Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Flesh Became Word: A New Theology of Sexuality and Spirituality




What follows is a chapter from my doctoral thesis that I completed at Episcopal Divinity School in 2007. At the time I was still with my former denomination, MCC. The question I was asking in this thesis was: Could MCC be a multi-faith church of justice, where it would also be Christian, even if the name "Jesus" was never used, because it would be following in the footsteps of Jesus in doing justice ministry across denominational lines. I decided the answer was "No." MCC could not be that church but, fortunately, there was already a multi-faith church of justice: Unitarian Universalism. And happily, that is where I am now.

              In the second chapter of the book of Acts we witness the beginning of the Church. We read of how a group of people, the size of a small church, waited as directed by Jesus for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. They did not know what that would look like but they certainly knew when it happened. As they were overcome by the power of the moment they rushed outside and began speaking in languages they had not previously known, witnessing God’s power, with their heads on fire. (vv. 1-4, NRSV).
            Most Christians are accustomed to this text and read it with an understanding of a purely
 spiritual moment in which people were empowered in a new way to share God’s unconditional, chaste love with all people. But what if we read it as a sexual union with God that was deeply spiritual? The movement that we now know as Christianity began in a glorious cacophony of sound. It began as an unrestrained proclamation of God’s power and might in languages that all might understand(vv. 8-11, NRSV). That is how the book of Acts tells it. Lovers of Jesus gathered together in an upper room, feeling the power of possibilities that even death could not subdue. In the second chapter of Acts, we see the culmination of days of waiting, praying, anticipating until at last, the lovers of Jesus were inflamed with a desire so intense that they could only shout out their longing, their love for God, God’s love for them in languages that their bodies and spirits knew, if their minds did not(v. 4, NRSV). In fact, you could say the Church began in an orgasm of spiritual proportions; with a climactic utterance understood in any language. In this glorious union, the lovers of Jesus not only experienced a spiritual epiphany in their minds and spirits, they experienced an embodied union with the Divine that can only be described as sexual.
            If, as Carter Heyward asserts in Touching our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God, “the erotic is our most fully embodied experience of the love of God (1989, pg. 99)”,  then this would be the most natural and powerful way for the Spirit of God to conceive- in union with people, the Church. This means that the birth of the Church was not dependent solely on God but on the people’s willingness to let go of themselves in erotic, spiritual bliss. Hayward asserts that a sexual orgasm can be “a climax in our capacity to know, ecstatically, for a moment, the coming together of self and other [...] a desire for control and an equally strong desire to let go; a sense of self and other as both revealed and concealed; the simultaneity of clarity and confusion about who we are; and tension between the immediacy of vitality and pleasure and a pervasive awareness, even in moments of erotic ecstasy, that the basis of our connection is the on-going movement–that is, the friendship–which brings us into this excitement and releases us into the rest of our lives, including the rest of this particular relationship (1989, pg. 33).” This description seems to fit exactly the conception of the Church. There was a strong sense of connection with God as Peter proclaimed in Acts:2:14-21, a sense of vitality as the early followers were energized by their union with the Divine (Acts 2:43-47), and a clarity mingled with confusion about what this embryonic relationship would become as seen in the account in Acts 10 of Peter’s vision about clean and unclean food.
            If we understand the story not as the birth of the church but as the sexual-spiritual union between God and humanity that conceived the Church then we can more fully understand how radical a movement early Christianity was. From this point of view we can see the radical erasure of both social and religious boundaries in a clearer light. Just as when, in the moment of climax between human lovers, the boundaries are blurred until it really seems as if there are no distinct bodies but a merging into one, so too, in the moment of Pentecostal ecstasy, the boundaries between God and humans and humans with one another became blurred. Distinctions between cultural understandings of the roles of women and men, Jews and gentiles, clean and unclean were no longer clear. The inclusion of women in leadership, the gnostic understanding of bodies and spirits, the trangressive crossing of cultural boundaries to include all people in the early decades of the church were the results of this divine moment of conception.
