Sexual Ethics and the Trinity

God reveals Himself primarily as Father. What does that mean for our understanding of marriage?

Even in Christian culture, marriage is often seen primarily as a romantic and erotic union between a man and a woman. Thus, it has become more and more common, when we want to speak theologically about marriage, to talk about the image of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church.

Moreover, the widespread availability of contraceptives has made children seem a somewhat secondary, and voluntary, addition to marriage. Christians are not as inclined to reflect deeply on the connection between marriage and children as earlier Christian generations did.

Although the Catholic Church has continued to oppose contraceptives, those arguments have not had a lot of influence in the pews. And even among Catholics who defend the Church’s teaching on contraception (I’m thinking particularly of Christopher West here, but he is hardly alone), many have focused more on trying to convince Catholic couples that contraception will damage the unity of their marriage—that in blocking fertility, they are withholding a part of themselves from their spouse.

Maybe this is true—I have no strong intuition one way or the other on this question. But it seems to me that very few couples who use contraception understand their decision as a rejection of conjugal union. A man who uses birth control is not primarily saying to his wife, “I do not want you to be my bride.” What he is saying, above all, is “I do not wish to be a father (at least not at this time).” A woman who uses contraception is not primarily saying to her husband, “I do not want you to be my bridegroom.” What she is saying is, “I do not wish to become a mother (at least not at this time).”

This rejection of parenthood should be a serious concern.

First, Christ reveals God the Father to us far more frequently than He reveals Himself as bridegroom.

More important, God is Father essentially. Even if the Trinity had not chosen to create (in which case titles like “Creator” or “Redeemer” or “Bridegroom” would have been meaningless applied to God), God the Father would still have begotten God the Son. Thus, God is Creator, Redeemer, and Bridegroom only contingently: it was His free choice to take on these identities, and He could have chosen to be otherwise. But the Father is Father essentially: He begets the Son necessarily, and the relation of Father and Son is an essential constituent of the Godhead.

If we are created in God’s image, what have we lost from our understanding of that image if we focus more attention on the union between bride and bridegroom, and less on the relation between father and son?

All images limp, of course. Our understanding of Fatherhood in this “valley of tears” is sure to fall far short of the Divine reality. But given the ontological priority of God’s Fatherhood, we unnecessarily limit our understanding of God if we do not meditate on and attempt to understand His Fatherhood. And I suspect that the more we think about Fatherhood and Sonship, the less inclined we will be to view romantic or erotic union as primary and procreation as a secondary, possibly voluntary, add-on to marriage.

In the real world, as opposed to the world of romantic imagination, love for children is often the glue that binds together a marriage that has lost its romantic “spark.” And sometimes, after time passes, the spouses rediscover their love for each other and come to have a much deeper experience of nuptial intimacy and commitment—but this later and deeper experience only occurred because their parental love sustained them through a “dark night” when spousal love could no longer sustain.

This is not exactly an argument against contraception (or, even, by extension, an argument against the romantic view of marriage which underlies the contemporary push for same-sex marriage). The Catholic Church’s reasons for allowing NFP and rejecting contraceptives turn on much subtler distinctions than the broad brush-strokes with which I am painting here. The Church recognizes the legitimacy of marriages by couples who are infertile, or past childbearing age. It recognizes reasons why couples who are fertile might choose to delay or even completely avoid procreation.

I am also not opposed to the romantic or erotic imagery either to describe marriage or to explore our union with Christ. My concern is rather to put it in its proper place in the hierarchy of God’s creation. The problem with our culture is not that it values romance and eros in marriage. The problem is that it idolizes romantic and erotic love. And, for a variety of reasons, it values parenthood much less than previous generations did. The result is that when we speak of love, we have our emphásis on the wrong sylláble.

This fascination with the romantic and erotic is obviously an important factor in the push for what is called “marriage equality”: if we see love in primarily romantic and erotic terms, then we have difficulty seeing any difference between gay relationships and straight relationships. And so drawing our attention to the ontological significance of the parent-child relationship may help us begin to understand more deeply those aspects of the Christian faith which make the Christian tradition’s seemingly exclusionary teaching on marriage intelligible.

