Why Theology School Is so Difficult for Me or Carpetburn

As many of you know, I have been a graduate student in Theology for the past two years.  These years have not been pleasurable for me for a variety of reasons, but one of the most painful parts of any endeavor is dealing with being let down.  It’s taken a while to pinpoint what the frustration I’ve felt is due to, but I think I’ve pinned it down.  I also think that it might be helpful for others to read.

By the time I decided to go to graduate school for theology I’d already gone through a period of time of being extremely “pious” or conservatively Catholic—for example, in high school I frequently drove to Eucharistic adoration prior to class.  In college I hit a point when I realized the black and white moral code I’d believed in did not truly exist and neither did the God associated with those black and white morals.  Without any other viable option as to what/who God was, I decided I was an atheist or secular humanist.  This was a partially correct answer as that God does not exist (though is a useful starting point on a spiritual path).  After college I moved to New York City and met a glorious group of spiritual people from a variety of traditions and with varying amounts of appreciation for religion.  With these people as my guides, teachers, and friends, I learned and experienced that religions or spiritual traditions (religion tends to be a loaded term for many so spiritual tradition takes away a little of the automatic rejection response) are trying to capture and pass down to others an experience of the reality of interconnectedness and love amongst all created things (sentient and non-sentient beings).

It was with this understanding that all religions are carving out a pathway or procedure by which followers/believers can tap into the underlying reality that all is Love that I entered graduate school.  With this understanding the purpose of any religion is not to pray to the “right” God, because that question does not really make sense anymore, but rather to use the method laid out by a religion to tap into that Love that is “God” (for lack of a better, less-charged word).  My mission (though not well articulated) was to reinvest or re-understand the symbols and rituals of Catholicism for myself through this lens.

With this mindset, the specifics of rituals and canons, conversations about how more power should go the laity, women’s ordination being necessary, etc are only important insofar as they aid in the mission of the Church helping people tap into the understanding that it’s all Love (all things, all ideas, all creatures).  For example, do I think women should be ordained?  Yes, the Church has no truly legitimate reasons not to ordain women.  However, hopefully the lack of women’s ordination won’t stop people from being able to use the rituals of the Church to tap into that undercurrent of Love.  The trappings of religion will always be in need of fixing as society evolves to be more and more conscious, but that doesn’t mean the tradition is broken.

This Love is everything mindset particularly becomes problematic when discussing suffering and evil, as it sounds like “Well, if all things are love, then murder is really loving, right?”  Not quite.  That argument and what I’m trying to articulate come from different places.  I would say quite definitively that evil and suffering exist and are on the one hand horrible and ought to be prevented, but on the other had Julian of Norwich said quite well, “All shall be well, All shall be well, All manner of things shall be well.”  The challenge becomes understanding that both are equally true and not contradictory at all.

The past two years have been a challenge to communicate my ideas in a way that is understandable to others… and overall I’ve failed (much like I’ve probably done in this post).  Mostly what this means is that I’ve consistently felt sorely misunderstood.  Not in a bratty teenager way, but in a way where I’ve understood where the people I’m speaking with are coming from, but they don’t really seem to get where I’m coming from.  I’ve had minor victories here and there, but mostly it’s been a disaster.  One that has left me spiritually and emotionally exhausted.

One last thought to put sexuality into the mix of this understanding of spirituality….  Sex is a privileged space where realizing one’s union with another becomes easier.  Hopefully, by realizing union with one person, this by corollary can extend to a felt sense of union with all things (and God).  Religious traditions like to keep people from participating in sex outside of very specific circumstances.  On the one hand this makes sense, because sex has major repercussions (procreation for example), and can also cause lots of emotional injury.  However, by clamping down on the space where some of the most deep mystical experiences can occur, religions also prevent individuals from experiencing God as fully as they might (even when they are having sex within the boundaries thanks to the guilt and hang-ups due to previously held beliefs).  By stifling personal experiences of God as the undercurrent of Love in one of the easier spaces to experience it, individuals remain dependent on the rituals of a religion to provide these experiences.

