Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I share this anecdote because several of the comments on my last post latched onto my analogy between spirituality and sexuality as fundamental and often complicated facets of our individual identities, and as it turns out, the analogy actually has a bit of a history at Swarthmore.
Some of the commentators on my last post posed the question of how to define spirituality and even expressed some skepticism at the notion that we all engage with spirituality in some way or another much as we all engage with sexuality.
Perhaps this is the place where some of my readers may see the spirituality/sexuality analogy break down: As one reader rightly pointed out, there is a concern that in making statements like “we are all spiritual, just like we are all sexual,” we may run the risk of imposing certain conceptions of human nature or behavioral classifications on people who may not share them. Of course, like any analogy, it has its limitations, but I think it’s very apt in some ways. As messy as it can be to talk about sex, there may be less confusion as to what counts as sexual than as to what counts as spiritual. For one, it is easier to call an activity “sexual” because we have clearly identifiable sexual organs. Doesn’t the very word “spirituality” seem to presuppose the existence of a “spirit” or even “soul,” something we can’t exactly physically point to, and the very existence of which is controversial…? These are excellent objections.
Still, in the hope of achieving some clarity, allow me to break down the analogy into a series of claims:
Spirituality, like sexuality, is something on which many (probably most!) people have strong views and feelings. Like sexuality, it concerns subjective individual experience. As such, one’s engagement with spirituality or sexuality should be a matter of free, personal choice. At the time, spirituality, like sexuality, also often has to do directly with how we relate to other people – how we see ourselves in relation to them and interact with them.
Factors beyond our control like family or cultural upbringing often affect the way we think about both spiritual and sexual matters, although we may very well find ourselves at odd with what were “taught” by our families, churches, school groups, peer groups, the media, or other groups or institutions growing up. American society (and others!) saturates us with often conflicting messages about both spirituality and sexuality and, in spite of the individual dimension of these things, some often strong ideas of what the “right” personal decisions as we strive to live “good,” moral and satisfying lives.
While the realities of both sexual and spiritual experiences may differ starkly from what people hope to get out of them, people who engage in spiritual or sexual practices tend to see them as modes of personal expression. Many people see these choices (or the choice to abstain from such activities) as self-defining in a particularly important way. However, both spirituality and sexuality can be particularly repressive or alienating for people who feel like their true selves are stifled by existing frameworks or that they cannot identify with those frameworks.
There are many labels out there to describe and classify particular individual beliefs and behaviors as far as spirituality and sexuality are concerned. On one hand, labels can be empowering. On the other, it can be all too easy to use labels to make assumptions about people without actually getting to know them or to marginalize certain groups. Moreover, labels may fail to take in account the nuances and fluidity of both sexual and spiritual identities.
I look forward to taking up some of the questions and objections raised here more specifically in my next post and throughout the rest of this column. I’m glad that readers are questioning my analogies and images and urge you to keep doing so! In particular, I hope you will call me out on any assumptions you find problematic so that I may be able to address them.
At the end of the day, spirituality, much like sexuality, can be complicated and even controversial to talk about… but I trust that it is well worth it!
You can also feel to email me thoughts, questions, concerns, or suggestions at my new, shiny, God-given (uh, Gazette given) email: firstname.lastname@example.org.