John McNeill’s Theology of Sex as Play

In my post yesterday about Elizabeth Stuart’s commentary on the gay and lesbian theology pioneers, I included some brief references to the early books of John McNeill. In his latest book, “Sex as God Intended“, McNeill substantially expanded his ideas about the theology of sex as play. At his blog, “JOHN MCNEILL SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION”, he has a pair of posts up sharing these ideas for an on-line readership.

In part one, he reminds of quotations by two great early theologians. St Ireneaus taught ” Gloria Dei, homo vivens. (The glory of God are humans fully alive). That includes being sexually fully alive.  St Augustine (who is so often interpreted incorrectly as a key originator of homophobia in Christian theology) wrote “Ama! Et fac quod vis! (Love and then do whatever you want!)”, to which McNeill adds “Exactly! Because what ever a lover wants will be in complete harmony with the spirit of God!”.

The key Scripture text of course for sex as play is the Song of Songs, but what I found most intriguing in this discussion was a consideration of the nature of play. The key lies in play as a total and complete focus on the moment:

But what makes sex play? The human experience of play, like love, is indefinable. We know what play is when we experience it, but we cant define it. Sociologists observe that a disturbed child ceases to play when it experiences the absence of love. Tht child can be freed to begin to play again only when it feels the security of uncondiional love. Simlarly, we adults are free to play only if we feel loved. Ultimately it is the human experience of God’s unconditional love that frees us to totally indulge the spirit of play all our lives.

What makes a human activity play? Play is usually contrasted to work. The human activity of work is frequently based on anxiety.

The counter to sex as play, is sex as work – sex which is entirely directed at procreation.

If human sexual activity is undertaken for the conscious purpose of procreation , it become another form of work subject to the tyranny of time. In Gen 2 we read that God looked at Adam and said”It is not good that the human be alone. Every human should have a companion of his or her own kind” Obviously God intended human sexuality to be a cure for lonliness and help humans enter into deep intimate love relations.. In playful sex we must relate to our sexual partner as end in him or herself and not as a means to something beyond the partner him or her self. Adam and Eve enjoyed playful sex in the garden of Eden in the presence of God. By restoring our awareness of God’s love, Christ wanted to restore human sexuality to the same joyful play it was in Eden.

In part two, McNeill quotes a modern British theologian, Norman Pittenger,

“Granting that we are dealing with consenting adults, there is no such thing as bad sex; there is only good, better and best sex!”

then he proceeds to  ask (and answer) the question, ” but what makes sex good, better or best?”

I am aware as a psychotherpist with several decades of experience that many, if not most, human beings grow up with badly damaged psychys and a wounded self image that render them incapable , except with extreme difficulty, to enter into a committed relation based on mutual love. However, these psychically wounded humans still have a right to sexual fulfillment to the best of their ability. If all one is capable of is a solitary act of masturbation, then that masturbatory act, undertaken with gratitude to God for the gift of sexual pleasure, is good sex.

Good sex, then could be as basic as a single act of what others have described as “solove”.  Better sex is two people who reach out to each other from their place of psychological damage to find some sexual fulfilment.  But “Best sex”

is obviously two humans enjoying mutual sexual pleasure within a committed loving relationship. Where this kind of sexual relation can be achieved, it brings with it not only superb sexual pleasure but, as Genesis 2 said, on an even deeper level it brings with it escape from loneliness and isolation into the deepest experience humans can have of intimacy, and frequently opens the door to a mystical experience of intimacy with God.

Recommended Books:

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Farley, Margaret: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Helminiak, Daniel: Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth

Salzman, Todd A. and Lawler, Michael G: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)

 

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