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.