A ViewPoint by Esther Emery
There is a point of struggle in conversations within the Christian church dealing with sex and shame.
We break at this point: where the emerging value of sexual agency meets the traditional value of marital fidelity.
On the one hand, we cry out for freedom from shame. We renounce the modesty rules. We tire of patriarchal family constructs. We recognize the full humanity and value of non-heterosexual love relationships. We sense that there are untapped resources to be found in a more relaxed, more positive vision of human sexuality.
We struggle against cultural pressures that define sex as free and easy. We live in a marketplace in which sexuality sells cars and beer, and we want to protect ourselves and our children from profanity and commodification. We resist high school health education classes in which sexual activity is assumed and teenage abstinence is treated like a child’s imaginary friend.
A typical response is to emphasize the value of fidelity. We point out that same-sex relationships can be as fully committed as opposite-sex ones. We continue to define “good sex” as what happens in the marriage bed. We continue to talk about self-control and policing our desires.
However, this position can rightly be criticized as a watered-down version of purity culture, as T. F. Charlton does here. It still potentially shames anyone who has sex before marriage. It still has little grace for divorce. It does little for the woman who enters a heterosexual marriage relationship without confidence in her body or her sexuality and as a result is vulnerable to abuse.
I am tired, tired, tired, of the conflict and the shame. But I believe that there is hope and restoration for this. Even for this. And I believe we will find it by seeking within God’s own character.
We will find it in the feminine face of God.
Where the problem is objectification of the female, restoration comes in knowing the divinity of the female. Where the problem is profanity and commodification of our sexual selves, restoration comes in knowing sex as a sacred union: a mystical union between two expressions of God’s presence in the world.
It is right here, in our Bibles. Right there in the Song of Songs is a vision for a sex-positive culture that does not particularly emphasize marriage. Instead it offers a vision of love so piercing it is indistinguishable from poetry.
Believe me, I have seen the confusion between sexual freedom and harmful promiscuity. I would love to save my children from that way. But I do not believe that the path to a culture of marital fidelity and faithfulness is legalism.
Instead, let us unleash the feminine face of God as a positive force in ourselves and in our children.
Let us believe that there is such a thing as sacred sexuality. Let us believe there is such a thing as sacred feminine sexuality. Let us believe that there is such a thing as sacred feminine sexuality that lives in freedom.
Here is our obstacle. We have been taught — accidentally or on purpose — that sex is not a union between two expressions of God’s presence in the world. We have been taught that God is male, and God’s presence is male. And we have been taught that sex is something that happens between a man and a woman.
The fallout from the first teaching is that, especially subconsciously, we don’t think that women reflect God in ourselves and as ourselves.
The fallout from the second teaching is that we can think of sex as a passive element interacting with an active element.
Most insidious is the unspoken idea that women can reflect God sometimes, but not when we’re naked. I mean, we can be holy and good as long we’re not actively seeking sex. You can even be the mother of God as long as you’re not having sex. But once you’re looking for sex, you might as well be go dark because you are already.
As long as men have all the sacred authority, in sacred (wholesome) sex, only men can have the verbs. I become a profane female occupied by sacred (image-bearing) male. And any sex that doesn’t work this way is shamed and marginalized.
There is shame for the feminine, either way.
This is our history. In pursuit of a sex-positive culture of fidelity and faithfulness, it is our obstacle.
To fully disentangle feminine sexuality from shame we must be able to imagine a woman who is holy without being passive or virginal.
To reclaim a culture of good sex, we must know good sex as a God thing – a big huge awesome holy God thing! – made so not by gender or gender-expression or mechanics, but by nothing less than mutual reflection of divinity.
In good sex we both are image bearers. In good sex we experience a love so piercing it is indistinguishable from poetry. And in good sex we both have verbs.
I am bruised by our history. I am exhausted by the church’s long history of shaming and sorrow and guilt. But I believe there is hope and restoration for this. Even this. I believe that hope and restoration will be found in the very character of God.
Let us walk towards a non-shaming culture that resists profanity and commodification of our sexual selves. Let us unleash the feminine face of God as a natural and fully empowered counterpart to the male.
I wish I had this wisdom in me when my daughters were in adolescence. I think they found this wisdom, and my wife and I let them find it, but I’m sure there was some pain along the way. With all the women in my life, wife, two daughters and two graddaughters, I need to keep reading and learning and encouraging the women in my life to understand their own sexual divinity, and I need to keep understanding it myself. Thanks for helping me in this.
“I believe that hope and restoration will be found in the very character of God ….. Let us unleash the feminine face of God as a natural and fully empowered counterpart to the male.”
Thanks so much for this post, Esther. I believe so deeply that until we celebrate the feminine face of Godde in our worship and within our selves, both boys and girls will continue to grow up to be men and women who see the female as lesser. Sexually and in every other way. In each Bible story and children’s sermon, Sunday after Sunday, day after day, many churches, parents and teachers use exclusive language to pound the lesson home that Godde is ‘he’ and only male. It breaks my heart.
Esther, Bravo. The concept seems to be so basic, so obvious, yet we have to engage over and over and over in some exhausting dance. Sometimes it feels so close, sometimes so far away. But I love the hope you bring to it. I love how you refer to it as restoration. I wanted to pull out so many quotes I realized I wanted to pull out practically the entire piece. Thank you for your perspective and perception.
You said it, Esther. This is such a fundamental struggle in Feminist Christianity, but one I have never heard articulated so clearly and deeply. I’m going to carry that concept of sex as a “God thing” with me far into the future. Thank you.
Esther, I just love this profoundly beautiful and authentic piece that resonates on every level. I am grateful for the forward motion of this, and I share your belief that hope and restoration will be found in the very character of God. And I long to pass this vision on to my three young-adult daughters, as we seek freedom from shame and sorrow and guilt. Bless you, my sister!