Although in the Roman Catholic Church the present liturgical season is Ordinary Time, but in the Anglican Church it is Trinity Season until Advent in November, thus I’ve decided to continue with a bit more Trinitarian speculations and some clarification with respect to the relationship between Love, Sexual Desire and Marriage. Finally, I want to reevaluate the place of contraceptives in Christian sexual ethics.
On the Goal of Sexual Desire
Let us backtrack a little from my previous note. Sexual desire is a desire for you, as a person. I want all of you. That is why reciprocal desire is vital. I can only “have” you (meaning, my desire for you can only be fulfilled) only if you also desire me, because sexual desire forms an important part of who you are. If you do not likewise desire me or worse, if you desire someone else, then I cannot “have” you, because I do not possess a vital part of you, your desire.
But ultimately, what does it mean to say that I want you? What does it mean to speak of “having” someone? Perhaps the best way to put it is this,
The end of sexual desire is ultimately the formation of a new entity, an Us
Although it is common to speak of the direction of sexual desire as the “union” of two person, but I wish now to be a bit more cautious about such language. Firstly, because a “union” suggests some kind of obliteration of the distinction between the two persons, which I must stress is absolutely not the case. The two persons remained as two distinct individuals, although they become intricately joined or united in this “Us” which is being formed through desire and recognition. This “Us” is a union of our concerns, our interests, our emotional responses, etc (i.e. what hurts you also hurts me, etc). Thus, this “Us” is the link which the two persons now participate and share in, it is the bond through which the two histories of their lives converge in an initimate manner. The “Us” is what links us together, the two persons are to be found “in” the “Us”.
However, before marriage, the only thing that sustains this “Us” is the bare will of reciprocal desire and acceptance. The recognition however of how contingent and violatile the human will is drives us towards Marriage, which transforms this transient desire into a Vow of Love. So, from the point of view of desire, desire seeks the growth and maintainance of this “Us” which is starting to grow from mutual interaction and recognition and acceptance, however, desire also knows its own contingency, and that itself is not sufficient to maintain this “Us” relationship which it wants to sustain, it is uncertain of the future, and fears the decay and destruction of this “Us” when desire’s own contingent nature crumbles.
Thus, what desire does is a self-sacrificing act, it seeks to both transform and transcend itself, desire now seeks a new vintage point from which to work on this “Us” which is growing, a more sure foundation, and that is the marriage state.
What happens when the priest says “I pronounce that they be Man and Wife together, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen”…?
In the light of the previous considerations, in seeking to get married, one is destroying the point of view of desire. Before marriage, the “Us” is accessed and grown through individual desire. But what marriage does is to invoke the infallible and atemporal Almight God himself, to witness the marriage through the priest. Unifying both partners’ past, present and future with a single glance from beyond time, God permanently seals the Us which has been grown previously into a Bond of Love. Now, by an inversion of logic, they no longer regard each other from the point of view of desire, but now they regard each other from the point of view of their marriage vow. The foundation for the “Us” is now the Vow of Union made before God. This also implies a sort of renunciation of independence. Before marriage, each views the other through each own individual desire, now, they view each other through the collective “Us” or Bond of Love, based on the Vow before God. Thus, the marriage rite inverts the whole perspective of the parties.
It might be asked why cannot the two partner simply agree to take the point of view of the “Us” which is developing and abandon the point of view of desire, without the need to invoke God? Why cannot this “Us” simply be the new basis through which they view each other, why need a vow before God?
I think we need to realise also the contingency of this “Us”. This “Us” or Bond is a fragile organism, which requires constant and patient negotiation and interaction to sustain. Now, it could be case that the two parties are so united in their goals and their thoughts and their interaction with one another that they can simply transit from desire and recognition to “Us”. However, it must be stressed that this “Us”, no matter how developed, is still contingent . It may have sufficient organic and structural integrity to sustain its own life, but it is still vulnerable and liable to collapse.
