passionate worship

The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.

The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.

Lately, I’ve been reading about the intersection between disability and sex. This thinking has led me to reflect upon our identity as sexual and passionate beings, and then to wonder about what that says about our relationship to God. What follows is an exercise in creative thinking – not a systematic analysis of worship. If you hate it, please don’t beat me up too much. But at least I hope you find it stimulating…

Contemporary Christian worship music is framed by a subliminal eroticism, revealed in song lyrics, musical style, and the body language of Christian bands and recipient congregations. This eroticism reflects the long history of sensual language in the Christian spiritual tradition (see the picture and of St Therese above), with its expressed longing for union with Christ and the loving embrace of God. A passionate, ecstatic, and experiential sensuality was central to the worship of the charismatic renewals of the late 20th century, and remains prominent in contemporary worship, with songs emphasising God’s overwhelmingly powerful love for us, and our passionate longing for him.

To cite a recent example, consider one of my favourite worship songs, Hillsong United’s Oceans (Where Feet May Fail). To complain that this song might as easily be directed at a lover is to miss that that is precisely the point. Written in the first person, the song draws on passionate human eros and directs it to God: “my soul rest in your embrace, for I am yours and your mine.” Its sensuality is contained not only in the lyrics, but in the beauty and purity of vocalist Taya Smith’s voice, gently supported by the (sexy) timber of male backup singers. It is a song sung by beautiful people, who celebrate the mystery of divine beauty with eyes closed, and hands raised, symbolic of both submission and embrace. Surely this is not something to be decried but, rather, it’s what worship is all about.

Eros, sexuality, is fundamental to what it is to be human – to be a passionate person. Too often in its history the church has sought to suppress sensuality for the sake of boring, cold, and rigid agape – self-giving love. Self-giving is, of course, central to love, but it is self-destroying if it is not accompanied by passionate eros. And this has been the story of the church, which has demanded that people love by subjugating passion. Yet all the while it has failed to realise that its self-flagellation was a sign of eros suppressed and distorted – a celibate priesthood corsets the Bride (i.e. the church), telling her to ‘suck it up and think of God (or England).’ Repression on one side leads to oppression on the other.

If contemporary worship is subliminally erotic, then at its best it’s a celebration of human passion and a longing for intimacy and touch. As such, it’s a celebration of bodies, bodily sensations, and ardent emotion, all of which should be brought to bear in worship.

Where it goes wrong is when passionate worship (human to divine) functions exclusively, as a replacement for the thrill of human to human passion.

If worship can be erotic, then is it possible for sex to be worship? There is obvious support for this idea in Hinduism and Tantric sex, as well as in various animistic traditions and pagan spiritualities. Although less prominent in Jewish and Christian tradition, the canonisation of the Song of Solomon stands as an especially potent sacralising of sexual desire. That church theologians have often analogised Song of Songs as a symbol of the passion of Christ for the church is telling, even if, thereafter, Jesus is generally imagined as asexual. In fact, the incarnation is itself a divine embrace of embodied humanity – and Jesus had sexual organs that presumably functioned in much the same way as ours. Jesus’ particular vocation may well have kept him a virgin, but he was constantly in trouble for ignoring the sexual proprieties of his day by welcoming women and men as friends and lovers (in the broadest sense of that term). This is not to say that we can model our sex lives on Jesus (sometimes WWJD really is absurd), but it is to say that Christianity should celebrate the body, in all of its wondrous, sensual, and messy absurdity.

Might we go further, embracing the idea that we could learn something about what it is to worship by thinking about our sexuality (and, of course, doing more than just thinking)? I’m not primarily talking about fantasy, (although I’m not excluding it, since imagination is surely part of the divine image), but about exploring what our passions have to say about us, our self-transcending capacity to love and be loved. These passions are ultimately reaching for transcendent beauty; that is to say, our passion seeks the divine.

But if that’s so, what might be the implications of our assumptions that certain groups of people are or should be asexual? Of course I’m thinking about disability, but the logic (if there is any) has much broader implications. Precisely what those are is a topic for another day.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • emtasol
    August 19, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    Excellent Shane! Well perceived & expressed!

  • jaymcneill
    August 19, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    Enjoyed that read. I will never be able to listen to hillsong in the same way now…

  • Tanya Riches
    August 20, 2015 at 1:48 am

    Intriguing and challenging post, Shane! I’m enjoying the thought of how some of these comments will shock Christians (the one about Jesus’ sexuality for example). But I totally agree with you, that broadening our current understandings of sensuality to beyond an individual’s experience (as defined by their own body or self) provides an interesting commentary on ways Christian worship functions in society, and rebuts the poor critiques leveled against it in this particular era. In regards to how worship actually functions, music intends the engagement of much more than our minds, but also our affect, and to envelope our senses – particularly in corporate and participatory Christian worship. Most would hope this would be pleasurable! … Thus, *is* an extension of our current notion of pleasures, and we can liberate aspects of humanity that our culture confines to the bedroom. Maybe if we had done this a while ago we would have more full definitions of the marriage covenant, and more interesting worship lives. Or, we’d have started rumours of orgies. 🙂

    • Shane Clifton
      August 20, 2015 at 11:04 am

      Thanks for the insight – Tanya. I had you in mind when I wrote this, actually – figuring you’d have some thoughts!

