TABLE OF CONTENTS:
2. THE MEANING OF "EROTIC"
3. SEXUALITY IN THE HISTORY OF RELIGIONS
4. ELEMENTS OF THE EROTIC IN SUFISM
There is, in the human experience, a connection between sexuality and religion. This connection can be found in all religions and in all ages. In the religions of the post-axial age, i.e. from approximately 500 B.C.E. to the present, the sexual half of the equation has been little emphasized, or has been expressed only esoterically. As well, sexuality in religious thought and expression has often been subsumed by the more abstract theme of love. However, though sexuality is often hidden, or even is masked by orthodoxy, it remains a vibrant ingredient of religion. This is most apparent within mysticism.
I will not explore all facets of the connection between sexuality and religion, but will focus only on one aesthetic of sexuality in religious expression: the theme of the erotic. To narrow the topic down yet further, I will examine it within one tradition only: the Islamic-Baha'i. In this, part one of the project, I will look briefly at sample instances of the erotic in a few different religions and then will examine in greater depth the erotic in Sufism. This is preparation for part two, which will follow at some later time, where I will undertake a more exhaustive presentation of the theme in the writings of Baha'u'llah.
The theme of the erotic within religion can be, if the pun will be pardoned, a touchy one. On the one hand, a person's religious beliefs, if sincere, will surely be of paramount importance to him or her. Misinterpretations of and challenges to those beliefs would be no small matter. In many cultural paradigms, sexuality is seen as being far removed from spirituality, the former being a very worldly concern and the latter an other-worldly one.
In the religions that I will be studying here, such a tension would be, I believe, unfounded. There is a dialectic between sexuality and spirituality within Islam and the Baha'i religion, but not an oppositional one. However, since the potential for misunderstanding is so great, it is all the more essential that I be very clear about what exactly the topic is and what the parameters of my investigation will be. I will therefore indulge in a fair bit of introduction to and background of the topic. First, I will also narrow down what exactly is meant in this context by some of these broad and often loaded terms, such as the "erotic." and even "sensuality." By defining some of the key terms and concepts up front I hope to present clearly what the topic at hand consists of and, equally importantly, what it does not consist of. Since our understandings of these themes are very much culturally conditioned, I will briefly explore here what the term "erotic" signifies and suggests to modern Occidental ears. After establishing this foundation, I will present some examples of sexual and erotic expression in the history of religions. This will demonstrate the universality of this phenomenon within history and human experience. Following this, I will examine the theme within the tradition of Islam.
2. THE MEANING OF "EROTIC"
The three definitions of erotic given by a relatively small dictionary are "of or concerning, tending to arouse, or dominated by sexual love and desire." This is accurate, for the common understanding of eroticism seems to be just this, and little more. However, recourse to a larger and older dictionary shows that the meanings of the word need not be confined to the physical: "of or pertaining to sexual love; treating of love; amatory." And, more revealing, the word erotic can be used as a noun: "an amorous composition or poem; also, a theory or doctrine of love."
Eros was originally a very positive figure. For Hesiod, the oldest of the extant Greek poets, he was "the fairest of the deathless gods," but his character later became mischievous, naughty, and even evil. A similar degeneration can be seen with Cupid, Eros's Roman counterpart, for "cupidity" came to signify excessive lust or avarice. The affections of the Greeks and the Romans turned instead to the more chaste Aphrodite/Venus who, though she could signify sexual love as well as beauty (e.g., "aphrodisiac"), never represented crude physicality.
The word "sensual," which I will also use in this paper, has had a similarly unfortunate history. Though its literal meaning is nothing more than "pertaining to the senses," it has long signified "gratification of the physical and especially the sexual appetites." The jacket blurb for a recent book on sexuality and Christianity goes so far as to call sensuality "a twisted form of love that has resulted in unprecedented divorce rates, promiscuity, infidelity, teenage pregnancies, homosexuality, and abortion." As far back as the eighteenth century, writers have been aware of this and have substituted another word; Coleridge wrote: "I have adopted from our elder classics the word sensuous, because sensual is not at present used, except in a bad sense." English usage continues to observe this distinction.
