Book Review: Sex on Earth as it is in Heaven

Patricia Beattie Jung, Sex on Earth as it is in Heaven: A Christian Eschatology of Desire, State University of New York Press.

This not a book for the faint hearted. The title itself for me I found off putting in its suggestion of “Sex in Heaven”. Such speculation as to how it will be I initially found difficult to engage with. That said this rather densely packed tome has some interesting arguments and thoughts. Inspired in no small part by the author’s candid admission of her own long-term marital joy of sex. Which does indeed challenge the commonly held attitude about sex and sexuality amongst many religious people and generally within the Church that this is not something for polite conversation and therefore becomes furtive, the rule being the least said the better about such things. Engendering guilt, denial and discomfort about discussing sexuality. Jung has rather a lot to say on the topic that challenges this and the traditional view that sex within marriage is primarily for procreation.

This book draws on a whole wealth of material from biblical, philosophical, patristic and historical social understandings. With its core objective looking at how beliefs around sex are understood now and how therefore they might be understood in life after death. The latter I find rather more difficult to engage with. For me this kind of speculation I find difficult for our knowledge of life after death is so limited and we only have a glimpse of what it may really be like. We know from scripture that we shall be “transformed” but we shall only really know what that transformation will be after death (Philippians 3.20-21). Nevertheless, it makes an interesting read for the most part.

The eschatological perspective is the theme of the first part of Jung’s book in which she primarily uses New Testament texts and writings from St Augustine and other Church Fathers. In which she speculates on what “Sex in heaven” may be like. Whereas in the second part of her book she looks at “Sex on Earth.”

Personally, I find the second part of the book more interesting as it wrestles with sexuality in the here and now. If indeed we are already sharing in part in the Kingdom (Realised Eschatology) through the Church, the sacraments and each other. In seeing Christ in one another in our pain and our joy then there is also the need in the light of this for each of us to think deeply and prayerfully about our relationships with one another both platonic and sexual. If this book encourages the reader to do so then that in itself is a valuable gift.

Jung looks fairly briefly at same-sex attraction acknowledging the difficulties the Church and that some Christians in general still have in an unequivocal acceptance of same-sex relationships. She on the other hand is unequivocal in her response.

She asks: What are the criteria for making judgements about particular experiences of sexual desire? Consider again same-sex desire. Some mistakenly argue that people will be healed of homosexual desire in heaven. I am suggesting instead that same-sex attraction may be welcomed by all as an enlivening grace that empowers and expands the human capacity for intimacy and joy. Like all our speculations about our eschatological future, our answers to these and similar questions have implications for our life now on earth (p125).

As somebody who has over the years struggled with my sexuality and my relationship with the Church I find this particular passage liberating and helpful. This exposition of sexual desire as an expression of an intimate loving relationship both in heterosexual and gay relationships is helpful in combatting the rather negative teaching around sexuality by the Church.

She discusses Pornography and the Education of sexual desire in the final chapter. Which is a challenge to both law makers and society. A topic which deserves attention and discussion as it is now so freely available via the internet. A very relevant topic in the 21st century. Jung’s critique of pornography, despite advocating “alternative ways to invigorate our sexual lives….”, concludes:  “the problem with porn is not that it is arousing: the problem is that the erotic desires it arouses are malformed” (p 161-162).

This book is dealing with speculative suggestions of what life may be like after death (Sex in Heaven) rather than this is what it will be like. A book set in an atmosphere of hope rather than negative suppositions. It looks at sexuality in the present (Sex on Earth), which deals with interpersonal relationships and how we relate to and understand one another. Although it may appear to be a book with possibly lots of “answers”, its strength is in the questions it raises and encourages the reader to engage with.

The book is based on a wealth of sources from Patristic writings, Kant, Aquinas, the Scriptures and contemporary sources taken both from the internet and thinkers such as James Alison and others. It is not a light read having said that there is a lot that challenges and questions the present order. The author is careful though to couch her writing in such a way that it is more a work of contemplation and speculation around the issues discussed rather than a head-on attack of traditional Church teaching.

Colin Rushforth