Saturday, 19 June 2010

Auntie Seraphic's Brief Sexual Philosophy

The layman Christopher West got mentioned in my combox, and I will say right now that I have read nothing by the layman Christopher West. The hairs on the back of my neck went up when a wonderful Catholic girl I know started spouting the teachings of the layman Christopher West, which was the first time I ever heard his name. She was saying something about the body being trinitarian, or sex being trinitarian, or the Trinity being sexual, and my little heresy-alarm, carefully installed by my Canadian Jesuit masters*, went off. Ee-ee-ee-ee! Catholic thought on sex has hitherto been squarely placed in the Ethics category; what was it doing in Dogmatics, eh?

But as I say, I have read nothing by Christopher West, so the following should not be read as part of the "Christopher West Controversy." It should be read as one of my very brief forays into--eek eek--chastity writing.

Sex is more important to those who aren't having it than to those who are having it. This may be why, in my deplorable youth, my friends and I all eagerly chose the Room A "Sinful Sex; Sacred Sex" lectures during pro-life conferences, leaving Room B ("Media Savvy") completely empty. How we thrilled to the lurid stories of the bad sex that punished and the good sex that was the reward of every Christian boy and girl who kept themselves as pure as a bar of Ivory soap. How the much-experienced chastity speakers knew that the pure would have fabulous sex from their wedding night on was a question I never thought to ask. When this turned out not to be true in my case (the first time I was married), miserable me finally found a book by Dr. Ruth Westheimer on the subject.

Much later, I decided that there really ought to be a Catholic Dr Ruth, and if I ever got married again, perhaps I could be her. I would study Sexual Ethics and have a nice radio show on Ave Maria or wherever. But later I realized that this would really be a job for a medical doctor as well as an ethicist, and that talking about sex all day would be boring. Boring!

I will divide sexual matters into three categories. Keep in mind that I'm doing this without notes, books or any preparation of any kind except vague memories of Sexual Ethics class and a cup of coffee. This is totally on the fly and off the cuff. No bishop in his right mind would stamp this with an Imprimi Potest, let alone a Nihil Obstat. But enjoy.

The three categories are Eros, Concupiscence and Sex Proper. Eros is that laudable impulse in us that draws us out of ourselves to other people and things. Without it, we might as well be boiled potatoes. Eros inspires us to learn, to create, to go outside and see what is there, to approach another mind and see what is in it. Eros inspires us to take a course in art history. Eros inspires us to engage a pleasant-looking person in conversation. Eros inspires us to take a terrible risk and put ourselves at the service of another, whether as a priest or a nun or a spouse or a soldier.

Concupiscence is Eros out of whack, and sadly, as a result of the Fall, Eros is out of whack for almost everybody. We want more than our fair share. We are like little kids who, having been given a portion of good things by God, run to the kitchen to see what else is there.

"Don't eat the pudding," shouts God. "Pudding is for afters!"

"Gobble, gobble," say some of us, covering our faces with chocolate, while others watch from the table, partly afraid, partly envious, and partly excited to see whether the bad kids get a spanking.

In short, you can go outside too much. You can pry into a mind too obsessively. You can study art history too avidly. You can keep the conversation going too long.

One of the more controversial texts in the catechism is how you are not supposed to have an inordinate enjoyment of sex. That, too, is Eros out of whack. St. Augustine said you're not supposed to treat your wife as you might have (as he had) treated hookers; I think what he means is that you cannot treat your spouse as a handy means to a sexual end. Marital sex has to be a mutual conversation or leisure activity (like swing-dancing), not the freaking household god.

So now I have moved onto Sex Proper, which is NOT my favourite subject, because this world is too fond of talking about Sex Proper when Eros is so much more interesting. But, anyway, Sex Proper is the Vitamin C of marriage. No more. No less. It creates babies, too, but I'm talking about the unitive aspect here.

Marriage is called a cure for concupiscence, and indeed it seems to be a cure for sexual concupiscence as married people famously have sex less often than single people who live together in concubinage. But if they are smart, married people keep an eye on how long they go without it because--unless they have made a super-holy and super-mutual agreement (like at the age of 92) to have a Josephite marriage now--their relationship will grow ill without its Vitamin C. It could die of Sexual Scurvy.