I will begin the discussion of the meaning of "erotic" with a truism--sex and love are not the same thing. Personal experience and intuition attest to this, as do most religious and philosophical systems. Freud, to whom I'll return shortly, provided empirically-verifiable theory to demonstrate this when he exposed the reality of the libido. Though Freud conflated love and sex, declaring love to be merely a sublimated abstraction of sex, his clinical analyses of sexuality provided a springboard for later psychologists, such as C. G. Jung and Erich Fromm, to draw clearer distinctions between the various forms of human love. Freud's observations of the power of the libido have been validated by further research, especially that of Wilhelm Reich, but his derogation of love to a release of repressed sexuality has been abandoned.
Paul Ricoeur, the influential phenomenologist of religion, observed that there seem to be three stages in the understanding of sexuality and religion in the West. In the first stage, the earliest days of humanity, there was no real separation between the two. But the axial age, when the world's major religions arose, witnessed a clear divorcing of the two--religion was defined transcendentally, and sexuality became shameful. (Our words reflect this: "pudendum" is from L. pudere, to make or be ashamed.) Ricoeur noted that we now seem to be entering a third phase, one in which there is a push to reunite sexuality with the experience of the sacred.
It is in light of this latter paradigm that I speak of the "erotic." The erotic, in this sense, refers to a unique energy which is not to be equated either with the instinct of libido or the social construct of lust. It is not an energy which is in any way immoral or shameful. Rather, erotic here will refer to the aesthetic of a sacralization of sexuality. It is the sexual instinct expressed through the channels of art, love, and, in the case of mysticism, spirituality. I have considered using a synonym for erotic, one without its manifold connotations. Unfortunately there is no felicitous alternative. My only option is to ask the reader to keep in mind the term's somewhat specialized meaning for this context.
Because sex and love are not the same thing, the concept of love also needs to be defined for this context. By "erotic" I mean something other than, and more than, "sexual." Conversely, by "love" I mean something distinct from "erotic." Whereas the theme of the erotic in philosophy and religion is usually only implicit, or even esoterically hidden, love is conspicuous. For example, the unconjugated, uninflected word "love" is found 402 times in the Bible and 507 times in the translated writings of Baha'u'llah.11 Needless to say, derivations of 'elos are not to be found once in either. There has also been a wealth of research produced on concepts and themes of love in religion, but very little on eroticism. It is largely for this reason that I carefully do not address this paper to the theme of love, even though love will always be arching over and animating the topics at hand.
The above discussion is simple and incomplete. I present it here more as a caveat than as a presentation of the topic. The meaning and variety of mystic eroticism will become clearer as I relate some of its instances in the history of religions.
3. SEXUALITY IN THE HISTORY OF RELIGIONS
The use of erotic and love imagery is a phenomenological constant in the history of religions--every religion seems to have its instances of it. I will survey some of these instances partly to demonstrate both the universality and the variegation of this theme and partly to provide more of a background understanding of it. The examples will be from prehistoric statuary, Greek philosophy, the Jewish Bible, Christian thought, and then some modern psychoanalytic understandings. To limit the scope of this introduction, I can only mention the Eastern traditions in passing. The Islamic tradition will follow.
The connection between religion and sexuality seems to date back to the very earliest days of humanity. Our only real clues about the nature of religious belief in prehistoric times are from cave paintings and statuary. The other remnants from earliest human history, such as fossils, tools, and weapons, provide no insight into religion. Of this primordial art, two forms stand out in their ubiquity--phallic symbols and the so-called "Venus Figurines."
