Erotic Ecology Theology: Our Biological and Existential Desire for Love and Belonging

The following paper was presented as a part of a panel at the Graduate Conference in Religion and Ecology at Yale University on Friday, February 7. (The title pictured in the slide is incorrect and is corrected below.)

[Image Description: Brandon is smiling and standing at a podium in front of a large room with two other panelists sitting nearby. He is in front of a large projector displaying a slide that says, "Ecological Belonging Theology: To Each Other, Ourselves, Earth and Divinity." The walls are white with two large white windows stretching to the ceiling and allowing natural light to pour into the room.]

The paper is not perfect, but I am committed to making my academic journey (and academia generally) more accessible. Hopefully, this is a way you can join in my learning and reflection. You can find a link to the paper with citations here.

Erotic Ecology Theology
Our Biological and Existential Desire for Love and Belonging
by Brandon Roiger, M.A. Student, Psychology and Religion, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York

Love and belonging are not just foundational spiritual and psychological necessities to our being; humans are biologically, cognitively and physiologically wired for love and belonging. In this presentation, I introduce a theology of erotic ecology that helps us understand our interconnected desire for belonging, wholeness, connection and love. I begin with defining characteristics that explore the relationship between eroticism and ecology. Secondly, I describe the necessity of a theology of erotic ecology and why humans and nature are biologically wired to participate in this theology. Lastly, I outline some of the hermeneutical origins and exemplars of an erotic ecology, such as "radical" and queer women of color.

Before I share these three points, I want to clarify I will not attempt to universalize an ethic for erotic ecology theology that is based on my social location, or “eco–” location. My ecological location is primarily of dominant identities, and as a result, one of the challenges of this erotic ecology will be its incompleteness. However, I speak from my location and acknowledge those ways of knowing and being of which I lack, while simultaneously attempting to be critically aware of these sociopolitical, power dynamics. I challenge others who receive this message to be critically aware of this shortcoming. This limitation leads me to draw upon the work of others in their experience of the erotic and its ecological context. It is also an opportunity, as it opens up the possibilities of this theology to be truly erotic and ecological, so that it might tap into the ways of being and knowing that others possess.

My first point describes this theology’s defining characteristics and lays the foundation for the theology by exploring the relationship between eroticism and ecology. The erotic is not just a sexualized (or asexualized) desire for a certain gendered or non-gendered group of people. It is easy to think of the word “erotic” and immediately illicit an image of a sexualized stereotype that is limited simply to one’s sexual or asexual preference. In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde coins the erotic and describes it as living within a deeply female and spiritual plane that has been unrecognized or unexpressed. One of the functions of the erotic is sharing deep joy with another person, which serves as the foundation for bridging understanding between lived experience not shared between two people. This shared feeling does not dissipate its difference, but it instead lessens the threat of it. As Lorde understood in her writing, I want to expand the erotic as something more than this patriarchal, heteronormative sexualization or asexualization –– it is ecological. An erotic ecology is both a personal life force, and it is also a relational way of understanding community and connection. A theology of erotic ecology binds everything together, and it also differentiates it. It is what makes our desire and belonging unique, and its ecological nature is what also connects us. Erotic ecology individually places us within our deepest desires: to be known, to be loved, to love and to belong; these desires are deeply ecological and symbolic of what it means to be alive.

According to Lorde’s construction, the erotic is rooted in deep feeling and a longing for connection, intimacy and belonging with others because our bodies are connected to our spirits. Therefore, we must recognize spirituality and sexuality as non-exclusive. Hillary McBride, a public academic and psychotherapist in Vancouver, parallels two definitions of spirituality and sexuality I posit here. According to MacKnee, spirituality is the “core dimension of humanity that seeks to discover meaning, purpose, connectedness with self, others and ultimately God.” According to Wittstock, sexuality is the “physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual energy that permeates, influences and colors our entire being and personality in its quest for love, communion, friendship, wholeness, self-perpetuation and self-transcendence.” This is why sexuality is not limited to a physical preference or lust. McBride describes these definitions as different facets of the same thing: a longing for connection, wholeness and belonging. By these definitions, we might see spirituality and sexuality participating in the same thing –– an erotic ecology that identifies our deepest desire and biologically pulls us toward belonging to something larger than ourselves.