            Additionally, this was not the first time God had experienced such a sexual-spiritual union with humanity. In the angel’s conversation with Mary in Luke, the angel says to her “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God (1:35, NRSV).” The Greek work for “overshadow” is episkiazo which means “to envelope in a haze of brilliancy (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, n. 1982).” This sounds much like the description in Acts 2:3 in which tongues of fire rested on each of the followers. In John 1:14, this act is described as the Word (logos) becoming flesh (sarx) which is defined in Strong’s as an external symbol, implying “human nature (with its frailties [physical or moral] and passions) (n. 4561).” Taking all of these into account, it seems to point to a fluid understanding of the Divine (Logos) becoming flesh and the flesh (humans) becoming Divine in the union of Spirit and body. Indeed, the angel’s words to Mary that because this was a divine union, what was to be born would be called holy, also speaks, I believe, to the holiness that comes from our own sexual-spiritual union with God and others. Heyward remarks that “as we come to experience the erotic as sacred, we begin to know ourselves as holy and to imagine ourselves sharing in the creation of one another and of our common well-being.”
            This image is further developed in the creation stories found in Genesis 1. In that account, the conception that resulted in humanity was not only good, but “very good” in God’s opinion, requiring a time of rest afterward (1: 26-31). I believe it was because that experience was so pleasurable, that God declares in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for the adam to be alone. I will make a helper as a partner (NRSV, inclusified).” As Heyward notes, “It is the aim of God herself, to create the friendship in which the cosmos is originally imaged (1989, pg. 104).”     This would carry forth the understanding that David Carr talks about in his book, The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality and the Bible, when referring to the Genesis accounts of the creation of the universe and of humankind, that not only are our bodies not spiritual obstacles, they are, indeed reflective of God’s creative power and signs of the Divine (pg. 18). Clearly the affirmation of our sexual bodies and selves as divine does not end with the account of the creation stories in Genesis. As Carr goes on to show, throughout the scriptures - the Hebrew texts in particular -  sexuality is shown as an integral part of God’s design, even while many narratives show in unrelenting detail what happens when humans in a patriarchal system abuse it and use sexual bodies to divide and categorize the worth of people (pp. 1-12).
            While, as Carr asserts, the shame of nakedness and sexuality is key in this text (pp 72-73) perhaps the Genesis account of how the man and woman saw themselves as naked, the Fall, if you will, was that moment in evolutionary history when man saw himself as separate from woman and saw woman as separate from God. The image of nakedness is, therefore, not alluding to simply having no clothes on but rather to seeing the embodied differences between male and female as meaning a difference in the power and access to the Divine each of them had. The man and woman had become afraid of the sacred power of their sexuality and the spiritual power of their sexuality and that becomes the “original sin” if you will. As Heyward writes, “But most of us are so frightened of harm, of being badly hurt, and of hurting others, and so we resist the sacred eros. O, my sister: what madness tears at the heart of God! at my heart and yours! We are together in this fear, you and I. We are its captives, and we, its liberators. So come. Let us wait for God together.”
            I believe there is an interesting interplay between how we view our bodies and how we view God. When we see ourselves through the cultural lens of male over female, privileging one ethnic identity over others and creating a hierarchal structure of sexual and gender identities, we will see the possibility for a single deity privileged over other expressions almost by default. If we have a mono-spiritual view of the Divine that allows for only one truth path to salvation, we are already hard-wired to see the universe in the same terms of either/or rather than both/and. Therefore, we see in the Hebrew scripture a trajectory from naked acceptance of the other to domination of women and others, to a conquest of an entire nation. As Regina Schwartz points out, there is clearly a link between monotheism, mono-spirituality and sexual oppression as well as a link between a binary understanding of gender and sexuality and spiritual oppression (1997, pp. 64-65) .
            Conversely, if we see in the Creation stories and the story of Pentecost a promiscuous Divine presence who loves across socially constructed boundaries of gender, race, class, sexual/gender identity and religious identity, we are also freed to see beyond those boundaries into the virtually limitless ways we can express our love and desires with others that goes beyond the patriarchal construct of monogamy and we can love the Divine back in an equally promiscuous manner, not limiting our adoration and studying to one deity but including others as well. This sort of promiscuous understanding of Spirit can free us from the fear of worshiping the “wrong” god and the fear of the “right” god’s jealousy should we wish to incorporate other spiritual practices into our lives beyond the ones proscribed by “the” religion(Kirsch, 2004, pg. 10).
