Review: Eros and Touch From a Pagan Perspective

February 13, 2014 — 1 Comment

erosReviewed in this essay: Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective, by Christine Kraemer (2013, 219 pages)

“This book presents a cosmology, a basic system of ethics and the outline of a spiritual practice that places pleasurable touch at the center of human life.  In an environment of honesty, we can bring intentionality to everyday touch—whether handshakes in the workplace, hugs among family or friends, or bedroom play with lovers—such that ordinary touch becomes a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of divine presence.  From conscious experiences of relationship, known through the fragile vehicle of the body, a new set of values can emerge and inform our decision-making on both personal and social levels.  Pleasure and the autonomy of the individual body become basic human rights and must be considered priorities when we establish group policies and allocate resources.  The notion of suffering is no longer limited to gross physical or emotional injury; neglect and deprivation come into focus as a social sin.” (p166)

The arrival of a particular god into my life triggered a rather profound and disturbing series of events, meeting the theological definition of Mystery (“a truth which must be experienced to be understood”) related to a particularly fascinating and difficult question: “what is the nature of Desire?”

This is hardly to assert that I discovered the inner truths and have attained some enlightened state of comprehension of what some Druids and others have referred to as “The Grail Mystery;” rather, only to place my understanding of Christine Kraemer’s work within my own experiences—that is, to do something she herself does exceedingly well in this book.  Situating oneself into any narrative or theoretical exposition, while seen to be inappropriate in most journalistic, scientific, and academic writing, conveys an additional level of exposition of the significance and context of the truths the author attempts to convey, and helps dismantle an unnecessary and unhelpful detachment from the matter being discussed.

That is, an enforced distance and illusory position of unbiased and disinterested approach to statements disembodies the words and the truths to which they refer and attempt to evoke.  Further, such discourse disembodies the audience as well as the author, and for a theological, philosophical, and inherently political discussion of Eros and touch, a detached narrative, affecting a dominant mode of dispassionate intellectual discourse, would have been a missed opportunity which Kraemer wisely eschews.

As well as being a writer and managing editor of the Pagan portal for the religious site Patheos, Christine Kraemer is also trained in professional bodywork.  As such, situating herself within her writing, particularly in order to elucidate specific points, made me somehow more aware of my own.  While hardly a devotional work, one can almost detect a type of spiritual conveyance of truths when she speaks of her own body and its quirks, relating details of hunched shoulders and neck from years of academic study, or physical exhaustion after a day of work.

That is, though her topic is theological and her arguments academic, her embodiment within the writing is delightfully inescapable, and sometimes her writing is quite evocative.  In fact, her language itself could be said to be “erotic” in places, and she wields this erotic deftly and carefully.  In her introduction, she aptly situates herself into the theology she delineates and expands, as well as evoking precisely why such a theology matters and what it can mean:

“Although caring for myself also has a positive impact on others, fundamentally I understand care—and more specifically, pleasure—as a holy end in itself.  Mutual pleasure, sexual or simply sensual, increases love, respect, and understanding.  Skin on skin communicates on a level that words alone cannot reach.  For me, and for others in my religious community, interdependence is note merely an intellectual belief, but an ecstatic state of connection to which on can become attuned.  All of Being erotically interpenetrates—rain soaking soil, hand clasping hand, breath drawn into lungs, tongue thrust into mouth.  To Pagan eyes, the long line of the sky pressed against the earth at the horizon is an intimate sight, one that we reflect when we lie down with our lovers.  It is this quality of existence that many Pagans call “Goddess” or “the nature of the gods.” (p 4-5)

A Theology of Erotic Touch

For Christine Kraemer, Eros is not synonymous with sexuality and sexual activity, but sexual interactions are encompassed and enfolded into Eros. By maintaining this definition, she follows quite clearly other theorists, psychologist, theologians, and communities.  However, in the popular mind, such a distinction is less common, and because she acknowledges this, she devotes many words towards helping the reader understand precisely what it is she means by Eros.

Such elucidations, though admittedly necessary, become a bit cumbersome in the beginning of her work, but this is hardly a failure of her language or skill; rather, the ambition of her work and its potentially liberatory project seem to require such explanations.  As she states herself, the book is not intended merely for Pagans, but for much larger audience:

 This book offers an erotic theology and ethics not just to Pagans, but to all progressive religious people seeking to embrace their own embodiment.  I put it forward not as a prescriptive or creedal system, but rather as one example of a religious approach to eros and touch. (p. 5)

Therein, though, lies perhaps its only weakness.  In each area she explores, much of the information presented must first be introduced to the reader.  Topics likely quite familiar to most Pagans (such as the Reclaiming Tradition, BDSM communities, Queer and sexual minority expressions and politics) are described in depth for non-Pagan readers who may be unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable with such discussions, while Queer (Christian) Theology, Thealogy, Radical Feminist thought, cognitive science studies and Phenomenological theorist such as Merleu-Ponty likely require introduction to her Pagan readers.