A Vow of Love before God on the other hand has the force of the absolute. Every problem or challenges to maintain the “Us” is automatically assumed to be something which must be worked out, every course of action needed to sustain the “Us” is automatically justified and a proper motive for action, by virtue of the force of this absolute Vow. There is no need to ponder or discussion or agonise whether or now “we still have something worth saving” or whether “we still love each other”. Such questions simply do not arise. We must work it out, simply because we have vowed before God to do so (in sickness and in health…), and by faith in God we believe that it can be worked out. The “Us” is always to be protected and maintained, because of the Vow which undergirds it.
As a side line, it must be noted that in the Anglican Church here, the policy is that no divorcee can ever be remarried. The difference between contracts and vows is this: A contract can be undone through mutual agreement, but a vow can only be dishonoured. Thus, as a matter of fact, that is no such thing as a “divorce” or an undoing of a vow, a vow by definition cannot be dissolved, it can only be dishonoured. Which is why the Anglican Church do not remarry people, because that would simply be bigamy. In getting a “divorce”, one is merely declaring one’s intent not to honour one’s marriage vow, namely, to dishonour it. But that does not in anyway undo or dissolve the Vow.
Making Love and Desire in Marriage
To return back to after the Wedding, if I might venture some speculations about why is consummation necessary after the marriage rite. Given the abandonment of the motives and drives of sexual desire in favour of the motives of the absolute vow of union, the consummation can be argued to be the process of reintegrating one’s sexual desires back into the “Us”. Having now attained new identites as Man and Wife, in some sense, we must relearn to desire and accept this new person, though it might be build upon history of an “Us” which has began since they mutually desired and accepted each other. And there is no more absolute way of re-learning to desire and accept each other than through the intimacy of the sexual act, where in ‘slipping’ into each other’s skin, they slip into their own new identities.
In fact they must re-learn to desire in an entirely new way. Before marriage, desire was the driving force towards the growth and development of the “Us”, now after marriage, the logic is inverted, and the “Us” based on the Vow is the driving force and motive behind desire. Desire is subservient to the “Us” now. Thus the direction and intentionality of sexual desire is determined by the goals of the “Us”, which is always towards greater intimacy and union. (I’ve already explained in detail the meaning of the sexual act of mutual “provocation”, thus it is unnecessary for me to go through it again)
Children as the Incarnation of “Us” and the Question of Contraceptives
The climax and summit of the development of the “Us” is to be found in the begetting of biological children which is the physical embodiment of the “Us”. Children are, at least ideally, the physical incarnation of the vow of love of their parents. (My parents are divorced, but I would still like to think that I was begotten out of their desire to embody their love)
If children are the summit of the development of the “Us” in the Vow of Love, then one very obvious conclusion is that homosexual marriage or relationship is evidently tragically stunted or thawrted, as there cannot possibly be a physical embodiment of the union of a homosexual relationship. Thus, there can as a matter of fact be no homosexual marriage.
But this brings us to the very vital question of contraceptives. If children are the summit of every Bond of Love, what sense can be made of acts that prohibit the production of children? The vital question is,
Is the Begetting of Children a “General Project” of the Bond of Love or is it Instrinsic to every Sexual Act?
If the former, then it seems that there is nothing wrong with contraceptives, since it is only “in general” that a married couple ought to have children, although they may do proper planning and control of the number of it via contraceptives. If the latter, than it is clear that begetting is part of the meaning of every sexual act and thus contraceptives are automatically ruled out.
Whilst the Roman Catholic view is towards the latter, and with which I have much in sympathy with, however, I believe that there is a sort of inconsistency involved in their reasoning. On the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the “rhythm method” of birth control (having sex only on the wife’s infertile period) is acceptable. On the other hand, if the begetting of children is instrinsic to the meaning of every sexual act, then it hard to see why this “rhythm method” is any less “evil” than contraceptives, since it also done intentionally to prevent birth.
