Comments 9

  1. Great article for a salient conversation starter too! Thanks Neal! On a related note – The reward system that relates to sex is also the same reward system that relates to creativity and innovation. There is a whole group of people out there who remain celibate by choice, who value the God-given sex roles you refer to here – and who have replaced sex in their own lives with creativity and innovation that celebrates that reward center in deep and satisfying ways. They do not deny one – in order to embrace the other by choice. What do you think? Ellen Weber

    1. Thanks Ellen–especially for sharing a bit of the science behind it. If sexuality is inherently connected, in the brain, to creativity and innovation, then those might be good ways to start to approach the question of sexual expression. What do other people think? Is this a promising avenue for expressing sexuality in a way that is not strictly tied to sex acts? What else would people like to add to the mix?

      1. Hey Ellen and Neal, I would be a bit nervous about suggesting that sexual expression may be diverted into (non-sexual) creativity. The way this sort of idea is frequently expressed is in the notion of the celibate person who takes spends the time effort and energy they might have spent sexually in other non-sexual areas of life (e.g. their careers, artistic endeavors, etc.) However, I would suggest that such a view is in danger of limiting sexuality to “sexual acts” rather than the more holistic view of intimacy and relationality that Neal has painted in the article. I don’t believe that it is fully possible–let alone desirable–for a person to be “celibate” if by that term we mean not expressing the God-given sexual dimension of person-hood. I would cautiously suggest that for most people in most situations celibacy is only really possible if sexuality is understood exclusively within the limited sphere of sex acts. Now, that being said, it is certainly possible–and perhaps even desirable–for some folks to abstain from marriage and sex acts so that they may spend that time and energy in other areas of life–but that person is still (hopefully) “sexual” in the sense that they seek out and maintain intimate relationships with other people that provide exactly the sorts of companionship, support, and fidelity others would seek with their spouses in those sexual relationships. I think I would want to argue that sexuality is definitionaly and essentially relational and intimate–so expressions of creativity and innovation which are not essentially relational and intimate could not properly be called “sexual.” But I’m always open to rebuke 😉

        1. Thanks Adam. You make some very good points, and I’d agree that we’d want to avoid thinking of sexuality merely as an energy that needs to be ‘channeled’ into other avenues of life if one chooses not to engage in sexual acts. That is a common theory, and I think you are right to caution against it.

          What I thought Ellen was saying, though, was more along the lines of creativity and innovation possibly being inherently part of sexuality. This could imply that all expressions of creativity and innovation (including in art) are thereby ‘sexual’ in nature, but it need not. I think one could say instead that creativity and innovation are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for sexuality: they have to be there for something to be considered sexual, but not everything that has them is therefore sexual.

          If this claim is true, it would raise the possibility that one would need to cultivate creativity and innovation in order to be sexually healthy. These would then have to be expressed sexually for healthy sexual expression to occur. The question, then, is what needs to be added to creativity and innovation for something to become sexual. You suggest intimacy and relationality. Those seem promising (though we’d have to unpack a bit more what exactly is meant by intimacy; I would consider flirting sexual, even if I do it with a stranger. But perhaps what makes it flirting is precisely the assumption of a certain level of intimacy or familiarity?). I’m tempted to add some level of physical contact to the mix as well–but verbal flirting could certainly be sexual without being ‘physical’ in the standard understanding of that term, so I’m not sure about that one.
          What do you think should be considered essential or necessary elements of sexuality?

          1. I wrestling with that very issue after I posted earlier and I settled on the suspicion that gender–while not necessarily the sufficient condition for sexual expression–within a matrix of relationality and intimacy–is my best guess for a necessary condition. Which is to say, I can certainly agree with Ellen that it seems entirely plausible that the joy we feel in creating or innovating is not dissimilar to the enjoyment one feels in an intimate relationship. There is, it seems to me, to be a presumed generativity in both activities.

