A couple days ago, I posted an article talking about Tantric sexual practice. This piece from the Vancouver Sun brings the sacredness of sexuality to a more Christian focus. I love the discussion of “knowing” in the biblical sense – a far more intimate verb than I thought growing up.
Sex brings christians closer to god
Professor says the relationship between humans and spirituality is essentially erotic — some Christians even have peak religious experiences while being sexual
WARNING: The content of this story may be offensive to some readers.
When people feel awkward saying the words, “sexual intercourse,” many instead talk about how Jane and John have come “to know” each other (tee hee) “in the biblical sense.”
They seem to believe Bible writers were so shy about sexuality they had to employ a euphemism, “to know,” because they dare not write “sex” or something more graphic.
But B.C. psychologist Chuck MacKnee, a Christian, believes the Bible writers and translators were using “to know” in a surprisingly intimate way.
They were expressing how men and women through sexuality can deeply connect, truly “know each other,” in the most holistic, ecstatic and divine way.
Many people, not only Christians, are afraid of sex, the “amazing, wonderful thing,” MacKnee said. That’s why they deny it, repress it, joke about it and use euphemisms to describe it.
“I think we’re afraid because ultimately in sex we’re going to meet God,” said MacKnee, describing the divine as “big and mysterious and way beyond us.”
Expressing a viewpoint that was once taboo among many Christians, MacKnee believes humans’ relationship with God is essentially erotic.
While popular culture focuses on the sexual philosophies linked with Eastern religions, particularly Tantra and the Kama Sutra, MacKnee has been researching and extolling Christian sexuality for more than 15 years. The 51-year-old married father of three has been a pioneer in a reform movement that has picked up tremendous energy in recent years.
MacKnee now teaches psychology at Trinity Western University, an evangelical school in Langley.
His PhD research at UBC in the mid-1990s was ahead of its time, focusing on Christians who had peak religious experiences while being sexual.
The fact he teaches at TWU, which officially opposes homosexual relations and sex outside marriage, adds to his novelty. More on that later.
MacKnee’s positions on the link between sexuality and spirituality might cause the more demure to blush.
He talks non-judgmentally, possibly approvingly, of an Episcopal priest in the U.S. who told him he once had an orgasm while serving communion, the symbolic blood and body of Christ.
Then there was MacKnee’s client — a depressed Christian woman in her 40s who had never had an orgasm. One day she came in to his office and seemed entirely different. She’d had a religious experience, she said — after her first orgasm.
The TWU professor admits his research has “raised some eyebrows,” both in secular academia and Christian circles. But there are always waiting lists for his TWU classes, and his private therapy practice is full.
Through history, he said, many Christian churches have earned a justified reputation as anti-sexual for constantly preaching “Don’t, don’t, don’t.”
The apostle Paul’s comments in the New Testament on “the sins of the flesh” have led to mixed results. The same is true of church traditions such as celibate priests and nuns (as MacKnee says, the “most holy” are considered non-sexual), as well as abstinence, and sex for procreation only.
To help revive long-buried pro-erotic traditions in the Jewish and Christian religions, MacKnee tells people the Hebrew word for “to know,” yadah, is the same word the Bible uses to describe God’s relationship to humans.
To him, “knowing” a woman or man “in the biblical sense” is a way of describing a peak experience: Unity with the divine in all its overpowering sensuality and wonder.
Like groundbreaking psychologists and philosophers, including Rollo May and Alfred North Whitehead, MacKnee calls God “Divine Eros.”
The Catholics and mainline Protestants who are today joining evangelicals such as MacKnee in teaching about spiritual sex are in some ways catching up with Eastern-influenced New Age spirituality.
In the West, so-called alternative, or “self,” spirituality, has been teaching for decades that spirituality and sex are intimately related. They’ve relied on spirituality from India, whose religious icons can be openly erotic.
Sensual spirituality has been popularized in the West through Hindu Tantric ritual, which links sexual energy with spiritual liberation. There has also been much talk in western pop culture about the Kama Sutra, an ancient Indian text that includes graphic advice on stimulating desire. The early Persian Sufi mystic poet, Rumi, has also helped spread the message.
At Banyen Books, a long-standing spiritual bookstore in Kitsilano, two floor-to-ceiling bookcases are filled with titles on the spirituality of sex.
They include Finding God Through Sex; Tantric Sex and Lovemaking; Western Sex and Mysticism; Zen and the Art of Making Love; Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the 21st Century; If the Buddha Dated; Intimate Communion: Awakening Your Sexual Essence; Soulfully Gay; Tantric Orgasm for Women; Enlightened Sex, Deepak Chopra’s Kama Sutra: Including the Seven Spiritual Laws of Love, and many titles by David Deida, author of Wild Nights and The Way of the Superior Man.
Susan McCaslin, a Vancouver poet, is a mainline Protestant who, like MacKnee, is exploring the links between sexuality and God.
McCaslin recently gave a sermon highlighting how medieval mystics and celibate priests such as John of the Cross often talked about being “ravished” by God.
Such mystical union is captured in the famous baroque statue by Bernini titled The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, which is prominently displayed in a Catholic church in Rome that has become a tourist hot spot.