Of course, I am well aware of the distinction which they make between the objective meaning of the act and its subjective intention. They argue that taking a pill or putting on a condom is, objectively, an act of perverting the true end of the sexual act, whilst having sex only during infertile periods does not objectively pervert the sexual act, though the subjective intent maybe the same as using contraceptives, namely, the prevention of children. From how I understand the argument, it seems to be like this: Having sex at any time during a marriage is right and proper. The fact that you don’t have sex during the fertile period does not remove the rightness of having sex during the infertile period, as long as you don’t deliberate perform a further action to prevent conception. Whereas the use of contraceptives is an act that is instinsically perverse of the reproducive meaning of sex.
But to me, I am more concerned with the subjective difference, and it is clear and obvious that there is no subjective difference in intentionally having sex during the infertile periods and using contraceptives, as the subjective meaning of both acts entail that there will be no children from their sexual act. The “objective difference” is honestly to me, a hair-splitting distinction.
So, it seems to me that the idea of children as an eventual summit incarnation of the Bond of Love, without necessarily tying it to every sexual act, is the correct view. Sexual acts in marriages can and should be indulged in as a participation in their Bond of Love in the flesh, which some such sexual acts are done with the intent of not only participating in the Bond of Love, but in incarnating it in a child. But, if there are Roman Catholics who however have some thoughts on this, let me know.
Some Trinitarian Links
Before I end, I want to suggest some links between what I’ve said so far about the structure of desire, bond of love and children, and the doctrine of the Trinity. There is a two concepts of Love which has often been held in tension. On the one hand, there is eros or desire. Eros seeks a union with its object, it seeks to possess. On the other hand, there is agape or charity. Charity seeks to give to its object and is entirely generous and overflowing with resource. How are the two to be united together?
I believe that the Doctrine of the Trinity points the way towards the union of the two aspects. As I mentioned before, Coleridge postulated that the Son is the “Other” of the Father. We can understand it this way: If God is love, God must have an object to love, an “Other” distinct from himself to desire and give himself to be united to. This “Other” is the Son. Thus on this understanding, the Father desires and loves the Son, and vice versa, their desire “breathes” a Bond or Union, an Us, which is itself a person the Holy Spirit.
But in Rowan William’s interpretation of St. John of the Cross, it seems that there is another interpretation to the procession of the Holy Spirit. The Father not only desires the Son, but the Father’s desire to love exceeds that of the Son as a sole object, the Father desires is ever towards greater “otherness” in the infinite direction, thus this “overflow” is essentially, the Holy Spirit, and a like logic applies to the Son as well, who desires the desires of the Father, which includes this “overflow” of desire, which is why in St. Augustine’s theology, the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, out of the excess of their love for each other.
Thus on the “Coleridge” reading, the Holy Spirit is Love as eros. The Holy Spirit is the personification of the Bond of Love between the Father and the Son. On St. John of the Cross reading, the Holy Spirit is Love as agape, it is the personification of the “generous excess” of desire and love of the Father and the Son.
It seems to me that this is simply two sides of the same coin, and this can be seen directly in how marital love works. The husband and the wife are united in the Bond of Love, this is the Triune character of marital love. The begetting of a child as the incarnation of this Bond of Love is a direct mirror image to the “Coleridge” reading, that the Holy Spirit is the personification of the Bond between the Father and the Son. However, there is an important sense in which the child, though it is an incarnation of the Bond of Love of their parents, has it own life and its own integrity, it is in some sense, independent and distinct from both parents, it is “Other” to its parents. This seems to correspond exactly to the St. John of the Cross reading, that the Holy Spirit is the “excess Other” of the desires of the Father and the Son, and is a distinct person from them both. Thus, the act of birthing children into the world is an act of generousity by the parents to the world, it is a giving of an excess other to the world, as we all very well know the astronomical cost (both monetary and emotional), it takes to raise a child, that the child might in turn benefit the world.
This seems to me to be a satisfactory reading of both marital love and the Trinity, and shows how Marital Love on Earth is an image of the Trinitarian Love in heaven.