The male human was rarely depicted as a whole body. Rather, he was represented primarily by phallic carvings and paintings. Even more common than these is depictions of the female body in small statues of rotund women. So many of these Venus figurines have been found that this symbolism has been referred to as "the most prominent feature in ...prehistoric religion." It has even been suggested that these statuettes represented, not just a celebration of femininity, but perhaps even the earliest manifestation of the concept of divinity. Whether or not the figurines can be said to represent proto-theologies, one aspect of them is undeniable. They clearly represent, not just maternity, but erotic sexuality. (Some scholars, like Richard Lewinsohn, have commented that these fat, faceless statues "must have been quite unerotic," but this is hardly a fair statement. To impose modern aesthetics on such a foreign culture is quite presumptuous, and, since humanity was in the midst of an ice age, it is quite likely that most people were fatter than we are today.) All of the accent on these statuettes is on the sexual features of breasts, mons pubis, and buttocks. Since there are few depictions of intercourse, pregnancy, birth, or children from the prehistoric period, it seems likely that it was not maternity, but sexual aesthetics, that was being glorified. No decisive conclusions can be made about either the erotic or the religious significance of these Venus figurines, but at least some connection is indubitable.
The modern Western world's understanding of themes of the erotic starts with the Greeks. Though Judaism obviously was the foundation of Christianity, it was Hellenistic thought which shaped the philosophy of the West. Hellenism was the first coherent philosophical tradition of the Occident, and also has deeply shaped Christianity and Islam. The reader will have noted the pains I took to clarify my terms, an unfortunate necessity caused by the paucity of synonyms for certain things in English. "Love" is one of these words slighted by the language. Classical and Patristic Greek, however, is much more precise. It distinguishes 'elos, desirous love, 'epithuuia, concupiscent love, 'agape, affectionate, benevolent love, and philia, neighborly, brotherly love.
Mythological accounts of the god Eros go back at least to 900 B.C.E., the time of Hesiod, but it wasn't until the writings of Plato that he became a figure worthy of note. It is Plato who first elevates Love to the importance it later takes in Christianity: "He whom Love [Eros] touches not walks in darkness," Plato declares. Eros "gives to us the greatest goods," says Phaedrus in the Symposium, for "there is a certain guidance each person needs for his whole life, if he is to live well; and nothing imparts this guidance... as well as Love." Eros provides guidance by acting as a motive force to self-improvement and self-transcendence. The Platonic ideal for the human is meditation upon the immortal Forms and, ultimately, contemplative union with them by virtue of purifying the mind of animalistic dross. Eros represents the longing inherent in the incarnate human being for his or her original source. It is a spirit (daiuonion) which drives us to turn away from the world of the senses to seek transcendent union. Conversely, it is the concupiscent love, manifested by the many forms of lust, which binds us to the earthly realm.
Plato made a further distinction between heavenly and common love, though he represented both by the same goddess, Aphrodite. Aphrodite's "common love" side is that which seeks fulfillment in the human sphere. "This, of course, is the love felt by the vulgar, who are attached to women no less than to boys [and] to the body more than to the soul, ...since all they care about is completing the sexual act," explains Pausanias. Aphrodite's "heavenly love" side, by contrast, is "free from the lewdness of youth." This is love which is mutual between souls, is infused with wisdom, and is less concerned with (though not wholly indifferent to) physical considerations. It is important to note that, though Plato clearly said that the heavenly love is superior, he in no way scorned the common love. Speaking of the two, he pointedly said that "all the gods must be praised."
Plato, though he did not dismiss completely earthly love, put all of his emphasis on the transcendent. This philosophy of love proved to be quite long-lasting, for it was preserved in the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus and reaffirmed by St. Augustine. However, there was a solid secular side to Greek erotic expression. First, the Hellenistic culture could be quite lewd, as Eva Keuls has demonstrated in The Reign of the Phallus. But that does not constitute eroticism as used in this context. Rather, I refer to the refined art of erotic expression found in the poetry of Sappho and, later, Ovid. Sappho wrote poems of nostalgia and longing with very human subjects. Her writing expresses a much greater depth of feeling and passion than does Plato's model of tidy virtue. And yet, her art was metaphoric and spiritual enough to escape condemnation as simple sex eulogizing. Some modern scholars have even suggested that her love poetry was purely spiritual.