A Change in Purpose

I recently wrote one of my most commented on Facebook Posts:beautiful-sunrise

“Sometimes when reading theology I want to throw the book across the room and say to the author, “Stop pretending you can figure out the answer! We’re talking about things we know nothing about. It’s all a mystery! End of story. Enjoy life. Be grateful for this opportunity to BE. And allow the glitter of mystery to permeate your soul!”

I think I’m ready to be finished with school…”

After reading through the comments–from the incredible collection of people I have the privilege to know–I realized, I am no longer the person I was when I started this blog.  My mission, purpose, and desire has changed, and therefore this blog must come to serve a different purpose.

Originally, this blog was about clarifying my own positions on Catholic sexual theology.  After vulnerable conversations about sexuality with classmates, clients, friends, and even the occasional stranger, it seems that the need to connect spirituality and sexuality goes far beyond one religion.

For me the connection between spirituality and sexuality is inextricable from what I wrote in my Facebook post.  The ability to stand in awe of the mystery of my own existence and that of the rest of the world, comes from my awe of the mystery of another person.  The beauty of intimacy is that it leads one to know a person well enough to know that person will always remain a mystery.  It is our stamina of curiosity and fortitude of presence that determines how much of that mystery we discover.  When I have been patient and attentive enough to witness the infinite mystery of another person, I cannot help but find the Divine in that person’s infinitude–and then have no choice but to allow the glitter of mystery to permeate my soul.

In light of these musings, this blog is being rededicated to something far simpler than before.  This will simply be a space for my thoughts on topics spiritual and sexual without all the pomp and circumstance of trying to be properly “theological” or “Catholic,” in hopes that my message becomes clearer to myself, and my audience (and that I feel freer to write without it being perfect 😉 ).

To new beginnings!  And if you have any questions or topics you want discussed, feel free to put it in the comments.

All best,

Rachel

(also, the phrase “stamina of curiosity” was taken from the title of a dance performance by MadShak with Molly Shanahan)

Is Male Biology Responsible for Sexual Ethics?

I risk sounding like an angry feminist in this post, so let me assure all my male readers: I love you and harbor no ill will against you for being male. It is simply a fact of history that men were responsible for being in leadership roles during a long course of human history and we are at a stage in the evolution of society where a more balanced way of being is emerging.

Now that that’s out of the way: I was reading an article on Qi Gong and its general philosophy on how women and men’s sexual energy is channeled differently from one another. In Qi Gong there are three energy basins in a person’s body; the Lower, Middle, and Upper Dantian. The Lower is associate with the physical realm, middle with the heart or emotional realm, and upper with the spiritual realm. Men are said to generally have their sexual energy stay only in their lower dantian while women naturally have their sexual energy flow upward to at least the middle dantian. Both sexes need to work to have sexual energy flow into the spiritual realm but women are innately more integrated according to this philosophy.

As readers who are familiar with the neurochemistry of sexual desire and how women and men’s neurochemical make-up differs in regards to sex is concerned are familiar with how women release much more oxytocin during intercourse and orgasm than men do. This famous (or infamous) neurochemical is responsible for bonding, which is clearly linked to the middle dantian and its role as the basin of our emotions. There are more proofs for this biologically speaking but, I’ll refer you all to the book The Chemistry Between Us for more information.

Since neurochemistry has in some ways proven the ancient wisdom of Qi Gong in this case, the question I’d like to consider is this: Is it possible that this difference in sexual processing is partially responsible for many religions’ linking spiritual rigor with celibacy?

Allow me to use the example of the Catholic Church. This is a 2000 year old institution with only men officially in its hierarchy. Additionally, its moral principles regarding sexuality veer particularly toward celibacy historically. While many theologians have worked to de-stigmatize and equalize the decisions of many to be married and have children, the fact that this is still being combatted even in my graduate level coursework is proof enough for me that celibacy is still very much linked to having a greater spiritual depth.

If we understand men to neurochemically have an easier time separating sexual acts from emotional connection, then it makes sense that a male dominated institution might think that sexual acts take us away from emotional and spiritual connection with another. However, on the other hand, if women more naturally connect sexual intimacy with emotional and spiritual intimacy, then perhaps, if women had run the church from the beginning sexual ethics might look quite different.

Just a thought.  What are yours?

Sexology as Theology

With a title like that, this will prove to be certainly my edgiest post yet, and I will admit that I’m only just starting to play with this idea, but while it has my imagination, it deserves to be heard.

