The church has always struggled with sex, but so has everyone else. There aren't any cultures, religious or secular, pre-modern or modern, post-modern or post-religious, that exhibit a truly healthy sexual ethos.
Every church and every culture struggles with integrating sexual energy, if not in its creed about sex, at least in the living out of that creed. Secular culture looks at the church and accuses it of being uptight and anti-erotic. Partly this true, but the church might well protest that much of its sexual reticence is rooted in the fact that it is one of the few voices still remaining who are challenging anyone towards sexual responsibility.
As well, the church might also challenge any culture that claims to have found the key to healthy sexuality to step forward and show the evidence. No culture will take up that claim. Everyone is struggling.
Part of that struggle is the seeming innate incompatibility between what Charles Taylor calls "sexual fulfillment and piety," between "squaring our highest aspirations with an integral respect for the full range of human fulfillments."
Commenting on this in his book, “A Secular Age,” Taylor suggests that there is a real tension in trying to combine sexual fulfillment with piety and that this reflects a more general tension between human flourishing in general and dedication to God:
"That this tension should be particularly evident in the sexual domain is readily understandable. Intense and profound sexual fulfillment focuses us powerfully on the exchange within the couple; it strongly attaches us possessively to what is privately shared.... It is not for nothing that the early monks and hermits saw sexual renunciation as opening the way to the wider love of God.... Now that there is a tension between fulfillment and piety should not surprise us in a world distorted by sin ... but we have to avoid turning this into a constitutive incompatibility."
How can we avoid doing that? How can we avoid somehow pitting sexual fulfillment against holiness? How can we be robustly sexual and fully spiritual at one and the same time?
In a soon-to-be-released book, “The Road Is How: A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire and Soul” (Harper/Collins), Trevor Herriot suggests that human fulfillment and dedication to God, sex and holiness can be brought together in a way that properly respects both of them. How?
Without using the word that is at once so-honored and so-maligned, he presents us with an image of what chastity means at its true root. Much like Annie Dillard in her book, “Holy the Firm,” Herriot draws a certain concept of chastity out of the rhythms of nature and then presents those rhythms as the paradigm of how we should be relating to nature and to each other.
And, for Herriot, those rhythms cast a particularly enlightening beam on how we should be relating sexually. His words:
"These days, we watch truckloads of grain pass by and sense that something in us and in the earth is harmed when food is grown and consumed with little intimacy, care, and respect. The local and slow food movements are showing us that the way we grow, distribute, prepare, and eat food is important for the health of our body-to-earth exchanges.
“The next step may be to realize that the energy that brings pollen to ovary and grows the grain, once it enters our bodies, also needs to be husbanded. The way we respond to our desire to merge, connect, and be fruitful — stirrings felt so deeply, but often so shallowly expressed — determines the quality of our body-to-body exchanges....
“In a world bathed in industrial and impersonal sex, where real connection and tenderness are rare, will we sense also that something in us and in the earth is being harmed from the same absence of intimacy, care and respect? Will we learn that any given expression of our erotic energies either connects us to or divides us from the world around us and our souls?
“We are discovering that we must steward the energies captured by nature in the hydrocarbons or in living plants and animals, and thereby improve the ways we receive the fruits of the earth, but we struggle to see the primary responsibility we bear for the small but cumulatively significant explosions of energy we access and transmit as we respond to our own longings to connect, merge, and be fruitful. Learning how to steward the way we bear fruit ourselves as spiritual/sexual beings with a full set of animal desires and angelic ambitions may be more important to the human journey than we fully understand."
Chastity, as imagined by Charles Taylor, Annie Dillard and Trevor Herriot, has always been the one thing that properly protects sex — the white dress adorning the bride, the means of squaring our highest aspirations with an integral respect for the full range of human fulfillments, and, not least, the trusted guideline for how we can access and transmit our sexual energy with intimacy, care and respect.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.