It's Not Not About Sex
Updated: Apr 30, 2022
INTIMACY? DON’T YOU MEAN "SEX"?
When we say "intimacy," what are we really talking about? I found that though "intimacy" is not a widely used term that comes up in conversation a lot, it is the most helpful and here is why. "Intimacy" is often a synonym for sex. In fact, this might be the first thing you think of when someone uses the word “intimate.” However, this application is far too limiting. I needed a word that could encompass more than just sexual intimacy.
Now, to be fair, sex was where I started. My college students would meet with me and bemoan the fatal flaws of purity culture and how it has affected our view of sex. This a popular topic and we have the stack of Christian books, articles, videos, and Instagram posts to prove it. I thought about researching and writing about sex and purity culture, but I made another discovery that altered my course. While purity culture is an easy target, I cannot simply focus on this as the key to all that was ailing my students. I began to listen with more intention and asking new questions. Sure, purity culture (and hook up culture, to be fair) are messing with my students as they navigate relationships and identity, but more was happening. Here are some observations I made:
First, it isn't just about sex.
As my emerging adults discussed their relationships, it was more obvious to me that physical intimacy was only a part of it. It was also about gender roles, sexual orientation, how to be a good spouse, how to navigate heartbreak, what are God's rules for dating and finding a life-partner, when is something a friendship and when is it more; and it was also a bunch of questions about physical intimacy (other than sexual intercourse.)
Second, it isn't just about romance, dating, or marriage.
I found that even though students were seeking advice about their romantic (or lack-of romantic) lives, they were just as interested in seeking advice about friends, roommates, community, and family. Over time, I realized that all of these subjects intertwined. They are all relationships that are defined by intimacy. Sure, we have other kinds of relationships. But most relationships are economic or generally transactional; like the relationship you have with your barista (but let’s be real – that barista gets you). But family, friendship and romance are the categories that encompass the places where intimacy is a key variable. But also, there is something familiar about these categories.
When we step back and look at these three spheres of intimacy: Family, Friendship, and Sexual/Marital (and the subtexts that orbit this category) There were two epiphanies that started me down this theology of intimacy road: First, these spheres of intimacy are found in Scripture specifically in how the Triune God communicates the gospel to us (more on this later). Second, these spheres of intimacy are on a collision course with the priorities of my emerging adults. 18–29-year-olds are in a time of life where they are confronted regularly with these types of intimate relationships.
As a result, the role of intimacy encompasses the full spectrum of these relationships and ties important theological themes with the priorities of emerging adults. It also changes our questions. Instead of starting with: how far is too far? can I forgive my mom? how do I know if this person is "the one"? am I expecting too much of this friendship? and others; it seems important to go back even further and ask: what is the purpose of intimacy? why did God create us for intimacy? does intimacy have anything to do with the gospel? is there a theology of intimacy in Scripture, and if so, where is it?
ITS NOT NOT ABOUT SEX
Sure, sex is sexier than a boring old theology of intimacy. It makes sense that when we focus on intimate relationships in our discipleship efforts, we focus intently on sex and the topics that orbit it: dating, porn, marriage, singleness, etc. However, by creasing these same pages repeatedly, we miss the fact that there is a whole book that gives context to that chapter. We need a re-framing to dislodge ourselves from the well-worn ruts of niche, conventional topics that keep us from asking better questions about intimacy. In her work on desire and asceticism, Sarah Coakley summarizes this challenge from her own work on the topic of desire:
The chief problem with the category of ‘desire’ is that it has become so heavily sexualized in the modern, post-Freudian period as to render its connection with other desires (including the desire for God) obscure and puzzling. The chief problem with the category of ‘asceticism’ is that within the same period it has become larded with the negative associations of repression, ecclesiastical authoritarianism, and denial. It follows that another, and deeper, level of reflection is required if these difficulties are to be faced and resolved.
The heavy sexualization of desire and intimacy has allowed for some crippling side-effects to our discourse of intimate relationships. As Coakley points out, if we are to overcome these side-effects and reorient intimacy in our lives, we must be more reflective and go deeper than just religious-coated pop-psychology. This deeper reflection moves us from what is happening on the surface and shows us the current running underneath. By starting with intimacy as a whole (instead of just "sex"), we are no longer compelled to start with answering the question "how far is too far?" Instead, we can start with, "what is intimacy and why did God create it?" By doing so, we will eventually arrive at the pressing questions that
drive our daily lives. By starting with our common, niche questions, we are like sailors who spend all their time learning boat maintenance but remain ignorant of weather, water, and
tides. They believe that if they are experts in keeping the boat tidy and solid, this is all they need in order to sail successfully. If we have questions about sex (or friendship, or family for that matter), we have to start with the baseline of intimacy.
IF YOU KNOW YOU KNOW
Identifying the theme of intimacy in theology requires a few parameters, so let's give ourselves some.
First, how do we measure intimacy? Is intimacy just a fact-finding mission? In his book I and Thou, Martin Buber notes that there is a distinct difference between knowing about another being and actually knowing that being. Buber describes a distinction between “I-it” and “I-Thou” relationships. The I-it relationships reduce these encounters to objects, but Buber describes a mystical encounter, or connection to Thou, where the relationship brings life and connection. Essentially, our relationships can be assessed based on how intimate or superficial they are. As human beings simply trying to navigate our world and our relationships, this scale of depth and insight brings context to the many kinds of relationships we have. Additionally, if we go further to inquire about just how we gain this depth of intimacy from I-it to I-Thou relationships, it gives us insight in the economy and character of the Triune God.
Buber goes on to explain how Jesus had the capability for these I-thou relationships more so than any other being. When we study the redemptive story of God and the emphasis on relationship between humanity and Christ, the theme of intimacy accompanies the deeper knowing that is described in contrast with simply adhering to religious dogma. “The Hebrew word for “know” is ya da, which means to know intimately. … Paul said in Philippians 3:10-11, ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’ This kind of intimate knowing cannot come from reason alone; it comes from being deeply connected to Christ.” When we are invited into relationship with God, it is more than just facts and information. The relationship is based on an invitation to intimacy. This invitation requires us to understand what intimacy is and how it works. Otherwise, our own understanding of God and the gospel is stymied.
Next, since intimacy is not limited to sex, neither should we limit our examination of Scripture to passages that deal with sex and marriage. Remember those three motifs? Friendship, family, and sexual/marital? To encompass the attention Scripture gives to intimacy, we will need to include all three motifs. We will do a deeper dive on these, but a cursory look at these three leads us to the gospel. Using all three, we learn about God's redeeming relationship to humanity. In fact, the pervasive and significant use of these motifs in Scripture make it impossible to avoid the centrality of intimacy in the gospel.
Impossible, you say? We’ll just see about that …
In the next blog.
 Sarah Coakley, The New Asceticism (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2015), 4.  Martin Buber, I And Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1971), 31.  Ibid., 86.  Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling, The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism, and Justice (San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), 14.