Monday, November 26, 2012

Sex and Human Nature

Earlier this year, Alain de Botton wrote a piece on Marriage, Sex and Adultery. In it he says this:

...contrary to all public verdicts on adultery, the real fault might consist of the lack of any wish whatsoever to stray. This might be considered not only weird but wrong in the deepest sense of the word, because it is against nature. A blanket refusal to entertain adulterous possibilities would seem to represent a colossal failure of the imagination, a heedless disregard for the glorious fleshy reality of our bodies, a denial of the power that should rightly be wielded over our more rational selves by such erotic triggers as the surreptitious pressing-together of knees at the end of a restaurant meal, by high-heeled shoes and crisp blue shirts, by grey cotton underwear and Lycra shorts, by smooth thighs and muscular calves -- each a sensory high point as worthy of reverence as the tiles of the Alhambra or Bach's 'Mass in B minor'. Wouldn't the rejection of these temptations be itself tantamount to a sort of betrayal? Would it really be possible to trust anyone who never showed any interest at all in being unfaithful?

In other words, the desire to have sex with someone who is not your wife or husband is with the grain of the universe. David Simon -- the man who created The Wire and who is therefore pretty much always right about everything -- expressed a similar opinion in a recent post about the reaction to yet another high profile figure caught with his pants down...although he expressed it in slightly more colourful language:

This is just sex. This is nothing more than the odd, notable penis or the odd, notable vagina staggering off the marked path and rubbing against the wrong tree. This is just people.

According to Simon, to be a person is to be, by nature, adulterous. In one sense, what de Botton and Simon express is a form of Christian anthropology which takes with utmost serious the doctrine of the Fall. Nature, as we now have it, is depraved. Unfaithfulness is one of the givens of creation. To somehow be impervious to this fact of nature would be inhuman, which is why, according to de Botton, such a person probably shouldn't be trusted. They would be, in some way or another, unnatural.

Nevertheless, in the end of his piece de Button praises this unnaturalness:

Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable. But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honour, though it is too often simply taken for granted and deemed the normal state of affairs. 
That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilisation and kindness for which both ought to feel grateful every day. 
Spouses who remain faithful to each other should recognise the scale of the sacrifice they are making for their love and for their children, and should feel proud of their valour.

As congenial as this sounds to a Christian understanding of marriage, the language of "sacrifice" that de Botton uses to praise those who remain faithful is a language that Christians cannot accept without significantly different understandings of its content. If monogamous marriage is a “sacrifice” it just so to the extent that it is the relentless giving over of self to another which is in harmony with the true form of God and the true form of His creation. It is not, as de Button suggests, the foregoing of adultery for the sake of “love” or “children”. The faithful life of one man and one woman together is therefore not a “sacrifice” of one thing (the natural) for another (supernatural) but a sign that in and through Christ the natural has remained loved and called by God and is in the process of being made new. Faithfulness, not unfaithfulness, is with the grain of the universe.

De Button and Simon begin -- as Zizek would also like to begin -- from The Fall. But that is not where the Christian story begins. It begins, rather, with Deus triunus and with creation as an expression of the divine life. And in another sense, it begins again at Easter, when God raised Jesus form the dead.

"The glorious fleshy reality of our bodies" is not revealed by the high-heeled shoes and smooth thighs of a woman who is not my wife, but I am sleeping with her. Nor is the human person on display when a penis or vagina staggers off the marked path. We have, however, been given a form that is truly human - the form of Christ. The marriage relationship is one of the ways we have been given to imitate that form. As Stanley Hauerwas says, we have to learn how to be human. Human nature does not come naturally to us. It is a grace. But with God, nothing is as natural as grace, which is why we can have hope even in the midst of our greatest infidelity.

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