Visions of Daniel

Sex as a Spiritual Exercise


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This article appeared in Reflections: Yale Divinity School (Spring, 2006, pages 4-11). It is an expanded reprinting of Chapter 14, with the same title, of Meditation without Myth. I am grateful to Jamie Manson, editor, for the invitation to contribute to that special edition of Reflections on "Sex and the Church" and especially for her suggestion to include an origianl discusssion: why does contemporary religion resist shifts in sexual ethics so intensely? The effort was inspired, and I am chuffed each time I reread the result.


Christianity has shaped Western civilization. In light of that history, the title of this article may seem strange indeed. Christianity affirms the Incarnation, that in Jesus Christ, God actually took on human flesh, and Christianity insists that salvation occurs in and through Christ's bodily life, suffering, and death. Christians find spiritual nourishment by sharing the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the body and blood of Christ. And following Jesus, Christians look forward to resurrection of the body: heaven is not just a spiritual state, but a bodily one, as well. Nonetheless, from Christianity's earliest beginnings, in most Christian thinking, the body and the spirit have been seen as enemies.

In Galatians 5:17, Paul wrote, “What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other.” To the Hebrew mind of the Bible, "flesh" stood for all that is weak, passing, creaturely, and perhaps sinful. "Spirit" stood for all that is life-giving, lasting, and of God. So, understood according to the usage of his day, the teaching of Saint Paul was merely that evil and goodness are at odds, that the worldly and the godly are in tension. Obviously! But ripped from its cultural context and misunderstood in terms of our current usage, Paul's literal words are taken to refer to sex and to pit it—the flesh, the body—against spirituality.

Sex-Positivity in Christianity's Early Beginnings

In fact, the sex negativity that has characterized Christianity did not come from Christianity's Jewish heritage, nor from the teachings of Jesus, nor even from the letters of Paul. Jewish teaching to this day is sex-positive. Jewish couples are supposed to have sex on the Sabbath to hallow the day. The Genesis command was to be fruitful and multiply. And without reference to marriage, children, or family, the collection of poems in the Song of Songs is a paean to sexual love and romance.

Jesus' remarks about sex mention only adultery, divorce, and sexual obsession (lusting in the heart). In addition, some argue that, in healing the centurion's servant, Jesus restored a threatened homosexual relationship. In the man jesus loved Theodore Jennings presents a credible argument—the first I've ever seen—that the counter-cultural Jesus was actually gay.

Saint Paul does not deserve the bad rap he gets about sex. As I report in What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, L. William Countryman argued cogently that the intent of Romans 1 was not to condemn homosexuality. Rather, this text opposes the splintering of the Christian community over irrelevant differences about Jewish purity laws—including the "abomination," that is, the ritual taboo, of male-male penetrative sex. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul does discourage marriage but only because he believed the world would soon end; and flexible in his counsel, he is still open to the variety of sexual practices of his day, notably, with no concern whatsoever for procreation. In Galatians 3:28 Paul dismisses even the difference between male and female because "all of you are one in Christ." Paul was no misogynist. The command in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that women be silent and subordinate is not from Paul himself but was added by his more conservative disciples such as those who also wrote 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Paul's name. The final chapter of the genuinely Pauline letter to the Romans, for example, mentions by name 29 disciples; among these are ten women, three of whom—Phoebe, Prisca, and Junia—held positions of honor and authority in the early Pauline churches. In its beginnings, Christianity was not sex-negative.

The negativity of the Christian tradition derived from Stoicism and Neo-Platonism, secular philosophies that were prevalent during Christianity's formation. These systems of thought were suspect of pleasure and were overly rationalistic. Shortsighted in their appreciation of human sexuality, they focused on biological function and argued that sex was for begetting children and any other use was mistaken. This “mistake” was quickly turned into sin, and into the twenty-first century we all live with the result: uneasiness and guilt over sex.

