Despite of what I had written before, I do believe in the rite of marriage and I do believe it is a Christian thing, though my reasoning may not exactly be what you would call Biblical, but I shall give a defense of marriage. I shall be drawing mainly from the Coleridge, the German Romantics and Hegel.
The Paradox of the Human Condition
Ever since the Medieval era, artists and poets have explored the two sides of the human condition.
On the one hand, we are bodily and physical beings. We are subject to the laws of physics and to the world at large. We seem vulnerable to the forces of the empirical world. This vulnerability is captured by our experience of eros, of lust for other flesh, of being “driven” by desires and “moved” by beauty. At the kernal of the myth of Cupid is the idea that desire seems to somehow “happen” to someone, its beyond our control, his arrows strike, and we are helpless. We are suffers rather than actors in relation to the forces of desire.
On the other hand, we are also person, agents, beings with rational wills and choices. We do not merely act out our desires, we also act for reasons. We make judgements, we reason and we will according to the truth or the facts. In desire, it seems that we are helplessly lead forward by Fate or Destiny. In will, it seems that we seize ownship over our lives and act in accordance to reason. In desire we are suffers, in will we are actors.
The Romantics of the 18th century, especially the Germans who re-acquired the medieval paradox, found this divide of the human condition intolerable. The driving ideal of German Romanticism is harmony and wholeness, they sought to reconcile spirit and nature, and their vision was cosmic reconcilation. But how are they going to reconcile the two sides, without denying either of them, like the medieval theologians who elevated charity, at the expense of eros, or Byron who elevated eros at the expense of the will?
The Transfiguration of Desire; the Hegelian Tale
It was Hegel, the ultimate philosophical reconciler and systematiser who paved the way for a resolution in his “Lordship and Bondage” dialectic. His entire thesis can be summarised in the words of the philosopher Roger Scruton,
Sexual desire is not a desire for sensations. It is a desire for a person: and I mean a person, not his or her body, conceived as an object in the physical world, but the person conceived as an incarnate subject, in whom the light of self-consciousness shines and who confronts me eye to eye, and I to I. True desire is also a kind of petition: it demands reciprocity, mutuality, and a shared surrender.
According to Hegel, the first stage of desire is purely animal, it is the desire which logic is consumption and satisfication. It merely seeks to “satisfy” itself, to relieve its urges. Thus, at this stage, desire is purely “fleshy”, the object of desire is merely flesh, it seeks to “consume” its object, to relieve its own lust, it is purely a desire for sensations.
Hegel argues that this sort of desire “negates” its object. A person is not mere flesh but also spirit; desire that operates at this level demeans and diminishes its object, by merely treating the other person as flesh and not spirit. Thus, unless this stage of desire is “transcended”, what will happen is a power struggle, as one party seeks to dominate the other, and the “winner” will get to subject the other, to degrade and reduce the other to flesh for the “winner’s” satisfaction.
But never fear, Hegel points out that even the “winner” in this contest will not remain at this stage forever. Eventually, the “winner”, in consuming object after object, is fundamentally fragmented, he is not a unified subject with a unified history, he is merely a sort of Humean sum of desires. He desires now this, now that, etc. The winner may have won the power struggle, but even the winner realises that he has is also degraded by his own dominance, how can he achieve personhood as opposed to merely being an animal higher up the sexual food chain?
It is at this stage that sexual desire is transformed from being a desire for sensations to desire for a person. The person does an interpretative act, integrating his erotic desires into his reason and his person, the person now realises that his desire, his eros is directed towards another subject, a spirit, who likewise has desires, reason, will, history, purpose and hopes. His desire is not simply a passing fragment of himself, which once satisfied, can be discarded, his desire now becomes part of his history and his personality, this is the beginning of elevating his desire into will. If the other party reciprocates this desire, then what has happen is the union of mutual recognition, the other person, with full personhood, willingly surrenders her entire personhood to him, her history will now be part of his, her person is now part of him, they become “one”. Thus, the structure of sexual desire at this stage is strongly intergrative. Sexual desire at this stage desires the entire person, the person’s past, present and future, desire and will, etc.
