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Sex as God Intended: A Reflection on Human Sexuality as Play

by John J. McNeill, (Lethe Press; ISBN: 978-1-59021-042-0; $20.00)

Reviewed by Jeff Stone, Dignity/New York

To many of us in DignityUSA, John McNeill is a familiar and beloved figure. Yet because he is so well-known to us, it is possible to lose sight of the vast scope of the achievements and gifts of this prophet in our own land. In 1970, John published the first theological articles defending homosexuality from a Catholic perspective, which became the basis for Dignity’s original Statement of Position and Purpose. In 1972, he cofounded Dignity/New York. In 1976, he published the groundbreaking book The Church and the Homosexual, which brought his subject into the international spotlight for the first time. Over the next two decades, John followed with Taking a Chance on God; Freedom, Glorious Freedom and his autobiography, Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair.

As a Jesuit priest and psychotherapist, John counseled hundreds of LGBT Catholics and others. As a workshop and retreat leader, he reached thousands more around the world. In addition to many other honors, he received DignityUSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

A featured speaker at every Dignity national convention except one (when he was briefly silenced by the Vatican), John will be with us in San Francisco to introduce his new book, Sex as God Intended: A Reflection on Human Sexuality as Play. In it, John offers fresh, joyous, and challenging insights into a subject of intense interest to each of us, while expanding on the major theological and psychological themes he has developed over a lifetime. In addition, twelve of John’s distinguished fellow theologians, writers, and activists — including Sr. Jeannine Gramick, Daniel Helminiak, Mary Hunt, and Mark Jordan — present their own insightful and provocative reflections on his work and life in a festschrift of essays.

John poses a central question at the beginning of Sex as God Intended: “Christian revelation, as it came from Jesus, was one of the most sex-positive and body-positive religions in the history of the world. How, then, in just a few centuries did it become such a body- and sex-negative religion and remain so to this day?”

Turning to both Scripture and personal experience, John seeks out the revelations of God’s intention for human sex as play, from the Old Testament’s frankly erotic “Song of Songs” to four profound affirmations of the body in the New Testament. In John’s view, God’s plan for sex as a source of joy, pleasure, and love fully embraces same-gender partners. He finds biblical support for this conviction in the stories of Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi, as well as accounts of Jesus’s beloved disciple, the gay centurion and his beloved boy, and Jesus’s membership in a highly unconventional family of choice.

John’s vision of playful same-gender sexuality includes the complete spectrum of the LGBT community’s experience. He writes: “Intimacy, both physical and spiritual, is precisely the goal of playful sex. But…in order to have the freedom to play and to overcome self-consciousness, we must have the felt security of being loved. The primary purpose of a relationship of love is to enable the partners to affirm each other continuously through shared activities in an atmosphere of security and trust. Love gives us that freedom.” At the same time, John contends that everyone — not just those in committed relationships — has a right to playful and responsible expression of their sexuality and their search for intimacy. “I agree with Norman Pittenger,” he writes, “that there are only three kinds of sexual activity between consenting adults: good, better, and best sex.”

Arguing forcefully for the right to same-sex marriage, John declares that there is nothing in either Scripture or human experience to support the denial of official recognition of committed same-sex relationships by church and state. He explores the “providential role of gay marriage,” including the potential for same-sex marriage to correct the power imbalances and rigid gender stereotypes of traditional heterosexual marriage. In addition, he celebrates the special gifts of creativity, compassionate service, and spiritual leadership offered by the LGBT community.

Moreover, John maintains that one of the main roots of homophobia is feminaphobia, or a fear of and contempt for all things feminine. The only cure for this form of homophobia, he states, is the liberation of women to a full and equal status with men. Furthermore, John argues, “It is my belief that Christianity in its present form is dying, along with all the major forms of patriarchy representing the domination and suppression of the feminine by the masculine. The only way it can be resurrected is to recover and affirm the feminine, which will allow the Church once again to proclaim the body- and sex-positive message revealed by God.”

The voices of the festschrift writers, as well as foreword author Ken Page, speak eloquently not only of John’s deep influence on them personally, but on LGBT Catholics, the broader Catholic and Christian communities, and the entire LGBT spiritual movement. As Mary Hunt writes, “His impact goes well beyond his roots to persons of diverse faith perspectives who seek to hold together their sexuality with their faith. If a Roman Catholic priest can do it and be open and proud about it, why not a devout Muslim, a Southern Presbyterian, or an Orthodox Jew? As our collective movement matures, his example becomes more obvious.”

Sex as God Intended is the crowning work of one of our true sages, vital and inspired in his ninth decade. A fount of new and stimulating ideas as well as a compact overview of John McNeill’s cumulative wisdom, it is essential reading for all of us who call ourselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender and Christian.

All of John’s books are expected to be available for purchase at the convention. He will be on hand to sign all copies, new or old. John’s books are also available at online retailers.

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