From a Christian perspective sex is a spiritual as well as a physical reality. So why do we find it hard to think of sex as something spiritual?
An Enduring Ambivalence about Sex
Sex is such a significant dimension of human reality, evoking such strong feelings and affecting so much of life, that there has always been an ambivalence about it. There are many aspects of this phenomenon, but in this article I will just try to identify a key aspect of this ambivalence. It can be identified in two diverging attitudes.
The first is a tendency to reduction. Although sex seems to hold a lot of promise for human happiness it so often falls short. The experience can seem emotionally lacking, humdrum and ordinary instead of special and uplifting. Its physicality can seem off-putting, one's body or that of one's spouse can seem inadequate and coarse. It can be difficult to connect, and intimacy can be lacking. In brief, it has all the hallmarks of the merely mundane, with little to suggest that it is 'spiritual' in some way. Even when it is not negative it can seem merely 'natural', just a fairly basic physical reality that shouldn't be complicated by trying to see anything more in it. Either way it is hard to think of it as spiritual.
The second involves the opposite tendency. Sex can become a search for transcendence. Its spiritual potential is exaggerated as we project onto it more of our hopes than it can bear. This can lead to dissatisfaction and inordinate experimentation to try and find within it something that 'works' spiritually. Yet the concept of what 'spiritual' is becomes misguided. We look for the 'spirit of sex' in the wrong places. The 'spiritual' is identified with emotional intensity, and with this as one's guide you focus on how to maintain this intensity.
The Role of Emotion
These two tendencies highlight the role of emotion in two different ways. In simple terms, the reductive tendency comes about from too little emotion, and the transcendent tendency from too much. There is nothing wrong with seeking to increase the emotional quality of sex. The problem is that we tend to overshoot the mark in one direction or the other.
Many couples struggle to connect emotionally, and given the different kind of emotional lives of men and women this is not surprising, nor is it anything to be overly critical about. The fact is, it's not easy, and a couple's sexual life can be like a barometer indicating the overall health of their relationship. It is also quite understandable that a couple might aim a bit low in order to maintain harmony, since the constant effort to develop deeper intimacy is hard. Although this approach is understandable it can also store up dissatisfaction.
Most couples that have a reasonably successful relationship seem to find a balance by accepting a somewhat lesser degree of emotional satisfaction on a daily basis, alternating with periodic efforts to gain an emotional lift from doing something special. So overall they strike a balance that works for them. It might seem unduly critical then if someone suggested that their sexual relationship needs to grow deeper. Not only that, but how would you accomplish such a goal? Anyway, once you've worked out a good, sustainable balance why would you mess with it?
Intimacy and Emotional Growth
Spiritual growth is a process. For many couples it would probably be best not to overthink the spiritual side of it and work on developing their understanding of each other's emotional lives. There is a lot of growth potential in doing that, and it would probably keep them growing in intimacy for a number of years. During that stage the spiritual character of sex would be mostly implicit. This assessment is based on the assumption that most couples have a fair bit of learning to do about each other's emotional 'constitution'. To talk about a 'spirituality of sex' might all seem a bit too abstract at that stage. The goal would be to persist with their efforts to be emotionally open to each other, augmented by whatever insights they can gain from their spiritual tradition, and including a focus on forgiveness, acceptance and patience.
The second aspect of emotional growth is likely to occur when a couple turns their attention to trying to understand more exactly how emotion affects their experience of sex itself. The earlier emotional development was more general, and concerned all sorts of things about their life together. It might be that during this process they already learned most of what they need to know about sex as well, but there is a good chance they didn't. The first stage involves trying to learn how to increase the emotional content of their relationship so that their sexual relationship does not experience too much of the reductive tendency mentioned above.
The second stage or aspect, if it develops, is about accentuating the emotional character of sex, not so as to make up for a shortfall, but as an aspirational goal. That is, the couple enjoys a fairly good sex life, but they get the sense that it could be more. It is at this stage that couples, or one partner, seeks a greater intensity in the sexual experience, and wants to experiment in various ways. Some of these experiments could be helpful, but others could be harmful. When aiming for transcendence it is easy to overshoot the mark.
The characteristic difficulty at this time is to think of this higher aspiration for sexual fulfilment in essentially individual terms. It might literally lead one spouse to seek experiences outside the relationship, which would be very harmful. Or both spouses might simultaneously seek their own individual satisfaction even while trying to do that together.
Intimacy and Spiritual Growth
It is at this point that the distinctively spiritual dimension of sexuality needs to to be clarified. That which is distinctively spiritual about sex can only be fostered in and through the complementarity of relationship. It cannot be two parallel developments pursuing individual sexual intensity. The spirituality of sex is intrinsically and essentially about growth in the intimacy of a communion of persons.
This is why it is so elusive and difficult, and why this aspiration is so easily derailed by self seeking. It is not about how to get more thrills, but about how to gain an interior deepening of vulnerability to the other. Such increased pleasure as may result occurs more and more indirectly, unchosen and received as a gift. It is not about becoming more clever in contriving to receive the gift you want, even though such subtleties can be part of the playfulness involved. However, such awareness is part of the gratitude in recognition of the gift one receives from the other, rather than being merely a more subtle kind of technique.
There is no way to put into words the point of 'crossover' when self is forgotten and the other is truly encountered in his or her deepest otherness. It is only in and through the renunciation involved in genuine spirituality that this kind of growth in intimacy can occur.
Why we don't think of sex as spiritual
With all this in mind it is not surprising that we don't tend to think of sex as spiritual. For many the spirituality of sex will remain largely implicit, and may indeed consist mainly in the sacrificial spirit that persists in loving and forgiving in situations where not much personal-emotional growth is possible. For others it will consist in forgoing the attempts to seek a more transcendent experience of sex because of recognition of its dangers, and a lack of knowledge on how to avoid them.
I suspect that most of those who do grow deeply in intimacy through a living spirituality of sex manage to do it implicitly, and without any clear articulation that what they do experience is a genuine spirituality. The reticence, subtlety and modesty involved would probably hide even from themselves that what they experience could even be talked about as a 'spirituality'.