The New Testament is fairly devoid of eroticism. Greek and Essenic asceticism seems to have been a sufficient influence to make religious sentiments of the time, as Diane Ackerman puts it, "nonerotic and full of self-denial." By contrast, she describes heterosexual love in the Old Testament as being "sometimes down to earth, very material, and deliciously sensual." For example, the covenanted relationship between Yahweh and the Chosen People is expressed as a marriage--Israel is God's bride. Nowhere is this more evident than in the allegory of the Song of Solomon.
Solomon's "Song of Songs" is a paean of love from a man to his soon-to-be bride. Far more than a simple expression of emotion, the future husband and wife loving describe the physical features of each other in very sensuous and sensual ways. They liken aspects and parts of each other's bodies to fruits, trees, and animals in a beautiful garden, and sing of their impatience to consummate their marriage. Solomon concludes by begging his beloved to make the haste of a wild deer in returning to his side.
A literalist interpretation of the Song of Solomon is that it describes the love of a shepherd boy and his Shulamite girlfriend. Though attribution of the poem to Solomon, the tenth century king of Israel, is historically impossible, Ackerman points out that it would at least be thematically consistent. He did, after all, have 700 wives and 300 concubines, and his frequent marriages were part of a traditional fertility ritual. The rabbinical tradition included mystical interpretations of the poem from the earliest days, but never seems to have done so at the expense of its profane side. It was left to Christianity, and especially the mediaeval monastics, to provide such a coherent mystical interpretation of the song that its erotic side came to be de-emphasized.
The inheritor of Hellenistic thought is, interestingly enough, Christianity. Most obviously, the New Testament was composed in Greek. But more than this, says historian of dogmatics Jaroslav Pelikan, the Hellenization of Christianity "is a question not of language but of Weltanshauung." One major theme of Greek culture adapted to Christianity is that of love.
The exoteric Christian attitude towards sex can be summed up as follows. St. Paul taught that celibacy was superior to marriage. The eschaton, the end of time, promised by Jesus was believed to be immanent, and in light of the approaching demise of the human race marriage and sexuality could be at best a waste of time and energy. There were a few early Fathers who believed that sexuality could hold an honored place within Christianity, but by far the majority accepted the view later formalized by Augustine: sexuality is a necessary part of the natural order and, as a creation of God, must be intrinsically good. But, God's creation was tainted by certain aspects of human free will. Humanity sought to assert its own will over that of God, an act known as the original sin. As a consequence of and punishment for this all people are saddled with a disobedience that now is an integral part of them, namely, an inherited rebellious sexual nature. This inner disobedient will is manifested in even the greatest of (male) saints in the fact that they have no control over erection and nocturnal emission. Further, in Augustine's theory this original sin is passed on to each person via the father's semen. There is thus a tension between on the one hand honoring God's creation by respecting sexuality, and on the other hand controlling the rebellious animal nature. People feel the pull of concupiscence and the revulsion of sin simultaneously; hence Augustine's famous plea "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!" The later Fathers thus realized that they had to declare marriage to be an often necessary evil, but on the whole inferior to celibacy.
It would be easy, as has often been done, to villainize Augustine for such a negative portrayal of human sexuality. For example, it has been alleged that he misread the Greek text of Romans 5:12 "...sin entered the world by one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned..." as "sin entered the world in one man," and from this misreading based his concept of original sin.34 However, this dismissive reading of Augustine and his contemporaries would be a mistake. In reality, they connect sexuality and sin much less than is supposed, indicting instead humanity's original disobedience. Augustine wrote a rather lengthy book, On the Good of Marriage, devoted to elucidating the function of, and in places praising, human unions (conjungio). Elsewhere, he was not shy about describing things religious in quite erotic terms. For example, he portrays the Crucifixion thusly:
Like a bridegroom Christ went forth from his chamber, he went out with a presage of his nuptials....He came to the marriage bed of the cross, and there, in mourning it, consummated his marriage,...he lovingly gave himself up to the torment in place of his bride, and he joined himself to the woman forever.
This is a side of Augustine's thought that is rarely presented, and seems to have been wholly forgotten by many later Christian thinkers.