            What the patriarchal structure intuitively knows, if not consciously, is that such a broad-based understanding of our bodies and God would necessitate a re-thinking of how we structure society, religion, politics. To see the Divine as joined to all people would mean we, too, would have to be joined to all people in the struggle for economic, sexual, religious justice. To see all the possibilities of living authentic spiritual lives would mean we would have to give up the patriarchal and oppressive strategy of starting wars, denying basic human rights of citizens, and oppressing the already marginalized because that is “God’s will.”
            Is such a utopian understanding of God and humanity possible? How would we go about achieving that level of openness? Such a beginning might be found in the writings of an Islamic poet from another age.  Jeladdin Rumi, born in 1207 in Balkh, Afghanistan, was a religious scholar and sheikh in the dervish community in Konya . After meeting a wandering dervish named Shams, the two became inseparable and Rumi transformed into a mystical writer (The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, 1997, pp 1-2). Rumi writes in his poem The Shepherd’s Care
God’s creation is vast–
why do you sit all day in a tiny prison?
Look! He’s giving you a real bargain–
give up one and get a hundred.
Stop running around like a wolf or a dog–
stay and receive the Shepherd’s care (Rumi: In the Arms of the Beloved, translated by Jonathan Star, pg. 59).

            I believe the only way to retrace the journey back to Pentecostal Love-Making is to leave the tiny prison of preconceived understandings and go into the vastness of God’s creation. We are being called to leave the windowless cell of binary thinking and, to paraphrase Rumi, in the same poem, leave our tangled thoughts and find the splendor of Paradise; go beyond our little world and find the grandeur of God’s world. Perhaps the first place we need to visit on our theoretical escape from our tiny prison is Paradise as evoked in Genesis 3. For here, in the early pages of the ancient book that has shaped the three monotheistic religions is the invention of gender and the binary prescription for humanity.
            The problem began in Genesis 3 in the Hebrew scriptures, when Adam and Eve named nakedness (Carr, 2003, pg. 45). Who said it first? How did they decide their bodies were something to be afraid of? In this story we often see the sin resulting in the “Fall” of humanity as eating fruit from the tree of knowledge (3:1-11, NRSV). But I do not think it was knowledge God wanted to keep from humanity; rather the power to choose which knowledge was important, had power. While theologians points to the act of eating forbidden fruit as the original sin (Carr, 2003, pg. 45) I think the first sin was not attempting to gain knowledge. The first sin was to look at the human body, made in God’s image, natural and whole, to look at their own bodies and name them sinful, shameful, wrong and different.
            After all, God's first question in this story was not “where did you learn to sew those fig leaves together? I always mess up the hem!” Rather God’s question and I think you can hear such a note of sadness in it, was “who told you that you were naked (Gen. 3:11)? Who told you that your body was something to be ashamed up? That something as natural as the way I made you was sinful?”
            From there, history progresses with naming and labeling, deciding what is right and what is wrong. In Genesis 11:1-9 we read about the Tower of Babel, where a coalition of people got together and decided that they alone had the blueprints to heaven. God again provided a course correction by scattering the people, giving different languages and cultures, showing there is more than one way to build a tower, be a people, speak of mysteries. However, it has been interpreted instead as God’s punitive action toward people trying to imitate the deity (Schwartz, pg. 109). I believe the cautionary tale of these scriptures have been erased even as the powerful binary system of setting one group of people with power over others continued to gain credence, changing the shape of our culture and history. Thus the original sin of naming bodies (and by extension, sexuality) as sinful became a case for allowing shame to be the defining characteristic of humanity. And the story of Babel became commonly interpreted not as God’s corrective against conformity but rather as God’s punishment for human pride.
            In short, what these two scriptures cited above have helped to do is to create a binary system of gender and mono-theistic understanding of a jealous god who thwarts human potential. Certainly it is not as simple as that; the culture influenced the stories even as the stories influenced the culture. That tradition has continued throughout history as  people, steeped in the original sin of labeling, have decided what is good sexuality and bad sexuality; what is good spirituality and bad spirituality. Indeed, as Carr points out in, “when the Bible is used in these and other ways to shut down sexuality (or certain sexualities), spirituality is shut down as well (2003, pg. 3).”