The most brilliant minds of the Christian tradition rationalized that misunderstanding. Saint Augustine is the theological favorite of Protestantism, and Saint Thomas Aquinas is the great theologian of Catholicism. Both understood rationality to be the crowning glory of humanity, and both were wary of sex. At the point of orgasm, they reasoned, one momentarily loses rationality, and the risk of such loss can only be justified for a serious reason. The desire to conceive a child would be the only sufficient reason.

Christian Sex-Negativity through the Twenty-first Century

Wariness about sex through those early centuries is understandable. Before modern medicine, perhaps a quarter of all women eventually died in childbirth. No effective contraceptive was available. Children born out of wedlock were social pariahs. A non-virgin woman would be hard pressed to ever find a husband and economic support. Sexually transmitted diseases had no cure. Sexual urges were thought to reduce people to the level of an animal. On many fronts, sex was thought to be, and in fact was, dangerous.

But why has religion remained rabidly sex-negative even today? Repeated studies show that the more religious people are, the more opposed to sex they tend to be. A nearly hysterical religious opposition to sex—for example, the enlistment of hundreds of millions of American tax dollars to promote sexual abstinence nationally and globally—makes one wonder what is really going on.

There is no easy accounting for this religious curiosity. To explain social attitudes is difficult in the best of cases and, perhaps, impossible in a time of rapid change, like our own. Yale historian John Boswell argued that Christianity has basically followed secular mores regarding sexual matters. Far from setting the pace, Christianity tended merely to give it spiritual approval. Today, when a truly theological discussion of homosexuality has arisen, Christianity faces a novel challenge: to sort out sexual issues theologically in the face of mushrooming new evidence. In fact, such sorting out has already been done. Theological arguments to legitimate sexual diversity—biblical, historical, biological, medical, psychological, sociological, anthropological, ethical—are there for anyone who wants them. Yet the religions refuse to adjust their teaching. Why so? The causes are multiple, complex, and intertwined. A listing of likely ones will shed some light on this conundrum.

•  Ignorance is a major factor. Sexuality has been a topic of study for barely a century. Sigmund Freud's notorious emphasis on sex was not a personal quirk, but a reflection of the budding interest of his day. In the past century we have learned more about sex than during all of prior human history. Sexual orientation, transsexualism, transvestism, intersexuality—these topics never fit into traditional notions of sex, yet today they are known as relatively common, non-pathological, natural variations. Religionists are caught up short to have to face these issues, and, despite their weighty moral obligation to provide competent spiritual leadership, many members of the clergy simply do not know, or are unwilling to admit, the recently learned facts.

•  The powerful emotions that surround sexuality are another factor. Emotions cloud thinking. If truth be told, the heart usually rules the head. So some religious leaders—especially seniors, who tend to hold the influential positions but who grew up in former generations with deeply engrained restrictive sexual attitudes—may actually be humanly incapable of transcending their prejudices. Besides, most younger clergy also grew up in sexual repression. It will take generations before comfort with sex becomes typical of our society.

•  Emotional restructuring of the human psyche is a slow process. Deep psychological healing often requires years of psychotherapy. Yet the emotionally laden social changes that assault our era have come quickly—divorce, chemical contraception, racial equality, women's rights, access to the handicapped, gay liberation, transsexual and intersex liberation, gay marriage, the Internet, the breakdown of national boundaries, the growth of a global community, and terrorism. The human psyche is not built to sustain such rapid-fire assault. By any historical standard, the achievements of sexual liberation, even if halted today, would remain remarkable. In fact, then, it is not to be expected that people in general or their religions will change their sexual attitudes quickly.

•  Guilt is another factor. Sexual exploration is a normal aspect of adolescence. In that exploration many people do things that later weigh on their consciences—especially men and especially regarding homosexual play. My human sexuality class in rural, Bible-Belt Georgia, for example, almost always rates as true, without debate, that same-sex experimentation is a normal facet of their culture. But given the societal and religious guilt surrounding such sex acts, adult believers, converted and repentant, are likely to wage a battle against sexual "sins," their own and everyone else's. The fact that even these true believers had once "fallen" provides personal proof of the need to vigilantly oppose pernicious homosexuality.

