Feast of St Athanasius & Cyril, Patriarchs of Alexandria
FIRST THINGS recently published a piece I wrote titled “Eight Theses on Sex.” In the first thesis, I suggested that sexual union is a sacrament of union with Christ. I took my cue from Saint Paul’s statement in Ephesians 5 that the one-flesh relationship between husband and wife is a profound mystery that refers to Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31–32). Viewing sexual union as sacramental in character opens the way for treating erotic desire, love, and marital life in a uniquely Christian perspective. This approach implies that sexual union is far more than just a biological act that exists for purely horizontal ends—say, for the purpose of pleasure or having children. Treating the sex act as a sacramental act takes it (as well as the erotic desire in which it is grounded) beyond its purely this-worldly, natural being. Even the sex act (or, perhaps I should say, especially the sex act) isn’t a purely natural act. Inasmuch as it is sacramental in character, it is intimately linked to the otherworldly, heavenly reality of Christ. The earthly act of lovemaking participates in the heavenly realm of love; or, we could say, the love of the triune God becomes sacramentally present in the sexual act. (For my understanding of the created order as sacramental in character, see Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, 2011, pp. 19–39.) By making love, husband and wife thus bear witness to the intimacy between heaven and earth, the union between Christ and His Church. The couple reveal something of the love of God Himself because their act of lovemaking makes present the kingdom of God.
My friends at the Eighth Day Institute recently recommended to me Philip Sherrard’s 1976 book Christianity and Eros: Essays on the Theme of Sexual Love, and in this short essay I want to offer some reflections on the sacramentality of the sex act in light of Sherrard’s book. Let me begin by saying: I was not disappointed—it’s a great read. Sherrard was a twentieth-century Orthodox thinker who drank deeply from the wells of patristic and contemporary Orthodox thought, who was deeply suspicious of the separation between nature and the supernatural that he thought has bedevilled Western (and especially modern) thought, and who recognized that in order to combat today’s social and cultural problems we must turn to the resources of the Christian Platonist tradition. In short, Sherrard was a sacramental thinker—someone who believed that ordinary things in life aren’t as ordinary as they seem. Sherrard’s definition of a sacrament makes this clear: “A sacrament is the revelation of divine life to the creature that participates in it. It is the revelation of divine life within and through the creature” (CE 75). Well-said!
For Sherrard, then, sexual love is sacramental. That’s one of the main threads (perhaps the main one) that runs through the book. The “sexual energy” that flows between two people from the opposite sex comes from God: “It is the radiating, magnetizing, vibratory current which courses through the whole living fabric of human life,” which is “divine in origin,” and which “is polarized in the sexual character of human and other life,” “polarized into male and female, active and passive” (CE 77). This sexual energy is sacramental in character, not because it leads to offspring; rather, claims Sherrard, it “derives its sacramental quality from the fact that its own origin is divine and its own nature is sacred” (CE 77). These are powerful words—Sherrard points us beyond a merely natural, this-worldly understanding of sexual love and of marriage. For Sherrard, sexual love is erotic in character, and eroticism is not something to avoid but rather to celebrate as divine in origin and sacramental in character.
And yet, is Sherrard sacramental enough? Is his affirmation of eros and sexual desire sufficiently robust? Does he provide a theological antidote to the late modern crisis in sexual morality? Unfortunately the answer is negative on each count. The reason becomes clear when we ask: what exactly is it that Sherrard thinks is sacramental in character? The answer is most emphatically not: the physical sex act. Sherrard has a deeply ambivalent, even negative view of “making love” (an expression he dislikes; CE 1). He is highly critical of the Western tradition’s focus on the genital act. This fixation has treated the sex act as the consummation of the marriage sacrament (because it is the sex act that leads to procreation), and the result is a “hopelessly idealized” view of sexual intercourse (CE 29). For Sherrard—and here he selectively draws from Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Vladimir Soloviov, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, and Nikolai Berdyaev—the sex act is “at best an imperfect and all too often a most crude and inhuman form of sexual communion between man and woman” (CE 29). The sex act has to do with our animal nature. Sherrard seems comfortable with the position of Berdyaev and others, which treats animal sexuality and genital intercourse as opposed to sexual love (CE 64–65). (Sherrard does subject Soloviov, Merezhkovsky, and Berdyaev to some critique [CE 70–71], but he has deeply imbibed their thought, and he himself sharply distinguishes between physical intercourse and sexual love, treating only the latter as sacramental.) The sex act is the result of our fallen condition; it is emphatically not sacramental in character. In short, Sherrard regards “sexual energy” as sacramental, but intercourse as a negative expression of our animality. On Sherrard’s understanding, the sex act is not about sexual love.
This sharp separation between sexual love and the sex act (with only the former being sacramental in character) is a problem, I think. But before I go there, let me reiterate that there’s much in Sherrard’s approach that’s deeply attractive. I have long been convinced that Saint Gregory of Nyssa is on to something when he links the sex act with animal passions (though it’s not clear to me why Sherrard applauds this in Nyssen and chastises Augustine for it). Eros is an ambivalent attraction—and sexual desire and sexual intercourse inevitably contain a self-directed element. The contemporary celebration of erotic desire and of sexual (i.e., genital) expression is mired in self-delusion: it ignores the obvious harm caused by untrammelled self-expression and is oblivious to the self-directed aspect that is an inescapable part of our erotic expressions. The Church Fathers rightly remind us that physical desire, sexual union, and even having children are not ultimate. They are merely penultimate to the ultimate satisfaction we obtain in the vision of God.
I love it, therefore, that Sherrard consistently reminds us that this world is not our home; we should primarily be focused, not on the world but on the kingdom to come. “Christianity,” Sherrard rightly insists, “is concerned with the transfiguration of the world,” so that “there must be a basic—and on one level tragic—conflict between participation in the kingdom ‘not of this world’ and the biological continuation of the human race in this world …” (CE 24). Sherrard has a point, therefore, when he cautions against treating procreation as the purpose of marriage. It is one of its aims (something Sherrard could be much more forthcoming about!), but not the most ultimate one. The ultimate aim of marriage is life with God—beatific vision and deification (CE 15). Sexual love aims at a supernatural end.
This is the first half of this review essay. The full version appears in the NEW ISSUE OF SYNAXIS: THE SYMPOSIUM JOURNAL - "Eros & the Mystery of God: On the Body, Sex & Asceticism"
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