            What I hope to accomplish in this chapter is to deconstruct the power of gender and how it has informed sexual agency. Intertwined with that is the power of the patriarchy and how it has built a house in the monotheistic religions. As Schwartz asserts, “Monotheism/monogamy/land became a nexus in a system of ownership wherein Israel, women and land are owned so they can be delimited and delimited so they can be owned. Women must be monogamous and Israel must worship Yahweh alone or the land will be polluted (1997, pg. 64). I will attempt to articulate a different way of viewing ourselves as sexual-spiritual beings with a more fluid approach toward sex, gender, and spirituality.
            To begin, we must deconstruct what it means to be gendered as male or female. As I stated earlier, I believe that gender was theologically created in the Genesis 3 account of Adam and Eve’s differences in their bodies. In Genesis 2:4-25 we read a second account that shows humanity as embodied in earthly flesh. This is an important account, but the splitting of the “adam” as I call it did not create gender. Rather it is a moving story of God’s desire that the mortal not be alone but to have a helper in exploring creation. After creating the first human from the earth, and giving the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God decided it was not good for the mortal to be alone so God formed the animals one by one and sent them to the mortal to see if a suitable helper might be found for ‘adam, which means, literally human being.
            Although the ‘adam  found the animals interesting and gave them names that seemed to suit ‘ish and ‘ishah differentiating the sexes of the first couple. However, this does not denote gender and the next verse goes on to say it is the man who will leave father and mother and cling to his wife. Then, we are told, the man and woman were naked and unashamed.
them, there was no helper found for the mortal. So God causes a deep sleep to fall on the mortal and forms a helper from the very flesh and sinew and bone and blood of the sleeping human. When the mortal saw this, he sang “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.(Genesis 2:23, NRSV).” And in this song we see for the first time the words
            This story has been misused by much of conservative Christianity to explain why men were made in the image of God and women in the image of man and so inferior to men, one step removed from God. But that does the text a grave injustice, I believe. Instead, I think this is a powerful story of choice and desire. God did not presume to know who would make a good helper for the mortal. Instead the ‘adam  was free to choose from among all the creatures that sprang to life from God’s verdant imagination. It was when the ‘adam did not choose any of them that God came up with Plan B and ingeniously created ‘ishah, later named Eve.
            This points out several things that often go unnoticed in a traditional reading. God deliberately did not make a second human from scratch, as it were. Instead God split the “adam” as I stated earlier. In so doing, perhaps God was attempting to insure that the second person would not be seen as less than but rather, a different part of the first creation. There was not a first person, then a second person created in this story. Instead, God separated the life essence of ‘adam into two halves that together formed a whole. As Ken Stone notes in his essay The Garden of Eden and Heterosexual Contact, “such feminist readers as Trible and Mieke Bal suggest, therefore it is preferable to think, not of God’s having created Eve out of Adam, but rather of God’s having created Adam and Eve by dividing a single androgynous being, ‘adam, into two creatures, ‘ish (man) and ‘ishah (woman) (Take Back the Word, ed. By Robert Goss and Mona West, 2000, pg. 65).”
            Not only does this set a standard of relationship that is rooted in a longing for a person or persons who complete us, it also emulates the development process that takes place in human fetuses. As the egg and sperm are fused and the embryo develops, sex characteristics are identical. The clitoris is made up of the same cells as the penis, the testicles can withdraw into ovaries. It is only after several weeks of gestation that the DNA determines into which shape the body will grow. The first mortal modeled the inter-sex beginning of all human life. Indeed, if anything, this creation account details the ambiguity of our bodies and the ways in which they can be changed and shaped to become our truest selves. Furthermore, science has identified a minimum of five genders chromosomally with various permutations of the XY genes. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott points out in her book, Omnigender: A trans-religious approach, that as recently as 1996, eight women in the Olympic games tested as “not women” based on their chromosomes (pp. 42-43). Who knows but that the first humans reflected this gender fluidity in their appearance, much like inter-sexed people do today?
