In the Presence of God & These Our Friends:
Embodiment, Sex & Our Life in God
This is an effort to reflect on how God hopes for us to approach and live out our sexuality. It springs from my own experience and views of how God reveal's God's self to humans in the context of spiritual community - particularly in the life of the Religious Society of Friends.
I have written down here a number of sexual "principles" because I sense, in my heart, that these are right - not because they "make rational sense" in terms of other Quaker beliefs, social "testimonies" or fundamental principles we encounter in the Bible. It does seem to me, however, to be of value to reflect on the implications for sexuality of other things we know to be true - and to draw strength or undergirding from these other spiritual principles for what our hearts are saying is right.
Here are the assumptions that I bring to this reflection:
1. God leads spiritual communities and guides them into a way of life patterned after God's dream for humanity. Friends have developed uniquely powerful tools for discovering God's voice with others.
2. God also has intentions for individuals - something they can discover through prayer and discernment.
3. The Quaker testimonies of Integrity, Simplicity, Equality, Community, Peace, and Earthcare provide powerful guides for those seeking to let God shape their lives.
4. The Bible also offers an incredible powerful record of God's work with humanity in the Hebrew people and the early Church. This great spiritual work also provides us important guidance in discovering God's hopes for us as individual people of faith and as spiritual communities.
I have written down 14 propositions as statements of what God believes or wants about various aspects of sexual ethics. I have put down these principles in this way not because I am certain that this is how God feels, but rather to encourage us as spiritual fellowships to work harder to discover what God does, in fact, hope for us in these things. I want to emphasize also that I am speaking only for myself and not for anyone else. The sad fact is that we do not among unprogrammed Friends have a strong common voice as to what we believe about sexuality. It is one of my deepest hopes that this will change in the future.
I am no expert or personal paragon of virtue on these issues! I offer you these ideas in the spirit of humility, openness and listening. I hope to hear back from you what you feel God has been saying to you about these very important questions.
#1 Hearing God's Voice as a Faith Community:
First and foremost, I believe God cares what we do with our bodies and minds sexually. God wants us to struggle with each other towards unity of vision as to what is right and wrong sexually.
Quakerism, to me, is rooted on the idea that God speaks directly to us through our hearts in the present. That God (Holy Spirit, Living Inward Christ) teaches and leads us continually, today, just as God did with the Hebrew prophets, in the life of Jesus and the early Church, and in the extraordinary religious movement that broke forth in England in the mid-17th century. This leadership of the Spirit is not primarily an individual process but rather a shared one. The core of Quakerism is our effort to hear and obey God's voice as a community.
This is what our unique practice of meeting for worship with a concern for business is built upon. Our books of discipline contain active guidance for members in many areas (lifestyle, social justice, participation in war, stewardship of the earth). In the past we recognized and supported as a community those called to various forms of public religious leadership and provided ongoing group spiritual guidance or "eldering" to those exercising such public religious gifts. Many meetings are taking small baby steps towards rediscovering such communal involvement in the lives of their members.
Friends continue to wrestle with each other around how we should be responding to such issues as discrimination against gays, payment of taxes for war, and personal responses to the challenges of global warming. The assumption underlying all of these Quakerly activities, I believe, is that God has ideas or a vision for us as a community on a wide variety of subjects public and private.
Does God care less about what we practice sexually? Evangelical Friends believe firmly that God has a clearly articulated vision of what is right and wrong about sex. I disagree in important areas with those Friends' conclusions about what God is saying to us today about sex. Reacting to someone else's sexual vision without making a concerted effort to come up with one of one's own is a negative and highly incomplete sexual ethic - unlikely to provide direction or guidance for many critical issues around rightly-guided sexual practice.
I believe God does care what we do in the area of sex, that God's vision is quite different than the traditional "it's only good if it's inside the marital relationship" ethic, and that Friends are capable of discovering together what God's new message is to us in this area. It may take us quite a long time to reach substantial unity in this area, but the difficulty should not prevent us from attempting to begin this process. The goal would be to provide guidance to our members on a wide range of sexual issues that they face in their own lives.
