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Sex and the Sacred (3rd in My Sanford Series)

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(This piece follows essays I and II in my series "Mark Sanford's Situation and the Quest for the Good, published here last week.)

Where does sex --where, more generally, do our animal bodies-- fit into the picture of the sacred?

On this question, the religious tradition of Western civilization has not been of a single mind.  But suffice it to say that a most powerful current in that tradition has seen the human connection to the sacred as being achieved IN SPITE of the body, through overcoming the body.  The sacred, in this view, is found through "the spirit" and by working against "the flesh." 

Today's religious right is --in large measure, if not altogether-- aligned with that way of understanding the sacred and the human connection with it.  This connects with that "top-down" view of the sacred order discussed in the previous posting on this thread.  ( )  It also connects, I would suggest, with that repetitive pattern in which leaders of the religious right (political and clerical) are again and again falling into scandals of the flesh.

To repudiate our bodies is to repudiate life.  To devalue our bodies is to devalue life. 

These bodies we have are the fruit of billions of years of life's development on this planet.  They are inherently central to what and who we are. 

And sex?  Sex is the means by which life gets transmitted.  LIke apple blossoms and the ripening fruit on the apple tree, sex has a place in our being that goes to our core.  And, like our bodies more generally, it is not just a matter of the flesh, for at the core of our being are the emotional and spiritual meanings and longings at the core of our lives.  When a person is whole, when the bond between lovers is whole, the experience reverberates in the whole of our humanity.

Life has gone to a lot of trouble to surround the sacred transmission of life with all the meaningfulness that is fitting to the task of raising whole human beings in the next generation.  (That's true generally of human sexuality, and is not confined to fertile couples because it is just how we're made, like that we have two eyes to see depth and respond to sudden noise with a startle and a shot of adrenalin.) 

We humans are not always whole, indeed, brokenness to one degree or another is part of the usual human condition.  (Perhaps that's a way of saying that we are all in "sin," as Tillich said that the essence of sin is "separation," including from ourselves.)  And sex therefore in human relationships often separates out its different components, being sometimes just of the flesh.

So it seems to have been for Mark Sanford on those other occasions where, as he said, he "crossed lines" with contact with other women, not his wife.  Here's a man whom one of his long-time aides, Will Folks, said, ""I honestly thought the guy was asexual."  One might imagine from this that Sanford has lost contact with a part of himself, and was not recapturing it in his marriage, and then in these casual men's-night-out situations was seeking to find that missing piece.

But then with the Argentine woman, he seems to have found not that piece, but something more like the Whole.

In the same rhapsodic message, he is appreciating her breasts and her heart and her soul, together, at once.

It is in such contexts, in such relationships, that the power of sexual love in combination with those other powerful dimensions of human feelings of love and yearnings for beauty and transcendence can open up a doorway into the Sacred.

The animal body is not apart from the beauty of the human soul any more than the fragrance and delicateness of the apple blossom, and the sweetness of the ripe apple, are separable from the earth and soil and sunlight from which they are created.

The task is not to escape and transcend the animal that we are, but to bring it into an integrated flowering of our whole being.

In contrast with the top-down sense of the sacred, there is the idea of the sacred as Wholeness.  Rather than the essence of the human task being mere OBEDIENCE to the ordering force above, the challenge is rather alignment of the whole of our being with the life-force within and around us.

Seen in that way, Sanford's "forbidden love" was not a matter of his being driven by the power of darkness, but by the deepest yearnings of the human spirit.

It is true, of course, that while Sanford's yearnings may have aligned him with his own heart and soul, and that of his beloved, it was also tragically misaligned with other very vital facts of the life-force manifested in his life.  He had (and has) a marriage, and responsibilities to his wife of 20 years.  He has four sons from that marriage, into whose lives he's brought upheaval that could be damaging.

Because of these circumstances, the sacred as Wholeness points simultaneously in different directions.  In a broken world, creating Wholeness is rarely simple. Simple top-down rules --keep your vows, obey God-- do not assure the Good, because just as Wholeness can be on different sides of human dilemmas, so also can darkness.

The question of how Mark Sanford might best pursue the Good in his present dilemma remains.

<em>In the next installment:

What about Sanford's marriage and children?</em>

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. He is the author of various books including The Parable of the Tribes: The (more...)

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There can be no integration between the spiritual ... by R. A. Landbeck on Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009 at 2:33:11 PM
There can be no integration between the spiritual ... by R. A. Landbeck on Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009 at 2:33:47 PM
Saying it twice doesn't make it so! :) Serious... by Andrew Bard Schmookler on Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009 at 3:16:20 PM