Bill).

    I jumped on this thread from a link Bill put up on facebook (he and I serve in Consistent Life together). It caught my interest because I’m in the midst of teaching a Sunday School class on human sexuality at my smallish Mennonite church outside of Philadelphia. I note your mixed reaction to your church’s teaching series on sexuality, and since I’m engaged in a comparable venture myself at my church, I’d be interested in hearing more about what your church is teaching and how they are going about it.

    I’d would be very interested in sharing ideas to enhance my own class and deepening my understanding of the evangelical perspective on human sexuality, and perhaps your comments on the teaching material I’ve presented thus far at my church.

    • Bill Samuel · May 17, 2010

      Rob,

      You can go to http://www.crcc.org/messages/series/pursuit-sexual-wholeness and see the message titles, listen to the messages if you want, and see the discussion questions prepared for people’s reflection in small groups or on their own.

    • brianjgorman · May 17, 2010

      Hi Rob,
      One of the ways this series has taken shape has been the honesty and vulnerability of both the pastors and congregation (at least from what I’ve experienced in my group). That in itself is a good thing and certainly a good beginning to wholeness.

      However, to me, it’s difficult to talk about sexual wholeness without talk of sexual ethics. Without taking the risk of asserting that God’s peculiar vision and hope for sexuality might have specific expressions (for example that sex is best saved for marriage), I find it hard to see where you go from confession.

  3. Rob Arner · May 18, 2010

    Yes I completely agree. I’m a PhD student in theological ethics and while Christian sex ethics is not my primary field, it is an area of interest for me. In my class, my major overarching thesis is that God has called some people to a vocation of marriage, and others to a vocation of singleness. Not too controversial so far, right?

    But when someone attempts to go their own way and shoehorn themselves into a vocation for which God has not gifted and called them, bad things happen for everyone involved. I think that one reason many marriages fail is because many people whose giftings are better suited for a life of singleness and chastity try to get married because of social pressure, selfishness, or just plain lack of adequate self-knowledge. My thinking in this regard was shaped by a chapter in Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character.

  4. Rob Arner · May 18, 2010

    By the way, Brian- I note your link to Michael Gorman’s blog on the side. Are you by chance related? I’m a big fan of his work on Paul and his book on abortion in the early church.

  5. brianjgorman · May 18, 2010

    Yes Rob, I am the youngest son of Michael Gorman (I have an older brother at Duke Divinity currently).

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think your thesis for the class seems right on. It’s reasonable to conclude that more people are called to singleness than realize it, but there is very little real support (and especially in the Protestant church) and very few positive examples to help people believe that marriage isn’t the only faithful way to live.

  6. Bill Samuel · May 23, 2010

    Just want to say that this morning was the last session of the Sexual Wholeness series at Cedar Ridge. This session did address sexual ethics. Some of my concerns were alleviated with this last message.

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