Let Me Walk the Labyrinth (On My Knees and Blindfolded)

Let me walk the labyrinth on my knees and blindfolded. 

I walked a labyrinth for the first time in years a few days ago. In modern usage, a labyrinth is a spiritual tool, a bit like a maze with no dead ends. It takes you down a winding path to the center and then back out. Just when you think you’ve made it, the labyrinth sends you far away from your destination. People will often enter a labyrinth with a question in mind and let that labyrinth carry them through as they contemplate it. That all sounds lovely and poetic in theory, but I’ve never really ‘gotten’ labyrinths. Like many spiritual practices, labyrinths frustrate me, and not in a way that feels spiritual.

I’m a bit like Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who once said, “I get what can only be described as road rage when I’m stuck behind someone walking slowly in a prayer labyrinth.” I walk, and I try to feel something ‘spiritual,’ and then I get frustrated with myself for putting that kind of pressure on what is essentially a stroll. I crunched through the leaf litter of this outdoor labyrinth recently, struggling to let go long enough to feel the leaves–as it was, I experienced them intellectually, outside myself, as noisemakers that could interrupt other walkers. I wasn’t always like this. 

I danced through my first labyrinth, which was just a marked mat spread out in the church fellowship hall. I was a child skipping gleefully past all the adults, who took slow, careful steps, as if they were walking a tightrope. They stood for long minutes in the center like sleeping birds while I ran rings around them, giddy with the twists and turns. Now, I’m an adult, so caught up in doing it right, in making enough space for the other walkers, and trying to be remotely ‘spiritual’ on top of that. A spiritual practice that provokes that kind of excess thinking isn’t for me. 

Or maybe it just requires a little modification. What if I allowed myself to dance through the labyrinth again? That would require me to overcome that sixth sense I’ve developed over the years, the one that says “It simply isn’t done.” It sounds spirited–and spiritual–to me. Conversely, what if I gave up my accustomed sense of sight, reliant on the feel of the terrain to know I was following the path? I would have to crawl, grounded in a tactile sense. Would I fight my way through the darkness? Or would I roll around in the dirt, reveling in my sightlessness? I’m not sure I could even complete a labyrinth by myself in that state. I would need the help of other people, ones willing to see me fumble around in broad daylight, to keep watch.

I can think of nothing more spiritual. Maybe I would rage at God. Or puzzle over God’s absence. Or feel overwhelmed by love. Or just pretend to be a mole. Anything but this painfully grown-up labyrinth performance. So no more spiritual tightropes. Let me not know what to say during prayer. Let me cry through my chants. Let me laugh through my Lectio. Let me walk the labyrinth on my knees and blindfolded. 

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth design

Stone labyrinth image source

Chartres Labyrinth image source

“How Should Christians Have Sex?” – A Belated Response to Katelyn Beaty

[Image description: Photo is an Escher-inspired painting of red and white birds.]

I’m late to the party on this. Katelyn Beaty’s New York Times opinion piece “How Should Christians Have Sex?” came out on June 15th, and I’ve just read it over a month later–I’m a miserly curmudgeon who won’t buy a subscription. (I did skim a couple of Twitter threads that I’m now unable to find, so I hope I’m not plagiarizing.) Here are my thoughts as a Christian who fortunately didn’t grow up in purity culture: 

In the piece, Beaty describes her negative experiences with Christian purity culture, acknowledging that purity culture has caused a lot of harm. Yet, according to Beaty, “its collapse has left a void for those of us looking for guidance in our intimate lives.” Beaty finds progressive Christianity’s looser guidelines to the question “How Should Christians Have Sex?” lacking. 

She does cover one progressive answer, citing Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Shameless (which I’ve also read). Beaty writes that Bolz-Weber “proposes a sexual ethic grounded in the goodness of bodies and of sexual expression based in consent, mutuality, and care.” My response when reading that was “There it is; there’s a sexual ethic that I can buy into.” 