The tension in late Patristic thought between the supposed sin of human sexuality and the goodness of the divine creation laid the foundations for what Michel Foucault called a "pathologization of sex" distrust of the physical sex drive and anxiety about its damning effects began to dominate the thought of early Medieval Christianity. Sex was only unwillingly condoned, even between husband and wife: "He was allowed to kiss, fondle, and caress her--provided he didn't really enjoy it," writes Ackerman.37 There was, however, a glimmer of light in this prevailing atmosphere of apprehensive asceticism, namely, the influence of the Greeks. As mentioned, Greek has a variety of words for love. A measure of acceptance of things sexual was preserved by a certain language game. Instead of using eros for love, as Plato had done, the writers and later interpreters of the New Testament used "agape." Anders Nygren, in his magnum opus Agape and Eros, distinguishes sharply between the two words, defining agape as God's way to man, and eros as man's way to God. Agape has little or no sense of desire, for man is basically unlovable. God's love for man stems from the universal and unselfish nature of agape. God, however, is man's ultimate goal and the source of his being. It is man's neediness and longing that spurs him to love God. Herein lies the path for humanity: God has granted a measure of agape to all humans, and it is now our duty to discover this agape and express it amongst each other. God, in his very nature, is agape, and by manifesting it we become more spiritual.
The above discussion would suggest that the Christian tradition is universal in its trend to sublimate a dark and sinful erotic love to a chaste and rather ascetic love. I will conclude by showing yet another facet of Christian love. Fundamental to Christianity is a very clear-cut dualism. Creator and creation are eternally other. Yet, as Rudolf Otto has explained, the awesome degree to which God is so wholly other inspires, not just fear, but also fascination. The utter mystery of divinity causes the creature both to cower and, at the same time, to be captivated. This can inspire a longing for that "Wholly Other" which can lead to a "Dionysiac intoxication." Paul Tillich has explored this sense of longing by strikingly reemphasizing the erotic.
"Eros," writes Tillich, is "the driving force in all cultural creativity and in all mysticism." This is, to say the least, a surprising remark to come from the century's most prominent theologian. Alexander Irwin has shown this remark was not just a passing hyperbole--the erotic is central to and a decisive influence on Tillich's theology. To explain this, it must first be noted that Tillich was careful to draw a distinction between eros and simple sex. This distinction, which, he said, forced the New Testament authors as well as most subsequent Christians to steer clear of the term, resulted from an unfortunate confusing of 'elos, desirous love, and 'epithuuia, concupiscence. Eros does not just seek pleasure by striving for union with another human being, but also strives for union with God. It is "the longing to establish full relationship," be that with a person, with one's social group, with sundered value paradigms, or with God; with, in short, anything from which one has become existentially alienated. Eros as a longing awareness of alienation becomes the dynamic force behind creativity, growth, and self-transcendence. It is "the moving power of life." Tillich in no way abandons agapic love, though. Agape remains the ultimate form of love, the universal expression of divinity. Indeed, one of the goals of spiritual living is to sublimate eros into agape, or at least to reconcile the two. Its transcendent universality, though, makes it a less concrete element of human life that the erotic. This conception of the erotic will be seen to be apposite to the later discussion of Islam and the Baha'i religion.
Brevity requires that I only discuss the Western religions in this introduction, but I don't want to leave the impression that the erotic in religion is only found in the Occident. Far from it; the Orient has produced some of the most fascinating interactions between the two to be found. For example, elements of Hinduism have turned religion into sexuality in the system of bhakti yoga, or the practice of union with God through love. Conversely, elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism have turned sexuality into religion in the various systems of tantra yoga, or the practice of elevating sex itself to the divine. The latter represent what I think are the very clearest and most methodical of all schools of thought on the relation between mysticism and the erotic. But it is back to the Western world that I must turn in concluding this survey.
