Learning new things at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books

I went to a book reading at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown, Philadelphia last month. Adrienne Maree Brown was reading from her new book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.  It was a fascinating time with a very diverse crowd of people. I kind of stumbled into the crowd, having not planned on going to the event, but I’m very glad I went because I have been stimulated by it ever since. Brown attributed the thesis of her book to Audre Lorde’s paper presented at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978 that was later published as a chapter in Sister Outsider, 1984 Audre Lorde and The Crossing Press. Brown got permission to reprint the entirety of the essay as the prologue to her book. Her book is essentially a creative elaboration on Lorde’s thesis in a series of essays.

In many ways (though not exclusively), Lorde and Brown  work to deconstruct the religious hold on sexual expression in American society. This deconstruction is what culture warriors who dominate Evangelical Christian discourse have been defending against since the sexual revolution began in the sixties (and maybe before). Today, the established sexual norms and mores of one hundred years ago and earlier have almost completely lost their potency. Many Evangelicals and other traditionalists (often labeled “Conservative” by themselves or others) lament this loss. I can see why they might lament, but I am not interested in the power they had or perceived to have, which allows me to consider this shift with a little less subjectivity.

Audre Lorde and the erotic

I have a different subject. I am looking for the Holy Spirit’s movement in all things and can see it in this loss of power. Getting the Christian  Church of the hook of morality policing is a potential opportunity for us who would share the Good News with a post Christian world. Audre Lorde is helping me see a better way to continue our conversation about human sexuality that departs from much of how the conversation has been framed. Her words resonate deeply with my experience of my self, my life, my art and my relationship with God (something I wish I could talk to her about because I have a feeling she might have objections. Alas, she died in 1992.) Her observation that the slanderous conflation of the “erotic” and the “pornographic” was a ploy of the domination system designed to relegate an inherently feminine power to the realm of the obscene was like a lightbulb in a dark room for me. Lorde defines pornography as “a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.” Yes! Uncovering the good that has been subsumed by bad is resurrection. There is life in these words even if I don’t follow Lorde to all of her conclusions.

Lorde further defines the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various source of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. ” This is true. She doesn’t need my affirmation, but I give it. She was speaking to a group of women but I believe this is true for men as well. I may not be able to access the same female plane she describes, but it makes sense to me that the overlapping space of the sensual and the spiritual is at the heart of all human flourishing. And, yes, that space she calls the erotic, has been erroneously buried under another source of knowing and power that is much more male, intellectual and sterile (as in not fruitful, not fecund, not capable of creating life or speaking to the deepest parts of life).

Again, Lorde writes “we have attempted to separate the spiritual and the erotic, thereby reducing the spiritual to a world of flattened affect, a world of the ascetic who aspires to feel nothing. But nothing is farther from the truth. For the ascetic position is one of the highest fear, the gravest immobility. The severe abstinence of the ascetic becomes the ruling obsession. And it is one not of self discipline but of self-abnegation.” This distinction between self discipline and self abnegation is what shines brightest for me in Lorde’s paper and brings me to Jesus. who had some things to say about self discipline and self abnegation.

What should we cut off? What should we grow back?

“If anyone wishes to come after me, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) What does Jesus mean by “deny yourself”?  I think it has something to do with what Lorde describes as the proper use of erotic power. “The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference. ..[And it underlines] my capacity for joy.” She later adds, “To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. ” Jesus might say that it is that type of using that needs to be denied. The self that cannot be shared because it belongs too much to its owner is only capable of using and thus incapable of the real joy God made us for. Listening to Audre Lorde or Adrienne Maree Brown I felt like they had accessed some of that joy.  And that joy is very attractive.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”  (Matthew 5:29-30) This is not as attractive to modern readers. Jesus was serious about mastering our sin. And we who follow him cannot just  embrace all of our desires as if they are good by nature of them being our desires (I think this might be Brown’s perspective and the new orthodoxy of American society). The tension between satisfaction and denial of our desires needs to be more active than it is. It seems their are two poles of action: deny the flesh and all the joy it might bring or embrace it as the best source of meaning in a Godless world. Neither option is satisfactory but the seeming dichotomy comes from this denial of the erotic which Lorde so well defines. But we have poorly defined sin and cut off a part of our humanity in the imposition of the bad definition.

All that is erotic has been defined as sinful, probably because not enough men gouged out their eyes or cut off their members. Instead they controlled women and denied the potential erotic in themselves because it came less naturally and because it was harder to share the feeling and not just use others. St. Augustine of Hippo will go down in history as the reformed womanizer whose personal process of self abnegation became cosmological fact and defined hundreds of years of theology and subsequent societal views on the erotic. He was awesome in a lot of ways, if only he hadn’t been so influential in this regard! Disastrous!

The erotic within us can be redeemed and this is not just a matter of sexual ethics. Again, Audre Lorde: “the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone… [because] once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.” This sounds a lot like picking up your cross and following Jesus to me.  We must deny the part of ourselves that is so hell bent on using others. But we do not need to deny the erotic itself. Previous generations, in their zeal, cut it off, but it can grow back.

Free to consider the erotic with Jesus

I think we need to listen to Adrienne Maree Brown and Audre Lorde because they are excavating a part of us that we need for the abundant life Jesus offers us. But I don’t want to follow them where they lead. I think Adrienne Maree Brown exercises another kind of imprudent zeal in her pendulum swing away from the erotic’s encasement in traditional sexual morality and the power structures that enforced it.  I am not cutting off sexual morality as if it were a member or an eye that caused me to stumble. I want to follow Jesus .When Paul says in Galatians 5:24 “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” I can’t believe he means all pleasure, but I can’t deny that he means some pleasure. Not all desires are good.  And not all good is always good. But the source of good, the Father of Jesus Christ gives good gifts to those who ask.

With the door to the erotic, which had been slammed shut and bolted, successfully propped open, we can consider our potential for shared feeling and joy it affords. I think we need to evaluate our desires more in line with this rubric of sharing joy that Audre Lorde describes than with legislation, religious or governmental.  This requires the Holy Spirit in community. We say in Circle of Hope, “How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.”  This is a needed addition to Lorde’s rubric, but not a negation of her beautiful reflection on what it means to be a human being. Jesus’ project is to make us become fully human as he was. And yes, Jesus was erotic, even if not sexually. We are being made perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. All parts of us are subject to that perfection if we allow them to be. So smell a flower, write a poem, make something, make love (to your spouse!) — enjoy what God is giving you and practice sharing that joy in community.