My second point describes why humans, and all of nature, are biologically wired to participate in this erotic ecology. According to biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber, matter inherently desires a deeper attachment and a higher realization of its own imaginative potential. On this planet, there is an erotic attraction between all matter that calls our bodies toward other, often larger, bodies. Weber poetically describes gravitation as an example of Earth’s tender longing for us––a larger body pulling our smaller bodies toward it, so that it might be transformed into its higher imaginative potential. Our desire to belong to something greater, bigger or larger is not just a psychological phenomenon that places us at the center, it is a biological tendency of all matter and all nature. An erotic ecology is simultaneously the life force within all of us that seeks belonging and love, and it is also that which connects everything to be whole. The erotic by itself describes our individual desire for belonging, connection and love; whereas, an erotic ecology describes the entirety of the thing we are participating in and its longing for belonging, connection and love.

Erotic ecology recognizes the ecological reality as a relational system and as a result, it identifies love as an ecological process. As Weber has proposed, what matters most for organisms is not their conscious behavior; it’s acting in a way that makes sense. Since we can feel, we must ask questions such as, “What does this situation mean for another feeling subject?” or “What sort of existential value is inherent in this?” To answer those questions, we must draw on our own understanding as a sentient being. As Weber describes:

The stroke patient who cannot speak anymore, [...] the bald hens in their stiflingly hot hangars, the unwatered plant withering away in silent despair –– they all unconsciously show what they feel is happening to them. [...] Anyone who pretends not to be emotionally sucked in when another being shows its feeling, is dissociated from himself. Anyone who ignores the suffering of other beings who may not have the language, intelligence or personal consciousness that we do, not only despises those others but betrays himself.

We deny suffering by deceiving ourselves into believing humans are isolates from the rest of creation. While there is obviously a difference in being, there is an existential sameness. It is across the paradox of difference and sameness that a theology of erotic ecology must exist. The difference holds the reality of how social systems and structures, relational power dynamics and individual experiences shape our interactions, but the paradox of an erotic ecology is the way in which our difference is a pathway into our sameness of being and existence.

Our interconnectedness is similarly a paradox that relies on the tension of both difference and sameness. This is where it is important to avoid conflating an erotic ecology’s interconnectedness with that of sameness. A straight person will have a different life experience than a queer person, but there is some part of us that is the same – both knowing what it means to be human and possess an erotic that desires more than ourselves. This is true across race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, class, geography and all cultures of varying life experiences; however, the life force of the erotic is profoundly different depending on one’s ecological location. Ecological location allows us to recognize both power dynamics within and between people, and it also helps us understand differing human-nature relationships depending on life experiences and identities. An analysis of these power dynamics is especially important in this erotic ecology; otherwise, it risks reducing the value of difference to that of a market-based idea of diversity, where diversity is capitalized for some sort of transactional value. In differing ecological locations, the life force is not the same, but an erotic life force lessens the threat of difference between us.

Because this life force has different ways of existing of which I participate, I refuse to co-opt the meaning of erotic within an erotic ecology. My third point identifies some of the exemplars and hermeneutical origins of this erotic ecology, which have historically been “radical” and queer women of color such as Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa and Chela Sandoval. Radical and queer women of color have long been resistant to the neocolonialism of postmodern globalization utilizing a methodology adjacent to erotic ecology. These women, particularly queer women of color, have lived in between groups and cultures––not belonging to the dominant group, but also not completely to the respective backgrounds or cultures they come from. This is where an erotic ecology arises most evidently, as these women have lived in between spaces and existed across the boundaries of power. Their mere existence is a resistance to the fantastic hegemonic imagination as they live in the “borderlands” of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, language and culture. We live within an erotic ecology when we cross these borders and yet still belong to both ourselves and something greater simultaneously, despite the dominant power that tells us otherwise. As Chela Sandoval notes, our consciousness of these borderlands redefines what it means to love, as love becomes a mode of political action within the erotic. Sandoval outlines a methodology resistant to the hegemonic powers of “postmodern globalization.” These principles are:
  1. To develop sign-reading skills, reading power everywhere and always.
  2. To engage interventionary tactics that are designed to shift the powers that operate inside any sign system. [...]
  3. To willingly inhabit an eccentric consciousness that permits its practitioner to carry out any of these techniques by moving within, between, or through meaning differentially. 
  4. To enact any of these principles with the purpose of equalizing power among interlocutors [...] toward the goal of egalitarian redistributions of sexed, gendered, raced, physiological, social, culture, and/or economic powers.
The principles can be enacted individually, but the principles give way to what Sandoval identifies as a “hermeneutics of love” when they are employed as a unified apparatus that can serve “for the oppressed” and also “of emancipation.” The desire for something greater within an erotic ecology is also an inherent longing for justice, especially for the people’s life forces who have been oppressed or existed in the borderlands.