•  Reaction formation—the Freudian defense mechanism whereby one opposes in others what one senses but cannot admit in oneself—also plays out in other ways. Carl Jung noted that homosexual people tend to be spiritually sensitive. So they are likely to be over-represented in the ministry. Estimates of homosexual Catholic priests range from 30 to 60 percent and more. Because of the all-male structure of the Catholic priesthood, this incidence of homosexuality is probably higher than that among non-Catholic clergy. Still, despite the de facto requirement of marriage for Protestant ministers, the incidence of homosexuality among them is also likely to be high. Besides, a recent study suggested that "heterosexual" men who become more sexually aroused by homosexual pornography also tend to score higher than others on a scale of homophobia. Overall, then, some clergy surely oppose homosexuality because they cannot accept the tendency in themselves.

•  Changing sexual mores shake the very foundations of Western civilization, so fear also catalyzes religious leaders in their opposition to change. Such change is inherent in the "sexual revolution," and such change is colossal, so opposition to it is not wholly irrational. On the chopping block of historical change lie the rule of patriarchy, the relationship of man and woman, the notions of femininity and masculinity, the mythically powerful and financially encumbering heterosexual wedding, the popular understanding of marriage, and the Norman-Rockwellian myth of family. The threat also includes the fictionalized energy of "free sex" unleashed, the power of romance to dilute the work ethic, and the loss of easy governmental control over people because they love. The movement toward a global community—built on the axiom of "human rights" and respectful of all peoples and cultures yet manipulated for economic goals by multi-national corporations—is another entangled dimension of this intricate scenario. Under discombobulating circumstances like these, it is understandable that religious leaders would tend toward conservatism and, impotent as anyone to restrain the historical trends, would focus on individuals, their private sex-lives, and their fear-ridden relationship with God. Evidently and unfortunately, religious faith is not strong enough to allow that all people could be themselves and still live together in peace, joy, and mutual respect. We are still incapable of conceiving a truly new world order.

•  Philosophically, as well, the bottom has fallen out of Western civilization. Radical postmodernism discredits the very notions of truth and goodness, and moderate postmodernism has, in the least, demonstrated the difficulty of approaching these traditional ideals. No consensus whatsoever on epistemology or ethics exists in our day. Even the impossibility of correct knowing has been—self-contradictorily—argued unflinchingly. No one—except, I believe, Bernard Lonergan—envisages a credible exit from this quandary. Thus, religion's easy claim to know the truth from God and to announce the good appears as a fiction from a bygone era. Nonetheless, better to have a dubious ethical teaching than none at all. So religion holds to its traditional position. This tendency is blatant in Roman Catholicism, which continues to insist that in every case sex must be open to conception. Other religions are not as explicit in their teaching, but logical analysis of their opposition to sexual variations because of a supposed "complementarity of the sexes" leads to the same first premise. Thus, for want of a coherent alternative, religion insists on the faltering status quo.

•  Appeal to the Bible should not sustain opposition to lesbian and gay relationships, yet it does. As cogently as historical research is ever likely to do, biblical scholarship shows that, understood in their original linguistic, historical, and cultural settings, the biblical texts were not addressing the questions of our day and did not even condemn same-sex acts per se in their day. Although not all allow so lucid a conclusion, in the very least an honest person must admit that there is serious question about the meaning of those texts. This doubt should favor sexual diversity. Standard and long-standing religious principles apply in such cases. For example, Catholic teaching holds that it is not right to impose a moral burden on a person if the need for that burden is questionable: Lex dubia not obligat: A doubtful law has no binding power. Similarly, Baptists advocate "soul freedom," the right of all believers to personally hold their own interpretation of the Bible and its requirements. Yet neither of these religions cuts slack for sexual diversity. Evidently, just as possession is nine tenths of the law, so established moral teaching outweighs recent insight. Thus, for all the reasons already noted and in opposition to their own traditional ethical principles, religions continue to comfortably oppose sexual variation.

•  Blatant human perversity, downright wickedness, is also a factor that should not be overlooked. It shows itself in scapegoating: the easy blame of lesbians and gays for all the ills of society; in an unscrupulous but politically expedient play on people's fears for winning elections and sustaining repressive political agendas; and in the lucrative appeal to homophobia in religious fundraising efforts. A similar dynamic, less deliberately culpable, is operative within pastors' and hierarchs' fears of splitting congregations and whole religious bodies over a controversial change in emotionally-charged sexual policy.

•  Finally, fairness requires that we allow the good will of those who oppose sexual diversity. Undoubtedly and disconcertingly, many religious leaders sincerely believe that sexual variations are harmful, wrong, godless, and sinful. Their reasons might be an un-self-conscious conglomerate of those listed above or others that pertain to generalized religious allegiance—such as belief in a particular religion, the voice of the pope, or the word of the Bible, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon. Although others—myself included—might see their stance as a fiction of blind conviction, the nobility of their spiritual commitment must be credited.

Obviously, for the most part, religious discussion of sexuality is not a rational affair. I know no topic like homosexuality whose mere mention can make some people lose all perspective, succumb to amygdaloid rage, and go bonkers. The inevitable change of religious beliefs, judgments, and attitudes will be difficult. While the slow process of change goes on, other spiritual leaders—open-minded, questioning, honest, and good willed—need to forge a new vision of the relationship between sexuality and spirituality. Such a vision will provide conservative religionists a coherent and ethical alternative. This they can embrace in good conscience when they finally begin to let go of their sex negativity. To such a vision, this article turns once again.

The Human as Body, Psyche, and Spirit

In their concern to limit sexual experience, Augustine and Aquinas were correct: Sexual experience does entail a momentary loss of rationality. But with more profound psychological awareness, the wisdom of our age asserts that such a temporary loss might be to the good. The psychoanalytic term that could apply is "regression in the service of the ego." Sometimes it is useful to experience a break from our too-heady rationalism. Such "regression" allows our mental structures to regroup in a healthier configuration: one step backward for the sake of two steps forward. Just as a needed vacation lets us return to everyday life with a new outlook, so, too, a respite from our over-rationalized and over-intellectualized pursuits can bring a new sense of wonder to daily living.

To be human is to be ever becoming. Throughout our lives we create ourselves. In the end each of us will be the one and only edition of ourselves. Our becoming depends on a shifting balance in the various facets of our make-up. As a pause that gives new life, sex can provide an occasion to shift our inner balance. But what does this shift have to do with spiritual growth?

Religion has traditionally conceived the human being as a combination of body and soul. Similarly, psychology speaks of body and mind. The difference between mind and soul is not worth addressing at this point. Both concepts are sufficiently fuzzy that comparing them would be a wasted effort. Still, this much remains clear: A two-part model of the human being is too simple. There is more going on in inner human experience—soul or mind—than just one thing.

In his major work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Bernard Lonergan speaks of two facets of the mind. The one constantly urges us into new frontiers and toward further growth; the other seeks, rather, the comfort and security of a stable status quo. Lonergan calls the first intentional consciousness or the human spirit, and the other, psyche. Thus, he projects a tripartite model of the human being: body, psyche, and spirit.

Spirit is the self-transcending dimension of the human mind. We experience it most fundamentally as wonder, marvel, awe. It prompts us to be aware, to be self-aware, and even to be aware of our awareness. Its very nature is "question"—outward looking dynamism, raw curiosity, that would understand ever more and more and encompass ever more and more. Open-ended in its purview, its ideal goal is everything that there is to know and love. It is, in fact, that by which we do come to know and love. It guides our wonder, our questioning, our judging, and our choosing. Geared to embrace the universe—even as, in the ideal, we would want to understand everything about everything and in the process become one with it all—it is a built-in homing devise for our life's quest. It "knows" what is required for wholeness, oneness, coherence, unity—just as, when we ask a question, we anticipate what kind of answer will satisfy our question. Likewise, it "senses" when we verge off-track—just as, without actually knowing the correct answer, we recognize when we're given a "snow job" and a proposed answer does not really address our question. Following the lead of this inner guide to the extent that we are able, we would continue to change, move, and grow until we reached the fullness of the positive growth that is possible in our particular life situation.