            Additionally this creation account points out that humans need more than just a helping hand in order to thrive. God recognized that the mortal also need intimacy and sexual expression in a partner. When Adam and Eve found each other it was not just as two of the same species of animals, it was as lovers and friends. This story has, as a subtext, the goodness and necessity of a sexual identity that was intentionally created by God to be a delight as well as a means of procreation (Carr, 2003, pg. 32). God’s hand did not slip, after all, when creating the clitoris and the penis from the same genetic material that gave pleasure to the humans.
            Unfortunately however, with the original sin of naming as shameful that which is different, patriarchy was born, theologically speaking, with all its power dynamics and oppressive tactics. This has progressed to such a point that today there are untold numbers of people, well intentioned for the most part, sincerely wanting to do what is "right" and they are being told by scores of conservative religious leaders that not only is being naked shameful, but being different from the hetero-normative perspective is shameful. They are being told they have the blue prints to heaven and compulsory heterosexuality is a must. That what is needed for peace, salvation, redemption is not feeding the hungry or housing the homeless, it is compulsory heterosexuality in a committed life-time monogamous relationship. They are being warned that if they or a family member or friend is gay or lesbian or bisexual or if they experience gender differently than their body might suggest, they are going to hell. They cannot help build or climb this tower to heaven.
            What is gained by a group of people demanding conformity to their ideas of sexuality and gender? The main thing gained is power. Political and religious power, power to name reality. There is no other gain. By controlling the power to name homosexuality as bad, conservatives control the power to swing votes on important issues before our state and national legislators. I believe that is there primary objective, not saving people from an immoral sexual “lifestyle.” This can be seen in their exhortations for their followers to get politically involved, with a special emphasis on voting for anti-gay candidates (Hayton, pp 5-8).
            But much is lost as well.  Not only for oppressed groups individually--for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered folks, for people of color, for the poor– all of whom are oppressed by one with power to name. For when we are named, we are defined and we unwittingly use those same definitions to define us and others and those definitions are used to divide us from one another.
            Before the ‘adam  named and defined the animals in Genesis 2,  they all seemed to get along fine. Then the tiger was told what the definition of tiger was and the rabbit was defined as tiger stew. Likewise our tendency, when we hear the definitions of people of color, disabled, queer, men, women, is to act as if they were true. So, too, we who are in marginalized communities lose the power of self-definition and the power of creating a larger community of our diverse communities. As Schwartz notes “politics are not hard-wired into theology (1997, pg. 31). She goes on to say that “if, from one perspective, the myth of monotheism is a system in which identity depends upon rejection of the Other and subjection of Self, from a different perspective, those same narratives offer a critique of just such a system by depicting the enormous cost of such identity (pg. 31).”
            But there is something else we lose that is a universal loss. One that impacts organizations such as Focus on the Family as well as us. It is a deep loss that has impacted us in ways we will never be able to grasp. We have lost the power of conversation. The right to enter into that most intimate embrace, the sharing of who we are and how we see the world. When the voices of dissent and diversity are not allowed into the conversation, there is no conversation, there is only the constant blaring of propaganda that seeks to continue the lie of exclusion, the lie of the Tower of Babel.
            Is there a solution? In her final chapter, Mollenkott gives an antidote to the violence and oppression done to all five genders through the binary gender construct,  suggesting we move to an omnigender society wherein two-gender rigidity would be replaced with gender fluidity. People would be free to self-identify their own gender and parents would be free to not name the gender of their child until the child chose to do so, announcing at birth “It’s a baby!” instead of the apparent gender. Because gender would not be the key identifying factor of people, labels of sexual orientation would also be superfluous. People would fall in love with whomever and the relationship would be seen as between two individuals rather than as gay, straight, lesbian (2001, pp 164-192).
            How can we accomplish this? James Nelson in his classic, Embodiment, states that we need to re-sexualize our theology. By this he means not to add sexuality to our theology, it is always a part of it. Rather, he suggests that we raise to a new level of consciousness the ways in which our sexuality has shaped our theology, for good or for ill (p.p. 235-236). He notes that our gendered language for God and the power differential that gendered language dictates between men and women must be re-worked in favor of a more inclusive image of God and people. To miss this, he asserts, buttresses male domination and hinders the development of richly androgynous humanity to people of all sexes (p. 238).