This principle is also rooted in what has been referred to as the Quaker "testimony of community". What this testimony means is that we are part of a fabric with others. We are influenced by what others are experiencing in their lives and they in turn our influenced by what is happening in our lives. This is true when someone is treated cruelly even on another corner of the planet. It is also true that our sexual acts and decisions affect others. This is true particularly within our circle of family, friends and local spiritual community. Many meetings have faced great spiritual challenge when a couple that is deeply involved in the life of the meeting breaks up. Our acts and decisions affect others. Theirs affect us.
On a less immediate level this interconnectiveness extends to the local communities we live in, our relationship with the other branches of the Society of Friends and with other parts of the Christian Church. If we teach and practice a form of sexuality that brings us closer to God, we build and support a world-wide process of growing more in tune with the sacred Heart of all life. When we act contrary to God's hopes and dreams for us sexually, we to that same extent create fissures and barriers from God's unfolding plan for humanity and the earth.
#2 Individual Guidance:
God also cares about the sexual decisions we make personally. God wants us to attempt to hear and heed the leadings of the Spirit as we attempt to be faithful in our personal sexual lives, as individuals, as couples and as families.
It is my understanding that part of Quakerism is also personal efforts to hear and obey God's voice for us as individuals. We face a host of choices in our life every day - whether to take or leave a job, how to parent a child, whether to confront wrongdoing when we encounter it and how we can best do so, whether it is right for us to spend money on a new house, car, or large appliance, etc. Although we may not usually put these kinds of decisions before God, I think it is right to assume that God does care what decisions we are making, even on very small questions in our daily lives.
In the past, clearness committees were limited primarily to decisions to join a meeting or to marry. Since the late 1960's, many Friends have begun to utilize clearness committees to enable other Friends to assist an individual Friend in hearing God's voice around a wide variety of personal issues. This has ranged from decisions about entering the military, payment of war taxes, employment, separation and divorce, leadings to undertake a particular project or act of witness, and even to some extent disciplinary issues at Friends Schools.
There is no reason to believe that God only cares about a decision to enter into a life-long committed relationship with another person. I believe God cares whether we choose to have sex in a relationship outside of marriage, whether or not we regularly view pornography on the internet, the quality and frequency of sexual acts within a married relationship and a host of other personal sexual decisions. Jesus addressed these same concerns in his suggestion in the Sermon on the Mount that lusting for another person's spouse in one's thoughts was a form of adultery, not simply engaging in sex with someone who was married to another. (Matthew 5:27)
We are physical beings. Sexuality is an integral part of our spirituality. Sexual joy can be as holy as any other kind of joy. Physical expressions of love can draw us closer to God as well as to the person we are touching physically.
Our spiritual selves are not higher than our selves as bodies. Integrity involves wholeness. It implies that there is no area of our life that is apart from our spirituality. It involves embodiment and carnality. The church traditionally elevated the spiritual above the physical or carnal and saw the carnal as the enemy of the spiritual (often also seeing women as a temptation and a threat to men's spiritual path).
God rejects all such dualism. God embraces our sexual feelings, our longings. Is an orgasm in itself less holy than a moment of spiritual harmony or a moment of great artistic creativity / inspiration?
Our bodies are temples of the spirit. What we do with these temples is holy business - including when we touch others sexually, when we touch ourselves sexually, and when we think and feel in sexual ways.
The explicitly "Quaker" evidence for this facet of this proposed "testimony" may be weaker than some other facets. Certainly there has not been any strong explicit Quaker tradition of dualism or rejection of the body. The Testimony on Integrity upholds the basic principle that all areas of life are the stuff of spirituality. All that we live must be an expression of faithfulness.
Both George Fox and John Woolman expressed a strong belief that the natural creation was an itself an expression of God's work. Fox wrote about all creation "taking on a new smell." Woolman was concerned about the ways in which wrong use of possessions would be harmful to the earth and to animals. If the creation is a central part of God's plan, why not also our bodies?
Fox was a strong advocate of perfection and believed that the rejection of the possibility of perfection for believers meant that sexual acts became profaned even within the boundary of the marital relationship. He wrote that when his spiritual opponents said that sin was inevitable, they implied that sexual acts between married couples were destined to be expressive of "animal lusts". [this paragraph may be too obscure too include! It's a pretty esoteric part of Fox's writings but is something he actually returned to a number of times is one of the only things he wrote specifically about sexuality.]