This inner mental drive has us living in a world of understandings and love, of meanings and values, of ideas and ideals, of visions and virtues. Variously named, these matters are clearly spiritual; they are not of time and space. Because of this dimension of our minds, remaining right where we are, we can transcend space and time. We can grasp abstracts—such as Pythagoras's a2 + b2 = c2 and Einstein's t' = tv1–v2 /c2 —which apply everywhere and always. We can have experiences—mysticism—in which we seem to attain to the unity of all things. This dimension of our minds is rightly called spirit. It is that because of which Genesis says that we are made in the "image and likeness" of God and the Psalmist says that we are made a "little less than the angels." It is that because of which Saint Augustine said in prayer, "Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you." It is that which makes us persons, in part spiritual beings, rather than brute animals or inanimate things.

Without ever explicitly talking of God or of a relationship with God, I have been describing a facet of our minds that is spiritual. If I am correct in so doing, this very aspect of our minds is the basis of human spirituality. Because of it we know wonder and awe, we question our existence, we contemplate the stars, we reach out in love—and anticipating the answer to our every question and projecting the fulfillment to our deepest longings, we conceive of God. The human spirit is the real foundation of all spirituality. Theological considerations are secondary; they are derivative.

To the extent that we allow the human spirit to guide our living, to the extent that we integrate its urgings ever more into the very structure of our being, we grow spiritually; we become more spiritual. However, this self-transcending dimension is not all there is to our minds. There is also psyche. It supports the out-going spirit; it "houses" the spirit. But by the same token, the psyche also limits the spirit.

The greatest obstacle to our spiritual growth is ourselves. Although our spirits would soar, facets of our minds prevent such self-transcendence. For reasons also built into our being, we cannot be fully open-minded, we limit our wonder and awe, we fear to strike out on new adventures, we selfishly attend only to ourselves. Our self-limiting self-defense restricts our potential for unlimited growth.

Psychologists and counselors work to free up the limiting aspects of the self. These professionals help us heal our past hurts, give up festering resentments, enhance interpersonal relationships, put aside counter-productive defenses. The focus of such healing is emotions, memories, images, and habits of personality. All these make up what Lonergan calls psyche.

Hence, there is a tug and pull inside of us. The urge to grow and the urge to stagnate are at war within us—perhaps like the "spirit" and "flesh" about which Saint Paul wrote. The goal of growth is to integrate these inner forces and to let spirit take the lead until, through repeated self-adjustment, our whole being—body, psyche, and spirit—moves harmoniously in one direction. Such is the path of spiritual growth. Understood from a psychological point of view—that is, a humanistic or naturalistic, not yet a theological, point of view—spiritual growth results via the process of integration of the human spirit.

The Mechanism of Spiritual Growth

Now it comes clear what a pause in routine has to do with spiritual growth. It is sometimes useful to break out of our routinized world in order to allow our spirits to take the lead. This is not a matter of going on retreat so as to allow God into our lives—as if God were not already always operating through natural causes in and around us and, as Christianity would add, through the supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit, who has been poured into our hearts. On my understanding, spirituality is, rather, first and foremost, a commitment to releasing the self-transcending human spirit that is ever already part of our own wondrous being. Accordingly, like meditative practice, sex can also be a path toward personal—and, therefore, spiritual—integration. By moving us out of our work-a-day world and into a more creative mental space, like meditation, sexual experiences can foster the transformation of the psyche. Such psychological healing is the God-given mechanism of spiritual growth.

