Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Glorious Sex”

An hour-long teleconference with

Patricia Beattie Jung

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

1 PM – 2 PM ET

Mary E. Hunt Intro: I will refer to our speaker as Patti because we are friends and colleagues having worked on several memorable projects together. Patricia Beattie Jung is retired, but sometimes she is Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City where she taught fulltime and was Interim Academic Dean. She began her teaching career at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, then moved to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa where she received tenure. She went on to be Professor of Moral Theology at Loyola University in Chicago where she served as the Graduate Program Director and as the first woman Department Chair, as well as a faculty member for Loyola’s program in Rome. Patti is a graduate of Santa Clara University and did both masters and doctoral degrees at Vanderbilt University.

She is the President of the Society of Christian and was the co-editor of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. She has long served that organization in myriad capacities on committees and boards. She has been an active member of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Patti received the Ann O’Hara Graf Award from the CTSA Women’s Consultation, a fitting recognition of her scholarship and activism in Catholic social ethics.

Patti has edited nine volumes, written dozens of scholarly articles and chapters in books, reference pieces, and book reviews galore. In 1993, Dr. Jung wrote Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge (SUNY Press, 1993) with Ralph Smith. That volume reshaped many conversations as homosexuality was replaced by heterosexism as the locus of moral concern. Her edited volume Sexual Diversity and Roman Catholicism: Toward the Development of Moral Theology (Liturgical Press, 2001) with Joseph Coray is a wonderful example of her forward-looking scholarship. Among her many publications is Sex on Earth as It Is in Heaven: A Christian Eschatology of Desire (State University of New York Press, 2017), on which today’s remarks on “Glorious Sex” are based.

She accomplishes all of this in the context of a wonderful family—her longtime partner Dr. L. Shannon Jung, also a well-published religious scholar on food, land, rural ministry, and ecological issues. They both taught at Saint Vincent School of Theology in Manila in the Philippines. Their family includes three sons, three daughters-in-law, and six grandchildren so their so-called retirement years are busy.

It was my pleasure to be one of Patti’s collaborators in the Good Sex Project and co-editor with her of the volume Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religion (Rutgers University Press, 2000). It was a catchy title, “Good Sex,” and all of us involved had some careful explaining to do with our respective partners. We gathered 13 scholar activists from 8 countries and 6 traditions to ask what women think about good sex in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Chinese religions, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Our meetings in Philadelphia and Amsterdam were great fun as well as amazing encounters with very unique and diverse colleagues. Esteemed Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow considered the project a highlight of her academic career. I concur.

Congratulations, Patti, on Sex on Earth as It Is in Heaven, in which you explore the speculative theme of whether and indeed what kind of sex there might be in heaven, the answer to which can shape some of our experiences here on earth. I consider this book an enduring contribution to the field of moral theology. We look forward to your remarks and our conversation. Welcome to WATER. I’m only sorry you are not here at the table.

Patricia Beattie Jung: To give you a brief overview of the book, there is a 2-part structure of the book’s argument. In part one, I reconsider and refute the long-standing claim that there will not be sex in heaven. I refute the traditional claim that there will not be desire and delight, although perhaps gender will survive resurrection. In the first part, I try to reimagine and reconstruct t a theological foundation for the claim that there will be sex in heaven and what that might look like. In the second part, which is shorter, I explore the implications of that claim for sex on earth. It rests on the assumption that God’s future plan for desire and delight should provide a roadmap for how desire and delight should be cultivated by us now.

I am going to talk about three or four ideas that I think will be interesting or controversial.  (1) I discovered that many Christians do not believe that there will be bodies in heaven (some form of what systematic theologians call the general resurrection of the body). I learned that not only do not many Christians in the pews believe this, but that many theologians and ministers don’t believe it as well. Therefore, I found myself spending several chapters arguing for why I believe we must operate with an anthropology that is not gnostic or dualistic.

Most people believe that we will survive death but only as some sort of spirit; they believe we are pilgrims just passing through this earthly life, and that we are going to leave this earth and our bodies behind. Therefore, redemption becomes escape from this world, not the world’s transformation nor our transfiguration. Dualism plagues Christianity; because of it the church has sent many ambivalent messages about the body and earth.