            But more than the language must change. We must change our understanding of and attitudes toward our bodies. In her stunning book, Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender, Riki Anne Wilchins, a trans-activist writes “what has become apparent is that my physical person–its perceived properties, size, weight, curvature– has been pressed into service by society as a site of constraint and authorization. Constraint, because some meanings are disallowed me by my own flesh. Authorization, because certain characteristics authorizes me–obliges me–to feel certain things, to have a particular sense of myself (p. 130). She provides an example of this in an earlier chapter when she describes how she was 26 years old when she learned she was tall. She suddenly began getting comments from complete strangers on her height, people told her she must be a good volleyball player, things of this nature. Did she have a sudden, overdue growth spurt? No, she simply was beginning to pass as a female. What had been of no consequence to others when she appeared male, suddenly seemed to be a great subject of conversation (p. 33). She notes the need to uncover ways in which her particular self is a product of culture, a historical item like clothes or books. She writes, “Just like [those items] it [her body] was created, distributed, and promoted in response to highly specific, if diffuse, cultural needs (p. 131).
            And as we experience our bodies in richer and more diverse ways we can be opened up to experiencing our sexuality outside of hetero-normative monogamy as well. While in biblical times polygamy was practiced by men in a patriarchal fashion(e.g. Abraham in Gen.16; Jacob in Gen 29:15-30; David 2 Sam 11:26;Solomon, 1 Kings 11:1-14), today we need not be bound by that mind-set. Indeed, I believe the queer community can be leaders in breaking through those boundaries. By our very nature, we transgress the patriarchal construct of what relationships are to look like. Unfortunately, however, it seems as if many in the queer community, rather than embracing the different sexualities that make up our culture, clamor instead for the legal protection and societal approval of monogamous marriage. For me, this is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is how marriage has been used as tool to preserve the patriarchy and to continue to control women’s bodies. In Indecent Theology, Marcella Althaus-Reid asserts that “[c]ivil societies are spaces of hegemonic struggle amongst different interests; capitalism, racial and sexual injustices, fighting to determine their power. This may describe the situation of the theologian whose work supports the sexual and political hegemony of the empire, creating a theology which struggles between forces of coercion and consent [...],” adding that [t]heology has produced a high interpellation of power in the area of guilt but not if acknowledging the sexual lives we have (2000, pg. 89).”
            Yet an equally important gift is to continue to openly and unapologetically model and celebrate all kinds of relationships. In so doing, we refuse to restrict Canon to either one set of books or one way of being in the world since, as noted by Schwartz, the “Bible encodes Western culture’s central myth of collective identity. Its narratives describe forging peoples [...]throughout all of these stories, there is an effort to forge identity by means of these very stories, to create the proverbial ‘people of the book’ (1997, pp 6-7).” Both of these transgressions serve to destabilize the patriarchy and to unite our sexual and spiritual experiences in a transcendant manner. In so doing, I believe we more clearly reflect my interpretation of the Creation story in Genesis 2 mentioned earlier. We love those who complete us in ways that are spiritually significant as well. As Nelson states in Embodiment, “we are drawn toward that which promises life for the whole body-self (p. 238). For some that may be expressed in a lifelong monogamous relationship with one person, for others celibacy. Some may realize life for the whole body-self through an open relationship with a primary partner, a triad, a sexually active single life. Still others might experience the transcendent union with God and self and others through submission or dominance with another, or the soaring exhilaration that they feel when they have pushed their body to the limits of pain and power. The measuring stick of holiness or whole-iness would not be a pre-set, culture defined tiny prison of relationship but what brought wholeness, love, strength and the Divine into a deeper union with each person.