So there you go. Celibate people who are dead sick of being celibate think sex is enormously fascinating. Married people think it is a good and healthy thing, like food and drink and gardening. They keep an eye on it like they keep an eye on their diet. But it is not for them a whole different branch of Dogmatics to be ooh-ed and aah-ed over.

I suppose married people can be found at Theology of the Body lectures. I think it a very odd way for married people to spend an evening. For erotic enjoyment, I'd rather go to the opera. For an intellectual challenge, I'd rather read Bernard Lonergan. And for spiritual development, I'd rather go to Mass.

*All my Canadian Jesuit dogmatics profs were solid. Yes, I know. But they really were solid.

Update: FWIW, I found the easiest way to deal with being celibate was not thinking or reading or writing about Sex Proper at all. NO sexy novels.


fifi said...

I appreciate the reminder, in an oversexed culture, that sex is one of many parts of the married life, not the be-all, end-all of existence!

Seraphic, I was surprised you've never read Christopher West, because the views expressed on your blog seem to be so much in harmony with his, actually! I encourage you to read "The Good News about Sex and Marriage' or "The TOB Explained.' Not because I think you are terribly remiss in never having done so, but because I think you'd like it!

Christopher West was hideously misquoted in a television interview recently, and certain among the more prudish faithful glommed onto this, and his tendency to quote (gasp!) U2 and Springsteen lyrics as proof of his heterodoxy. When I have attended his lectures I have not found them to be "talking about sex" but fascinating theology. And I would also place them far more in the "Ethics" category.

I think whoever your quoting friend was has confused or overstated his thought, which is, by the way, basically the thought of JP the Great, in prose that is actually digestible. West has got the okay from several bishops, including Chaput, Rhoades, and Cardinal Rigali. His fans can at times be annoying, but the man himself is worth a read.

Gui de Paris said...

I am sorry. Christopher West is porno for single Catholics, especially lonely single Catholics struggling with social isolation. I have seen him speak, and while I think that on the whole he tries hard to be orthodox, he deliberately skates as close to the edge as he possibly can, and he is definitely in the camp where sex = holiness = grace = divine love blur together into one continuum.

Fine that married love is an earthly sign of Trinitarian community and God's love for us; not fine that God's love for us and the life of grace is a bigger, better form of sexual love. There is ultimately a discontinuity between God and Man. The sign is categorically different than the reality it points to.

I think that on stage West gets FAR into TMI territory about the conversion experience that brought him to his cuurent views; he sometimes speaks with another guy who is TMI squared. I can see how this offends some people; on the other hand, maybe some men overcoming porn addictions need to hear it. In either case it suggests a fundamentally warped perspective.

My real and personally-held objection to West is that he encourages the "bargaining with God" mentality that afflicts long-time single Catholics: "My God, I know that if you let me suffer long enough, some day I will get married and have amazing sex!". Not a healthy state of mind. I worry when I see Catholic singles snapping up the "Naked without Shame" CDs. Message on CDs may be fine (if you are well catechized); state of psychology when buying them in a fit of anxiety over singleness may not be.

As for misquoting--if your apologetic style is such that you are easily misquoted or misunderstood by those who don't have the formal academic training to understand what you are saying or not saying (and often you need to parse carefully to see what West is NOT saying) then you need to adapt yourself to your audience and speak in a way that will not mislead, confuse or scandalize the less educated.

Julie said...

I have found your update to be true. When I first tried/realized I needed to distance myself from sexy content (shall we say), I felt a little ashamed of myself and frustrated. I mean, c'mon, what kind of person "can't handle" a little adult material? It's not like I was involved in anything truly explicit, and it seemed childish or prudish to avoid things just because of sexual content. But it didn't take long before I could recognize that if I don't like the effect then cutting out the stimulant helps immensely; in other words, duh.

KimP said...

Seraphic, if you go to Dawn Eden's blog, you'll find that she has done a rare update on it regarding her thesis - which involves Christopher West's TOB - she's not entirely for it as you can see.

Seraphic said...

I have not read Christopher West, but if he is indeed encouraging a bargain mentality, or any mentality in which someone simply ASSUMES they will get married one day and "have great sex" (Aquinas would have a fit!), then I most definitely disagree with him.