Whereas a former age emphasized opposition between body and spirit, contemporary psychological awareness emphasizes integration—because it enhances humanity, and iron-willed suppression does not. This psychological lesson is sure. Pressure-cooker-like, bottled up feelings and inclinations inevitably break out; but with respectful attention, inner forces can be unearthed, understood, and responsibly channeled into pathways of personal growth. Thus, instead of attempting to sequester sex, to restrict, control, and restrain it, our age would recognize sexual diversity and in each case help body, psyche, and spirit enter into a unique, life-enhancing partnership. Instead of conceiving the spiritual ideal to be escape from the physical body and world, our age would find spiritual growth through personal fulfillment in the body—in a life of wonder, awe, honesty, gratitude, love, service, and good will. The other-worldly spirituality of a former age is today giving way to "incarnational spirituality," a this-worldly path of wholeness and integration. Granted that one facet of human wholeness is the human spirit, personal integration entails ipso facto increasing actualization of our spiritual potential. Rather than oppose sex, contemporary emphasis would use sex to elicit and integrate this potential. This effect can occur on two levels: bodily and psychic.

Bodily Accesses to the Spirit

Tibetan Buddhism has long used physical sexual arousal to achieve transcendent experiences. We know this tradition as Tantric sex. In our own society interest in "erotic massage" is popularizing this same approach. It uses full-body massage, including sexual stimulation but without orgasm, to induce intense and prolonged states of physiological arousal. Especially when accompanied by deep-breathing exercises, this arousal can induce profound altered states of consciousness, which, like psychedelic drugs used religiously or psychotherapeutically, facilitate the restructuring of the psyche. Similar reports are made about karezza, prolonged non-orgasmic copulation, which was pioneered in the Oneida Colony and later popularized by Dr. Alice Stockman. Even solo-sex, often surprisingly, elicits images, memories, and longings that offer new options for life. In humans, for whom the brain is the largest sex organ, orgasm is inseparably linked to the workings of the mind.

Because the body is the foundation of the psyche, any sexual arousal loosens up the psyche. The relaxation that sexual arousal requires frees up the mind. Fantasy routinely accompanies sexual arousal: images, memories, and emotions rise up out of the psyche. This shake-up of the psyche opens the way to personal transformation. Thus, sexual arousal can serve as an access to the spirit through the body—just as other, more standard, body-centered spiritual practices do, such as fasting, sleep deprivation, yoga, ritual postures, movement, and sacramental intoxicants.

Psychic Accesses to the Spirit

A passing sexual encounter can sometimes be a beneficial experience—the legendary weekend tryst that leaves both parties grateful for each other and restored to faith in life. Still, on the level of psyche, sexual arousal has its most powerful effect when coupled with romance and ongoing relationship.

The emotional power of relationships is legendary. Lovers interminably challenge each other as they jog to and fro in a dance of on-going compromises and adjustments, some steps welcomed and others, resisted. Sometimes the power of interpersonal relationships can be explosive; but, to some extent in every case, they pry open the psyche. Falling in love and being in love are exciting and disrupting experiences. When people are in love, from their psyches come pouring out memories, joys, and fears—as well as hopes and schemes: the dreams and promises of lovers, the meanings and values, the ideas and ideals, that are the hallmarks of the human spirit. This psychic upheaval turns over rich mental soil and makes way for new growth. With the breakdown of habitual patterns of behavior and response comes the possibility of reconfiguring the self in a healthier form. In this sense people in loving relationships are "good for each other."

Sex can be used to facilitate self-transcendent experience. Having sex seduces lovers into weaving dreams and making promises: human sex engages the psyche, which, in turn, releases the human spirit.

Bringing a purified mind to sex also transforms sex itself. Therefore, compared to the unaware, people who meditate regularly can be more personally engaged in a sexual encounter. They can approach a partner with clarity of focus, knowing why they are there; with intensity of action, being fully present to every movement, touch, and gesture; with emotional attunement, flowing in synch with the partner; with responsiveness of presence, attending spontaneously to the other; and with profound identification, finding themselves in the other and the other in themselves.