            I have, from time to time, in well-meaning Christian circles heard the case for celibacy reduced to something like “Christians who remain single have more energy for Kingdom work.” I’m not suggesting that this was Ellen’s argument–but it is one I’d like to refute. If sexuality is more than participating–or abstaining–from sex acts, if it is instead a necessary and essential expression of humanity’s God-given personhood, then there is really no possibility to be “celibate.” Take gender as the paradigm case: while Plato gets credit for the notion of a Platonic friendship, Plato’s own philosophy would call such a friendship Ideal in exactly the sense that while Formally plausible–all puns intended–such friendships are not actually possible in daily experience. I would tend to argue that because no relationship is free from the unique flavors and conditions imparted by gender–both the biological kind and the socially constructed variety–a relationship is only very rarely, if ever, properly Platonic: free from a sexual component. Since, it is unlikely that one could all of their relationships without the specter of gender, no one could possibly be called celibate within this holistic picture.

            I adore the idea that sexuality must be creative and perhaps even innovative and I really, really want to agree. However, the best I could plausibly argue at this point is that sexuality was intended to be creative and innovative and God-glorifying sexuality will be both creative and innovative. What I have in mind here would be something like Seerveld’s allusivity–sexuality that is both grounded in an established language of sexual expression and yet playfully reaching out to make new connections and allusions. However, this allusivity (creativity and innovation) could not be a necessary condition for something to be considered sexual as it would seem intuitively true that sexual expression that is nothing more than repetition of earlier forms–might be less than God-glorifying, but still “sex” 🙂

            1. There is a great lack of concrete language in this discussion. If I am understanding the way you are looking at this, Adam, you are hovering around procreation with terms like “creativity and now “generativity” tied to “gender.” Are you saying that all sexuality must at least gesture toward the creation of new life or merely evoke the “chemistry” of complementarity? What gender pairs do we then see as complementary? Plato’s famous approach to these questions in the Symposium accounts for same-sex attraction.

              What also are we to do with history, tradition, and historical theology? The old testament reflects a world where no man or woman is complete in their gender without having produced children. The new testament completely up-ends this view, showing us a church where single and marital celibacy is idealized. Castrated men, too, are elevated, ultimately to become paradigmatic of the priesthood by the 4th century. Theological developments in the western church during that same period framed even licit marital sex as involving the transmission of original sin. These ideas remain with us today; do they carry with them any salvageable seeds of truth? Are we to break with the past sharply or take something from it?

              How do you situate your thinking within a tradition of canonical status that goes back to the reformation and earlier? Do you see yourself working from the mainstream or the margins? That is not to say I think the margins are bad or off limits. On the contrary, they offer potentially positive and instructive negative examples. The Shakers and Moravians come to mind (American Pietist traditions) worth looking at since they came up with very different yet somehow radically traditional practices and understandings of sexuality. Two good quick intros:

              * https://everydayreligions.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/sex-celibacy-and-salvation-what-the-shakers-and-the-oneida-community-remind-us-about-sexuality-and-religion/
              * http://pietistschoolman.com/2014/01/17/sects-and-sex/

        2. Adam, thanks for your thoughtful insights here and the opportunity to clarify my suggestion that sexual pleasure can relate to the same mental reward system as active expressions of creativity and innovation.

          Grateful that your interesting and genuine articulation of my brief points here – allow me the opportunity to illustrate further. For instance, there is nothing you say here that I would disagree with – nor would the brain’s reward system I referred to be contradicted by your illustrations. Clarity on my part would likely fuse together what I had in mind.

          First I would not suggest that “sexual expression be diverted into (non-sexual) creativity.” I would say instead, that creativity taps into similar reward systems as sexual rewards. A celibate choice can still value both the sexual act than the broader view of intimate relationships that carve out spaces in family and in community for Christ to live in us as we love and relate to others deeply.

          God given relationships are possible for those who choose celibacy (celibacy even for a designated time in their lives). Interesting Adam, that you compare creativity to sexual relationships – I would not in any way make that comparison – as it appears apples to oranges to me. To say creativity taps into the brain’s reward system differs though – and I feel I could have been more clear in my illustration.

          If sexuality is the expression of every human, even the delight of a sexy outfit brings a sense of that reward. The wonder of touch and the pleasure of hugging a close friend brings reward at the brain’s same center by the way. So does creativity and innovation, and (along with meaningful relationships) it can satisfy the inner reward needs of humans. I won’t bore folks with qualities of the amygdala that help certain such rewards to stick and impact further choices. Just wanted to show that sexual behavior links to the same chemical and electrical system where other actions that also reward deeply tend to impact choices.

