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What's the Problem with Intimacy?

"I can live without sex, but I cannot live without intimacy."

In November of 2014 I attended a Q Conference where I listened to a speaker talk about singleness and celibacy. When she made this statement, I remember sitting up in my chair as if receiving an electric shock. I was a few years into my ministry as a college chaplain. I spent most of my office hours in conversations with students about their intimate relationships. Even out of the office, I was still having similar conversations with former students now entering their mid-twenties. When you get a decade or so into student ministry, you begin to detect patterns as though you are having the same conversations over and over. You read the latest books on the subjects, and you watch Youtube videos from celebrity Christians. The rhetoric gets caught in your brain like a pinball stuck in the nook of a pinball machine. These same messages and questions keep bouncing around but never seem to go anywhere. So, when I heard this sentence,I was struck. I had never heard anyone say this before.

My mind chewed on this sentence for weeks. What is the difference between sex and intimacy? What do we mean when we use the word "intimacy"? Is there something deeper we are all created for that requires more precise language? Have we been focusing on sex and romance for the answers to questions we can only ask of a theology of intimacy? I went into my pastoral counseling sessions with a new lens. When my students come in with their questions and concerns, what are they really asking? What is missing? Most of my students had been formed by their churches and youth groups. Many had read books or been through teaching series’ on intimate relationships. They all loved Jesus and wanted their lives to reflect a conformity to His image.

Have we been focusing on sex and romance for the answers to questions we can only ask of a theology of intimacy?

So, why were they still struggling so much? Why was I seeing the same patterns of licentiousness ricocheting from legalism and back again? If they were spending so much time with these subjects, why did the content not seem to be helping them in their relationships? Even more troubling was why all these books and seminars did not seem to be producing greater spiritual maturity in my students. Where were we getting it wrong?

It seems like every month, a new book comes out about Christian singleness, dating, sex, and marriage. I have read a lot of these, friends, and I can tell you that even my massive library of research does not scratch the surface of what is out there. With all this information, why do my students not seem to be any better equipped to be Christ-followers who care for each other?

I did some digging.

Fortunately, I was bestowed the gift of an educational journey. I was blessed to focus my doctoral research on these very questions. I did years of theological research and an ethnographic study of my emerging adult population. I found that emerging adults are struggling with their intimate relationships in friendship,romance, family, and marriage. My study hypothesizes that the brokenness at the heart of their struggle stems from a distorted or anemic approach to intimacy that is incomplete and damaged in both society and in Christian education.

... the brokenness at the heart of their struggle stems from a distorted or anemic approach to intimacy that is incomplete and damaged in both society and in Christian education.

It is a lovely chunk of work. But the format of most doctoral dissertations lends itself to be more useful for punishing than rewarding. "If you show up late one more time, I’m going to make you read my dissertation."

Sorry academic friends. But we all know the truth.

Much of what is studied in academia needs new life in the public square. With this new series of blogs, I hope I can bring my research out of the ivory tower and into the lives of the people I love. I believe that if we study a theology of intimacy, we will then have the terms and tools needed to submit to gospel transformation in our friendships, families, sexual identity and behaviors, and the life of the church community. Our intimate relationships all have a central core of intimacy. My choice to study a theology of intimacy is very intentional so that we can get at the heart of the gospel and how it shapes all our relationships.

This hearkens back to my opening quote where a distinction is made between sex and intimacy.To elaborate, let me offer another example. In her book, Things Your Mother Never Told You, Kim Eckert makes this observation: "If sexual addiction is about consumption, then healing is about intimacy."Statements like this create a distinction between a specific problem in relationships and the application of a deeper reflection that requires its own unique designation. Instead of just studying sex, or friendship, or family, I propose that the unifying element of intimacy in all these relationships is the key to moving the conversation out from its current rut and into different questions toward better answers. Like Eckert’s observation, intimacy acts as a holy counterweight to the pitfalls of interpersonal relationships. Instead of combating something like sexual addiction with behavior modification strategies, why not learn a theology of intimacy that will, in turn, provide a foundation for any behavior modification strategies?

To begin with,the current approaches coming from our faith context on topics of intimacy are simply too niche and too reactionary. In my research, I confirmed that while there are copious resources about sex, marriage, dating, and the like, there is almost nothing comparatively about friendship or family. Yet, all these topics involve intimate relationships and are common themes with my emerging adults. I will go into more detail about this in future posts.

Second, our resources are so often shaped by the narratives they are reacting to. If you have picked up a book on Christian romantic relationships lately, you can find content that addresses two of the biggest cultural narratives of our current time: hook-up culture and purity culture. However, both are products of their time in how they were shaped by each other and the trends that came before them. Purity culture is birthed out of a response to the sexual revolution which was reacting to the rise of religious fundamentalism which was prompted by the Enlightenment, which was reacting to Victorianism, and so on and so forth. I do not want to disparage the literature that contributes relevant critique of these movements. We certainly need timely and direct responses to the cultural variables we find ourselves in with each generation. Yet, this often controls the narrative and shapes the content that is most popular with my emerging adults. For my own research, I wanted to try a different approach.

I started with the prompt from the conference: What is this ‘intimacy’ that she (and I) cannot live without? In fact, what is intimacy and how is it defined by the Word of God? I went back to square one and hypothesized that Scripture and tradition contain a robust theology of intimacy; I just did not initially know what it was or where it was.

The search began.

What emerged is a new starting point that is not actually new at all. I found that one huge gap in all the conversations with my students was the gospel. This was at the heart of the problem. In the next installments of this blog series, I will unpack my findings in recapturing a gospel understanding of intimacy. I hope you will come along with me and contribute your insights. The research is ongoing,and I know many of you are on the front lines of these conversations. Let’s find a better way together.

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