The most articulate expression of embodiment that I have encountered is in the writings of the Christian theologian, James Nelson. Nelson writes with deep passion and conviction about the spirituality of our carnal acts. (1)
#4 Sexual Acts as an Expression of Love:
God wants us to utilize the act of physical lovemaking as the outward expression of emotional and spiritual intimacy with the person we are touching physically.
How does God feel about casual sex among singles - or for that matter between married partners? Our society glorifies casual sex. Films often focus on sex in the context of falling in love, but how often do they celebrate sexuality within the context of long-term committed love? Sex for its own sake is promoted constantly in advertising. It is hard not to be influenced by the constant barrage of messages encouraging us to look at and long for young, healthy, stereotypically "attractive" bodies.
What does it mean, however, to touch another person where there is not love, or where the sexual act is an expression of physical need rather than spiritual intimacy? Is casual sex a form of hard-heartedness? Does it involve a certain closing off of one's heart in the act of physical intimacy? It would seem to involve focusing on one's own physical pleasure while not truly embracing the spirit of the person one is with. This also applies to looking at persons and images in a sexual manner without a sense of respect and caring, in effect as a consumer of another person's sexual attractiveness.
The word incarnation means literally "becoming flesh". When we love another person deeply, our hearts touch each other. When this spiritual closeness is expressed by physical touching, it becomes embodied, "en-fleshed". Physical touching does not have to mean sex, of course. Physical affection can reflect spiritual connection in the affectionate hug or touch between those who feel spiritually connected. A special kind of spiritual and emotional closeness can also, though, grow into sexual expression. There is power in limiting sexual closeness to a relationship in which there is great emotional and spiritual intimacy.
Again, I have less clear evidence that Quakerism has a strong position on this issue historically than some other questions. Some evidence for this would include the following:
1. The Testimony on Simplicity (the one I often like to call the Testimony on Purity) is about living a way of life that makes it more possible for us to hear and obey God's voice in our hearts. Belongings, addictions, clutter, excessive activity can all interfere with our ability to experience the touch of the "still small voice".
Open-heartedness in one area nurtures open-heartedness in other areas. It has been observed that sexual passion and spiritual passion are deeply connected. When we open our hearts courageously to another person in sexual intimacy, we open doors in our hearts to God. Similarly, when we practice sexuality while closing our heart to the person we are touching physically - or looking at - we may also close our hearts to God.
2. The First Epistle of John teaches us that we cannot love God without loving those near us. That God is something we do not see, and we experience love of God when we love the humans we are in contact with.
3. As mentioned earlier, Jesus appears to believe that nurturing caring feelings towards others and avoiding "lustful" or unloving possessive desires is an important part of faithfulness. The Epistle to James also suggests that feelings of "lust" or longing to possess others' things (including their bodies for our own pleasure?) is associated with conflict and war. This passage was at the heart of early Friends' opposition to war.
4. Fox wrote a number of epistles about sexuality. It involved his debate with his Puritan opponents on the issue of perfectionism. The Puritans argued that no one other than God or Jesus could attain a life of perfection. Fox attacked this idea as "apology for sin". He argued that one who found complete freedom in Christ was able to live free from sin. These ideas are hard to grasp today!
He went on to suggest that those who argued for sin condemned sexual love between married partners to be expressions of "animal lust". I do not fully understand what Fox was getting at in these writings (which he returned to on a number of occasions), but I believe he was arguing for the basic purity of sexual expression as being possible for those who developed a truly committed relationship with the Living Christ in the context of a faithful community. (2)
#5 Long-term Partnering:
Sexual intimacy has a special and unique role when it occurs in the context of a permanent life-long committed relationship. God wants us to support and nurture stability in long-term relationships as an important part of God's vision for humanity.
On some level that we may not easily understand and in spite of all the unhappiness and confusion in many of the marriages we know, marriage continues as a powerful institution in the lives of our nations and our own religious society. Marrying each other without the assistance of priests was a radical step by early Friends. Marriage was an act which our local religious community took direct responsibility for. The act of approving and conducting wedding ceremonies is the most direct and formal intervention of our local meeting community into the personal lives of Friends. The act of marrying is considered a spiritual action of great significance.
