Recently I was talking with a young woman who was trying to convince me that I, and the church, have a distorted view about sex. “You make it such a big deal and link it so inextricably to love. It can be that, but usually it isn’t. I can tell you, most of the time love is not about what happens between the sheets!”
She was talking from considerable experience and I wasn’t about to argue the point. Sex is not always about love, though it should be. It is however about soul, and this is the thing that neither my young friend, nor our culture, really understands. Whether it is mindless, abusive, or sacramental, sex always, and deeply, touches soul. Sex and soul are inextricably linked.
Nikos Kazantzakis once wrote: Three Kinds of Souls, Three Prayers:
1) I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me, lest I rot.
2) Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break.
3) Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!
Something similar might be said about sex: Three Kinds of Sex, Three Effects:
1) Abusive sex – destroys the soul.
2) Casual sex – trivializes the soul.
3) Sacramental sex – builds up the soul.
In recent years, our culture has come light years forward in its understanding of the first category. We now know how deeply damaging is all sexual abuse. It wounds in a way that perhaps no other thing does. To be violated sexually is not the same as to be violated in other ways. Abusive sex leaves a soul scar that is unique both in its pain and in its power to create chaos and disintegration within the one who has been violated. We now know how deep is the cut that is left by any sexual crime.
Where we are far less insightful is in our understanding of casual sex. To my mind, there are few areas within human relationships where, as a culture, we are as blind as we are in this one. We live in a culture within which, for the most part, sex has become a normal part of dating and within which we have begun to identify contraceptive responsibility with sexual responsibility. Thus, for the main part, we are beginning to believe, and what a naivete this is, that casual sex, “as long as it is consensual, contraceptively responsible, and loving”, harms no one and leaves no scars. We rationalize this blindness, as does my young friend, precisely by separating real love from what happens between the sheets.
But, while our heads may not be hurt our souls are. They are affected in ways that we no longer have the courage to squarely face. Casual sex, however loving and consensual it pretends to be, trivializes the soul and ultimately cheapens the experience of love. In sex, something very deep is touched, even when it is not intended. It is no accident that past lovers appear in present dreams. Sex and soul are inextricably linked.
The late Allan Bloom, examining this from a purely secular point of view, suggests that casual sex de-eroticizes and demystifies human relationships since sexual passion now no longer includes intimations of eternity. Sex, for all its power and potential, is now precisely “no big deal”. In Bloom’s words, it, like most everything else, becomes “narrower and flatter.” There can be no illusion of eternity in casual sex. The soul has to make it flat and narrow so as to protect itself against lying. This is a fault in the soul and the soul that acts in this way is being trivialized and, in some way, distorted.
Bloom elaborates with a rather graphic example. Lamenting precisely the rather flat and narrow experience of a soul that has been trivialized through its erotic experience, he says: Plato, in his Symposium, comments on how his students sit around and tell wonderful stories about the meaning of their immortal longings. My own students, says Bloom, sit around and tell stories of being horny. Such is the difference in soul.
Finally there is sacramental sex. It has power to build up the soul in ways that, this side of eternity, few other experiences can. It is eucharist, incarnation, love-made-flesh, truly. In sacramental sex, a soul is joined to another and, in that moment, experiences the central purpose of God’s design for it. When that happens the soul strengthens and swells, in gratitude, stability, and peace … and that kind of experience of soul is, our culture notwithstanding, truly a big deal!