06/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sex and Incarnation: Part Two

"What about the orgies?" yet another man asked me.

"Orgies?" I repeated perplexed. "Why has no one invited me?"

We were attending New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) sometime in the late 1980s. That summer the women's rights committee (half-jokingly called the women's rites committee) had sponsored an interest group on the goddess. (We didn't specify which one.) Quakers have long been known for their religious tolerance. In 1683 Quaker William Penn, forced to preside over a witch trial in an era of persecution and hysteria, found a clever and merciful way to acquit the defendant. The controversy over the "goddess interest group," a far cry from an orgy, took me by surprise. I wondered how friends, who hold that "there is that of god in everyone" could so lose their balance when an "-ess" was added to the word.

The Biblical God, though referred to as "he," is supposed to transcend gender. He has to, because in a monotheistic religion he is singular, and monotheism was a distinguishing characteristic of the emergent religion of the Hebrew people and remains so today for all the religions of the Book. When the Biblical prophets inveigh against rival pagan religions there is often a reference to (reprehensible) sexual practices associated with goddess worship. And this association and excoriation continue in the Epistles of Paul, notably Romans I.

For better or worse, the word goddess automatically connotes gender, as does the word priestess, and it seems that whenever femaleness is not defined/confined by marriage and motherhood, people start asking, "What about the orgies?"

Perhaps it is not an entirely idle or prurient question. Before I ever joined the women's rights/rites committee, I had a periodic longing for a temple where I could go and celebrate Eros at full spate, make an offering of it to its source. The temple in my fantasy (or vision or memory) stood near a tidal river, and the moon was full. I knew nothing about the stranger(s) I received except that they were divine, as, in that moment, I was also.

Marriage can be a beautiful, durable container and expression of sexuality. (I've been married and monogamous for thirty years), but it is by definition domestic. And for the first 20 years or so, there are often children underfoot! Sexuality is not just domestic. My vision was about creating a container for Eros in its wilder, undomesticated form. In our culture we have no open or sanctified ways of expressing this aspect of sexuality. So that wild (perhaps divine) longing is often expressed covertly and destructively.

Because of that vision and the persistent questions about my orgiastic practices, I became interested in the subject of sacred prostitution. There seems to be fairly compelling evidence in ancient texts and images that it did once exist in many cultures (Sumer-Babylon and Phoenicia among them), though there is plenty of room for scholarly and religious debate about the details of the practice. Since I am not a scholar or a social reformer but a novelist, I decided to write about it, taking the position that what we don't know, we can imagine. Through imagination perhaps we can become more open, insightful, and understanding of the ways we mortals embrace and/or wrestle with Eros.

For the record, I am still happily married, still monogamous. Our nest, now emptied, has come to resemble the temple more and more. At least on weekends, the orgy is here.