          Gosh – please don’t feel open to rebuke – I felt thankful that your interesting interpretation showed me a lack of clarity in my own words. Seesssh – maybe that’s why older generations like me didn’t talk enough about the amazing role of sexual gifts God gave to each (along with so many expressions of that sexuality named in this article). Maybe it also makes Neal’s discussion prompt more vital to open a conversation into wider possibilities – as have already appeared. So thanks for helping that wider lens to happen in my own 2-bit offering, Adam. You have me thinking yet again about my own thinking, and I’m also reminded that my piece is a very small detail in a wonderfully larger discussion!

  2. Thanks so much for this conversation-starter, Neal. I am most interested in one of your lines at the end: “We have to be willing to talk about and share our sexuality with others in the Christian community….It means exploring ways of expressing our sexuality that are appropriate for non-married relationships.” Curious if you were able to explore specific ways of expressing sexuality as singles or in dating relationships with your class! This is a constant thread (often below the surface) in our campus ministry, with mostly single women and men. Since our sexuality is a God-given gift, how can we appropriately express it outside of marriage? We have had many conversations about, but not many concrete answers to this question…

    1. One could do a whole article–if not an entire book!–on that topic, Sara. I won’t even try to do justice to the whole thing here. But yes, we certainly did talk about it, and a few things we agreed on:
      1. Our questions about sex should not revolve around “How far is too far?” but rather, “what is healthy sexual expression, from a Biblical expression?”
      2. We should re-discover a robust notion of chastity, and recognize its difference from abstinence. I can be abstinent and unchaste, and similarly I can be chaste but not abstinent (as a married man at least I hope that’s the case!).
      3. If we think that sex is and ought to be tied to intimacy, love, and ‘knowing’ another person in a deep way, then we must find some way of ensuring that as intimacy grows in the relationship, so, too, does its sexual expression. To think we can grow closer, say, emotionally without that having some effect on our sexual expression is to divorce sexuality from emotions, which most Christians would agree is not healthy for sexuality.
      4. One element of sexual expression is physical contact with another person. This element cannot be overlooked for those not in marital (or even romantic) relationships. This physical contact need not take the form of sex acts, but some kind of physical connection to others is likely a part of sexual expression, whether married or not. Suggestions raised for what this might look like outside of romantic relationships included: hugging, holding hands, and physical affection (touching arms, shoulder, etc.). These things can, and probably should, be practiced by us with our friends, and not just with romantic partners.
      5. Flirtation is not a precursor to intercourse, but an appropriate way of exhibiting and expressing sexuality. Of course, not all forms of flirtation are equally appropriate, but we should perhaps encourage flirtation–both verbal and physical–as a healthy form of sexual expression both among single people, and among those who are married (as alluded to above, if my kids never see me flirt with my wife, how will they think sexuality is a normal part of married relationships?).
      6. Sexuality is NOT a private matter (Wendell Berry discusses this in his collection of essays entitled “Sex, economy, freedom and community”). If we think marriage is a necessary step before intercourse, then we must seem to agree that the public has some role to play in a couple’s sex life (after all, what is marriage but a public declaration, before God and the community, of a couple’s commitment to each other?). Hence, discussing our sexuality, probably including even our sex lives, with some segments of the broader community is probably important, if not essential (this need not mean we announce our sex lives in church–but serious conversations with family, close friends, mentors, etc., is probably a good idea). How we treat each other sexually impacts our broader communities, and those ‘stakeholders’ should have a chance to weigh in on our sexual decisions also (in some form).

      As far as I can recall, this is the stuff we found relatively widespread agreement on in our discussions. It isn’t perhaps as specific as some might like in terms of what is ‘ok’ and what is not ‘ok’, but the general feeling was that a lot of the ‘ok v. not-ok’ question could be context specific (outside of a few things that were generally agreed to be on one side or the other). More important was to discuss a framework within which to judge, in the context of our own relationships, how to adjudicate between ‘ok’ and ‘not-ok’. And the importance of talking about this with a broader group of loved ones that just one’s romantic partner.

      Is this helpful, or were you hoping for something more specific?

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