Beaty felt differently, writing, “One would think that Pastor Bolz-Weber’s shame-free ethic would be a tall glass of water for a grace-parched soul. Instead, I find myself left with a sense of loss.” A bit later, Beaty says, “I yearn for guidance on how to integrate faith and sexuality in ways that honor more than my own desires in a given moment.” Throughout the article, Beaty searches for something more in a sexual ethic but somehow only skims the surface of the “progressive” ethics that she finds wanting. I wonder whether progressive Christianity’s acceptance of so many things that she was taught to condemn makes it difficult for her to take it seriously as a source of ethical wisdom. 

Please note, I don’t think progressive Christianity is beyond reproach, and Beaty may be responding to a ‘watered down’ quality that is apparent in some progressive settings. 

In that vein, Beaty says a couple of things that I agree with. For example, she states, “I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent – a baseline, but only that – and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.” She has a point; consensual is not a synonym for ‘good’ (I’ve heard that Joseph Fischel’s book Screw Consent provides a great critique of the treatment of consent as a satisfactory ethic in itself). 

But as Beaty says herself, the ethic that Nadia Bolz-Weber describes is about care and mutuality as well. Beaty says, “I also want to know what Jesus thinks.” For people who see Jesus as an exemplar or even a guide, that’s a good question.

But Jesus has almost nothing to say about sex in the Gospels. In fact, he may not share “the traditional Christian vision for married sex” that Beaty idolizes; in Jesus’ context, marriage was largely a matter of economic survival and control, not love.

Frankly, consent and mutuality were not on the radar of a society (the Roman Empire) in which over a third of the population was enslaved. I suspect that much of what Beaty associates with ‘traditional’ Christian sexuality and marriage come from Paul filtered through the commentary of Origen, Saint Augustine, and more recent evangelical thinkers who took up the ‘defense’ of heterosexual marriage as a political cause. 

Jesus does, however, say and show a lot about care. Beaty describes “married sex” as “a bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.” Perhaps, for her and many others, (monogamous, sexually active) marriage is the best way to embody values of care and mutuality. It isn’t the most ethical path for everyone, though, and choosing a different path isn’t a sign of moral decay. 

Having ignored wholesale any part of Bolz-Weber’s ethic other than “consent,” Beaty concludes by declaring, “I find the traditional Christian vision for married sex radical, daunting, and extremely compelling – and one I want to uphold, even if I fumble along the way.” Far be it for me, a Christian connoisseur of the queer and kinky, to critique a person’s attraction to anything “daunting.” If she is compelled by this definition of marriage as “spiritual covenant,” it sounds like she has resolved her own problem; there is no void to fill because she has articulated a sexual ethic based on her experience; I’d also add that she likely finds consent, care, and mutuality in her vision of marriage. 

If that is the case, I wonder why she is concerned about the “lack of guidance” outside of purity culture. When I finished reading her opinion piece, I thought, “So what? Why this article?” I wonder whether it worries her that she might have reached a different understanding without the early guidance (and abuse, I daresay) of purity culture. I wonder whether she is searching for more boundaries because she still feels like she must be doing something shameful if she lets herself come to her own conclusions about ethical sexuality. I hear her saying “It can’t be that simple!” as she ignores the rich sexual ethics that Christians (especially queer ones) create every day outside the confines of purity culture. 

It saddens me that so many people think that rigidity is the mark of a good sexual ethic, that it honors God. Ultimately, we all get to craft our own ethics based on our needs and experiences. We needn’t worry that it’s ‘not difficult enough’ to follow; we get to explore for ourselves and find the ways that we can best promote justice and kindness through our actions. It’s not wishy-washy or empty of moral value; it’s courageous. I hope that someday, Katelyn Beaty will make peace with that and feel confident abandoning the pursuit of rules so that she can feel free to pursue a sexual ethic that reflects the love of God instead.

Postscript for clarity: I think that people can use the Bible to develop a sexual ethic. However, most of the sexual ethics on display in the Bible are either rubbish (ex: not caring about consent) or not applicable to our current sociopolitical circumstances. To find a biblical ethic that isn’t rubbish, we need to use interpretation filtered through the lens of experience in tandem with values like the consent and caring.

Further Reading: “Creating a Sexual Ethic After Coming Out” and “Inside the Scam of the Purity Movement

Listening: “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods