Sex is a mystery. Sex is a mystery because masculinity and femininity are elusive qualities. Sexual desire is a mystery, so spontaneous and powerful that we might almost forgive ancient pagans for thinking of sex as a goddess, a divine power. Sexual intercourse is a mystery of mutual indwelling that points to the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity.
In what follows, I don’t pretend to unravel the mystery of sex; I only intend to examine a few of its dimensions.
First, being male or female is a fundamental aspect of our created identity. God created man male and female, and these differences are not superficially biological or genetic, but go to the roots of our beings. Women are not men with breasts; women are female, down to the depths of their personalities. This is why sexual confusion is such a profound social and cultural problem. If a man doesn’t have some inkling of what manhood is, he has no inkling of who he is. Skill in living requires some degree of self-knowledge, and that means some knowledge of what it means to be male or female.
This is not to say that bodily differences are indifferent. It is rather to say that the physical differences of men and women are aspects of sexual difference deeper and broader than our physical differences. The fact that our identity is always sexually-specific identity is a constant reminder that our bodies are ourselves. Our bodies are so much a part of us that we are not fully redeemed until our bodies are renewed. Even now, our participation in the resurrection life of Jesus is a bodily participation in which we are to present the “members of our bodies” as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6).
Second, the story of the creation of Eve in Genesis 2 gives us a profound insight into sexual desire. Adam was created singly, then divided into two beings, which were then called to be reunited in “one flesh.” Sexual desire is a desire for unity, wholeness, and not merely a desire for pleasure. When sexual desire is reduced to a desire for sexual pleasure, it becomes mechanical. The lover becomes a mere means to scratch where I itch, rather than another human being with whom I share personal intimacy.
Third, sex is an intense form of personal intimacy, and thus our skill as lovers is related to our capacity of intimacy and personal communion with others. Along these lines, Eugene Peterson has made some intriguing comments about the relationship of sex, salvation, and prayer. Salvation, Peterson remarks, brings with it “a whole series of commands by which we are ordered into live, whole, healthy relationships with God and other persons.”
This is the condition that Scripture describes with the word “peace” (shalom), a condition of harmonious order between persons and between God and persons. Sin estranges and distances (Genesis 3), and God delivered us from sin so that we can become good lovers.
Peterson also notes that prayer and sex “are both aspects of a single, created thing: a capacity for intimacy.” He goes on: “All horizontal relationships between other persons, when they achieve any degree of intimacy at all, are aspects of sexuality. All vertical relationships with persons of the Godhead, when there is any degree of intimacy at all, involve prayer. And since there are never instances of merely horizontal relationship and never any solely vertical relationships – we are created in both directions; there are no one-dimensional beings – both sexuality and prayer (or either sexuality or prayer) can be used to explore and develop personal relationships of intimacy. Either, used thus, involves the other. When we develop and express our love to another person we are using the same words and actions and emotions that also are used to develop and express our love for God; and vice versa.”
Mystics knew what they were about when they used erotically-charged language to describe their yearning (as members of the bride of Christ) for God; those celibate monks who read the Song of Songs as an allegory were not (or not necessarily) frightened of passion, but knew that there is a created analogy between our passion for union with God and our passion for union with another person.
Fourth, sex is only one aspect of a larger union that marriage aspires to. We are not to be “one flesh” in bed and “two-at-war” outside of bed (and of course, not “two-at-war” in bed, either). The one-flesh relationship in sex is supposed to symbolize and manifest the unity of our lives together. A truly fulfilled sex life is more than giving each other pleasure in bed. A truly fulfilled sex life involves striving toward unity in diversity in every aspect of a marriage.
Fifth, sex and marriage are inseparable, or should be, from obligations toward a wider community. We have sex in private, but sex is never simply a private affair. Wendell Berry makes this point in some reflections on The Merchant of Venice: “Lovers must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community. If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another ‘until death,’ are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could ever join them. Lovers, then, ‘die’ into their union with one another as a soul ‘dies’ into its union with God. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing – and our time is proving that this is so.”
Modern economies, he suggests, exist to guard “the private exploitation of the public wealth and health,” but he advocates an economy that “exists for the protection of gifts, beginning with the ‘giving in marriage.’”
Marriage is the proper location for sex because “this joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God. From their joining, other living souls come into being, and with them great responsibilities that are unending, fearful, and joyful. The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to Heaven and earth.” Sex is thus never isolated from larger communal concerns, and as soon as it becomes a merely private issue it is corrupted.