As a theology student interested in sexuality I receive a variety of articles, youtube videos, and books recommended to me on a weekly basis on the topic of sexuality, love, and desire.  And the more that I’ve studied sexology the more I find myself drawn to question inspired by Marc Gafni’s teachings, “How does the sexual model the erotic?”

Put another way:  How does our desire for union with each other model our desire for God and God’s desire for us?

This doesn’t mean that our desire for union with another person is always ordered in the same way God’s desire for each human is and that humankind’s innate desire for God is, but that there are many facets of sexual desire and how it appears in our lives that are hints as to how we desire God and vice versa.

This idea isn’t new or special, look at Song of Songs, or portions of the Vedas, there are parts in Taoist texts, and Kabbalah promotes similar ideas, but I suppose I desire to revive or bring awareness to how this is a lived out reality not just an idea that lives in scripture, but that it is an embodied practice of loving others and then finding a way to say, my desire to connect to another human is symbolic of my desire to connect to God—and if we can find God in that other person, then my desire to connect to that person is my desire to connect to God.

Class 3: Theology of the Body, Part 4

Original Nakedness

The next sentence from Genesis that JPII latches onto is the idea that “they were naked but they did not feel shame.” 

In this Original Nakedness, there was no shame.  We all know that today being naked in front of another person is relatively uncommon.   There’s some immediate impulse we have to cover ourselves, part of this is cultural; there are African and South American Tribes that don’t feel it quite as necessary to cover up as we do.  But, there’s this sense that we’re protecting ourselves with clothing.  Not just protection from weather, but protection from each other’s gaze.  In a gym locker room this isn’t the case, or in a sauna perhaps this isn’t the case, but if you’re out running errands, chances are you’re clothed. 

Prior to original sin this need to protect ourselves by covering our bodies with clothing was not present.  There was safety in the nakedness.  Adam wasn’t going to, and in fact had no capacity to look at Eve with lust or vice versa. 

The less literal meaning of Original Nakedness has to do with our ability to communicate with each other in any capacity.  There was a complete lack of anxiety around what to say and how to say it because we knew the other person would respond in a loving way. 

When in Genesis nakedness is paired with the idea of having no shame we get a hint about what shame and nakedness are really about.   Having no shame implies that there was no fear of rejection, or being yelled at, or trying to word something in the perfect way so as not to upset a friend.  One could simply be his or her full self, showing all of their being without holding back. As JPII says:

In the experience of shame, the human being experiences fear in the face of the “second I”…and this is substantially fear for one’s own “I.”

TOB 12:1

The first part of this quote is easy.  You experience shame when you fear another’s reaction.  The second part is more challenging: “This is substantially fear for one’s own “I.”” 

The simplest way to explain this is through example.  You wouldn’t be able to consciously have fear around another’s reaction if you weren’t on some level uncomfortable or felt shame within yourself around a certain thing.  Example:  I frequently have anxiety around what is appropriate to wear at various events.  If it’s a birthday party for a friend and I show up in jeans (as I did last weekend) I am self-conscious of my dressed-down approach, even though I know the people around me don’t care.  If someone were to have mentioned, “You look less put together than usual, Rach.”  I probably would have blushed and felt ashamed of my attire.  But, if I had been wearing some outfit I loved, they probably could say anything, and I would think, “That’s just that person’s opinion.  It doesn’t really matter.”  No one would be able to shame me because of my own comfort in my outfit. 

Original Nakedness asks us to get to know ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin.  Not just our external skin, but who we are in our essence.  Our interests, our bad and good habits, our beautiful features, and the parts of our body we wish were different.  We find Freedom to be our truest selves through Original Nakedness.  

Class 3: Theology of the Body, Part 3

Original Unity

Once Eve is created and Adam comes out of his “torpor” he exclaims “flesh from my flesh and bone from my bones.”  This is the first signifier of the experience of Original Unity.