Christians have celebrated bodies as good and simultaneously suspected bodies to be dangerous. Susan Ross argued that the popularity of such dualistic thinking is rooted in ambiguity of the body itself; we experience the body as both the basis for personal thought, action, and life together and as a gateway for alienation, diminishment, disease, disintegration, death, and decay. Denying the body ultimate significance is one way of dealing with the threats it poses.

I argue that this strategy is a dead end. We know that we do not just have a body like we have other possessions. Phenomenologists of the body like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricouer argued extensively that our bodies must be recognized as constitutive of who we are. The truth is that we don’t just have bodies, we are embodied (a central claim to the work). If our bodies are not resurrected, then we are not resurrected. There can be no notion of genuine personal survival that does not involve some notion of the general resurrection of the body.

This is not a claim for resuscitation.  Our risen bodies will be glorified and transfigured in some way modeled on Christ’s resurrection. From the beginning, resurrection was both doubted and also asserted as central to faith. That is what First Corinthians 15 is all about. This claim was explicitly confirmed in the Apostles Creed (4th CE). This claim – central to my book – continues to produce significant blowback, not only from unbelievers but from Christians as well.

(2) There is a new theological anthropology being developed by several theologians working on the issue of desire. It is rooted in a particular experience. Many people have enjoyed sexual desire and delight. Some have experienced in it moments full of grace and at times they taste a kind of delightful communion. They see themselves as both made for and yet still groaning longing for the fullness of this communion that awaits us in risen life.

This is a big shift away from the neo-platonic notion that desire is only an expression of need. Instead desire is seen as an energy or passion for beauty, goodness, and intimacy. All of which is glorified and is seen to image God’s own passionate way of loving the cosmos. Instead of being a distraction from the love of God — which is how the tradition has treated sexual desire and delight –this new theology of desire actually sees it as a witness to God’s own desire for and delight in communion with us. It is rooted in the notion that this desire to be drawn into another’s arms springs from Gods own passion to envelop the cosmos.

There are two dimensions to this theology. One is the claim that desire, like touch itself, is reflexive. Take a minute and touch yourself. You are both touching and being touched back. There is a reflexive quality to touch that is embodied in desire itself so that not only do we want other people, but we also want to be wanted in return. There is this automatically self- and other- referential connection built into our experience of sexual desire.

Because this desire to be found attractive and desirous is built into our experience of desire for others, desire renders all of us vulnerable. It opens both the subject and the object of desire to risk. We become vulnerable to the response of others to our interest in them. Desire creates a situation of mutual vulnerability. Once satisfied, such desire does not go away. Instead, it is self-renewing. Passion is quickened in fulfillment, not quelled. The notion that desire grows as it’s fulfilled has been given voice to by a number of great artists including Dante in Paradiso. You see this understanding of the nature of desire in Renaissance art. Our passion for what is beautiful and good was designed to be ever expandable and intensifying. These ideas are not unique to me.  For example, that last one comes from theologian Sebastian Moore. There are many other theological voices trying to make these claims and to shape a new theology of desire.

(3) There are several implications from this theology of desire for life on earth. The first one is a fairly controversial idea. This new understanding of desire suggests that we might not only need to cultivate it, but at times reform it. There has always been a truth (but only a half-truth) embedded in Augustine’s conflation of desire with lust. There is a kind of wild and wonderful character to our experience of desire. Almost simultaneously we can have this tremendously wounded experience with desire. In the West, particularly in North Atlantic countries, we have eroticized dominance and submission so much so that it is almost impossible to regularly have experiences of desire that are not colored by those motifs and narratives.

Martha Nussbaum is a wonderful feminist philosopher and she has done interesting work on emotions such as desire. She argues that we not only can change our behaviors but also our feelings and emotions. I took her argument and began to explore whether we might have the capacity to reform our understanding of what is desirous so as to break the grip that this narrative of dominance and submission has on our experience of these feelings. When you dig into the experience of this feeling of sexual desire you find that there are physiological foundations, psychological, social, and cultural constructions. One thing that Nussbaum points out is that these constructions of desire are tied to particular interpretations of the world. Those interpretations of the world can be unlearned, redirected, or transformed.

What I am particularly interested in transforming is this narrative of dominance and submission and the eroticization of it in our culture. Reason, Nussbaum argues, can do more than distract us from problematic experiences of emotions. They can begin to make those experiences troubling and erode their support by pressing on us alternative narratives. I want to underline that I am not arguing that we should repress what we experience as attractive. I am not suggesting we bury our feelings, but rather that we look closely at and try to change feelings built on narratives that are essentially exploitative. Marvin Ellison and Mary Hunt among others have been arguing that we need a new way of thinking about our sexual feelings and desires. We have to begin this long slow cultural process. I don’t want to overestimate our capacity to re/educate our sexual affections. But I think that we have grossly underestimated that capacity in our culture.