I took a course many years ago with Parker Palmer during his final term at Pendle Hill on the subject of community. We looked a lot at monastic communities and what made them tick. He reframed the three traditional vows of chastity, poverty and obedience as purity, co-ownership of goods, and stability. The vow of stability was the idea that "even when times get rough, I will not run off to the next monastery down the road."
Jesus said nothing whatsoever about homosexuality. He very clearly and explicitly, however, rejected divorce. (See Matthew 5:31.) There is almost no major religious community in this country today that holds firmly to the principle that marriage needs to be a life-long commitment. We marry members as a community, even meeting with them to discuss whether the couple has made the right choice. Few meetings get actively involved in members' struggles when their marriage may be falling apart.
I would not suggest that God thinks that divorce is always wrong. Working powerfully to support stability in marriage relationships, however, is an important part of what the religious community does. It also needs to be central principle guiding the personal acts of those who are trying to act in faithfulness.
We do not have to believe that sex must be limited to marital partners or to believe that all are called to marital partnering to believe that stable and hopefully life-long partnering is a very important part of God's plan for humans. And to believe that the nurturing and support of such relationships is an important part of building the kingdom of God on earth.
Certain activities such as extramarital affairs clearly undermine the stability of marital partnering, family units and the larger circles that marriages exist in including the local spiritual community. It is less clear what impact sexual activity between single people has on the viability and stability of marital unions, so we will explore this question separately later.
#6 Honesty & Openness:
God desires that we be radically honest with others in our sexual practices and to be willing to allow others to know what we are practicing.
When I teach a course on the Quaker testimonies, I always teach the Testimony on Integrity first. I do this partly because I figure it may have been chronologically the first testimony that Friends discovered that they agreed upon and practiced together. It also seems to be one that the other testimonies in a sense are built upon.
In my view this testimony says that we practice what we preach, that we should not "talk the talk" unless we are prepared to "walk the walk" In the meeting where I grew up we were told that Friends try to practice their faith all week long, not just on Sunday morning.Truth-speaking is quite an endangered species in our culture today. Cheating on taxes is only slightly less popular in this country than it is in Russia. The board game "Scruples" is fascinating because there is so little agreement in our culture today about what is the right thing to do ethically in many situations.
Truth-speaking in relationships obviously precludes affairs behind the back of a spouse and deliberate deceptions such as saying you love someone or are committed to them when you really just want to have casual sex. Beyond that it entails a deeper pattern of openness of one's life with another person - another child of God.
Although privacy and discretion are clearly important principles when it comes to sexual relationships, there is also an important principle about being willing to have others' know the basic way we are living our lives. If we are ashamed or have to hide what we practice, this undermines the fabric of community. Are we engaged in sexual practices (prostitution, going to sex clubs, online pornography) that we would not want others in our family or our meeting to know about? Can we hide what we are doing from ourselves? From God?
#7 The Testimony on Simplicity:
We are called to practice sexuality in a manner that keeps our hearts as open as possible to God.
My understanding of the Quaker testimony on simplicity is that we are called to live lifestyles in a manner that keeps us as attuned as possible to the motions of the Spirit within us. For this reason, this principle is also sometimes referred to as the Testimony on Purity. As noted earlier, possessions, work, busy-ness, and clutter can all interfere with responsiveness to God.
Many forms of sexual activity can interfere with kind of rigid attachment to responsiveness to the leadership of the living Spirit. Sexual addictions substitute the attachment to viewing sexual images or engaging in rigid sexual behaviors for spirit-led sexual intimacy. These can lead married individuals away from their partners. It can lead people to carry out actions that are violent or coerced or violate an individual's sense of integrity.
Sexual acts that open one more to God are those that are reflective of love and open-heartedness. What direction do our sexual feelings and acts move us in - closer to God, closer to our true selves, closer to those we love and are committed to, closer to those with whom we share spiritual community - or away from all of these things?
#8 Equality within Sexual Partnerships:
God intends for us to enter into sexual relationships as equals.
There is enormous risk of exploitation in sexual relationships of unequal power. This is true between adults and children, doctors and patients, employers and employees, teachers and students, guards and prisoners. In such relationships it is almost inherently impossible for both parties to come to the relationship with free input into decision-making and mutual respect.
