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Couple tackles sexuality, spirituality

Brigid Fenlon | Friday, March 30, 2007

Saint Mary’s Center for Spirituality welcomed theologian and professor James Whitehead and his wife, psychologist and professor Evelyn Whitehead, to Carroll Auditorium Thursday night to discuss spirituality and sexuality.

Their presentation covered a variety of theories on the significant and integral role that they believe spirituality and sexuality play in everyone’s life.

James Whitehead defined spirituality and sexuality as “our desire and longing for our life in the hope that our lives can become more generous and fruitful.”

He said Jesus wants people to prosper and to achieve true happiness.

“Jesus wants us not just to survive, but thrive, flourish and to live with life in abundance,” James Whitehead said.

In order to attain fulfillment, people must cultivate and nourish their spiritual and sexual selves, he said. In doing so, they will mature and grow, ultimately developing eros, which James defined as “our desire to be more fully alive, and to reach the pinnacle of our humanity.”

At this point, Evelyn Whitehead offered her working definitions of sex, sexuality and eros. Sex, she said, “refers to reproductive organs, genital and behaviors.”

Sexuality, she continued, “includes the realm of sex, reproductive organs and genital behavior, but moves beyond biology towards social expectation and cultural ideals that shape our sense of self.”

In western traditions, she said eros is defined as sexual desire and passion.

“However, ancient intuitions describe eros as ‘born of chaos,’ which names an underlying vitality that is at play in every arena in life,” she said.

Evelyn Whitehead said she wanted to restore the word eros to its earliest meaning and fundamental vitality. The goal, she said, is for people to once again associate “art and desire, passion and pleasure but empathy and compassion as well” with the idea of eros. At the heart of eros is the idea that our sexual inclinations “join us in fruitful engagement” rather than cause shame and lead to secrecy, she said.

From our earliest years of infancy, Evelyn Whitehead said eros is at work in our lives. She emphasized the energy and exuberance that accompanies childhood, and while maturity is integral to development, “it puts eros at risk,” she said.

“Maturity leads to socially conditioned norms that domesticate our tendencies and tame our enthusiasm,” she said.

But she thinks restoration of eros is possible.

“Psychologists suggest that we can tap into our sensuality and emotions in order to recover eros and mature in our sexuality,” Evelyn Whitehead said.

Furthermore, both speakers highlighted the idea that eros is not restricted to sexual passion, but includes passions and energies in all areas of life. Evelyn Whitehead noted the beauty and pleasure that can come from simple pleasures.

“Eros motivates our choices, deepens our commitments, attracts us to each other and opens us to suffering and beauty of the world,” she said. “To mature sexually is to become confidant and comfortable with the ways that sex, sexuality and eros are a part of our lives.”

Both James and Evelyn Whitehead said they thought eros was all-inclusive and could be found in a variety of lifestyles. Maturity is important to every lifestyle, they said.

“This maturity causes sexual experiences to become more personal, more reflective of who we want to be, and more intentional,” Evelyn Whitehead said. “In other words, a mature adult is not aroused by every potential competent sexual partner.”

James Whitehead said it is important that eros and grace are combined.

“Though the physical pleasure involved in sex is brief, from it stems respect, grace, affection and fidelity,” he said. “Eros is, ultimately, a wellspring of our wonder and beauty. In these and many other ways we are moved. As we mature, eros becomes more generous and patient.”

In addition to their work as professors at both Loyola University in Chicago and Fudan University in Shanghai, the pair has co-authored a number of books, including the recent “Christian Spirituality Today: Eros, Justice and Grace.”