A funny thing happens when you spend your time studying theology and sexuality; your world quite frequently gets turned on its head. Since going to school to study sex more in depth I have been down some crazy paths of self-awareness and discovery and it’s not all that pretty, but necessary. A lot more recently I have been pairing my wondering of sex and theology with original sin. What is that all about really? The story of Adam and Eve, a tree, a serpent, and forbidden fruit is quite the mystery that keeps us guessing. I have had my theories in the past that I have spoken about at many workshops but never this new pondering I have had, that original sin could very well be objectification.
Think about the moment where two individuals once living comfortably with one another, unashamed, and naked, take a bite of fruit from some tree called, ”the tree of knowledge of good and evil”…and they see the other with new eyes and hide. They grab leaves and cover their genitals…they are ashamed. Could it be that at that very moment after this knew obtained knowledge they looked at their friend and saw not the whole person but just a body? That this new acquired knowledge separated the soul and personhood and left just the vessel? I would think that seeing another like that for the first time would be scary and confusing. I also know that when I have been looked at in that way, my inclination is to hide and cover myself because I was made to feel insignificant.
It makes sense that where objectification enters our lives, it can become a breeding ground for poor decision making and deep woundedness. For some, objectification is played out through unhealthy sexual behaviors. Look at our world right now. We are drowning in abuse of the body through numbing emotional pain with the over use of porn, lots of sexual partners, sex trafficking, rape and assault, half naked women used to advertise and sell products such as milk, child pornography, school dress codes that pick on one particular gender, and more. We come to ignore that within these bodies that look appealing are souls. This is something we see daily in the larger society, but I want to say that a big player in the sin of objectification has also been the church as an institution. When I say church, let me be clear that not all churches operate like this, but much of this objectification has a trickle-down effect that we are still recovering from and since we are all human, have participated in and are learning how to overcome.
I need to talk about how the church institution has hurt me. The church has objectified me. It has made me believe that there is only one way to be. I, as a woman, have to follow a certain script in order to be seen and to feel any sort of value. The church made me believe for a long time that sexuality only operates in one way, in one context, and that within that context, it will come easily. By teaching these kinds of lessons, the church, as an institution has hurt me and others. Church, you are objectifying your members by setting up these rigid boxes and are not recognizing the color in creation. Instead you’ve made life this or that, black or white, good or bad, and the God I have come to know does not operate like that.
God is a god of fullness and abundance; an abundance of grace, love, forgiveness, and a funkiness that keeps rocking my world. Somehow church, in your search for order and establishing sacredness, you have taken away the means in which true intimacy and connection happen. You have wiped our faces with shame and guilt, instead of holding them when we needed to cry. What has mattered is the order of operations and the genitals in between our legs, who those genitals love, and how they should conduct themselves in this world. You have seen just our bodies and not our beings. You too have allowed objectification to rule over the way we come to know ourselves and God.
Some of the ways the church has participated in objectification is in their treatment of women, the LGBTQIA community, race, and the way they speak about sex. When you ignore that as human beings we are both sexual and spiritual you separate the flesh from the spirit. Sex and the flesh become covered in shame and embarrassment, instead of wonder and awe. By reducing sexual intimacy to just what is in between our legs, then we take away what sexual intimacy is for. It’s about connectedness. It’s about learning how to be in relationship with one another, to learn what our needs and wants are, to feel and experience the divine creation of another. When the conversation doesn’t include these aspects and focuses on when and where and the good and bad, then what can end up happening is that when those parts come together they actually may not work as intended. Sexual intimacy is not a black and white issue; it’s bigger than that. It’s unfolding a mystery between divinity and humanity, it’s life, it’s creation, it has depth, and corners that we can’t all perfectly fit into.
When the body becomes the main focus in education around sex in our religious settings, our idea of sex becomes one dimensional. If we don’t engage in a multitude of conversations around sexuality and the complexity of it, then people entering into committed relationships can enter with guilt, trepidation, not realizing they have a voice, and that their body is the main component that matters. Sex then becomes a performance instead of a unique connection that can take us beyond ourselves and invites us into the life of another. We can get stuck. We can become disillusioned; which then invites shame and a sense of feeling unworthy.
Is this why there are a lot of us who have a sticky relationship with God? Is this why so many have a hard time conceptualizing God as loving and gracious? We often say the phrase, “Love others as you would love yourself.” It’s hard to love others when we don’t know that our selves have a place, even within the church. It’s hard to know what empathy and compassion is, when we feel like the place that says, “All are welcome,” actually has a list of ‘yes, but.’ When we are introduced to God with such rigidity it’s easy for us to not have the best self-worth or acceptance of who we are, because we think there is something wrong with us. When we enter the church walls there is an order to follow. There is a posture to endure and a way to present ourselves. We like worship to flow without many mistakes, unnecessary noise, and we all better look like we are engaged and fully present. This for me is objectification. It is disengaging the spirit from the flesh or the mortar from the brick. The spirit is not supposed to be separate from the flesh and the flesh from the spirit, so therefore it can get complicated, not simplistic.
When I purely focus on my body, meaning the form and shape, it’s easy for me to concentrate on how it doesn’t look like how it once did when I was 23 and a dancer. I start comparing it to the standards our society has put in place for what defines beauty for women, and then, well, I basically feel like shit. When I look at my squishy tummy and remember the two lives I held within; my stomach becomes sacred and is no longer an object, but a vessel that creates and sustains life. When I remember the essence of who I am and that my body is the vehicle in which I use to make connections, feel and experience the life before me, enjoy the passions, while also acknowledging its weakness, then I see myself as I believe God does and those who I am most intimately connected to. This is the remembrance. This is the celebration in the garden; that we have these bodies made to connect and to be equally apart of the spirit of ourselves and the indwelling of God. This to me is the marriage of “two become one.” When we recognize within ourselves that our body is equally a part of spirit, and holds the divine as well as being a perishable but amazing form, this is when we start to be able to fully live. When we only focus on one and forget the other we set ourselves up for disconnection and the need to fill a void.
When we walk through this world assigning value based on body appearance, skin, expression, etc we devalue a person and the divine that lives within. When we make the idea of sexual intimacy simplistic and basic, we are passing on information that sets us up to fail. We become bodies without needs, vulnerabilities, ailments, what have you. Sexual intimacy then again, becomes more about performance then connection. How sex is presented from the larger church has been simplistic, rigid, and for me actually lacks anything to do with what God intended. It has become fearful, bad, and dirty. That is objectification. We all do this though, we all objectify. In fact we do it the moment we discover the sex of our own child. Objectification makes us small, we inherent tunnel vision, we disengage from the present, we lose focus, and we forget about the magnitude of pleasure, connectedness, and intimacy that God has tried to establish with us from the beginning, from creation, from the garden.