            Perhaps then, we could take the next step on the path to the grandeur of God’s world in allowing ourselves to be set free from the graveclothes of spiritual practices that are also either/or binaries. You are “saved” or you are going to hell. You are Christian or you are not, with dire implications for your eternal soul. A friend of mine, raised as the daughter of a fundamentalist Baptist pastor, tells of her “salvation experience.” She was five years old and in Sunday School when the youth pastor wheeled in a 50 gallon barrel filled with oil. Wordlessly he threw a lit match into barrel and then, as flames shot up, he said “You can spend eternity there in the burning pits of hell, or you can accept Jesus as your Savior and spend eternity in heaven. Who wants to get saved?” Needless to say she, along with the other five year olds all got “saved” that day. When my friend came out as a lesbian, such a binary spirituality gave her family no room to embrace her. Now, as he is realizing his primary experience is as a male, his family has no resources from which to welcome him as their son and brother. This points out perhaps the greatest danger of binary religions. They not only cut off the multifarious experiences of the Divine, they provide no tools for dealing with God’s diversity when it shows up in their own lives.
            What if we used the sexual language of polyamory to navigate our spiritual realities and the spiritual realities of others different from us? I believe we can take the story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah in the book of Genesis as a model for a polyamorous understanding of spirituality, particularly as it impacts people who identify as Christians. In the narrative found in Genesis 29-32 we read the story of Jacob and his attempts to marry Rachel, the woman he loves. For seven years he labors for his future father-in-law, Laban only to discover the day after the wedding he has been tricked into marrying the older daughter, Leah, instead. Laban explains that it is the tradition of that culture to not have the younger marry before the older sister. At this point, Jacob could have abandoned Leah, citing false advertising, but he does not. So once again, Jacob labors for seven years in order to marry the one he wanted in the first place. Following that is a drama about the race to bear children. Ironically, although Jacob loves Rachel more (and, one has to assume, is spending more time in her bed than Leah’s) Leah is the one to conceive the first children. Rachel, barren, gives her servant to Jacob as a wife so that she might bear children for her. Leah then does the same and more children are born until, finally, Rachel herself conceives.
            Patriarchal views of women aside, this story is rich with insight into how we can be polyamorous Christians. Many of us were raised in the church and thought that the spirituality we were being indoctrinated into was what we loved and desired. But there came a moment of realization when it was not at all what we had thought it was. We wanted our spiritual lives to be rich with beauty and meaning and found instead a tradition that was ill-suited for our hearts. Unlike Jacob, many of us then abandoned the faith of our childhood thinking we could not have that tradition and the spirituality we longed for. Like Jacob, however, we can discover that there is no need to abandon the older sister of religious tradition for the younger sister of spirituality. Both can co-exist in tension and/or harmony, depending on the day. As I stated earlier, what we know as the Bible is filled with examples of God’s inclusive love for all. However, the patriarchal system says it must be one or the other. This mono-spirituality as proscriptive point of view was the reason behind the Crusades and pogroms, the witch hunts and the current attempt by conservative Christians to hi-jack the political process in order to set forth the agenda not only for our nation but for the world.
            But what if we accepted the tradition and were still free to pursue other spiritual loves? Perhaps people could then come out of the closet as being Buddhist-Christians, pagan-Christians and other hybrid versions of tradition. The powerful thing about this construct is that it actually enlarges our ability to see God in different ways. It can give us the courage to admit that spirituality is bigger than the box we have placed God in and it can compel us to not just settle for what we’ve been given, or walk away from spiritual practices altogether but rather to find a way to pursue what we long for even as we appreciate what we have been given. More so, just as Rachel and Leah both gave their servants to be Jacob’s wives and to bear children, we can go deeper into our beliefs and traditions to find unexpected treasures there. In so doing, we have access to many more resources to describe our own diverse natures and create a natural acceptance of the Other as one more expression of God’s creativity.  
            In the John 11:38-44 we read the amazing story of a person named Lazarus being resurrected. This was no case of CPR or using electronic defibrillation; Lazarus had been dead four days and was already buried, encased in a tomb. What is interesting to me about this story is that the sisters of Lazarus had sent word to Jesus that their brother was gravely ill in plenty of time for Jesus to arrive and heal their brother before he died. These were not just monthly contributors to Jesus’ ministry who got a free bumper sticker for their donation that said “Jesus Loves Me.” These were friends, intimates, chosen kin of Jesus. Yet he refused to attend to his friend Lazarus, delaying his trip to Bethany until it was clear that Lazarus was dead.