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa sculpture was inspired by the writing of 16th-century mystic St. Teresa of Avila when she described her vision of an angel who pierced her heart with an arrow “to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.” The sculpture emphasizes there is often little distinction between religious and sensual moments.
The Bible often sends a similar message. McCaslin maintains the frank eroticism of the Bible chapter known as The Song of Songs uses the image of lovers to exemplify humans’ relationship to God.
“What the poem suggests is that Spirit is more like a lover than a lawgiver or judge,” McCaslin wrote, “and that living in harmony with Spirit is more like falling in love than living up to an external standard of rightness.”
The United Church Observer, the in-house magazine of Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, recently ran an article that touched on a sex survey of 3,800 North Americans by Gina Ogden, author of The Heart and Soul of Sex.
More than two out of three respondents told researchers that “sex needs to be spiritual to be satisfying” and 45 per cent said they “experienced sexual energy during spiritual ecstasy.”
The author of The United Church Observer piece, Rev. Trisha Elliott, enthusiastically concluded: “If our ability to love makes us most like God, then it stands to reason that when we make love we might be in our most holy state. Should we break out the linens, candles, incense, flowers and wine? O God, yes! Great sex is not only possible — it’s divine.”
Meanwhile, one of North America’s largest Catholic newspapers, The National Catholic Reporter, has published an article in which Rich Heffern confessed he’d been taught in seminary to believe sex was shameful.
Since then, inspired by writers such as Thomas Moore, a former monk who wrote The Soul of Sex, Heffern has come to believe Catholics need to get beyond their guilt and enjoy sexuality for its sacredness; to experience married sex as a form of religious expression.
Heffern’s favorite gospel story is of the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, “wiping them dry with her long sensuous hair. It always knocks me out, reminding me of the intimate Christian connection between sacredness and vulnerable flesh.”
Bodies are “thoroughly sacramental,” Heffern wrote. He goes so far as to make the connection that people who are uncomfortable with their own bodies, alienated from them, may be destructive to the body of the planet, leading to ecological devastation.
Christian sex ‘more fulfilling’
In the 1990s, when people were talking about and researching Tantric sex, MacKnee began wondering why the sex lives of loving Christian couples weren’t also being studied.
He began putting together a research project on Christians, five men and five women, who had peak experiences related to sexuality. No one in the UBC counselling department had ever seen anything like it.
The prestigious Journal of Psychology and Theology eventually published several of his papers, including Profound Sexual and Spiritual Encounters Among Practicing Christians: A Phenomenological Approach.
MacKnee discovered his Christian “co-researchers” (including two evangelical pastors) had 11 common experiences when they engaged in sexual intimacy. They included a sense of wonder, bonding, euphoria, gender equality, arousal, blessing and transcendence.
The sense of God’s presence during sex, in the midst of, as the Bible says, becoming “one flesh,” elevated the Christians’ sexual responsiveness to the point of ecstasy.
Many said they found the experience “unbelievable.” And the after-effects were transforming and empowering.
In comparing the Christians’ ecstasy to research subjects who practised Tantric sex, MacKnee concluded that Christian sex was more fulfilling.
Why? Because Tantric sex encourages men and women not to reach orgasm.
Christian sex does.
“It appears that the peaks of sexual and spiritual connection among Christians were more holistic,” MacKnee wrote in his scholarly paper, “involving full body gratification as well as emotional and spiritual highs.”
Furthermore, MacKnee concluded, “This study demonstrates that peak sexual union requires mutual trust in the security of a committed relationship with another person, just as spiritual union requires unquestioned trust in God.”
Which leads us to the controversial topics — for a man who attends an Evangelical Free Church and teaches at TWU — of sex outside marriage and homosexual sexuality.
Trinity Western University, where MacKnee has taught for many years, requires students and faculty to restrict sex to heterosexual marriage. MacKnee calls such rules “guidelines.”
Asked whether sex could have a peak sacred quality outside heterosexual marriage, including in gay and lesbian relationships, MacKnee replied:
“I think God desires sex to be as whole and complete as possible, to include the whole body, mind and soul. Why settle for something less — for just physical pleasure — when you can have the whole thing?”
That’s about as far as we got with that line of questioning.
Shifting the topic, MacKnee said his current research is into female sexual esteem, including among Christians, and how males who are hurt in relationships often succumb to pornography addictions.
He doesn’t want to “deliver” Christians, or anyone, from the temptations of sex. Ultimately, he wants to help them fulfill their sacred desires. In that way, he believes biblical laws against such things as promiscuity and adultery were not prohibitions against pleasure.
Rather, he maintains they were guidelines designed to help humans attain deeper pleasures, which he believes can be found in sexual intimacy within the unity and security of marriage.
But what about the sexuality of Jesus, who the New Testament says never married?
“I think Jesus was celibate, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t sexual,” MacKnee said.
Jesus appeared highly sensual, he said. “People loved him and were in awe of him. I think there was a lot of sexual energy there.”
As in Celtic Christian tradition, MacKnee believes being sensual and sexual creates a “thin zone” between humans and God, reducing the usually thick barrier between this world and the sacred realm.
And should there be any doubt, MacKnee makes it clear he has experienced this spiritual connection himself, along with his wife.
“In our own life,” he said, “we’ve found the more we’re connected with God, the better our sex lives.”