In addition, where a society has significant differences of power between different groups if people - men and women, rich and poor, those who have differing levels of education, those from different races, even birth order - it can be challenging to reach the goal of deep equality between partners from these different groups. It can be a life-long challenge, in some cases, for partners to overcome deep disparities of power in an intimate relationship when multiple issues challenge equality of respect and decision-making.
Our Testimony on Equality is rooted in the fact that inequality precludes the expression of God's voice through the individual who is excluded from political power or spiritual leadership. In the same way, God is unable to express God's hopes and dreams in the sexual realm when one or both members of a partnership are denied freedom and respect.
#9 Equal Access to Sexuality:
God wants to insure that whole groups of people are not excluded from being sexual because of prejudice or injustice.
I took a course in nursing school in sexuality where we watched many explicit educational films. Some of these films showed loving sexual acts between older people, between those with serious disabilities, and other groups that our culture does not usually think of as being sexual. I think it is fair to say that most of those present found these films difficult to watch and quite a "turn off". The same could be said probably for many of those present of the films that showed same sex couples having sex.
God clearly does not want disabled or older people to be non-sexual beings simply because many people in our culture have trouble imagining them as sexual. Our society glorifies the young, the fit, the healthy, and those whose bodies fit the stereotype of "physically attractive". God proclaims all these groups as being "physically attractive" in God's own eyes and calls us to join God in this view of them (and of themselves/ourselves).
Many liberal Friends have come slowly over the past several decades to believe that gays and lesbians also deserve to be treated equally with heterosexuals in terms of access to sexuality. I do not think it is correct that this is a "knee-jerk liberal" assumption: that just because it appears unequal or unjust to reject gay sex that gay unions have a place in God's plan. Rather I think it is a question of knowing actual loving gay couples and sensing the rightness of what they are doing and the working of the Spirit in their lives and their committed relationships.
I agree with those who have suggested that Hebrew scriptures, Christian scripture and past Friends writings are really silent on the issue of same sex marriage and homosexual acts in the context of a life-long committed relationship blessed by a spiritual community. [citation: Pendle Hill pamphlet on Homosexuality and the Bible.] It is up to us to hear and discern correctly what God is saying to us on this issue. I do not assume that as liberal Friends we have the final answer as to what God is telling us about same sex relationships, but up to this point I do not myself sense wrongness of these committed unions blessed by Meetings. In fact, there seems to me to be much evidence that God is working in these Friends' lives.
#10 Freedom from Violence & Force:
Spiritually grounded sexual acts are only possible between partners acting out of free choice, making decisions to participate free from any form of violence or coercion.
Our testimony on peace was originally based on the idea that warring and violence were rooted in "lusting" after others and their possessions, the selfish desire to own and control what was not one's to have rightfully. [citations: James, 1660 Declaration] This wrong attitude obviously fuels sexual violence as well as war and other forms of violence. It is widely recognized that rape is an issue of unequal power relationships and intimidation between social groups rather than sexuality.
Modern Friends also see violence as the destruction or damaging of God's potential revelation (the "Inner Light" through the person harmed or killed. When violence enters into the sexual relationship either explicitly in rape or indirectly through date rape and various forms of coerced sexual acts, there is no chance that the sexual act can be an expression of deep interpersonal spiritual intimacy or the unfolding of God's plan for us as humans.
#11 Pornography & Awe:
Pornography is based on addictive pulls and rooted in exploitation of those involved in its production and use. It at best avoids and at worst suppresses healthy intimate relationships with others. It is incompatible with treating all persons with awe, respect and love - as children of the living God.
Pornography is a huge world-wide industry that enslaves millions of people. It is deeply entertwined with organized crime, prostitution and drug addiction.
Pornography traps users into returning continually to it through playing upon addiction. It is an effort to gain profit - huge profit - on the addictions and suffering of those involved at both ends.
The images in pornography are devoid of caring and spiritual intimacy. It encourages an attitude of focusing on one's own pleasure through "consuming" the image of another person. It fosters sexual fixations and attitudes that make it difficult for those who utilize it to treat others in real life situations with true respect, honesty and affection.
