"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sex, Dualism and Ecclesial Unity

Amor and Psyche
Antonio Canova (1786-93)

Any Christian in the West who takes his faith seriously is keenly aware of the significant difference between the Christian moral tradition regarding sexual practices, and the sexual practices and values of contemporary culture. But we have had difficulty explaining to our youth the basis for the Christian moral tradition. We tend to resort to sentimental slogans (e.g. "love waits"), anecdotal evidence (e.g. those who wait report better sex) or pragmatism (e.g. you'll avoid STDs). We have been reduced to these sorts of reasons because we have lost sight of the philosophical basis for the Christian sexual ethic. The four principles that have been lost are (1) the normativity that accompanies teleology as understood through the natural law, (2) the inseparability of the procreative and unitive aspects of the sexual act, (3) the nature of the unity of the soul and body, entailing that our sexuality is intrinsic, not extrinsic, to each person's personhood [hence the impossibility of a 'sex-change'] and (4) the irreducible sacredness and mystery of our sexual organs and the sexual act. (See this pdf article on John Paul II on Love and Responsibility.)

The one-night stand approach to sexuality is based on a dualism that fails to recognize the unity of soul and body. It fails to recognize that in human persons, to unite two bodies in a sexual act without a union of souls is to treat the human person as a mere body. It treats the human person as something other than what he is: an irreducible composite of body and soul. In the sexual act the human person is seeking personal intimacy and mutual acceptance and love from the heart, not merely sexual pleasure. It is dualism that reduces the sexual act to an "exchange of fluids", and disregards what is essential to a truly human sexual union, i.e. the exchange and union of hearts, each heart pouring itself into the other and receiving the heart of the other.

This dualism is widespread. I've been to conferences where Evangelicals, as invited plenary session speakers, have *defended* dualism. (That is partly due to a sola scriptura approach to philosophical anthropology, and partly due to the Cartesian influence on Protestantism.) Evangelical defenders of dualism tend not to see the contradiction between their defense of dualism on the one hand, and their proscription against premarital sex on the other hand. A stipulative, voluntaristic treatment of the divine commands regarding sex is used to fill the resulting philosophical vacuum.

But this dualism also has another form of expression. Not only does it treat union of persons as allowing bodily union without union of soul, in other contexts it treats union of human persons as having nothing to do with bodily or physical union. This can be seen in the notion that a family is any group of people that wants to live together, or that internet chats (or electronic greeting cards) are sufficient for friendship, that "distance learning" is essentially no different than face-to-face discussions with a professor, and that community has nothing to do with living in the same neighborhood, but merely with common interests or beliefs. Dualism also expresses itself in the notion that our unity as Christians has nothing to do with belonging to the same visible body of believers, or sharing the same meal at the Lord's table, or even sharing the same table. All we need for unity, according to dualism, is shared love of Jesus, or shared beliefs in the essentials of the faith. For the dualist, physical, bodily, visible, or institutional unity is deceptive and misleading, or at best unnecessary. What matters is the heart, not all those empty rituals, church buildings, bureaucracies, hierarchies, etc. But this is just the old dualism of the gnostics. It sets up a false dilemma: either empty and dead ritualism and shared bureaucratic unity on the one hand, or shared living faith at the level of the heart on the other hand. To see that this is a *false* dilemma, one need only put it in the mouth of one spouse to the other: "We must choose between engaging in mindless mechanical coitus, or pursuing a purely platonic relationship in which we love each other from the heart."

True Christian unity, which Christ prays in John 17 that His followers would have, is not merely unity of heart, nor is it merely institutional unity. It is both, because human persons are body-soul composites. To understand the nature of the unity of the Church (i.e. the Body of Christ), we have to understand the nature of the unity of the human person. Regarding the Church St. Paul writes, "There is one body, and one Spirit". (Ephesians 4:4) There are not two bodies and one Spirit, or two Spirits and one body. There is unity at the level of body, and unity at the level of the Spirit that ensouls that one body. The unity of the Body of Christ is a unity of Spirit and body, not a dualism of merely hierarchical unity or merely spiritual (invisible) unity. If we import a gnostic or Cartesian dualism into our philosophical anthropology, we will fail to understand the nature of the unity of the Body of Christ. We will think that true Christian unity involves only sharing something at the level of heart (e.g. belief in essential doctrines) or sharing some extrinsic activity (e.g. helping the poor). We'll fail to see that Christian unity is incomplete and imperfect so long as we are not one hierarchically unified body.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant.

Bryan Cross said...

Thanks Tim.

Unknown said...

Really great.

I've seen and been involved with several groups online that attempt ecumenism under the banner of "we all love Jesus and this is all that matters." Your post sheds light on to why those always fail.

Bryan Cross said...

Thanks Oso.