A reflection on “God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction” by Adrian Thatcher. This is where Thatcher is intersecting with my world.
I’m raising 3 kids today (2 of them presently teenagers) in an over-sexed American culture and as well within the framework of a biblical narrative that I refer to as the Kingdom of God. Within this worldview, how can we as parents lead and influence them in the ongoing development not just of their physical sexuality (i.e. healthy puberty), but perhaps much more crucial, their emotional development, their sense of identity and healthy expressions of intimacy?
Historically, and what was certainly my story growing up within different camps of Evangelicalism (fundamental to pentecostal), the church largely is really, really, really bad at approaching the topic of sexuality. There seem to be 2 approaches or lines of thinking. First approach is to avoid the topic altogether, pretend it doesn’t exist, camp in the land of denial. The message becomes, “dear God, don’t think about that”, and if you do, then shame is your bed-fellow. The 2nd approach is to teach a kind of Christian a-sexuality with a value towards aescetic behavior. That to be truly spiritual means that the desires and lusts of your flesh have been completely dominated and under constant control. This is a kind of compartmentalizing of our being, a dualism of the flesh being evil and the spirit being good and the two never shall meet. We push our kid’s sexuality underground, in secret, into spaces of fear and to a carousel of shame and guilt.
Within the church historically, we teach kids/teens that our sexuality doen’t really begin until after marriage and then it can be blindly pursued without any further conversation. The message is ‘no’ and ‘dear god stop it’ for 15,20,25 or 30 years in loud verbal and non-verbal language. And then magically, in a 45 minute ceremony where the flowers match the hue of the dresses, God attends the ceremony and quietly affirms that now sex is okay and free to pursue. Quickly and quietly he then dismisses himself out of the presence of the new couple to consummate their mariage, covering his eyes in bashful gesture. As if sexuality is a switch that can be turned off and on (no pun intended). The reality is individuals have been formed with no positive or healthy category for their sexuality and then are supposed to instantly attain one by the time they get to the receiving-line, and certainly by the time of the cutting of the cake. If you don’t have it figured out by the time the best man loads the last gift into the newlywed’s car then (again no pun intended), you’re screwed.
By not addressing sexuality with our kids/teens, we leave the reality of education and formation to the culture of the day. In this information and digital age, we now have entire generations raised on porn. It’s not that pornography is new or even novel, it’s that it’s never been so easily accessible to everyone, regardless of age or geographic. The annonymity of accessibility due to personal computing and digital devices keeps their sexual influencing in secret where addictive behavior supercedes healthy relationship. Sex becomes another consumer product that is all about us. The fantasy is sold that we are desireable, the images are there for us, rejection is not a reality, we control our outcome, the products exist for our complete consumption. Porn is fantasy, it is not reality and that can be very confusing for a developing mind. The fantasy images are not people, they are not someone’s daughter/son, they are not someone’s mother, they are impersonal products for our consumption. What does this teach us/them about the nature of our world, let alone a lifelong intimacy of sexual expression?
Dr. Jennifer Austin Leigh, in Psychology Today, puts it this way:
By now most of us know that teen brains are less mature than adult brains. Teens use their limbic system more often for making decisions. That is the area of the brain used for feeding, fleeing, fighting and sexual reproduction. Growth and connectivity to the prefrontals takes decades. Without a more mature brain to help teens sort out the intense emotional arousal of porn, watching it could leave a teen feeling that porn is a true representation of what sex, relationships, and intimacy should look like in real life.
As well the culture teaches that sexual expressions are physical/biological acts that are disconnected from our complex personhoods. The only downside is unwanted pregnancy, therefore all safe-sex is good sex. This fallacy follows the same kind of dualism that the church utilizes but in an opposite way. That what our bodies do is not connected to our real selves, who we really are. Sex is a simple physical arrangement with a powerful rush of endorphins. We are simply mammals doing what mammals will do. This simplistic explanation doesn’t allow for the powerful emotional bonding of sexual intimacy and what the experience is of ripping that relationshp apart. It is not a clean break, a part of us leaves with the former partner. Emotionally, the bonds are permanent. Condoms may be effective at the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, but they do not make a condom for the heart.
