Issue Date: May 20, 2005
Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST
Real Sex and Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality are books that take healthy human sexuality and faith seriously but from different perspectives and experiences.
The first is written by a young, articulate, recently married evangelical Protestant woman. The second is edited by a middle-aged Catholic priest who knows the ways of holistic spirituality.
Both authors bring honesty and integrity to matters concerning sexuality and faith. Whether or not we may always agree with them, Christians of all ages and traditions are invited to come to terms with their ideas. That is especially true for those who are dissatisfied with the inherited teachings of their churches.
Since the 1960s, a sexual revolution has been sweeping the globe. All religious traditions have been scrambling to understand it. Gone are the days when sex and body talk were taboo for Christians. Sexuality and spirituality are now jointly celebrated even though the translation from ethical discussion to moral behavior remains difficult.
Several years ago, Lauren Winner wrote an attention-getting book about her spiritual pilgrimage from Judaism to Christianity. It was titled Girl Meets God. She discovered, by the end of it, that she couldnt ultimately distinguish between her two faiths. Instead, she determined to live in a creative tension between them, though favoring Christianity.
Ms. Winner describes her passage from an earlier life she now believes lacked sexual discretion to one honoring pre-marital chastity. She has discovered what she believes to be a simple but difficult truth: God has created sex exclusively for marriage.
The author acknowledges that her views may sound like old-fashioned hooey to liberal readers schooled in a generation of Christian ethics that were formulated in the wake of the sexual revolution. But traditionalist tirades against fleshly sins are equally disconcerting to her. Just as the libertine practices of her past left her ashamed and unfulfilled, so also she now abhors the condemning bromides of conservatives. In her quest for surer ground, Ms. Winner claims Christianity as a religion about a divinity who became human and fleshly, like us.
The author began work on this book before her recent marriage and completed it after the wedding. Writing so close to a time of youthful singleness and dating is both a strength and weakness of her book. She understands those raging hormones but her marital experience is decidedly limited. At least she shares authentically about a challenging time of life with which many will identify and empathize.
As a married young adult with a developing career, she now struggles for certainty and security amid the confusion of ambiguous social and religious standards. Those who recognize her difficulty will experience a mixture of both admiration and angst when she writes, for example: [T]he Christian approach is neither hedonism nor [the] obliteration [of desire] -- it is discipline.
Christians cannot accept the cultures story, says Winner, who questions purely recreational sex without the possibility for procreation -- that is blind to consequences, that says ones body is fully ones own, and that claims orgasm gives the sexual act its validity.
To cope with moral ambiguity, Christians must establish strong personal boundaries and submit to the counsel and correction of a mutually accountable peer group of supportive fellow pilgrims.
Thomas Ryan does not confine his concern for body spirituality to matters sexual. He celebrates the male and female body in all its inclusive goodness and addresses with a mature mellowness the place of the body in the spiritual life. He understands the body as a mystery and regrets that Enlightenment thinking has denigrated the way we relate to our bodies. The inherited mind-body dualism that defines our confused theological ethics renders natural sexual behavior suspect.
[The] biblical legacy is fine wine, he says, but alas, Christianity has poured copious water into its wine and resisted the radical nature of its own good news where the body is concerned. On the one hand, it offers the highest theological evaluation of the body among all the religions of the world. On the other, it gives little attention to the bodys positive role in the spiritual life.
Fr. Ryan leads Prayer of Heart and Body retreats for like-minded people who find it rewarding to combine yoga and meditational arts. His book presents a variety of insights from 18 Christian yoga teachers and practitioners.
The human body is a sacred text within the larger text of creation. Fr. Ryan listens and learns from the body as he seeks to shape a contemporary somatic spirituality.
In a chapter on the body in the context of marriage, contributor James Wiseman, a Benedictine monk, celebrates sexual intercourse as the most intimate communion possible between husband and wife. Traditionally, the church viewed marriage as inferior to celibacy. Today it affirms a more positive appreciation of the body. Our sexuality can be a conduit, not an obstacle, to genuine wholeness and holiness. Carnal love authenticates the reality of Divine love. A sound, holistic spirituality acknowledges disciplined care for the body and its needs in the process of cultivating union with God.
Read the Winner book to help you engage the immediacy and earthiness of sexuality and spirituality today. Read Fr. Ryan for a more seasoned perspective.
Wayne A. Holst is an adult educator at St. Davids United Church, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary.
National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005
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