I like to geek out about language, and to the Hebrews at the time, there was no clear distinction between body and soul as far as language was concerned.  So to say that Eve was bone of bones, was also implying that she was of his soul as much as of his body.  Also fascinating is that the cuneiform symbol for “rib” is the same as the symbol for “life.”  So, Eve was formed from Adam’s life and is not only flesh from his flesh but soul of his soul.  Gorgeous, right? ( JPII & M. Waldstein, 160, footnote 15)

It’s from this point that Adam and Eve recognize their unity.  When they join in sexual intercourse (as is implied prior to original sin to clarify for anyone who believes the Original Sin to be a sexual act…it is not.  Sex was good in the Garden) the union of their bodies and souls allows them to become one flesh again.  JPII puts it as such:

When they unite with each other (in the conjugal act) so closely so as to become “one flesh,” man and woman rediscover every time and in a special way the mystery of creation, thus returning to the union in humanity (“flesh from my flesh, bones from my bones”) that allows them to recognize each other reciprocally and to call each other by name, as they did the first time.  This means reliving in some way man’s original virginal value, which emerges from the mystery of his solitude before God and in the midst of the world.  The fact that they become “one flesh” is a powerful bond established by the Creator through which they discover their own humanity, both in its original unity and in the duality of a mysterious reciprocal attraction.  

TOB 10:2

That quote never ceases to bring me to the brink of crying.  It is my favorite quote from the Theology of the Body (thus why it was featured in an earlier post…)  I don’t think I need to say much else, because I think that does a pretty remarkable job of describing Original Unity.  JPII specifically points to sexual intercourse as the embodiment of Original Unity and non-duality in our existence.  Man and Woman become one yet distinct persons.  We come to embody a reflection of mystery of the Trinity in a very real, very carnal, very soulful way, and it has the potential to bring us back to our Original Innocence and recognition of our truest nature as humans.

Original Unity calls us to be aware of the relational (or spousal, or nuptial) aspect of our bodies.  While in the act of sex this is rather clear, I would argue that union with another entity can occur through non-genital acts, and depending on the circumstances can lead to the same sense of unity.  We can read about this from the mystics in their reception of the Eucharist.  For a non-Catholic example, partner meditation, eye-gazing, dancing with a partner can all lead to a strong sense union with another.  I would go so far as to argue that any sensual experience can lead to a sense of union, but that will come in Week Five’s blog post.

Class 3: Theology of the Body, Part 2

Original Solitude

Before we needed to worry about this sin aspect, there was Original Solitude.

If you remember back to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis (If you don’t remember you can read this: Gen 2:7-9, 15-20), after Man is created God gives Man the task of naming the animals and tells him to cultivate the earth and subdue it. – As a side note: I like to interpret that order as “cultivate oneself and subdue oneself.”  In other words, know yourself and be able to have the consciousness to make decisions about what you choose to do versus what you have a compulsion to do and ensure that your person, body and soul, has the freedom to choose versus acting out of compulsion. (You can read more about that in my posts on Chastity and Freedom)

This aspect of our humanity, our ability to be aware and cultivate ourselves is what makes us separate and distinct from the other animals in the.  In addition to this, Man has a unique relationship with God in Eden, in which direct communication can occur.   Man was aware of this distinct relationship with God and after naming the animals Man realized that none of these animals were quite like him.

We could say that God made a terrible mistake and forgot to create a mate for Man in the first place, however if you look at the Hebrew, there is no differentiation of gender until after Eve’s creation.  The Man who was originally created is merely a Human being.  Similar to saying God created Dog, not a male dog or female dog, just a dog.

The significance of this linguistic choice on the part of the writer of Genesis is that it implies a union and lack of distinction between genders.  It recognizes that at our core, we each have masculine and feminine qualities to us—this isn’t a shocker, but it’s actually implied in the language.  It is only after Eve has been created that we have a distinction between Human-male and Human-female.

This also has the implication that it is challenging to make the distinction between male and female without some form of comparison.  Just like you can’t fully understand light without dark, you can’t fully understand masculinity without femininity.

So, Original Solitude has these two parts to it.  Firstly, that man is separate and distinct from the animals in his relationship to God, and secondly, that Man was alone without a partner and desired someone to share his life with.  This second part demonstrates one of the many ways that we as humans are made in God’s image.  God is a relational being, and thus we too are called to be in relationship with others.

The aspect of Original Solitude shows us that the Body is symbolic.  The body while is real, it serves as a physical symbol of the existence of our soul.