I will be using some of Nelson’s insights this Sunday, Nov. 8, in a talk on “Grounded Spirituality” for the 11 a.m. service of the Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega, GA, followed by a free workshop entitled, “Spiritual Self-Exam.”
The proudest moments of my life have sometimes come serendipitously. Conducting a workshop on LGBT pastoral issues during a conference for Christian ethicists, someone asked me what book I would recommend to help congregations dealing with such issues.
I didn’t even have to think about it. I answered, “James B. Nelson’s book, The Intimate Connection: Male Sexuality, Masculine Spirituality. Or is it, Masculine Sexuality and Male Spirituality? I can never remember.”
Laughter erupted in the classroom. “Why don’t you ask the guy with the question?” someone said, “That’s Jim Nelson.” I laughed too, but I was proud that I had unintentionally paid him a great compliment.
We had never met, but I once subbed for him when his mother’s death prevented his speaking to our annual Presbyterians for Lesbian & Gay Concerns luncheon at General Assembly. I had been doing a lot of presentations about the relationship of spirituality and sexuality, and the group’s board prevailed on me that day to take his place, though I had brought none of my speaking notes.
I spent that morning reassembling from memory what I had recently been talking and writing about, and I gave one of my rare extemporary speeches. The response was positive, and I was feeling good about myself until someone on the board felt the need to put me in my place by saying, “You know that’s all from James Nelson.”
I didn’t know, and I was too embarrassed to say that I had not yet read any of his books! When I subsequently did, I was further embarrassed to realize that a quote of mine I thought to be original, and had actually published, was really Nelson’s: “We know God through our bodies or we don’t know God at all.”
What that says to me is that Nelson’s ideas had somehow permeated my universe, seeping its way into my thinking through conversations I was having in the church and with colleagues. That to me is the greatest compliment to his life and work, that his ideas would become part of the very fabric of contemporary theological discussion.
Of course there are dozens if not hundreds of body theologians today, but he was among the first along with Carter Heyward and others to help many of us claim an embodied spirituality, and we grieve his recent death at the age of 85.
In college I had thought I needed to go outside my own Christian tradition to claim my body, my sensuality and sexuality, and the beauty of creation. That’s why, as I wrote in my first book, Uncommon Calling, Kazantzakis’ novel, Zorba the Greek, became my “second Bible.” The nominal “pagan” Zorba’s sensual zest for the world awakened in me a spirituality far from how I had been reared, spirituality as “pie in the sky when you die by and by.”
I knew little of earth-oriented Native American spirituality, and nothing of Celtic Christianity, which, with Body and Process and Liberation and Feminist theologies have served as correctives to my thinking of spirituality as an out-of-body experience.
I have used so many of Nelson’s insights and analyses—properly credited of course!—in my books and my talks and on this blog that I can’t imagine doing what I do without him. I refrained from reviewing all my underlining in his books for this post, however, lest I be tempted to offer more than my favorite Nelson quote:
“Pleasure is the strongest argument for the existence of God.”
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