Being a sexual super-freak is a cultural ideal, but it doesn’t scratch what really itches; the longing to be home in the arms of another. We long to be naked and not ashamed, truly and powerfully ‘one flesh.’ Where do we find such a truth?
It is in this context that I read Thatcher, “that we are more than our biology”. (3) In fact we are created this way, “we should resist any temptation to feel guilty about what turns us on because we did not choose to be this, or any other, way.” (6) It is very difficult for Christians to come up with a decent definition of our sexuality, we are so used to denying ourselves pleasure according to spiritual disciplines, how do we find a positive category of celebrating it? We are used to seeing ourselves as sinners humbly in need of grace and forgiveness. How do we change our tune and receive ourselves? How do we accept the opportunity to be desired by another? It’s not the product of another flannel-graph Sunday School lesson, it requires refreshing honesty of what is and how we actually feel in our sexuality. Thatcher includes the definition of Jo Ind (British Christian writer) who says:
“When I am talking about sexuality I am talking about the multi-dimensional, richly textured, embarassingly sublime, muscle-tighteningly delicious capacity to be turned on.” (5)
Other helpful quotes from Thatcher for me:
- Re: Realism about lust (and the root lie in porn) – “I think a positive account of sexual desire must maintain a sad realism about its destructive potential, while refusing the shadow of suspicion and frustration that has too often extinguished the joy and spiritual meanings of sexual love. (61)
- Re: the official Catechism teaching of the Catholic Church states that outside of marriage, the only acceptable behavior is ‘chasity in continuence’. For Protestants it’s that marriage is like God’s license for having sex. However, “few Christians uphold this teaching in practice.” (77) Clearly, our present practice/teaching/formation is not working or is unrealistic or something else entirely.
- Re: Sex as created and normal play – “Children and young people will want to explore their bodies, and as desire grows, the bodies of others. Exploration is a name appropriately given to these activities, which contribute to self-knowledge and are a consequence of the way God made us. The desire to explore desirable bodies is as natural as any alleged requirement of the Natural Law, isn’t it? This is a legitimate meaning of sexual activity. The idea of sex as recreation conveys a sense of playfulness, of pleasure, of continual re-creating of a relationship.” (204)
- Re: the virtue of waiting – “Waiting is a means of acquiring patience, and patience is itself a trait of character essential to the success of a long-term relationship. Waiting may also be a means of avoiding regret. Several studies show that over half of young women who were asked about their first experience of having sex, said they were disappointed (or worse) with it, and wished they had waited until they were older. But there is a spiritual dimension to waiting, and that is because waiting is central to the practice of Christian faith and life. Waiting is more than a prudential policy, an unattractive but neccesary means for acquiring virtue. Waiting is one of the things all Christians do!” (206)
- Re: extended adolescence and marrying later in age – “The interval between puberty and marriage has never been greater. It is unprecedented. Healthy individuals cannot be expected to wait until around 30 years of age for their first experience of full sex. It is pastorally insensitive, as well as unrealistic, to expect them to do so.” (209) He then goes on to describe the historical context for betrothal, something I really want to study more because I think it’s a possible answer to our larger questions.
So what is the ideal? To me it is wrapped up in the mystical notion and understanding that though our sexuality is a powerful part of who we are, it is not beyond or in spite of the mind of the One who made us and governs our loins as well as the stars. Thatcher calls God “Suprasexual“, and I heartedly agree.
Suprasexual: When applied to God, the term means that God is more than, not less than, sexual. God is beyond the distinction between male and female. The image of God may be found in men and women alike. Since God is Love, it also follows that the suprasexual God may be found in the meaning of sexual love, while never being completely identified with it. (119)
Our sexuality is private, but it’s not in secret. It is powerful, but its not shameful. It has the power to build and the power to destroy. It is not other, it is a part of who we are to embrace. The expression of intimacy in this life within the attachments of relational bonding (marriage), is as close as we can get to understanding the kind of intimacy that is attached to the Holy Trinity. It is not simply physical, it is deeply spiritual and a part of the image of God within us coming alive. For that reason, it also ought to be sacred, protected and worth the wait.
Our culture sells the lie of a super-freak lifestyle. I desire to pass on the legacy of life lived in freedom in the Kingdom of God where the truth about ourselves can be found and deeply enjoyed. That is under the care of a Suprasexual God.