(4) Finally, I suggest at the end of the book that the church really ought to be about the business of cultivating sexual desire. I argue, that porn is not a good way of cultivating desire for two reasons. First, porn is voyeuristic, and like all visual relations the power in a visual relationship is unilateral. That means from the get-go your desire is being schooled with the presumption that you have lots of control; this is very different from a real flesh on flesh relationship. Secondly, I don’t think porn schools us toward love or even to the sharing of pleasure. You are probably never going to see any porn in which one of the stars rejects the sexual agenda of the dominate partner. Instead of closing our eyes to the realities of what porn teaches, Christians ought to make loving sex play a Lenten discipline. The church ought to promote it as a way to keep holy the Lord’s Day.


Q: I suggest a Canadian writer and great novelist Margaret Laurence. She was deeply hurt when one of her books was challenged because of its portrayal of many sexual encounters. She said that she presents sexual encounters as tender, mutual, and communicative. Her short phrase has been a guideline in my thinking.

 A: I look forward to looking up her work. I think many of us in long-term relationships know in particular the need to cultivate sexual desire and nurture it in our lives. That is part of what our experience can offer to the community.

Q: Finding porn that expresses and demonstrates consent (and safe sex) is hard but I have found a little bit of it. I know that at least for me I have found it to be helpful.

A: The whole question of porn and the industry that surrounds it is very complicated. I do know that some believe there can be “feminist productions” of porn. A really thorough analysis of erotica and porn in light of this new theology of desire is another whole project which I was unable to cover in this book (only a portion of a chapter addressed this topic). We need a careful, full-blown analysis of that work to be done.

Q: Patricia Beattie Jung has brought a nice radiator into the church that has been so cold.

What do you think about political implications of understanding divine love as love that includes each person’s whole being as well as every person?

A: When you say ‘political’ do you mean within the church or the wider culture? This whole notion — that our bodies (in all their dimensions: sexual, health care, education, safety, nutrition) and all we associate with physical life – are precious to and redeemed by God has tremendous political implications. Instead of seeing redemption as escape from a polluted destructive world, this alternative vision of redemption calls us to transform the earth and to do that because it is God’s and our ultimate home.  God is revealed to be Emmanuel –God with us — not “god away from us” in some other worldly heaven. Beyond the sexual implications, the whole notion of the general resurrection of the body has tremendously wide political implications. The denial of it is part of the root in some Christian communities for their inattention to the physical dimensions of life.

Q: I raised two boys and something I think is important is to start young when teaching boys how to relate to (any sexual partner) and certainly to women. I will give two anecdotes: anytime they were watching a TV show and something sexual was happening that was violent I pointed out that it was not sex it was violence. If they are not told that they will not know the difference. Secondly, my son now is in a group of friends that include women and men. His women friends are talking about being sexually assaulted and the men are struggling with it and thinking about where their alliance is and how they are going to hold their peers accountable.

A: We raised three sons and tried to do many of the things you talked about. It is an uphill battle in our culture, but also important that they see tender expressions of physical affection between two people. They saw our gay friends expressing tenderness towards each other; they saw my husband’s and my example; they saw sexual partners being friends and arguing without violence. We were very fortunate to be able to create that environment.

After the wonderful year we spent in Rome, we brought back a lovely table book of Italian Renaissance art. My son and all his neighborhood buddies would come and look at the table book and at all the beautiful naked men and women in the book. I had a neighbor call who said she was not going to let her child come to our home because of the book. I told her that she should come and look at the book before making that decision. I stood firm in not being willing to take away the book from our living room. I think it is important to affirm the beauty of the body.

Another rule we had was the children could not watch MTV. The music videos at the time entailed so much eroticized violence. Of course, even ordinary commercials do that which makes raising children in this culture a challenge.

WATER thanks Patricia Beattie Jung for this insightful and delightful presentation.

Please join us for our next teleconference, Wednesday, March 6, 2019 from 1PM – 2PM “Womanist Interpretations of the Bible with Feminist Discourse” with Gay L. Byron. Register Here!