For years, I had no idea if I was ever going to find Mr. Right and get married. I HAD NO IDEA. All I could do was try to find the joy in my long-term Single Life and try my darnedest (with the help of Grace) to live as a Catholic Single should. Finding B.A. WAS NOT A REWARD. Finding B.A. was God's will for me.

I think it is important to underscore that I do not believe I got a husband as a reward for services rendered to God. Absolutely not. B.A. isn't even telling me here that he admired by attempts to be a good Catholic or anything like that. He says he fell in love with me because I was pretty, and he decided that that was okay because I was Catholic.

Er. Okay, this just proves that men love who they love and not who we think they should love (or WHY they should love).

To return to my thoughts about Vitamin C (and Thomas Aquinas), Thomas Aquinas thought the idea that we might be rewarded in heaven with lots of sex was absolutely disgusting. Big Tam was not very interested in physical pleasures in heaven, and incidentally, he did not believe eating would be part of the life everlasting either.

Gui de Paris said...

Dawn Eden has done the definitive critique of Christopher West--and she seems to have important new information--new to me, anyway--about West's upbringing in the very peculiar Mother of God community.

theobromophile said...

I know that he is Protestant, and not Catholic, but I absolutely adored Rob Bell's "Sex God". No, it's not a how-to manual, nor a discussion of Sex Proper, but about how we are made.

Now, if you want another blog-post subject, there's the chaste Single woman's fear of sex, male sexual desire, and the ways that it can do things to someone emotionally. At least for me, this, more than anything else, is what makes me think about sex.


THANK YOU!!! Trans-Atlantic hug, please?

On my "things I dislike about being Single" list are... Marrieds who think that it's my fault that I'm not one of them. I've been told that I'll marry when I have a better relationship with God, that husbands are rewards for religiousity, or that if I can't find someone, it's because there's something wrong with me.

While we all try to be the best people we can be, so as to attract and be good spouses for the types of people we would want to marry, that does not mean that a lack of a spouse is an indication of a personal defect, nor that the presence of one is a sign of unique grace.

So thank you, Seraphic, for not only saying that, but throwing the caps in, just so we know you mean it. :)

Seraphic said...

Hmm... Maybe I should do a post on the subject of B.A. not being a reward. B.A. was a GIFT (more caps). Did I deserve the gift of B.A.? Certainly not. I don't actually know what "deserve" means, when we are talking about the gifts of God.

When you get a great gift from God, your feeling should be like when you get an over-the-top big cheque from your parents on your birthday, and you feel, "Wow! I so don't deserve this but--thanks! Thanks Mum and Dad!"

fifi said...

@Gui: Have to say I strongly disagree. NEVER heard him talking about sex=holiness=grace, this is such a gross oversimplification of his talks, and one he explicitly warns against. Also, regarding the whole "great sex" bargaining issue, I've heard him explicitly reject that whole cliche of Sex-and-the-City "great sex." Not to say that married sex isn't great of course, but fraught with many human issues as Auntie and her correspondants make us aware. I never walked away from a talk thinking I would be rewarded for good behavior: rather, I gained inspiration to "love as God loves" in my own state in life, as well as a new appreciation for the consecrated and married vocations.

And as for TMI, well, the most explicit thing I heard Christopher West say in his talks was when he was quoting the Late Great, and if we can't agree on West's orthodoxy, I think most people would agree that JPII was the poster boy.

I don't mean any of this personally, I get that people go to his talks and disagree. I just hope that the readers of this blog will give West's work a chance, with an open mind.

(getting off soap box now...)

Alisha said...

I agree with what you said about opposing any kind of bargaining mentality and that the reality that the sign points to being greater and even different in character. However, I take issue with this:

"Christopher West is porno for single Catholics, especially lonely single Catholics struggling with social isolation."