But what can be seen as a weakness and perhaps even a fault to some in an academic level proves to make this book even more useful.  For some Pagans it may seem strange to consider the radical potentiality of Pagan practices and beliefs to traditions which seem otherwise opposed to Paganism’s reverence for multiple gods and spirits, yet the author is particularly adept at weaving together apparently unrelated thought into a profound narrative of the meaning of Eros and touch as a relational modality not only to other humans but also to Nature and the Other.

She asserts that this relational modality is crucial to understanding all levels of existence:

….[L]oving and desirous contact between individuals is the same power that binds us together in group solidarity, and it is also the power the moves the forces of Nature itself.  Whether at an individual, social, or cosmic level, the erotic binds us together. (p.5)

That is, Eros is not as a mere energetic force of attraction or exchange, but part of the very means by which we experience others and the Other.  Citing examples such as the rush of connection between two people seen from across a crowded room, or the feeling of warmth from the sun while laying in the grass, Eros is an exchange between Beings experienced through the body.  Warmth soaks through the skin, eyes meet, hand touches hand, air is inhaled—it is through the body that we experience and exchange with others.  But this is no mere materialism, asserting that only what is physical exists, and she is quite careful to avoid this conception even as she foregrounds the role of the body in spiritual knowledge:

The body is the vehicle of all our experience: pain and pleasure, thought and emotion, action and rest.  Even those states we think of as “spiritual” remain tethered to our physical bodies; our travels in dream, imagination, or in the realms of spirit cannot be integrated into our lives until they are encoded in the living flesh of the nervous system and brain.  As human beings, all perception, all relationship, all knowledge and experience of the divine comes through our bodies. (p.165)

As such, she avoids reductionism and materialism as potential answers to the western dualistic mind/body split while also nodding to Foucault’s challenge to modern conceptions of the body as the seat of human desire and behaviour.

Touch and Eros as a Theological Lens

Situating and embodying Eros through (but not existing only in) the body enables her, then, to develop a theology (and I would argue an emancipatory politics) of Eros which she then wields to explore particular matters of human interactions where the erotic is explored and embraced, as well as often blocked or misused.  More so, this theology of the erotic becomes a lens through which to view all manner of interactions, as well as the ethical and political implications and structures which have sprung up around the modern western world’s relationship to eros and touch.

An important use of this lens is in the matter of consent.  Kraemer extensively explores the radical notions of consent and mutuality which exist within BDSM communities, as well as their occasional breakdowns.  Further, she addresses specific Feminist and Theological critiques of such interactions regarding consent (including the notion that it is impossible for a woman to grant consent within such relationships, even as they express it emphatically) with her conception of touch being an exchange between beings.  Rather than speaking of questions of consent merely from the political, she proposes instead that mutuality of exchange, even in sex acts which play out hierarchical forms and modalities of oppression, be the ethical foundation upon which consent is understood.

This notion of consent and mutual exchange, seen through a theology of the erotic, becomes an emancipatory or liberationist theology of the individual as actor with both right and responsibility of consent.  Of particular note is her notion of consent to hierarchy and submission, that is, personal consent:

I reject the idea that hierarchy inherently causes human suffering.  As self-conscious  human beings, we have some power to choose when and how we engage in dominance or submission.  Rather than seeing these as learned behaviours that would disappear in people who live in a wholly egalitarian society, I see both roles as inherent in all people–qualities that can used to increase connection and intimacy or interfere with them. (p.78)

This question of consent continues into many other areas, including that of teenage sexuality.  She offers a cautious critique of (primarily American) beliefs regarding teenage sexuality, addressing particularly the deleterious notion that teenage women are unable to understand sexual touch as well as the equally damaging notion that teenaged men are merely acting on uncontrollable impulses when engaging in sexual touch with other women or men.   Rather than the current narratives under which teenagers find themselves exploring their sexuality, she argues:

The glorious intensity and novelty of adolescent desire could be celebrated as a gift to be cultivated and carefully given, rather than repressed, condemned, pathologized, or denied. (p.112)

Where her theological and political understandings of touch and consent are particularly most profound is when she examines “touch deprivation.”  That Americans are particularly uncomfortable with touch, to her, is a sign not of mere morality; rather, it is precisely from unexamined understandings of the meaning of touch.  To many, sexual and erotic touch are indistinguishable, and this misunderstanding is the root of the physical distancing of human interactions.  She notes this has historical roots, including Victorian notions of class as well as scientific theories which minimized and even pathologized touch as part of human interactions.