To a large extent, both our understandings and our misunderstandings of the erotic stem from Freud. Freud believed there to be two players in the drama of the erotic: pleasure and the recovering of lost union. However, unlike the above traditions, Freud does not recognize a transcendental aspect to these players, but just the physical. Most forms of pleasure that we engage in as adults are unconscious imitations of pleasures we experienced as infants, specifically nursing and excreting. Similarly, in our relationships the union we seek to restore is not anything mystical, but is simply a search for lost parents. A man seeks a woman who most closely resembles his mother, and a woman seeks a copy of her father. If sexuality harks back to childhood excretory pleasures and our partner the imitation of a parent, then the whole idea of sexuality becomes, to say the least, perverted, and the meaning of love becomes very belittled indeed. Yet there is a good deal to be praised in Freud's work. He exposed the previously-unrealized extent of sexuality in human interrelationships, and demonstrated the power of the libido. But it seems that his emphasis on sexuality and love as nothing more than physical expressions has harmed the respectability of the erotic. I feel that it is necessary to mention this here, for we can't understand the topic if we aren't aware of our residual cultural biases.
There is one specific finding of Freud that is directly relevant to the study of mysticism, and that is his observation that love and death are intimately connected. This theory did not originate with Freud, as Ackerman points out--Schopenhauer had written of the symbolic relationship between the womb and death, and the Elizabethans often used the euphemism "to die" to refer to sexual pleasure--but it took Freud to amplify these ideas and derive a coherent theory based on them. There is a dialectic, Freud saw, between eros, the energy of procreative love, and thanatos, death. Eros as an impulse towards life, towards combination and development, is set against the movement towards death, the breakdown of structure and the cessation of stimulation. "Only by the "mutually opposing action of the two primal instincts--eros and the death instinct--never by one or the other alone, can we explain the rich multiplicity of the phenomena of life," wrote Freud. All of life, he believed, is lived beneath the penumbra of this struggle.
Freud understood that one of the main features of sex is the sequence from a quiescence to rising agitation to the moment of release of excited tension followed by a gradual return to quiescence. Freud found a parallel between this progression and the whole of the individual life cycle, such that there is a tendency to try to maintain, or to return to, unstimulated tranquility. As one author summarized it, if pain is defined as excitation and pleasure as the relief of that excitation, then the greatest pleasure of all would be death.47 If the above theories are combined, we have the following process: all humans seek pleasure, and sex is one of the most primal and powerful pleasures. Yet sex produces agitation, what Ackerman would call a "delicious tension." While this excitement may be pleasurable, the individual's goal shifts from seeking pleasure to resolving the tension and returning to the calm state. As the moment of orgasm, what Freud terms the "little death," provides such a release, it is closely analogous with the event of real death.
There is one other implication of Freud's eros-thanatos dialectic which Tillich seems to have brought out. As explained above, Tillich found the motive force of life in a longing for one's estranged foundations, and the goal being a rediscovering, a reunion with, that foundation. Irwin notes, though, that existentialism has often focussed on the negative and painful aspects of anxiety and loneliness; Sartre best defines this theme. Through the theme of the erotic, a positive element enters this predicament, namely, the possibility of overcoming it. Thus Tillich's existentialism, in Irwin's words, "evokes not doubt, alienation, and psychospiritual suffering, but a positive, eroticized existence." Its defining characteristics and goals are knowledge, morality, creativity, and an "erotic passion for the divine." Tillich recognized that Freud's libido, whether expressed as sexual desire towards a person or existential erotic desire for God, is infinite and ultimately incapable of being fulfilled. I am not sure if Tillich connects these two strands, but a logical result would be that the complete resolution of erotic desire, or death, becomes a goal the exigency of which is, paradoxically, determined by its very unreachability. The above two theories of the relationship between the erotic and death will be seen to be quite relevant to the discussion of mysticism in Baha'u'llah's writings.
This discussion does not cover either the range of themes of the erotic in religion, nor was the presentation of any particular religion above meant to be exhaustive. It does, however, demonstrate the most salient aspects of this dynamic and it lays a foundation for the following discussion, where I will examine the relationship between mysticism and the erotic in the Islamic tradition more thoroughly.
4. ELEMENTS OF THE EROTIC IN SUFISM
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