In terms of skating close to the edge, I'd say this skates rather close to uncharitable.
I would also argue that perhaps lonely single Catholics who are socially isolated should not be sitting inside and reading Christopher West. They shouldn't be sitting inside reading, period, because the last time I checked, reading books is not the ideal way to make new friends and cure social isolation.
It's unfair to argue against something based on the effect it may have on people who are off kilter in their emotions or formation. I am not going to put my hair up just because some creepy men may see it as a turn on if it's down because that would be catering to their illness.
I cannot speak to specific items of teaching but I think describing CW as porn is a rather harsh way of describing the work of a man who is trying to be faithful to the Church's teaching.

As for changing one's apologetic style, people have limits. Perhaps that is all he can do. Moreover, even if he was the clearest person in the universe, some people are very very stupid or have been misformed so much that they can't recognize the truth.

I personally think that no balanced on the ground theology can really be developed when Catholics virtually have no presence in the wider pop culture that dominates most people's understanding of sex. Perspectives on sex from Catholics who are in their little unevangelical caves and who get overly fanatical about these things can warp almost as badly as perspectives on it from the world with no influence from the Church.

If you have other suggestions of who to read - perhaps a middle ground between really annoying chastity advocates and really annoying avid TOB POD Catholics - that would be great.

Seraphic said...

Yes, you're all more interested in Christopher West than me. Humph humph humph. ;-)

I am going to suggest Alice von Hildebrand. My friend is reading her "Letters to a Young Wife."

Me, I read nothing about sex and sexuality. Nothing. Sex is for fun with your spouse and making babies, and there won't be any sex in heaven. It is worldly, unintellectual and not really that spiritual. Usually you need it to keep a marriage together, however. Vitamin C.

Celibacy is a sign of the kingdom, and virginity is ontologically superior. Reginald of Piperno said that in his vision of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, they were equal in majesty except that St. Thomas was a little shinier (or whatever) because he was a virgin all his life.

I simply do not think you can pursue holiness by having sex, anymore than you can pursue holiness by becoming a gourmet chef or eating lots of fruit. Fasting and abstinence, however, have been life-giving penitential practises since before Pentecost. End of story.

Gui de Paris said...

Read Dawn Eden. Tip her $10 for a copy of her master's thesis on Christopher West if you possibly can. Check the summary she provides for free in the update on her blog.

Cordi said...

Seraphic, I am puzzled by your statement that sex is "worldly, unintellectual, and not really that spiritual", because the spiritual bond of marriage only becomes indissoluble when the marriage is consummated. How can it, as a worldly and not-really-spiritual act, make an unworldly and spiritual bond?

Sheila said...

Seraphic, you're so right when you say that it's the single people who think sex is everything. I went back to my Catholic alma mater for a debate on NFP, and almost every (single) person there was pronouncing pompously that marital abstinence is well-nigh impossible and inadvisable. I guess they don't know that even atheist couples will often practice nine months of abstinence, in a high-risk pregnancy, or a year of abstinence, in a deployment. Sex is good for marriage, but it is certainly not the be-all and end-all!

Also -- this notion of chastity speakers that you'll be "rewarded" for waiting by "awesome wedding night sex" reminds me of the natural birthing advocates who said I would automatically get a "birth high" if I gave birth without drugs. I waited, and I gave birth without drugs, but I didn't get the promised reward in either case. But it doesn't matter to me, because that isn't WHY I made those choices. There are good, rational reasons to do these things, and you don't need to make your argument ridiculous by promising all sorts of pie-in-the-sky delights that people may or may not experience. Even without those "delights," I am still happy with both decisions because of the REAL benefits they had.

In short, I agree with you completely.

Seraphic said...

Dear Cordi, like St. Paul said, it's a mystery. Anyway, I said "not really THAT spiritual", not that it wasn't spiritual at all. And marriage IS a worldly bond. Marriage stops at death. It belongs only to the world. Virginity (if kept) is forever. Priesthood is forever. Marriage is not. I am one flesh with dear old B.A., not one soul. Once my flesh gives out, he is free, free to pursue the lovely ladies in the neighbourhood, and good luck to him, say I.

By the way, I am not super-positive you have to sexually consummate a marriage for it to valid. {Fr. B, give us your canon lawyerly wisdom.) There is such a thing called Josephite marriage. Our Blessed Lady was validly married, was she not?