Pornography is rooted in and fosters addictive behaviors. It is the opposite of the Testimony on Simplicity. Simplicity involves taking part in activities that open our hearts more fully to the Living Spirit of Christ. Addictions serve as a hollow substitute for God. They are a form of idolatry. When our actions are controlled by addictions we lose the freedom to respond to God's voice in guiding our behavior. Pornography closes our hearts to God and makes it less likely that we and others will choose behaviors that are reflective of God's leading and hopes for us.
Pornography and erotica appear superficially similar but they could not be more different, although admittedly much that is marketed as erotica bears many of the same characteristics as pornography. Erotica, as I am discussing it, can reflect and encourage an opening of the heart to others. It is not produced in a manner that exploits any other person in its production. It can deepen the bonds of sexual joy between partners. It does not rely on addictions to appeal.
We need to take a strong stand against pornography and to resist the pull to utilize it if we see ourselves as people of faith and integrity. In the past people who opposed injustice refused to wear the products of slavery or of non-union labor. Others refused to drink because of opposition to the ways in which alcohol damaged many people's lives. I cannot think of few industries we would want more to stay clear of supporting than the multinational pornographic sex industry.
#12 Sex and Care of the Earth:
Wrongly-ordered sexual attitudes and behavior are damaging to the earth.
Sale of products by capitalist enterprises through playing upon sexually exploitative images and sexual addictions fuels overconsumption and use of resources that damages the earth. On a deeper level, wrongly ordered sexual attitudes create an attitude towards self, others, and the earth that is deeply damaging to God's plans.
When my older son was about five or six he hated the toilet jokes rampant among his peers. He said to me once "Daddy: I feel like those jokes are like the attitudes of people who don't care when endangered species are wiped out." I was puzzled by this statement at first and couldn't see the connection between the two. But then it struck me: both attitudes are based on a lack of deep respect and "awe" towards God's creation - towards bodies on the one hand and towards God's creatures on the other. (3)
#13 Sexuality between Singles:
I believe God embraces some kinds of sexual activity between single people when it is practiced as an expression of deep spiritual and emotional caring and in response to a mutual effort to discern God's will.
Traditionally it was believed that sex before (and after?!) marriage undermined the sanctity of the marital union. Is this in fact necessarily the case? I am not certain that sex between singles has any more to do with the sanctity or special-ness or stability of marital unions and the sexual acts that take place within them than committed unions between members of the same sex has an impact on heterosexual unions.
It is certainly possible that learning how to practice deep honesty, equality, respect, and discernment in sexual relationships as a single person in fact prepares one to make good decisions about a life-long partner and to practice these same spiritual practices within a marriage at another period of life.
On the other hand, all of the basic principles of spiritually-guided sexuality (seeing it as an expression of love, practicing truthfulness and openness, acting free from addiction, seeking the guidance of the Spirit in decisions) apply equally to sex between singles as between those in a marital relationship.
#14 Fidelity in Sexual Relationships:
God longs for us to love our life partner with all our heart.
Monogamy remains one of the cornerstones of the traditional Christian sexual ethic. What is this about? After reflecting on this question for over 40 years, I've decided that it is the same issue as monotheism. The traditional words for monogamy (fidelity and faithfulness) are rooted in this connection between giving one's whole undivided heart to a partner and doing the same with God. As Friends, we may not vow to "forsake all others," but we do vow to be a "loving and faithful husband (or wife)". What this meant, at least in the past, was promising not to be romantically or sexually involved with anyone other than our spouse.
Why is monotheism such a big deal in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition? This is because God wants to have us turn our whole being towards our relationship with Her/Him, rather than being divided in our loyalty. In the Book of Hosea, the prophet Hosea says that God asked him to take a wife who was sexually promiscuous and to forgive her and take her back again and again in spite of her sexual liaisons with men other than her husband. Gomer's lack of marital fidelity was symbolic of the Hebrew people's attraction to and liaisons with other gods besides Yahweh.
Jesus addressed the same issue of single-heartedness when he said that you cannot love both God and money. Many loyalties and addictions compete with our capacity to give our whole heart in a faithful manner to the Spirit at the center of our lives - substances, work, sexual addictions, pride, attachment to our own ideas, and desire for material security are just a few. An addiction is a rigid attachment to a behavior that we are unable to let go of even if it gets in the way of the things - and people - that are most precious to us. If we have pledged our heart to God as our foremost loyalty above everything else, addictions may interfere with our capacity to keep that pledge consistently. Fortunately, God continually forgives us and invites back into intimacy with Her/Himself!