One “radical” woman of color might serve as a contemporary example of this spiritual/existential longing for justice. Before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, commonly known as AOC, ran for Congress to represent parts of the Bronx and Queens in New York City, she describes a spiritual experience she had when she felt called to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock. AOC was working at a bar in Manhattan, and she was scrolling through her Facebook one day when she noticed a woman she hadn’t talked to in years was at Standing Rock. Ocasio-Cortez messaged her and asked, “What do you need?” The woman said they needed women and asked AOC if she would join them.

After a few days, AOC told a friend and co-worker, “This is going to sound crazy, but I think I need to go to Standing Rock.” AOC heard the request and felt called to the movement at Standing Rock that was bigger than just her. Her friend expressed that she had been thinking about the same thing for the last few days, and the two of them agreed to find the means to get from New York City to Standing Rock in North Dakota. After spending a few weeks in Standing Rock with her friend and as she was leaving, AOC noted she felt inspired by this movement that was bigger than herself. She recalled a moment she had, in which she reflected and asked God to send her wherever God would use her. The day after she got home, she received a call from Brand New Congress asking if she would challenge incumbent Democrat Joseph Crowley in the primary and run for Congress. This is the life force of an erotic ecology. We are biologically wired to be called into that which is bigger than us, so that we can transcend into our higher imaginative potential. An erotic ecology calls us into our interconnectedness and toward justice. It calls us into belonging and committing to something greater than just us, while belonging and committing to ourselves. The challenge is whether or not we will stay with the call and move toward it.

I myself often think about what it means to belong. What it means to belong to myself, to queerness or whiteness, to my family and friends, to Christianity and beyond. What it means to belong to creation and God, to radical love, justice and restoration. We are biologically and physiologically wired to an interconnected desire for belonging, wholeness, connection and love. It is an attachment beyond ourselves to this existential sameness and difference that connects each of us. This attachment sometimes feels limiting, but then I remember the very nature of erotic ecology is what it means to be alive, what it means to belong and what it means to love. There is no manner in which a presentation can capture its significance. There’s no way a construct such as human language knows it. There is no way a religion or spiritual practice can fully grasp it. An erotic ecology is what differentiates us, and it’s also what connects every single sentient being who reads or hears these words.

Bibliography
  • Lorde, Audre. 2007. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press.
  • MacKnee, Chuck M. 2002. “Profound Sexual and Spiritual Encounters Among Practicing Christians: A Phenomenological Analysis.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 30 (3): 234–44. https://doi.org/10.1177/009164710203000306.
  • McBride, Hillary, Mike McHargue, Michael Gungor, and William Matthews. n.d. The Ethics of F***ing (Part 1). The Liturgists. https://theliturgists.com/podcast/2018/4/5/the-ethics-of-fing.
  • Ocasio-Cortez, Alexandria. 2020. “Standing Rock Spiritual Experience.” Keynote presented at the MLK Faith Leadership Breakfast, Bronx, NY, January 20.
  • Sandoval, Chela. 2002. “Dissident Globalizations, Emancipatory Methods, Social-Erotics.” In Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism, edited by Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé and Martin F. Manalansan, 20–32. NYU Press. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfsjd.6.
  • Spencer, Daniel T. 1996. Gay and Gaia: Ethics, Ecology, and the Erotic. Pilgrim Press.
  • Townes, Emilie. 2007. “Sites of Memory: Proceedings Too Terrible to Relate.” In Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, 220. Black Religion/Womanist Thought/Social Justice. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Weber, Andreas. 2016. The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science. New Society Publishers.
  • ———. 2017. Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology. Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
  • Wittstock, Joseph S. 2009. “Further Validation of the Sexual-Spiritual Integration Scale: Factor Structure and Relations to Spirituality and Psychological Integration.” Baltimore, MD: Loyola College in Maryland. https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/305131141.html?FMT=ABS.