“Casey and John” by Trudie Barreras, schuylerart.com, c. 1983.
Oil, 18” x 24.”
Many people ask me how to integrate sexuality and spirituality. I am opening up the dialogue by posting an email exchange on the subject between myself and gay artist John Bittinger Klomp of Florida.
John generously granted permission to share his emails, so I’m posting our correspondence here to kick off LGBT Pride Month. Please add your insights by leaving a comment.
Subj: Current reading of "Jesus in Love" and questions about Western schizophrenic experience of the spiritual
As you know I have been reading your Website "Jesus in Love" for quite some time now. However, today, I am writing to you because I have questions concerning my need to separate the sexual from religious experience. I know that need is taught by our Western culture. I also know that all religions of the world do not make these two areas of experience mutually exclusive. So, I have symptoms of the Western schizophrenia. I am specifically seeking your advice.
My schizophrenic response is of course accentuated when I read Christian literature or see Christian visual art of a specifically sexual nature, I find myself absolutely put off. That is not to say that I haven’t had sexual experience that has been spiritual. The problem is the integration of the spiritual and sexual without being so explicit in the fictionalized visualization of that experience. The removal of the Christian religious experience to the fictitious level is a step I have difficulty taking, and if I were a truly Postmodern spirit I would not have such difficulty. It is especially alarming that this should be so as I understand that most of our experience of Jesus’ truth is a paternalistic desexualized fictionalization created by the institutionalized Christian Churches over the past two thousand years.
I suspect that I am not unique in this desexualized experience of the spiritual, and I wonder if it wouldn’t be wise for us all to hold an ongoing conversation about the topic. At the same time, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind my including this E-mail and any reply you might have as one of my postings to my Web Journal, “The Art of John Bittinger Klomp.”
Subj: finding Sacred Unity of body and spirit
Thank you for writing to me to start a conversation about the challenges of integrating sexuality and spirituality. You obviously understand that the separation of sexual and religious experience is taught by our Western culture. I appreciate how you see the broader cultural context while also sharing your own personal experience.
It sounds like you have a strong intellectual understanding of the body-spirit separation, and a desire to heal it. For example, you state, "I understand that most of our experience of Jesus' truth is a paternalistic desexualized fictionalization created by the institutionalized Christian Churches over the past two thousand years." Perhaps you can move forward by finding new ways to "experience Jesus' truth," as you put it.
In my own spiritual life, it used to be impossible for me to separate Jesus (that is, God) from the institutional church. It was a great liberation when I discovered that I could connect directly with Jesus and God, without depending on the church to mediate and interpret. Basically I recommend that you try to get in touch with the original Jesus Christ. Here are some methods that inspired me. Maybe they can help you, too.
* I highly recommend the book "The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus" by Neil Douglas-Klotz. He translates and explains Jesus' words directly from Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself spoke, and the results are illuminating. The body and soul are seen as one whole, and unity is the ultimate good. For example, he translates "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" as this: "Ripe are the consistent in heart; they shall see Sacred Unity everywhere." This is not a book about sexuality, but rather introduces a new way of seeing wholeness everywhere, as Christ did.
* I also recommend reading the medieval mystics who wrote about their ecstatic-erotic spiritual experiences. They are shining examples of how Christians within the church have found ways to unite spirituality and sexuality. Don't worry, these writers aren't too explicit. Julian of Norwich writes about Jesus as her husband and lover in "Revelations of Divine Love." Here's a quote: "I saw that God was rejoicing to be our Father; rejoicing too to be our Mother; and rejoicing yet again to be our true Husband, with our soul his beloved wife." Other medieval mystics of special interest are Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.
*Read the Gospels over and over, concentrating on the words and actions of Jesus. Notice his compassionate attitude toward the body and sexuality.
*Go directly to Jesus in prayer. Share all your questions and concerns with Christ, and ask him to answer you. Then stay alert for revelations that may come in unexpected ways. I am also inviting Jesus to be part of my conversation with you.
You mentioned your problems with "fictionalized visualization" of sexuality in Christian art. I assume that you are referring to the art at JesusInLove.org and in my book "Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More." Maybe you are also referring to my novels "Jesus in Love" and "At the Cross." They present the erotic, mystical experiences that propelled the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in first-century Palestine---including his intimate relationships with John the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene and the omni-gendered Holy Spirit. The books came to me first as a revelation, apart from any intellectual justification. Only later have I come to understand how important it is to tell Christ's story in an embodied, erotic way, as an antidote to the sex-negative culture.
I want to share with you a comment from one of the readers who enjoyed "Jesus in Love." She wrote, "I think artful handling of eroticism is very important in our hypersexual society. My partner and I have spoken many times about how eroticism gets wiped out by our hypersexual culture." So the challenge for our society is not only "desexualized experience of the spiritual" (which you named), but also despiritualized experience of the sexual. This is one place where God calls us to grow and heal.
Your email presented the sex/spirit split in the context of Western culture as a whole. When I reflected on your questions, I found myself wondering how the "Western schizophrenia" affects lesbians and gay men in particular. We seem to raise these issues more frequently and with more urgency than most heterosexuals, probably because the Bible and Christian rhetoric are used to justify hate and discrimination against us. Western culture tends to make everybody feel ashamed of their sexuality, but gay and lesbian people get a double dose of the toxic shame. By God's grace, perhaps we can lead the way to wholeness and "Sacred Unity." I look forward to your reply.
Subj: Spirituality versus Sexuality
Spirituality versus sexuality, just one more opposition of many in Western culture - not that I have experience of any other culture, at least not in this incarnation. Aye, there’s the rub!
So, let me start over with a profound thank you for your lengthy answer to my last communication. I will definitely follow your advice concerning readings beginning with "The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus" by Neil Douglas-Klotz. I am a maniacal workaholic and I do a great deal of community work, so I make no promise about completing the reading any time soon.
As to experiencing the spiritual in the sexual – outside of my Christian experience - no problem. In my life, I have experienced some of the most profound spiritual moments during sexual intercourse. In art, I find the early autoerotic works of Atilla Richard Lucacs to be especially spiritual. I became familiar with Lucacs’ work in the middle 1990’s while working on my doctorate at New York University, and despite his “bad boy” reputation, I find much of his artwork to be a search for spiritual redemption.
I found your quote from the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich to be extremely comforting precisely because she experienced God as mother, father, and husband. For the longest time, I have not been able to see God as the Western Church sees God, as “HIM.” It is exhilarating to know that centuries ago a Christian mystic saw God in much broader terms. Additionally, I do experience the Self, as female in prayer -that is an empty vessel to be filled with the knowledge of God.
I will continue struggle to integrate the spiritual and sexual in my Christian experience of God. I thank you for your expertise and advice, and I hope you will continue to provide both.
Blessings to you as well,
The illustration for this post is “Casey and John” by Atlanta artist Trudie Barreras. She says that the models were very much in love at the time. Casey and John knew that Trudie enjoyed painting figure studies, so they volunteered to pose for her. The men posed at what was then the home of the Atlanta Gay Center. “This is the first and only dual portrait/figure study I've ever attempted, but I think it is one of the best things I've ever done,” Trudie says.
This post is part of an occasional series on sexuality and spirituality. Click here for the whole series.