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Is There Sex in Heaven?by Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz Feb. 7, 2010
(Note: due to the snow blizzard of Feb. 5-6, 2010, services were not held on Feb. 7. The sermon was pre-recorded and delivered via the website – UUCA’s online church lives!)
Everything is one with everything, whether we think so or
Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as
to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins
them by what is deepest in themselves.
Each time you love, love as deeply as if it were forever
Heaven on Earth: Is There Sex in Heaven?by Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz
The subject today is love. Here’s another poem by that great lover, the 14th Century Persian Poet, Hafiz:
The subject tonight is Love
And for tomorrow night as well,
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all
My name is Mary, and I’m an addict -- a Big Love addict. It’s not what you think – “Big Love” is a TV series about a polygamous family in Utah -- one man, three women, umpteen children. I’m feminist, monogamous, Unitarian – and you might well be asking, what possesses her to like this show?
I like it because it’s … complex. Certainly the relationships are, the way power ebbs and flows among the three sister-wives, the young adult children, and the often hapless husband. The theology is complex too, and the way religion figures in the lives of the members of this family – caught as they are between a Mormon church that disavows plural marriage, and a fundamentalist sect where marriage has become a grotesque parody of itself, with girl children bought and sold as political capital. This family is trying to live their faith responsibly and consciously. In this show, faith is an actor, and acts the way it often does in real life –- sometimes inspiring good, sometimes becoming a wedge or a cudgel for egocentrism, wealth and power.
And love – what of that?
The family in this drama has bought into what is called “The Principle,” which has been in force off and on in various sects of Mormonism since its inception in the 19th Century American West. According to adherents of The Principle, the highest realm of heaven is reserved for those who live in plural marriage, creating many many children for the glorification of God. In this version of marriage – and, as I understand it, any marriage sealed in the Mormon Church – “till death do us part” is meaningless.
Because in this world view, death doth not part.
In a recent episode, the fallen-away-from-the-faith young adult daughter of Wife No. 1 is planning a wedding. Her mother is anxiously pressing her to be married – “sealed” – by a Mormon priest. Legal marriage, she believes, is a temporal thing, but the seal is for all eternity, and all the pleasures of intimacy that a couple enjoy on Earth will be continued and magnified in heaven. “This life goes by so fast,” the mom implores. “How can we live, thinking that’s all there is to it?”
Of course this is a question that goes to all of life, and it is one of the great questions to which every religion must offer answer.
And it turns out that religious traditions which have a fairly concrete sense of life after death tend to agree that earthly relationships are recreated there, or created anew. And often these relationships in Heaven are said to include sex.
In “Here If You Need Me,” UU minister Kate Braestrup tells the story about the Muslim jihadist who dies and goes to heaven. Maybe you’ve heard this story. He’s lived a good and faithful life, as he was given to understand what that was by his faith and his culture; certain promises have been made, and he’s excited to have arrived in Heaven. He gets to the Pearly Gates, and whom should he see walking toward him but George Washington! “What are you doing here?” the Muslim asks, and before George can answer, Dolly Madison appears, followed by George Mason, Sally Hemmings and Robert E. Lee. “Who are these people?” the jihadist demands. “I was supposed to have date palms, rivers of wine, and 72 virgins!” “Oh dear,” the gatekeeper says. “There’s been – a misunderstanding. It’s 72 Virginians!”
Unitarian Universalists like this joke, because we tend not to have such concrete visions of an afterlife. We tend to agree that if we put our faith in bliss after death, we risk disappointment.
And, whatever we each may believe about an afterlife, we tend to think that heaven is ours to create here on Earth, through acts of love, compassion, and justice.
I titled this sermon, “Is There Sex in Heaven?” because it’s a mysterious question.
When I went to see what others had written on this topic, I found an essay with the same title by a Christian philosopher. “Heaven is too far away to see clearly and sex is too close to see clearly,” he writes. “Pascal says that the human situation is always in the middle between two extremes or a number of extremes: too much light, too little light; too much distance, too little distance.” So far I’m with him; there’s poetry here.
He goes on to note that in the creation story in the Book of Genesis, every one of God’s acts of creation was an act of differentiation – light from dark, sea from land, and ultimately man and woman. This is where he loses me, because the poetry turns rigid in his cosmology: once God has created these separate categories they become fixed and immutable, all the way up to heaven. Here on Earth, this does not match either what science tells us, or our own experience. Even our basic gender identities are not fixed for some of us and are certainly, for humans as a whole, more than binary.
I get more meaning from the Jewish mystics’ reading of the Genesis myth – that God existed before this act of differentiation, and God’s separating the light from the darkness and the sea from land were acts of generosity, God withdrawing Godself from Creation to make room for human life. Somewhere deep in human consciousness we remember that we are all one, all part of God. But we live with an illusion of separateness – an illusion that is necessary to preserve in order to live in time and space.