One thing I want to bang into Single heads, which I can do in a different way now that I am Seraphic Spouse, not Seraphic Single, so I know more what I'm talking about from the marriage side of things, is that marriage is not THE greatest spiritual, mystical, magical mystery of the world. It's nice, I like it, it's a sacrament, it's the best place to bring up kids, but it is not the summit of Christian life.

When it comes to a showdown between me and Sister Mary X in the Benedictine convent, I am totally a second-rater--unless I am martyred, in which case I win because martyrdom trumps virginity, St. Augustine said so.

Really, I think we all, secular or sectarian, should stop telling young people that sex proper (in marriage or in sin) is the greatest, the most exciting, the most important thing in the whole entire created world. Sure, it's important but puh-leese. Enough, already! Real mysticism, the kind which comes from a lot of prayer, is probably what we should really get excited about.

Cordi said...

Thanks for your response! Just to clarify, are you saying that in marriage there exists a spiritual but temporal bond that is broken by death, or that the bond is only a physical one (i.e. one flesh but not one soul)? I certainly agree that virginity is a more perfect state of life than marriage, and that sex is not the culmination of human happiness, but I wouldn't want to try to reduce sex to something that merely is fun and makes babies.

(Also, I was taught that while an unconsummated marriage is valid, it's not indissoluble. So until a marriage is consummated, it can be dissolved by the pope, which seems to mean that the conjugal act has definite spiritual ramifications.)

Seraphic said...

Cordi, I had a whole long clever answer and my computer ate it.

In short, WHY wouldn't you want to reduce sex to somthing tht merely is fun and makes babies? Sex should not be made more important than it is. B.A. was just here agreeing with that. He says young Catholics should stop mysticizing it into this GREAT BIG IMPORTANT THING. Yes, it's important. No, it's not a portal to the divine.

I have already said it's the Vitamin C of marriage. It certainly sets up a psychological bond, but that is due to brain chemistry and works outside marriage, too, which is why so many women stay with boyfriends who abuse them, or fall in love so quickly with losers.

B.A. and I agree that our spiritual highs come from Mass. I cannot report any mystical experiences from bed--sorry.

Seraphic said...

Thanks for the back-up, Sheila!

Cordi said...

Seraphic, I'm sorry I didn't get to read your long answer, because I'm not sure if I disagree with you (which would be unusual), or misunderstand you. Thanks, though, and thanks for your blog!

theobromophile said...

Seraphic, another big "Thank you!!!" (complete with transatlantic hugging) for saying that sex is not the best thing in the history of ever. That just makes people - perhaps even women more so than men - feel deprived.

In short, WHY wouldn't you want to reduce sex to somthing tht merely is fun and makes babies?

For the very practical reason that a lot of people will quickly turn that into: use birth control and have fun, married or not.

Now, I know that this is not what you were thinking when you wrote this, but, as someone who has spent her entire life in a place that is very similar to your "Barely Catholic" alma mater, I see this thought process around me every single day, and it's incredibly hard to disabuse people of this notion.

In short, as a matter of language and phraseology, I would beg you to not talk about sex being nothing more than fun and babies, because the harm that comes from the straightforward interpretation of that mentality is horrific. But there's other ways (e.g. Vitamin C of marriage) to express the same idea.

Maybe a better way to put it would be that it's fun, a way to make babies, and a way to communicate love to someone - a physical closeness that matches emotional closeness.

Seraphic said...


Wait! What's that? People are going to use my work to justify birth control? They'd have to be bonkers.

Sigh. Okay.

Fun=unitive, Vitamin C. Only for spouses.

Baby potential=procreative. Also only for spouses.

And you can't have one without the other.

St. Paul said that marriage between man and woman was a sign of Christ and the Church, so marriage is holy now, not just good. He didn't say that about sex, mind you, he said that about marriage, so if you're in a Josphite marriage, as so many Early Christians eventually agreed to be in, your marriage is still a sign of Christ and the Church and therefore holy.

Now, if anybody else talks about sex for the next 12 hours, I will go completely catatonic.

theobromophile said...

Forgive me, Auntie, but I know a lot of people who have been influenced by bonkers people.

Now, if anybody else talks about sex for the next 12 hours, I will go completely catatonic.

You know what this blog needs? More recipes! It's been what, two months since we last got one?