            When he arrived in the town of Bethany he found Mary and Martha bereft and wondering why Jesus had not shown up sooner. Jesus had told them earlier “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. (V. 4 NRSV). Consequently now he gently chided Mary for her unbelief. The story progresses to the climatic moment when Jesus calls Lazarus to come forth from the tomb and, astonishingly he did.
            Lazarus didn’t leave the tomb of death, he left the tomb of limitations on life. His new life lay before him, impossible to define, no preconceived idea of life could hold him. Resurrection colors outside the lines of socio-cultural norms. Anything was possible. This miracle was not included to simply prefigure Jesus’ own resurrection. It was, I believe included as John’s way of reminding the early Christians that they were not called to be resuscitated into the old life with its preconceived notions of what it means to be alive. Indeed, Jesus made it very clear that it would never do to simply be restored. Resurrection was needed. New life, a new way of being. This is further implicated when we read in John 12

“When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (vv. 9-11, NRSV)”

            According to Richard  Valantasis, New Testament professor at Iliff School of Theology  the book of John shows the first renewal movement in the Church. John, like the other Gospel writers, was not interested in recording a biography of the life of Jesus, he was writing to a specific community for a specific purpose. His Gospel seems to be part of a debate on what the Church should become. Indeed, it is part of a conversation going on between the beloved community and those sects, gaining in power, who were bowing to the hierarchical understandings of secular life with a focus on adherence to law.  It was a plea to remember that relationship with God and others should be the first priority of the church, not an ecclesiastical structure of elders, bishops, deacons and so on (personal notes, 2004).
            With that view in mind, it could be that John set up this story as a way of saying in veiled language what the growing hierarchy was trying to accomplish. That not only would the rigid binary structure hobble the church’s ability to be the Body of Christ in all its’ glorious diversity, but that also the patriarchal church would also destroy the new life so recently given by Jesus. By having Jesus wait until Lazarus had not only died but had also been buried, John is telling us, as he did the early church, that it is the love Jesus has for humanity, the desire for humankind to be in relationship with the Divine, one another and their own bodies in whole authentic, new ways, modeling for us not a place in heaven but the resurrection possibilities that will, if we allow them, open us to the promiscuous love of God pouring out and over upon us in a Pentecostal moment of passion that will change our lives, our understanding of ourselves and our bodies; that will seek to integrate, to save (bring to wholeness) our sexual-spiritual selves so that we can conceive a new way of being as individuals, as the Church, as the body of Christ.
            I believe our world is ripe for another Pentecost experience. We have forgotten for too long the richness and diversity of God’s creation. We have allowed the patriarchal construct to tell us what is proper spirituality and moral sexuality. By dismantling the notion of mono-spirituality and monogamy as the only proscribed paths we can create that waiting space of the early disciples in the upper room, gathered together in that exquisite anticipation of the spiritual and sexual release that will speak to all people in all languages. We can join in ecstatic union with the Divine to conceive a new era of “just” love for God, others and ourselves. And as we do that, I can guarantee we will be speaking the languages of people hungering for just that kind of embodied spirituality.
            And perhaps in generations to come it will be said of us as Rumi’s son, Sultan Walad (Beloved, pg 1) said of his father:
Day and night my father danced in ecstasy,
spinning on earth like the turning heavens.
His laughter echoed through the zenith of the sky
and was heard by the beings of every realm.
He showered the musicians with gold and silver.
He gave away whatever came into his hand.
He was never without a singing heart.
He was never at rest.

There was a rebellion in the city–
No, the whole world sounded with the cries of rebellion.
How could a great pillar and champion of Islam,
Hailed as the leader of both worlds,
become such a raving madman?

Those who recited the scriptures
were now singing with abandon
and swaying with the musicians.
In public and in private
            People turned from dogma and empty rituals
and went crazy after love!
           
            That, after all, is what good sex and good spirituality, indeed, what Pentecost is all about.



2 comments:

Joelle Casteel said...

thanks you for being a minister unafraid to use words like polyamory and dominance/submission in a consensual context- thank you for letting me see myself in your words.

Rev. Dr. Nori J. Rost said...

Thanks Joelle! The Divine should reflect the beautiful diversity of all of our beautiful lives. We should see ourselves in the Holy.