Because of this pre-creation memory, according to the mystics, we live with a sense of alienation, a sense of estrangement from the all-in-oneness of God.
Are you with me? You might be wondering, what does this have to do with sex?
People mate for all kinds of reasons, and sex is of course one. But why do we have sex? –never mind, that’s a stupid question. Actually, though, considered theologically, it’s not.
What would happen, Hafiz asks in one of his poems,
God leaned down
And gave you a full wet
Doesn't mind answering astronomical questions
You would surely start
Reciting all day, inebriated,
Devotional poets like Hafiz have known it for centuries: loving God with your mind and heart and loving another human being’s body with your body share more than the word “love.”
Loving a body with a body can get you back, for an instant, to that experience of Oneness that mystics believe is the truth of our existence. Can shatter the illusion of separateness, perhaps only for moments -- but in those moments you are outside time and space, aren’t you? This is heaven we can know.
This experience – this radical stepping outside our ordinary lives – this is the real reason sex is a power so frightening that families and religions and governments have tried down the ages to control it. In sex, when we are very open and also very lucky, we taste the divine Oneness; we return to a place that, in most of our lives moving through time and space, we barely remember exists. Stepping outside time and space, knowing beyond mind that we are one with the Life Force – this the mystical experience, one I have also had in Zen meditation, when I pay attention to the breath flowing into and out of my body, and open the hand of thought.
In “Our Whole Lives,” the Unitarian Universalist lifespan sexuality curriculum, we teach that all of life is sacred, including our sexuality – and I want to draw your attention to a blog on our UUCAVA website, in which June Herold looks at the opera “Der Rosenkavalier” through a lifespan sexuality, OWL-Out lens. In OWL we teach that because our sexual lives are sacred, we handle them with great care and respect. If we enter into a sexual relationship with another person, the other person must also be treated with care and respect, including open communication and rigorous truth-telling.
Intimate relationships are so very complex. Forget a “Big Love” style arrangement, one on one is as much as most of us can handle responsibly.
Elizabeth Weill wrote last December in the New York Times Magazine about a project she and her husband undertook to improve their already pretty good marriage. They worked on communication skills, dug up buried resentments, and reconfigured their division of responsibilities for the household and the kids. But it was when they began to work on sex that things got particularly interesting, and I’m talking theoretically here.
In researching the topic, Weill discovered contradictory schools of thought. One was that couples generally can open to one another easily and create the experience of oneness because of the time they spend together, learning to trust one another. A completely opposite view is that, once early intimacy is established, couples throw up walls to protect themselves from that dangerously unitive experience – I would call it the experience of touching the divine – and settle into a safely boring sexual routine.
It is ironic, isn’t it, that the experience of taking down all the walls can be easier with a stranger, or in a low-commitment relationship, than it can be with one’s dearest companion? How to keep the walls down, in the midst of intimacy’s inevitable negotiations and compromises? This is a question for a couple to work on through a lifetime together.
Part of what Weill discovered in her own marriage was the continual dance to establish separateness in the midst of unity, or unity in the midst of separateness. How much distance was right? What was that urge to run away after intimacy – was that about the need to re-establish separateness? Was it – and these are my words, not hers – a need to re-enter time and space after a moment of ecstasy?
The root meaning of ecstasy, by the way, is moving out of stasis, or moving out of self.
Reading Weill’s piece I was reminded of Ranier Maria Rilke’s gorgeous description of mature human love in marriage in “Letters to a Young Poet” as “the love that consists in this: the two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.”
We are separate, and we are one. We live within this great paradox. This is human life.
When Kate Braestrup wrote about that joke about the jihadist in heaven, she was using it as the lead-in to a sad story from her life as a chaplain to the Maine game warden’s office. She had found herself consoling a young woman whose 17-year-old boyfriend had gotten drunk and walked into a pond and drowned.
“What if I live to be 80, and I meet him in heaven and he’s still 17,” she tearfully asked her chaplain. “Will we still be together? And how will that work?”
The truth is, none of us knows about the afterlife, how it could possibly work. What we know is what works here on Earth. We know that love is what we are here on Earth for. We know that ecstasy is a grace that we may taste but not possess. We know that our most intimate relationships are a chance for daily practice in loving rigorously and generously. We know that our responsibility to ourselves – as the separate beings that we are and as the connected unity that we are – is to be careful and loving, with ourselves, with one another, and with this great gift of being human.
And, in the words of Hafiz –
“To whisper, ‘I love you! I love you! I love you!’ to the whole mad world.”
This is the great gift of being human – to give and receive love, rigorously and generously. Walk consciously through your life. Hold your love tenderly. Know, in the midst of your separate lives, that we are all one.
Rev. Mary Reads Hafiz Poem
Part 1: Is There Sex in Heaven?
Part 2: Is There Sex in Heaven?
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