Divine Love Manifest In The Christian Sexual Ethic
By David Metcalfe
September 26, 2019
Despite failing to always live up to its full extent in practice, I agree with Christian sexual ethics. It is, superficially, that a man and woman have sex within a permanent, loving, sacred marriage with either the purpose of bonding with one another or producing children. I agree philosophically, sociologically, psychologically, and even biologically.
I read a lot, and hear a lot, from intelligent people who don’t agree. Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault talk about sexuality a lot in their writings. Both think from an atheistic, secular humanist framework, which, regarding sexual ethics, crudely translates to “you’re an animal, so fuck like it”. In a materialistic worldview, that’s all sex really can be- physical and emotional pleasure. Jean-Paul Sartre had an open marriage, and slept with many people, and Michel Foucault not only practiced serial homosexuality but also sadomasochism.
As intelligent as Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault are, their approach to sexual ethics does not inspire me, and does not seem consistent with “good” as I’ve come to understand it, in a broader sense. As I’ve studied philosophy and gone about my life, I’ve come to think of “good”- in terms of human morality- as a variety of things: humility, kindness, justice, honesty, altruism, and so forth, but none as ultimately “good” as love.
Now, defining what love is seems to be quite a conundrum in our society. “Love is Love” has been a popular slogan over the last decade, especially in regards to the gay rights movement. There are a couple problems with the slogan, and accompanying philosophy, that I have to question. The first being, “x is x” is not actually defining “x”. What actually is love? Is it wanting to have sex with someone? Is it being with someone who makes you happy? Is it knowing deep things about the person that they don’t share with anyone else? Is it wanting to spend a lot of time with them? Secondly, this concept of “love just is love” i.e. all kinds of love are the same as all other kinds. It might work for a gay rights activist to use it specifically for trying to erode any moral separation between heterosexual and homosexual behaviour, but what about if a teacher has sex with a student? Is “love still love” then? What if a 40 year old man has sexual desire for a 9 year old girl? Can we just say “love is love”, and there’s no distinguishing between what is acceptable and what isn’t? Beyond that, do you “love” pizza the same way you “love” your family the same way you “love” your wife? Clearly, “love is love” serves only one specific aspect of one agenda, and fails to provide anything meaningful.
There’s this idea in secular humanism that “consent” is the great definer of acceptable sexual practice. Literally any sexual thing- as long as it’s consensual- should be allowed to take place. Firstly, the very concept of “should” is questionable in an atheistic framework. Who is defining this “should”? Is it a social construct that a group of people decided was a good idea? What if a different group of people thought consent wasn’t necessary? What philosophical grounding can you have for the metaphysical claim you are making? i.e. that there is a certain way to act, regardless of what an individual or society happens to think is good at the time.
Secondly, consent may define “acceptable” sexual practice in a society i.e. that a government should not interfere in the private lives of citizens in so far as they do not violate consent. Ok, I’m not necessarily opposed to a liberating political philosophy towards sexual ethics. However, “acceptable” is not synonymous with “good” by any stretch. What makes sex “good”? What defines that “good”? Is the definition of “good” one that seems consistent with the virtues we know to be “good”?
Whatever varied and convoluted definition secular society might have of love, Jesus defines it clearly. He says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” and “as I have loved you, go and love others.” That someone lay down their life for another; if someone sacrificed their life to save yours, would you say that person loves you? Well, that is what Jesus exemplified when he died on the cross. But more than that, it’s the way Jesus lived his life- serving others, helping the poor, healing the sick, spending time with outcasts, and so forth- that exemplified love. Jesus sacrificed on the cross, but also throughout his life. He put aside wealth and material possessions, power, status, social appreciation, and instead humbled himself and lived like a common servant.
When we approach sexual ethics within this framework of “self-sacrificial love”, it shifts and defines a new paradigm. Suddenly, sex isn’t about you; it’s about love- real love. Love being a transcendent, ethereal concept represented in the very being of God and made manifest by the person of Jesus. Throughout the Bible, God defines “good” sexual practice as “one man and one woman joined together in marriage” (Matthew 19:5, Ephesians 5:25, 1 Corinthians 7:2, etc.). Throughout Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, he repeatedly instructs husbands to “love their wives”. When we consider what “love” means in the Christian context, husbands are supposed to sacrifice themselves for their wives (and wives likewise for their husbands). A significant part of fulfilling that duty to sacrifice for your spouse is in rejecting immoral physical desires, specifically in regards to Jesus and Paul’s commandments to not engage in lustful practices (Matthew 5:28, 1 Corinthians 6:15-20).
But as I alluded to earlier, Christian “love” is “good”- ultimate “good”, defined by the great definer; above social constructs, above biological desires. Just as God created and defined scientific laws, so too did He define moral laws. But unlike scientific laws, God gave us agency by which to break moral laws. This is what separates the “good” (living in line with God’s laws) and the “bad” (living in contradiction to God’s laws). You don’t have to love, serve, and be faithful to your wife, and that’s what makes it real love- choosing every day to embrace those things. Marriage, in the Christian context, is not merely an aspiration of human love, but of divine love. Romantic love in a marriage is a direct manifestation, expression, and glimpse into the kind of grand love that God has for each one of us.