Marriage, Sex, Meaning

One of the moral claims that Christianity makes that is most unsettling for our culture is that sexual activity is only appropriate in marriage. Many people see this claim as arbitrary, overly restrictive, and even counter productive to the spread of love. This is certainly a problem, because no human activity reaches more deeply into humans than sex, and if Gods kingdom is to be established in, and transform this culture, then the confusion on this issue has to be cleared up. It has to be seen that the orthodox Christian claims about the morality of sex are not arbitrary, but meaningful, are not restrictive, but liberating, and are not hinderances to the life of love, but offer the only lifestyle that really makes room for true love.

That this is so can bee seen by first considering marriage a context like any other. Contexts are very important. That sounds like a silly, ambiguous sentence, but what I mean is that a context conferrs meaning on whatever it includes. Take language for example. Language is transmitted either through written symbols or uttered sounds. The symbols you are reading now that make up the words I am writing are literally meaningless in the context of the Cantonese language of China (or whatever that context would be). Similarly, the spoken sound “koh-t’ah” is meaningless in English, but I am told it means something very offensive in Hindi. The contexts of those languages don’t merely give us a hint at their meanings, but they bestow them.

The Christian claim, then, is not merely that sex is only appropriate when it occurs between two temporal events – a wedding, and death. If that were all Christianity says about sex then it would be a truly arbitrary claim indeed, but that’s certainly not all that’s going on here. The Christian claim goes much deeper. Seeing marriage as a context, and seeing a context as the overarching reality that bestowes meaning, the orthodox claim about sex and marriage is not merely that sex between the unmarried is morally inferrior to sex between spouses, but that it is, by comparison, utterly meaningless, for it takes place outside of the context that gives it it’s meaning.

The context of marriage is a living mutual, personal, exclusive covanent between two people to love, honor, cherish, and serve each other for the rest of their co-existence. This changes everything about sex. Sex between two such people is an expression of, and material consummation of that covanent. That promise is what is being stated with every sexual act. Sex in marriage is all of those elements in one act. If it is not living, in the physical sense, it is necrophilic. If it is not living in the emotional, personal sense, it is just as dead, and not truly mutual. If it is not mutual, it is rape. If it is not exclusive during the act (i.e. involves more than the two people), then it is an orgy. If it is not exclusive in every other way, it is casual, or at least no more meaninful than a secret handshake. If it is not loving, then it is merely assisted masturbation, for it is done for nothing more than pleasure, and only uses the other person for that end, without treating the other as an end in themselves. If it is dishonoring to the other, then it is sadistic, and demeans rather than uplifts. If it is uncherishing, then it is prostitution, for it is not done for its natural reason, but for some other, irrelevant one. If it is not service to the other then it falls back into the pit of selfishness and turns the other person into a large, numb hand to please yourself with. And, if it is not all of this for all of life, then it is not safe, because sex demands complete nakedness – voluntary exposure of your whole self to the other- and only a fool drops their sword and melts it into jewelry without the certainty that the one before them will always be for them, and never be an enemy or a deserter.

Surely someone could object though, “But sex can without all those things can still be sex. Maybe sex that means all those things is more pleasurable, or even better, but sex without them is still sex.” Well sure, it may be the same action. It may look the same – two naked bodies clumsily bumping into each other, but this objection is totally impotent to effect our Christian claim. It misses the point because it sneakily defines sex merely as one sort of physical act, and that is exactly what the Christian worldview denies. Just as words are not mere sounds – they are sounds with a meaning bestowed upon them by the context of their culture – sex is not a mere act that retains its meaning in any context. Noone would object that the sound “luv” can be spoken in any language, in any context, but only a fool or an ignoramus would argue that it retains its meaning in every one of them. “Luv” means nothing in Gaelic. It means a lot in English. Protesting that the same sound can be mumbled in either is totally irrelevant.

With this in mind, let us pursue the context within which such beautiful things may be meaningfully, creatively expressed, and stop seeking the mere dry, vacuous mimmicing of the expression itself. Otherwise we are like sexual parakeets who can say the words all day long, but speak them dumbly, without passion or understanding.

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  1. #1 by Michael Glawson on 9.15.08 - 11.16 pm

    Since this is now buried in a years worth of posts, I doubt it will ever get read again, but if anyone does happen to have read this, I’d like to remark that there are some things here I’ve rethought a bit. I’ll just form them in a few questions for you to think over that have made me wonder if what I’ve said here is right.

    First, if sex outside of a permanent covenant is so meaningless, why does it have such life-wrecking power? Why can it hurt us so bad to look back on?

    Next, I seem to have assumed in this post that everything that has meaning has it because of some overarching reality (a context) that bestows it with meaning. If this is so, it seems like nothing would have meaning, since there can’t be an infinite hierarchy of contexts that would include everything (including the contexts themselves). Something has to just be meaningful in itself.

    If there are things that are meaningful in themselves then, perhaps this answers my first question of why sex is so powerful, no matter when or where it’s done. Perhaps sex is something that naturally carries a deep meaning and so has the ability to cause great pain or joy for us even outside of the context of the promises of marriage. So maybe sex, no matter when or where it’s done, means all those things that marriage promises (I’m assuming this, and it’s a big assumption), and so brings joy even if those promises haven’t been spoken verbally (since sex is speaking them just as much, though in a different way), and brings pain when those promises that sex naturally speaks are not fulfilled in reality.

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