At the same time that the regular meditator brings a richer self to the sexual encounter, the bodily and psychic effects of the encounter also further intensify the meditator's personal presence. This reciprocity creates a snowballing effect. Multiple systems conspire to increase personal—and now interpersonal—integration. Bodies, psyches, and spirits flow in the transcending, ever-renewing course that is determined by the open-ended dynamism of the human spirit itself. A unitive experience—a sense of oneness with oneself, the other, and the universe—may sometimes result. This is to say, in sexual sharing or in reflection on it, one can know a moment of mystical ecstasy. As does every "religious experience," this moment helps to further transform the psyche, opening onto the possibility of still further experiences of self-transformation. In this fashion, loving sex can become a path to spiritual fulfillment.

The Ideal and the Real in Perspective

However, my down-to-earth sense of life requires that I add a qualification. It must be recalled that most often sex is a rather prosaic event. People usually end up enjoying sex not because it can open the door to mysticism but for this or that more mundane reason. As with spirituality itself, we must be careful not to idealize sex. It is often less than it is cracked up to be. Sex is, after all, a human affair, and, more often than not, human affairs fall into the gray range, not into black or white.

Be that as it may, sex and spirituality can be integrated. They can mutually enhance each other. However, as the close relationship between sexuality and spirituality becomes a topic of popular discussion, misleading oversimplifications emerge. I explained the inherent relationship of sexuality to spirituality on the basis of a facet of our human make-up, namely, the open-ended, self-transcending, dynamic, and normatively structured human spirit. Granted this understanding, not every sexual encounter is spiritually useful. In itself, of course, as sheer titillation, sex has a magic of its own. But this merely physical and emotional excitement is not the self-transcending wonder of the human spirit. Not just any sexual arousal leads to spiritual fulfillment.

Drugs can induce spiritually useful altered states of consciousness, and many indigenous religious rituals—not to mention Christianity's use of communion wine on an empty stomach—utilize psychedelics for this purpose; but people also use drugs on the street and end up in enslaving addictions. Similarly, sex can be used for spiritual growth, but it can also be used for escapism. In its own way sex can also become an addiction. It would be a compounded illusion to believe that an insatiable pursuit of sex has spiritual growth as its motive or its likely result.

The spiritual path follows a fine line. It is the narrow gate of which Jesus spoke, the razor edge that the bodhisattva must walk. If a former age fell off the edge into an other-worldly extreme, advocating a spiritual fulfillment that required the denial of sex, our own age tends to fall off the edge into a this-worldly extreme, ignoring the spiritual and touting the value of mere physical pleasure. Finding and expressing a balance is not easy. But worse than missing the balance is to not even attempt to find it. Integration of sexuality and spirituality may call for some experimentation, and along the way one may make some mistakes. One only hopes that we all have the good sense not to make irreparable mistakes—such as unwanted pregnancies, incurable sexually transmitted diseases, broken hearts, or scandalous betrayals of solemn commitments. I treat the integration of sexuality and spirituality in detail in Sex and the Sacred.

The Integration of Sexuality and Spirituality

Spirituality is a quest. Composed of body, psyche, and spirit, we live pulled in many directions. The challenge each day is to pursue a new balance as life inevitably changes and moves on. The key to the balance is attunement to our own spirit, for the spirit holds a vision of unity, an orientation toward transcendence, and a fountain of wisdom that are beyond our deliberate control.

For that very reason—because our own spirit seems to operate from beyond ourselves, because we are more than our small, conceptualized selves—people tend to attribute spiritual experiences to things outside of themselves, most commonly, to “God.” I have attributed spirituality to an aspect of our own beings. Properly understood, this approach leads to no solipsism, selfishness, selfism, godless humanism, atheistic naturalism, or myopic pettiness—as critics allege—for our spirits are essentially out-going, geared to the universe, oriented to all that is true and good. Fidelity to the human spirit could not but lead godward.

One advantage of this approach is that it easily explains the close relationship between spirituality and sexuality—and many other facets of human living, as well. Another advantage is that it counters the centuries-long embarrassment of Christianity—the religion that believes God became flesh but has treated the flesh as unworthy.