What Did C.S. Lewis Think About the Spirituality of Sex?

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Spirituality of Sex. Read other perspectives here.

"What do you think of the spirituality of sex?" Ask this question and you're likely to get one of the following three responses: 1) the first person explodes in laughter, as if you're a complete ignoramus about both subjects; 2) the second person gives a serious nod because you, rare person that you are, have apparently grasped the solemn nature of both; or 3) the third person gives you a puzzled look but is willing to hear your next question.

For now, let's assume that the first person's response of explosive laughter indicates complete derision of the idea that sex has anything to do with spirituality. And to be fair, this person's response reflects what has happened to our culture. Spirituality, for many, is something that contemplatives specialize in, especially those committed to celibacy. Sexuality is a polar opposite, isn't it? Sexuality is what you do with your body; spirituality is what you try to do for your soul (whatever the soul is, if there is such a thing).

Person No. 2 is likely to say to Person No. 1: you have split the body from the soul. You have divorced what is whole (really, you've tried to divorce body from soul, because ultimately you cannot succeed in filing for this divorce). And indeed, Western culture in particular has a long history of dualism of body and mind or soul. While body/mind dualism is not our only narrative, it is a powerful one, and with the advent of the sexual revolution or "liberation" in the second half of the 20th century, aided by the increasing acceptability of contraceptives, many in our time live as if body and soul were separate entities. In fact, some are materialists who do not believe we have a soul. And for many, erotic pleasure in particular has become a god. The results of such dualism, combined with devotion to the pleasure principle that life is about "getting what I want," is a society suffering from addiction to pornography and related abuse. In Women and C.S. Lewis: What His Life and Literature Reveal for Today's Culture, Dr. Holly Ordway describes our society this way:

Sexual activity is considered essential for both identity and personal fulfillment, but the body itself is seen as a physical 'thing' without inherent meaning; thus, sexual activity becomes like a sport, with no particular significance attached to playing a game of sex with someone. This separation of body and soul, action and meaning, in the sexual act is completely contrary to the Christian understanding of sexual ethics.

Back to Person No. 2 who views spirituality and sexuality as solemn because we ought not and ultimately cannot separate soul from body. What we do with our bodies matters because it is a direct reflection of our souls. This sounds familiar for a Christian concerned about living a life in accordance with the Bible: keeping the marriage bed holy means no pre-marital or extra-marital sex and, if guilty, repenting thereof. It also means guarding against and repenting of unholy thoughts, which are just as bad (Matthew 5:27-8).

But it's not only Christians who might regard spirituality and sexuality as solemn. The history of pagan religions with temple prostitutes attests to the association. And in his day, C.S. Lewis pointed to the "ludicrous and portentous solemnization of sex"—a contemporary form of a "Phallic religion" practiced by neo-Pagans (The Four Loves, 90-1). How could sex be pornographic if it is taken so seriously? a young man asked Lewis. Ah: instant illustration of the problem.

The real problem of sexuality, argues Lewis, is related to how "seriously" we take it. If we make a religion out of love, we will regard the experience of "being in love" as a law unto itself. We will then say "Love made us do it" either in defiance or more shyly but nonetheless with a deeply held belief in Eros (ibid., 103). But Eros who boasts the most about permanence "is notoriously the most mortal of our loves" and needs help (ibid., 104, 106). Worse, "Eros, honored without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon" (ibid., 101). (Lewis also distinguishes between plain sexual desire which wants "the thing itself" from Eros which "wants the Beloved" [ibid., 87].)

The Christian response to spirituality-and-sex, according to Lewis, is a mixture of healthy laughter and a high sense of seriousness at the same time. We should neither worship sexuality nor underestimate the connection between sexuality and spirituality.