In my last blog, I talked about what sex is for, and I loosely critiqued my loose understanding of Aquinas’ ordering of the purpose of sex (procreation, unity, pleasure, in that order). This time around, I want to focus a bit on what I think should be the primary purpose of sex – unifying intimacy. Keep in mind (again) that I am thinking on paper here. Don’t think I am trying to make authoritative statements about sex and love. I am about as qualified to speak to it as the next, which should make us both hopeful and cautious…
I use this two word phrase, unifying intimacy, purposefully. The English word “love” is boring, over-taxed and misleading. Love seems to be popularly conceived in a way that I would actually call passion; spur of the moment, burning affection that really has a physical interest at heart more than an all-encompassing appreciation and commitment to another person.
Now, keep in mind I grew up in Orange County, CA, a place even at 18 I felt was the materialism capital of the world. That may not be true, and it may not be fair, but it was my experience and has now become my bias. I HATE superficiality. Seriously, I have a problem. I see women in gobs of makeup or men in muscle tee shirts and I want to throw sharp objects at them. Just to be clear, I also believe forcefully in enemy-love, so I hope that I can restrain my prejudices and myself. I need to learn to undo my bias even as I confess it. All that is to say that I think love should be taken with greater depth and significance than popular culture assumes (or at least, the culture to which I have been exposed).
So anyway, back to love. I think the word itself is deficient, that we need to get below the surface of love to understand its place in sex. As I said in my last blog, God was motivated to create before creation actually occurred. Similarly, love must be the motivating factor behind sex for it to be purposeful in the Christian context. My talk about superficiality was important because love, and therefore ‘proper’ sex, is not self seeking. For sex to be meaningful, it needs to be centered outside the self, devoid of grasping at validation, gratification, and other idols.
The Greek does a better job at getting to the nuance of love. Just to keep it simple, let’s talk about agape and philia. Philia is tied more to the emotions and mutuality; what I would do for myself, I will do for the other. This kind of love is fleeting, it may wax and wane, and cannot be predicted. In romantic situations, this is closer to puppy love, a kind of endearing affection, though not necessarily primarily bound to physical attraction (that’s eros). But agape must be commanded. It is steady and sure because it is covenantal in nature. It’s all-encompassing, loving strengths and faults alike. This is true love, and the only love that can unite a couple in the intimacy that is inherent in sex.
I also mentioned last time that sex and killing are weirdly connected. Not in a positive way, but in their intimacy with another human being. In combat, there are countless stories of how the act of killing has a significant impact on the person. That is the entire point of boot camp, it desensitizes you to what is required of you in combat. If you are sensitive to the deep emotional demand on you, you will hesitate, possibly endangering yourself or others. Even the connection between soldiers who share a combat experience, there is nothing quite like the bond they experience. What they must do, in a way, is love one another in a platonic way in order to retain a grasp on sanity. This kind of love, parallel, but not the same as the connection between lovers, is incredibly powerful. Whereas this kind of intimate relation, between combatants, is philic, the love between healthy sexual partners must be agapic.
Because this kind of love is so engulfing, I think it is only possible, relationally, to share with one other person at a time. The whole conversation about polyamory is crap I think. But I also think that honest, self-sacrificing love must be bilateral. If one party, for whatever reason, withholds that love, it fails. in other words, divorce sucks hard, but it isn’t a sin per se.
**Disclaimer: I am technically a divorcee. In my defense, I gave significant consideration to being celibate post-marriage, but I’m not convinced it would have been theologically mandated.
My point in that is that essentially, I am in favor of (at worst) serial monogamy, but the point is monogamy. God has a monogamous relationship with humankind (as opposed to, say, angels or animals), Jesus has a monogamous relationship with his (one) bride. Besides, if you think you love more than one person in the way required of committed love, you probably don’t love either of those people. Furthermore, and this builds off my earlier thoughts on love and passion, I think there is a danger in our culture of falling in love with love.
Think of how flippantly Hollywood treats intimacy. It is serendipitous, easy, and spontaneous. I don’t know about you, but the married couples I know will tell you that it is hard F*ing work. There are certainly moments that are passionate and happy-go-lucky, but by and large, commitment (even before children) is tough cookies. In the popular version of “love,” what they depict is fleeting, like eros or philia. But agape must be commanded; by our will, by the Church, and by one another. It is no easy task, but it must be the precursor to meaningful sexual encounters.
Next time, procreation and conception.