The same pulls away from faithfulness with God also pull us away from putting our life partner first. Sometimes the competing loyalty may be in itself very admirable. I lived in the sixties with a dedicated Quaker peace activist who traveled around the country organizing nonviolent actions. His wife seemed to me to be miserable. She appeared to feel that her husband's heart was much more dedicated to world peace than it was to her. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King also seemed to have significant competition with their marital faithfulness (of a very different sort in each case).
Our life partner longs to know that she or he comes first in our heart. She or he can tell intuitively if I am divided in my loyalty, whether this is because of a romantic or sexual attraction to another person or to projects or addictions. My dividedness may stimulate anxiety and need for reassurance in my partner. When this happen God can help me to love better and use this information as a spur to more single-hearted commitment to my loved one. If I am caught in a more wounded place, however, I may be scared or turned off by my partner's expression of disappointment and longing leading to a vicious circle of disappointment and retreat.
Is there a conflict between giving my whole heart to God and giving my whole heart to my human partner? Jesus says that the two great commandments are to love God with all your heart and all your soul and to love your neighbor as yourself. This certainly implies that these two commandments are not in competition. In loving my partner I give bodily expression to my love for the infinite Spirit. My faithfulness to God will continually guide my in new ways to love my partner without limits. I suspect if I experience a conflict between love of God and love of my partner, then I have not gone deep enough in discovering how to love in either or both of these core relationships in my life.
Are there exceptions to the ideal of sexual fidelity within marriage? Some couples have told each other that if their partner became permanently disabled by a disease such as dementia, then they would want their partner to be able to find sexual intimacy. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote a novel about the dilemma of a man who married after believing that his wife had died in the Holocaust.
Oneida Community practiced group marriage in the 19th century in which sexual relations were practiced with a number of community members outside a dyadic couple. Another form of group marriage where one man is permitted more than one wife was practiced in biblical times by the Hebrew people, early Mormonism and in many Islamic communities today. I only know two families that tried to practice a form of group marriage and it was not a stable situation.
Some couples believe that they can love each other whole-heartedly and also support each others' sexual intimacy with others. Many Friends have seen abundant evidence that faith communities blessing life-long same gender unions bears spiritual fruit. I personally have not encountered evidence that group marriage or open marriage in any of the above forms has any spiritual benefit. On the contrary, I have seen significant evidence that sexual intimacy outside of the marriage relationship undermines in a fundamental way one's capacity to love one's life partner with all one's heart.
Practicing single-hearted love is not easy but I believe there is abundant evidence that it has great rewards in deepening one's own life in God.
What dost thou say (think, feel, believe) on these matters?
(1) Nelson is a professor of Christian ethics at United Theological
Seminary of the Twin Cities. Here are some of his available writings:
The Intimate Connection: Male Sexuality, Masculine Spirituality. Westminster Press, 1988.
Body Theology. Westminster Press, 1992.
Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology. Augsburg Publishing House, 1978.
2 of Nelson's essays are posted online on religon-online.org.
Re-uniting Sexuality & Spirituality - originally published in The Christian Century in 1987. © The Christian Century Foundation.
Homosexuality & the Church - originally published in Christianity & Crisis in 1977.
(2) What I have said in this section is definitely not intended to address issues around solitary sexuality. The way in which one thinks about and practices sexuality when one is alone has profound implications on many of the other ideas discussed in this paper (e.g. under #2, #3, #6, #7, #11 and #14 for starters). This probably deserves its own section, which I hope to add later. Suggestions are welcome!
(3) Quaker Earthcare Witness (the movement giving expression to the new Friends testimony on stewardship of the planet) has written a pamphlet entitled "A Witness for Friends on Sexuality". This short essay explores in more depth some of the ways in which wrongly-ordered sexual practices and attitudes are entertwined with overpopulation, overconsumption and other dangers to the earth. A copy is posted on the Quaker Earthcare Witness website.
Note: a set of queries growing out of this paper can be found by clicking here.