The Birds and the Bees: How Over-Spiritualizing Sex Dismisses Creation

The Birds and the Bees: How Over-Spiritualizing Sex Dismisses Creation
May 2023

I first learned about sex in the barnyard. Milking goats taught me the hows and whys of reproductive hormones; flocks of chickens offered lessons in fertilized eggs; and when the cat gave birth under my grandmother's bed, I learned how to identify the sex of kittens when I was just five years old.
Given the shape of modern life, my experience is increasingly uncommon. And it shows in our conversations about sex. We don't lack knowledge of our own urges so much as we lack an ecology in which to place them. As a result, we keep getting sex wrong. In evangelical circles, this increasingly means getting the relationship between material and immaterial realms wrong as well.

For example, much of the ongoing debate around Josh Butler's A Beautiful Union stems from his often misguided attempt to "creationize sex." While some argue his errors come from theology that inappropriately centers male sexuality, his first mistake might be centering human sexuality in the first place.

An ecological perspective puts things back in balance. It invites us to be quiet long enough to "hear the voice of the earth," as theologian Katharine Dell puts it. It requires us to shift our focus away from ourselves, reframing our questions about sex within a set of larger questions about God's work in the world. And it forces us to accept that our dialogue often stalls because we're starting in the wrong place. To riff off Chesterton, how much larger would the world be if our sex lives could become smaller in it?
An ecological perspective also helps us avoid over-spiritualizing sex in order to make sense of it--a move that Butler makes in rather unfortunate ways. After all, if we lack understanding of our relationship to creation, the only categories we have left are esoteric and metaphysical ones.

Given how often we appeal to nature in debates about sexual ethics, the tendency to over-spiritualize sex may not be immediately apparent. But too often this approach uses the natural world as a proof text and values it primarily for its metaphorical potential.

Put another way, an ecological approach reminds us that human sexuality is first and foremost a question of the material realm. It is not a way to escape the mundane or ascend to heaven. It is not a mystery any more than good food, good drink, or beautiful art. Sex belongs to the realm of bodies and bodily delights, and it is precisely this fact that makes it such a lovely gift from our Creator. Because of its earthy nature, sex is not something to be spoken of in hushed tones, hidden away, or blushed at. Nor should it be conceived of as if it held the secrets of the universe.

I don't mean to suggest that sex isn't powerful, good, or awe-inspiring, or that couples shouldn't protect their intimate secrets. I only mean we don't need to "creationize sex" because it is already part of creation. We don't need to enchant something that's already enchanted. In God's cosmology, material things are wondrous things.
Even more to the point, placing sex within the ecology of the material world invites us to understand the science of sex. It gives context for conversations about sexual identity, sexuality, conception, arousal, pleasure, acts of coupling, and the psychological realities behind them. These are not first and foremost abstractions or political debates. They are questions about the very material bodies of very real people and the purposes God gave them.
Just as sex invites human partners into relationship with each other, it also shows them the interdependence between human activity, the cosmos, and God.

Consider how Genesis introduces the first human couple. We meet them after the world already exists. To put it more bluntly, the earth was not waiting for them to show up to give it meaning. They define themselves as part of creation and distinct within it, and that allows them to relate rightly not only to each other but also to God and to the earth.

Ultimately, sex is given to humans for the same reason it's given to other creatures: It equips us to fulfill our unique callings in the world. As Duke Divinity professor Norman Wirzba puts it in The Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land, "it is precisely in each creature realizing its unique potential that God is glorified."
With the rest of creation, we are driven onward by a God-like, God-given impulse toward life, but we pursue this impulse in a distinct way. Questions about human sexuality--with whom, how, when, and even whether we engage in sexual activity--are less about the shape of ultimate reality and more about our identity and vocation.

For Christians, human identity and vocation are rooted in the call to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. Our sexuality flows from the same invitation. In this way, its meaning is best understood ecologically. Sex is about cultivating relationships and communities that create and sustain life, and defining it as such can just as quickly lead us to refrain from coupling.
But when we use sex for individualistic and selfish purposes, we reject our God-given vocation to love him and others as ourselves, and we reveal our uniquely human capacity for sin. After all, it is humans who use sex to dominate and abuse others. It is humans who use sex to numb our pain. It is humans who use sex to shame and control. It is humans who use sex to replace true spirituality.
It is humans who use sex as a shortcut to God.

No other creatures do this because no other creatures have our capacity to willfully rebel against God. No other creatures take good gifts and turn them into idols. In that context, an ecological perspective reveals our need for the One who can make us whole again.

With all creation, we are invited to enter into the work of Christ, through whom all things were created and through whom all things will be restored, "whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Col. 1:19-20).
If we receive Christ's healing, generative work, we can put sex in its proper place. We can see how we fail to steward our sexuality. We can learn to confront and expose abuse. We can reject pornified culture that wrongly names fellow human beings as objects. We can receive our own bodies as good gifts and learn to treat the bodies of others with dignity, care, safety, and love. And we can find a wisdom and glory to human sexuality that is made all the more beautiful by virtue of its very earthiness.

Hannah Anderson is the author of Turning of Days, Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul, and The World God Made.

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