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.