      • Tanya Riches
        August 20, 2015 at 5:12 pm

        Haha. Honoured. Definitely worth a continued chat… and maybe eventually a writing project hey. Out of respect for this medium I tried not to write an epic comment in response, but it’s not always easy to get clarity *and* brevity… 😉

  • josh
    August 20, 2015 at 9:26 am

    beautiful exploration of thought-provoking ideas here shane. 🙂

  • Peter Allen
    August 20, 2015 at 11:51 am

    Not sure that I am with you on this one Shane. I think I can see where you’re going with it but personally I don’t much go for Church music that has me wondering more about what I am missing in my own personal relationships than directing me towards God. I have spoken about this idea many times as a member of music ministry for some 25 years. My term for these songs is Kenny and Dolly songs (showing my age there). If the song can be sung by Kenny and Dolly looking into each others eyes on stage then it has no place in Church. Maybe it’s OK in personal devotions but in a song service I am not looking for expressions of either sex or sensuality (in a sexual sense). What I look for in public worship services is transcendence, something that takes me beyond earthly emotions and senses and into the realm of something greater, beyond myself and my own feelings. I want to touch God in worship and take a congregation to places that they have never been rather than remind them of what they might have been experiencing with their partners a couple of hours before church. It is my understanding that the medieval catholic mystics lived in a closeted and celibate culture. For them passionate desire and sensuality may well have been a legitimate expression of transcendence expressed within a very different environment to a modern song service with a global audience and a culture already saturated with sexual and sensual media.

    • Shane Clifton
      August 21, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      I’m surprised a lot more people have not been with me on this one, Peter! And I do agree, too much Christian music is drab boring and shallow – although did you listen to the song oceans, which I think is transcendent? In terms of transcendence, rather then look for something that takes me beyond emotions, I think our passionate devotion is one of the potential vehicles for transcendence. I’m also not sure what it means to be taken beyond earthly emotions? I am an earthly creature, and I express my love in and through my body in all its intellectual and emotional complexity. in any event, one person’s divine encounter through mysticism is another person’s encounter in a mega-church. I’ve got a big enough view to imagine that both can be pathways to the sublime.

  • Andrew Dircks
    August 20, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    Thanks for a courageous view, Shane.
    I have no problem thinking of sex with my wife (within faithful exclusive 1+1 heterosexual marriage) as part of my worship of my Creator and Redeemer God. It is using my God-given body (which now belongs to my God-given wife) to honour her, to pleasure her, to express unity and love with her, and indeed this unity and love is a pointer to the unity and love between Christ and his bride.
    Paradoxically, my (serious!) difficulty is in regarding the singing of songs in church as ‘worship’, since the consistent use of ‘worship’ throughout the Bible is to refer to actions, not words. The word that’s used consistently in the Bible of words (including singing) expressing adoration to God “praise”.
    With respect to “worship”, the New Testament takes the Old Testament temple worship language (which spoke of what the priests and the people of Israel did in the Temple, including their sacrifices, which are now completely fulfilled in Christ) and applies this language and concept to how Christians should now live our lives, 24/7, out there in the world, as the means of expressing our submission to God, our honouring of God (e.g. Romans 12:1-2, amongst quite a few other references). Not once in the whole New Testament is a worship word applied to what we do in church, or to singing, whereas a variety of other concepts are specifically taught for the purposes of church and for what we should do in church (including singing praises).

    • Shane Clifton
      August 21, 2015 at 2:22 pm

      I don’t disagree with the idea that our life, rather than singing, is what constitutes worship. I think, though, that this is a broad enough concept to encompass singing.

      • Andrew Dircks
        January 29, 2016 at 6:08 am

        Thanks Shane.
        OK, so you – and millions of other modern Christians – are using the word ‘worship’ to mean “what we do in church”, or “singing praises in church”.
        Then you should at least be aware that you are using the word in a way that is in conflict with how the word is used in the Bible. When you come across the word in the Bible, just remind yourself that it is not the same word as the word you’re using to refer to singing praise in church.

      • Shane Clifton
        January 29, 2016 at 7:51 am

        Actually we use no biblical words, since the text was written in Greek. Almost every modern theological word we use is coloured by modern interpretation that differs to the first century. So we should always remind ourselves of that conflict.

  • Luke black
    August 21, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    Love this thought! Thanks Shane.


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