Christianity really is the answer key to the human experience. This is nowhere truer than it is in the experience of sex.
I have an Eastern Orthodox friend (you can read his blog, here), with whom I have spent countless hours in conversation about the Bible, creation, science, symbolism, and for lack of a better term, the mysticism of everyday life. He’ll tell anyone who will listen that reading Reformed theologian James Jordan’s “Through New Eyes” changed his life, and opened his eyes to the fundamentally symbolic design of not only Scripture, but of creation, itself.
Why do we stand vertically (with our head in the heavens) while almost every other animal walks, swims, or flies horizontally? Why does our hair grey as we age? Why do we sleep when the sun sleeps and rise along with it (most of us)? Why does all of creation repeat and intensify the theme of separation and reunion at a higher and more wonderful level as begun in Genesis 1 (light-dark: day, land-sea: earth, male-female: humanity)? The answer to all of this is symbolism. Creation itself is designed to make us older. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Recently, while re-reading sections of C. S. Lewis’ “Perelandra,” I was struck by the archetypal beauty of Tinidril (the “Green Lady” of Venus, who is the mother of a new race, the way Eve is the mother of ours). In particular, this section where Ransom (the main character, who is a professor from our planet) is puzzled by the Lady’s lack of relatives left me smiling:
“Look here,” said Ransom. “You must have had a mother. Is she alive? Where is she? When did you see her last?”
“I have a mother?” said the Green Lady, looking full at him with eyes of untroubled wonder. “What do you mean? I am the Mother.” And once again there fell upon Ransom the feeling that it was not she, or not she only, who had spoken. No other sound came to his ears, for the sea and the air were still, but a phantom sense of vast choral music was all about him. The awe which her apparently witless replies had been dissipating for the last few minutes returned upon him.”
The “vast choral music” is, of course, Tinidril’s unborn children, whose father will be the King of Perelandra (Tor). What I love so much about this passage is how the Green Lady, like Eve, stands as representative of all women. In a sense, all people of her race are already in her womb. She is the Mother and Queen of her world. Her taking dominion of Perelandra after Ransom has destroyed her tempter (the Un-Man) is her ascent to her rightful throne, under her husband and at his side.
If you haven’t read this book, or the rest of the Space Trilogy, I highly recommend it. “Perelandra” is easily the most devastating broadside of feminism in all of fiction, and the commentary on gender in the second book is worth the price of all three. The biological realities of male and female, and their eternal prototypes masculine and feminine, were conceived by Maleldil in Deep Heaven as the dualistic scaffolding on which creation is built. They run through everything, as the most profound expression of unity in diversity, which is itself an expression of the nature of God.
The reason I bring it up here is because of a piece by Jake Meador over at Mere Orthodoxy making the moral case for why surrogacy and IVF are wrong. (Stick with me, I’m getting to the part where I connect all of these dots!) Jake easily does the best job of anyone I’ve ever read in sketching a positive argument for natural conception-only. His explanation isn’t a “no” to assisted reproductive technologies based on dry, Thomistic reasoning (as important as that is). It’s a beautiful “yes” to the symbolic design of creation in general and sex in particular, and shows that my fellow Calvinists aren’t just rediscovering natural law. They’re discovering how to make natural law sing.
At one point, he highlights a passage by Wendell Berry’s “Hannah Coulter” in which a woman whose husband was killed overseas in World War II wakes up in the middle of the night to nurse her infant daughter:
Upon reading this, I must have looked out the window for a full minute digesting the fact that breast-feeding is a created metaphor for self-giving, self-emptying love, for God’s provision for us, and for our utter dependence on Him for our very lives. How had I never seen it, before?
“I took her into bed with me and propped myself up with pillows against the headboard to let her nurse. As she nursed and the milk came, she began a little low contented sort of singing. I would feel milk and love flowing from me to her as once it had flowed to me. It emptied me. As the baby fed, I seemed slowly to grow empty of myself, as if in the presence of that long flow of love even grief could not stand.”
Of course, there are many mothers who, for whatever reason, cannot fully enjoy this experience. My own wife had to stop nursing our youngest son very early because of health complications. But there it is–one more symbol among hundreds, perhaps thousands–tucked away at the most basic level of human existence, waiting to be plumbed for its full meaning, or directly accessed by the Holy Spirit in Scripture.
Jake goes even deeper, arguing that sex itself is designed as one of the most profound expressions of the unity-in-diversity principle underlying all of creation. I had heard this before in complementarian circles, but I’m not sure I ever felt the full impact of its beauty.
I recall years ago at a Promise Keepers event in Tampa balking at a speaker’s suggestion that “as men, our very anatomy indicates that we are to be givers.” Was this guy telling me my penis was symbolic of the architecture of creation? That there was some deep, metaphysical truth to be found in the human vagina?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, yes. And he was right. Probably more than he knew.
In sex, men empty themselves. They give something that forms and fills a void. They hover over the formless, virgin ground and say, “let it bring forth living things.” They sow a seed into the earth that “must die before it brings forth much fruit.” It is not for nothing that ancient cultures thought of Heaven as masculine and Earth as feminine.
A woman–who was taken out of man–reunites with him in a more voluntary–and thus profound–fashion. She magnifies glory through her receiving and giving back nine months later. Everything in a man that is nascent and unfinished becomes incarnate reality in a woman. In her, the dark materials of creation become mature and “very good.”
Together a couple brings into existence “icons of their love.” They make new beings who bear both of their images. They become “one flesh” in the most literal sense imaginable. The flesh, bone, hair, eyes, and (if you are a traducian) souls of their children are a perfect combination of their parents. Your child, in whose face you can clearly see both yours and your wife’s, is a living testimony of love. Who else but God would ordain the creation of new people through such a means?
And if we are brave enough to extrapolate the language of Paul in Romans 8, a woman’s work in sex and childbearing is one of the purest symbols of not just creation, but of New Creation. In her travails, she brings forth something fresh and never-before-seen. She reveals a new son (or daughter) of God.
And of course, the complete picture is of Christ and His Church, in whom and through whom the Last Adam brings forth from His Eve the most profound glory the universe has ever known–something angels long to look into: creatures formerly marred by evil who are reborn into new and eternal goodness.
God help us when we turn from this weight of glory to an image of a naked man treating a naked woman like an animal and reveling in sterile (but by no means sanitary) fluid exchange. God help us when we tell lies with our bodies by re-enacting the dance of creation while fully intending to call an Uber at the end of the night and never see our one-flesh partner again. God help us when we take the beauties in which we can hear the vast, choral music if we’re quiet enough, and turn them into something to leer at in a dark room, on a laptop or tablet, while we abuse ourselves. God help us when we turn this marvel of marvels into something to conduct under florescent lights, in a petri dish. And Lord Jesus, help us when we rip the fruit of New Creation from the earth before it is ripe and murder it.
This kind of abuse of God’s sacred symbols cannot last. As Lewis would say, we will call Deep Heaven down on our heads.