Sex and Incarnation

by Elizabeth Cunningham

There is one Christian tenet I will always hold dear: the divine became flesh. I am not interested in debating whether Jesus is the only begotten son of God, whether his mother was a virgin, whether his death redeemed our sin, or whether his Resurrection was literal or symbolic. What moves me is that he had feet, he walked with them on this earth; he allowed them to be washed with the tears of a woman of dubious repute. He knelt down and washed feet himself. Whatever quarrels I have with the church, I love this man. He is real to me.

That said, I confess that for many years now, I have not been a creed-saying Christian. Descended from nine generations of Episcopal Priests, I have been (in succession) a baptized Episcopalian, a Quaker, a goddess-worshipper, and finally an ordained interfaith minister. I am also the author of an unorthodox (at the least) and arguably heretical series of novels called The Maeve Chronicles, featuring a feisty (fictional) Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple.

Despite my novels’ subject matter, I also have no interest debating whether or not Jesus had sex with or married Mary Magdalen or whether he chose to be celibate. (Novelists, the wily tricksters, don’t argue, they tell stories.) Most of what Jesus had to say on the subject of marriage and celibacy can be found in Matthew 19: 1-12. (If you want Maeve’s take on this scene, see chapter 64 in The Passion of Mary Magdalen).

If you are incarnate, you have to deal with sexuality somehow—first and foremost your own. In the wake of all the recent scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, some have argued that priests should be allowed to marry. No doubt they should. Celibacy might then become a clear and meaningful choice for those called to it. But allowing clergy to marry, as Protestants always have, will not automatically eliminate clerical sexual abuse, which is rife in every denomination.

Paul of Tarsus (who is often taken out of his historical context by both those who revere and revile him) is famous for saying it is better to marry than to burn. Celibacy and marriage were his only two options, and early gentile converts to what was originally a Jewish sect were eager to distance themselves from gentile pagans who indulged in other practices including temple prostitution. (For an analysis of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in this context see this excellent piece by James Alison.)

However corrupt or excessive first century pagan practices may have been, I think the ancient pagans may have been on to something. Sex is not just an act, it is a force, a divine force that can be generative or destructive. To liken it to fire, as Paul did, is apt. Fire contained and directed is used for warmth, for illumination, for cooking, for creating. Uncontained it lays waste. But its containers and uses are not single but various, and its power is simply that, power, not good or evil—except in how we use it.

In my counseling practice, I have worked with many people who were sexually abused in childhood and early adolescence, often by family members—some of whom were also members of the clergy. I have also worked with adult women who were victims of sexual abuse by their religious leaders. The trauma of abuse lies not just in the physical act itself but in betrayal of trust, abuse of power, secrecy, and the shame secrecy engenders. The wound, not easy to heal, is to our sovereignty as incarnate inherently sexual beings.

There is nothing wrong with marriage or celibacy. But religiously prescribed containers by themselves don’t stop people from committing adultery or seducing parishioners and altar boys. Jesus was always challenging people to observe not just the law but to understand its intent. Though it may not be of ancient provenance, the Wiccan Rede holds its adherents to a strict standard that might have resonated with Jesus and that members of the clergy might do well to contemplate: And it harm none, do what you will.

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Elizabeth Cunningham March 31, 2010 - 12:40 am

Maeve speaking. Well, this was a rather serious post. I hope one day Eliz will write a post about the comic side of sex. There's comedy and tragedy in my story, and I know something about sexual abuse having suffered it myself and having helped to heal someone else. Also, Paul of Tarsus was not exactly an expert on Temple prostitution. His depection of it in Romans 1 is exagerrated for effect. He didn't understand its meaning or purpose. I hope Eliz will do a whole post about Temple Prostitution. Till then I refer you to my story The Passion of Mary Magdalen, and I wish you a rich Passiontide. -Maeve

Man Named Kim March 31, 2010 - 1:49 am

Very well said. period.

Meredith Gould March 31, 2010 - 3:18 am


Johanne Renbeck March 31, 2010 - 12:59 pm

As always, Elizabeth, your commentary is timely and timeless.

Unknown March 31, 2010 - 2:52 pm

Well said, to the point, and like a laser to the source of the problem: sex as a force for good and ill and abusers as abusers of power, not just of sexuality.

Anonymous March 31, 2010 - 3:05 pm

Thank you for sharing this succinct and powerful post–where there is a hierarchical power-structure, there is abuse of same. Many of us long for the gentle egalitarianism of Temple Magdalen. And so we read your books and re-member.

Roswila April 4, 2010 - 8:09 pm

Yes, a powerful post. As one of those survivors of childhood sexual abuse I especially thank you.

If I may go off on a different tack, the title hauled me up short before I read your post. If we are spirit incarnate, how can we not only recognize sexuality's power — it's how we get here! (at least until test tube kids take over the planet :-D) — and have a deep reverence and healthy respect for it.

Anonymous April 6, 2010 - 1:28 am

(Oh, I'm so behind in my reading!)
This is yet another thought-provoking and beautiful post, Elizabeth. You always give me something to mentally chew on. Thank you!

~ June 6, 2010 - 3:17 pm

It is striking to me how sex can be so very little about body while involving body so deeply. Where is the twining energy held when it is risen? It seems more to flow through body, deep beneath language, and to not be confined to the boundaries of skin and thought. I know there is no rift between body and spirit, and see spirit as arising from body, though in truth that also can be inverted, unclear, and simply not an important question. Beauty has its ground somewhere I cannot bring to words, though it comes to me freely and often, pointing toward the immanent.

Yet sexuality is durable stuff, and easily embodies itself in the mundane, the belly laugh and the healing transgression. Where one might find harm, another might dance in freedom, and the difference may lay only in what chords are struck. The Rede is general because the ways are so utterly diverse in the paths toward wisdom. Let me know myself and those I love.


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