But she also notes there are other causes and continuations of such errors,  and it’s particularly at this point that her work becomes most profound.  Her final chapter and conclusion speak specifically both the risks inherent in a radical and sacramental view of touch as well as the implications of this theology in realms of human-nonhuman interactions  Noting that erotic exchange between humans is often accompanied by the fear of illness (including, quite poignantly, the recoil some people feel when considering touching those who do not fit our societal conceptions of “health,” be they physically ill or old or overweight), she addresses the very real risks touch entails.  Sexual touch can lead to sexually transmitted infections, erotic touch amongst friends, strangers, and even lovers can provoke misunderstanding when it is received wrongly, and in a particularly intriguing warning, related to the absence in Western societies of communities which care for the ecstatic:

The sacrament of touch requires boundaries.  If there is no difference between self and other—if we indeed become permanently skinless—contact becomes impossible….There is no transcendence without something to transcend, no union without difference.  In performing the sacrament of touch, those of us who are most successful in freeing our egos and experiencing ecstatic union encounter one last, subtle danger—that of opening ourselves so completely to connection and desire that we lost our bondaries, lose the very selves with which we touch.  There is a temptation in ecstacy to attempt to remain in a place of boundaryless bliss, but in so doing, we cease to be priestesses or priests: we can no longer help to bring others into a place of connection and empathy; we are no longer the hands of the divine on earth. (p 162)

She then elucidates one particular barrier confronting those who seek closer connection both to others and the Other, and explains an important context for this theology of touch: technology.

In a highly technological, high-stress environment, there are temptations to limit opportunities for human intimacy in favor of more predictable, technologically mediated interactions.  Yet as we have seen from touch deprivation studies, human beings need frequent loving touch in order to be healthy…Today, it is apparent that we are subjecting our bodies to demands that they were never evolved to bear.  Stress-related illnesses, anxiety disorders, and depression pervade American society, and the state of overcommittment and near-overload in which many Americans live can make them averse to dealing with new emotional challenges.  In order to give the erotic a central place in our lives, we must set conscious boundaries around our use of technology, boundaries that reflect a commitment to loving, intimate human relationships. (168)

And related to technology, Kraemer expounds upon another important context for such a theology: Nature.  Citing David Abram’s work bridging phenemonology and ecology, she speaks to the distancing or disembodiment of our interactions with nature and offers her erotic theology as a profound solution:

By foregrounding the body as a unique and necessary vehicle of experience, erotic theology supports us in reclaiming a sensuous relationship with the environment.  Through making room for the experience of intimacy—with each other, but also with animals and plants, insects and birds, with and water—we bring intentionality to our perceptions and potentially sacralize the physicality of the human condition (p.174)

Conclusion

Christine Kraemer makes a compelling and well-researched argument for the embrace of a theology of the erotic within Paganism, particularly since she does not create it from whole cloth.  Rather, she draws out what already exists within many Pagan traditions, particularly those of the Reclaiming tradition, Wicca, and the Feri-trained teachings of T. Thorn Coyle.  In addition, her understanding sub-groups with considerable intersections to Paganism (including Queer and BDSM communities) is both intimate and well-detailed; thus, drawing also from these communities offers a potentially radical way of tying-in varying traditions and non-spiritual communities into this theology.  That is to say, her theology of the erotic, though informed and mostly birthed from Pagan thought and practice, is not necessarily Pagan at all, but one which cuts across multiple groups.

Having only a small amount of exposure to Queer (Christian) Theologies, I suspect but cannot be certain that such a theology would be well respected and possibly fully embraced within such traditions, particularly because much of her work in the middle of the book draws from Queer Theologians, as well as other Christian and Christian-informed understandings.

It’s particularly difficult to say, however, quite how its reception to a larger Pagan audience might go; this matter, however, is related less to the content of the book or the strength of her arguments, but rather its current publishing state and cost–being published through an academic press, the book costs $120.  As there are currently not many Pagan studies programs in American universities, it is more likely to be read by only half of its intended audience.  (Her suggestion? Request a copy from your local library.)

Returning to my initial statements regarding the embodiment of the author within a text–I do not think I’ve been more aware of my posture and the effects of work and my lifestyle on my body at any point than while reading this book.  I’d challenge any reader to finish more than the first two chapters without finding themself long for a massage or spending more time than usual stretching.  Important to certain craft traditions within Paganism (particularly Feri) is the notion that the body is indeed an instrument for divine and spiritual knowledge, and the concurrent Mysteries I’ve encountered during the long space between receiving this book and completing this review were fascinating.  While the subject matter should be judged on its own merits, I found that matter to be another reason for enjoying this book.

 

[Disclosure: Christine Kraemer is the managing editor of the Pagan portal of Patheos, where I write for a shared blog called A Sense of Place]

One response to Review: Eros and Touch From a Pagan Perspective

  1. 

    Your careful reading honors my writing. 🙂 Thank you.

    For anyone wanting to check this book out, I’ve posted the entire introduction (which is lengthy) on my page at Academia.edu, and the Kindle edition can be rented from Amazon for a reasonable amount of money. You can also get it through interlibrary loan or submit a purchase request to your library. I have hope that my publisher will agree to a softcover edition in the future if hardcover sales to libraries are good!

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