What is the meaning of the sexual act then? We must remember, that though desire may have expanded to include the person’s spirit, it does not abandon the desire for the person’s flesh, in fact, it unites them together. Sexual desire is a desire for a person as embodied, as incarnate. In sexual intercourse, both parties vulnerability to their flesh, the “base” desires which is suppose to wreck so much havoc to their lives, is now instead transformed into willing vulnerability, as paradoxical as that might sound. In sex, his desire is for her complete surrender of herself to him, in both spirit and body, what this act of surrender means is for her to both surrender to her erotic physical vulnerability to his sexual act, and for her to desire to do the same to him, for her to also desire him in his entirely, both spirit and body.
I am of course simplifying the story here, and changing it a little from Hegel’s original thesis. But the one underlying thread of thought guiding this “story” is the idea of integration, the idea of reconciling personhood with animal nature.
Of course, you might ask what does this story have to do with the marriage rite? We must remember that the structure of desire is the desire for the whole person, the person’s history, present and future. We desire the person to still be united to you in mutual recognition and desire into the future. In the sexual act, we lay claim to the entirety of the person, including the person’s future.
My trouble with sex before marriage is that, I am not quite sure what is the meaning of sexual desire in such a context. Is it the whole person which one is consummating within sexual desire? Or just a fragment of the person, a “time-slice” of the person as it were, most probably just the present slice. Then, a sense of alienation will infect and disease the very sexual desire itself, and once more, the desire and the sexual act is a degenerating and diminishing act, it is an act of diminishing the person to that time-slice. Or worse, as I think it is most likely the case, it has degenerated back into mere desire for sensations again, with either money or lying rhetoric used as power to subject the other party to animal desires.
What the marriage rite does is to seal the sexual desire into a vow of love. During marriage, the two parties united in their mutual desire, comes before a priest, a representative of God, and petitions God to witness their love. God, who transcends space and time, is able to, as it were, to unify both parties entire personhood, the past, present and future in one “gaze” and blesses the union from the perspective of “beyond time” itself and seals the desire between them into a vow. Thus, a marriage vow is “eternity made present”, it is consists of the entire personhood, past present and future, which each party will possess, which gurantees the integrity and wholeness of every sexual act and desire between them from hence forth.
Unity or Fragmentation?
All I have done so far is simply to describe the internal logic of marriage and sexual desire in such a context. Why adopt such a stance, it might be asked? What’s wrong with a so-called “fragmented” view of personhood, what’s wrong with carpe diem, with living for the moment and with having passing desires?
I am not so sure how to answer such a challenge. I could point out that a sexual desire that is strongly integrative to one’s personhood is a very good foundation for trust and dependence, by integrating one’s sexual desire into one’s personhood, one possesses a sort of integrity and continuity which is the basis for trust, as trust depends essentially on “sameness” of identity, that one is the “same” person (as opposed to a fleeting sum of desires), no matter what happens, one will always be there, not disintegrated to a plurality of fleshy whims. (Erotic or otherwise)
Of course, it can always be answered that with financial independence and all, we aren’t really all that dependent on one another and we are free to simply indulge in passing whims.
Well, in such a case, I can only say that I do believe that harmony, reconcilation and wholeness is intrinsically a much worthier vision than fragmentation, and I do not know otherwise how to justify it. I can only say that I believe that the lost of true eros, an eros that is developed fully into mutual recognition and integrative into personhood, is a lost which we must regret, and also that the fragmented animal eros seems to be a pale substitute in comparison, although we can have a lot more of it, but eventually it will be subject to the law of diminishing returns. And on a much more darker note, a descend back into such a conception of sex is a descend back into power play, into the question of who has more money, beauty, charisma, etc, to be able to treat the other as mere flesh without spirit. As the Archbishop of Canterbury lamented in a speech,
In a strange way, in this society we have underplayed the reality of eros. Odd to say that, isn’t it? Because we often think that eros, in the form of sexual imagery, is absolutely everywhere, and so, alas it is. But it is eros in the sense of the profound desire that makes me who I am, that makes the whole of my life drawn-towards something beyond myself which gives meaning, the other person that I love, the God I seek to love, that’s not quite so clear in our society. We privilege the consumer mentality and we also fail to ask some of the deep questions about the direction of the desire at the root of our being.
But I am a sort of Hegelian Romantic, and as a Christian, I do believe fundamentally in wholeness and cosmic reconcilation, as Colossians 1:19-20 would put it,
“For it pleased the Father that in him [Christ] should all fulness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.”
And it is because of this vision of the reconcilation of all things, earth and heaven, flesh and spirit, past, present and future, reason and desire, which causes me to continue to advocate and promote the institution of marriage, as a courageous and romantic revolt, against the fragmenting and diminishing nihilism of our time.