Theology Is Hard; Let’s Go Shopping

As those of you who have been reading along know, I’ve spent the past three and a half years on an academic theology that’s going to be called Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective. I’m at the teeth-pulling phase, where I’m trying to revise the introduction to give the right amount of context to a diverse readership (college-educated people with interest in GLBT issues, body theology, and/or Pagan studies, none of whom have the same starting vocabulary) without boring anyone to death.

For those of you who want to write books: woe to you if you desire an interdisciplinary audience! The various segments of my audience will all look for something different in this book, and I suspect all will have complaints. I refuse to learn my lesson, though; to me, big picture issues like ethics can’t be dealt with from only one disciplinary perspective and only one methodology. I’m not the person who does most of the primary thinking and research here, though; I’m the synthesizer who tries to bring innovative ideas together, and I’d like to think I’m necessary. (I hope!)

Anyway, since this is what I’m putting all my effort into right now, I thought I’d share a snapshot of my progress (some or all of which may be revised away in the next few weeks). And next week, expect at least one live report from PantheaCon!

Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective has several aims. First, I will bring together the perspectives of theologians, GLBT advocates, and bodyworkers who might never otherwise encounter each other’s work. Second, I will speak openly of controversial issues (such as kink, transgender and queer identity, and adolescent sexuality) that most Christian theologians do not address, and of which some feminist and Pagan writers lack a sophisticated understanding. Finally, I will respond to the ethical perspectives of sex-positive activists and bodyworkers, many of whom speak from a secular viewpoint, with an ethical framework that is both broadly spiritual and grounded in a coherent religious practice. Although I speak as a Pagan, I address liberal religious people of many faiths, bodyworkers, and the many communities that include spiritual-but-not-religious sexual minorities (including the queer, polyamorous, and kink communities).

Because of the writing that these communities have already produced, I feel able to propose an ethics of touch without including a systematic critique of mainstream American society’s sexual mores. This task has been covered by others, and covered thoroughly. In this book, I wish to look to the future. I have lived in communities that are actively raising children with an ethic of sacred eroticism. This book is particularly for those who are exploring the social and community consequences of individual erotic liberation.

Throughout this book, I use the term “erotic” as a category of intimate, embodied, sensual—but not necessarily sexual—contact. Satisfying sex with one’s spouse is both broadly erotic and specifically sexual; breastfeeding a baby, on the other hand, is not sexual, but may be intensely erotic. The confusion between the sexual and the erotic is endemic in American culture, and that confusion is one of the reasons most Americans do not get enough affectionate touch. When any sensual, connected touch can potentially be read as sexual, many people refrain from touching for fear of violating personal boundaries. Although one might expect the problem to be less pronounced in more sexually-permissive, progressive communities, in some cases it is actually exaggerated: since progressive communities tend to be more aware of the widespread presence of sexual assault survivors, even appropriate touch may be withheld out of a desire to respect others’ healing processes. Distinctions between the erotic and the sexual are often problematically conflated, and so this book will return to the concept of the erotic repeatedly, with special attention to what “eroticism” means in a theological context.

In writing this theology, I find myself seeking a difficult balance. Many popular sex-positive books and websites disappoint me by glossing over the risks of defying social norms about sexuality and touch. Accordingly, I have tried to be practical and realistic, rather than assuring my readers that all consensual touch is good and a perfect sex life is just one self-help book away. On the other hand, speaking too much about what is practical and realistic, rather envisioning what would be ideal, makes for an uninspiring theology that is weighed down by the particularities of the moment. As poet Robert Browning puts it, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s heaven for?”—or as Ralph Waldo Emerson says, more pragmatically, “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

The principles below form the basis of an erotic ethics, or an ethics of touch. These principles attempt to balance individual rights and needs with collective ones, with the conviction that in a society that cultivates empathy, individual and collective needs can be brought into a productive balance. They are not meant as rigid rules; ethical decisions are complex and informed by individual life experiences, and the decision-maker may be called upon to prioritize conflicting principles. For me, however, these principles flow naturally from the belief that pleasure is a human birthright. I offer them as guiding principles for individuals and communities seeking to express that belief in their spiritual practices and relationship structures.

A society based around an erotic ethics:

  1. Sees touch as a sacrament, a way of manifesting divine presence that occurs in a context of self-responsibility, honesty, empathy, and mutuality;
  2. Values diversity of erotic taste and expression, as well as diversity of gender expression and relationship structure;
  3. Prioritizes pleasure, beauty, and health in both individual and collective decision-making;
  4. Maintains community norms that balance individual freedoms with community well-being and support economic and social justice work;
  5. Supports personal autonomy through the practices of negotiation, informed consent, and affirmation of individuals’ accounts of their experiences.

Addendum: For those of you who are too young to remember or not American, the title is a bit of self-deprecating humor, referring to a talking Barbie doll that was famously made to say, “Math is hard.” “Let’s go shopping.”

10 thoughts on “Theology Is Hard; Let’s Go Shopping

  1. Brava. I’m grateful that you are taking on these complex ideas so thoughtfully and compassionately, and I can’t wait to read the whole book!

    The idea of pleasure as a birthright has been really important to my thinking about risk lately: it seems easy to me to quantify or place value on the negative side of a risk, and much harder to evaluate the positives or potential gains. (Put another way: I tend to always think, “well, I could do without that upside, but am I willing to risk that downside?” and I don’t think this is either good or in line with my deepest beliefs about the universe and my relationship to it.)


  2. Beautiful post, cogent, clear, and creating delicious anticipation for the eventual book. Glad to see you omitting the ‘mainstream-yr-doing-it-wrong’ section. So pleased to see the distinction between ‘erotic’ and ‘sexual’ … I hope it’s not too late to reclaim the separate meanings of those words.


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