I certainly don’t think that making these arguments would dramatically affect the debates about sexuality in contemporary culture—they would largely fall on deaf ears in our culture, because although we do have a concept of fatherhood, it’s radically inadequate. So such arguments would seem to most to be trying to establish the Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality on that incomplete concept of Fatherhood, which likely wouldn’t help much.

My idea is a little bit different.

Once we recognize the theological point that “Father” is arguably the most important predicate there is (far more important that creator or redeemer or bridegroom or even liberated adult), we will realize that a lifetime is far too short to reflect on its meaning and value. Nevertheless, trying to trace it out, and to see how many different aspects of the world and our own image of God reflect the signature of the Father, is a supremely worthwhile task. And when it is pursued, I think it yields significant insights into human relationships, including the true meaning of human sexuality.

Note: See this follow-up post for some clarifications.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

8 thoughts on “Sexual Ethics and the Trinity

  1. I feel umbrage on a couple of the points you raised.

    Firstly, you said,

    ‘A man who uses birth control is not primarily saying to his wife, I do not want you to be my bride.” What he is saying, above all, is “I do not wish to be a father (at least not at this time).”’

    Another possibility, particularly in the post-NT world, is that the husband is saying, “Because of the advent of the second coming, I do not wish to be a biological father at this time, but rather father ‘spiritual’ children by devoting myself to the Church (family) and evangelization. This would no doubt, also square up with the wider Roman idea (and no doubt the basis of the NT portrait) of the father (*pater*) as the head of the household (*familia*) – which in all likelihood included a number of dependents, not only biological ones.

    My thinking is that, while the creation mandate of procreation/fruitfulness is in some senses fulfilled in parents and children, it is encompassed into/superseded by the NT mandate of going and making disciples of everyone.

    Secondly, near the end, you give the impression that there is an obsession with the erotic and romantic – or at the very least, a slight favouring of it over the form(s) of love between parents and children: familial love. Here, I just wish to comment and say that this is not evident in my personal experience (no hard evidence I’m afraid…just a general impression). For me the two go hand-in-glove. Its seems to me that the obsession with romantic/erotic love is coupled with and equal to the obsession with familial/parental love. At least in the circles in which I engage there is a overemphasis on parents and their kids in a biological sense – ‘parenthood’ is as much of an idol as ‘spouse’ is. There is less emphasis on the Church as family, singles and celibates as a part of that family, adoption, families of grace and choice, and not just families of biology.

  2. As I pressed post, I realised that my first line might be misinterpreted because of the variety of meanings of umbrage. I’m using it in the sense given under OED 4a ‘A feeling of suspicion or doubt'; from the Latin for shade, and not in the meaning under OED 8 ‘displeasure, annoyance, offence, resentment’.

    i.e. I’m in doubt over a few of the claims made in your post, and perhaps wish to cast doubt on them myself :)

  3. “The problem with our culture is not that it values romance and eros in marriage. The problem is that it idolizes romantic and erotic love. And, for a variety of reasons, it values parenthood much less than previous generations did.”

    Well said. Many of the romantic movies don’t even get to the marriage part much less to the children. It seems like children are accessories in these make believe scenerios.We want the freedom that comes with adulthood but not the responsibilities especially if this means we have to make sacrifices on a daily basis.

  4. ladenheart,

    While I can see where your umbrage arises, it seems to me to reflect a certain view of vocation that gives me a similar sense of umbrage given my Catholic and religious-friar background. Hear me out, if you please, and maybe it will elucidate some of Ron’s concerns in the process, no?

    In what you say there seems to be (though only possibly, since you could mean a number of things) a notion that one who has entered into a marriage has a duty to the Church which can conflict with the duty to one’s family, which includes (insofar as one is prudently capable) the procreative duty necessary to the fulfillment of the family’s imaging of the Trinity. Certainly in the Catholic view, the determination of the primary mode in which one is called to serve God takes precedence over other duties. Your primary duty as a priest is to the Church, and as a spouse is to your spouse, and as a celibate lay person it is to whomever God sends you. (The ancient Romans actually understood this naturally in terms of the hierarchy of duties; one may find it in Aristotle, and in Cicero, and enshrined culturally after the rape of Lucretia. Marriage, at least, was somewhat respected among Roman citizens.)

    But there was a case in the Church of what the Catholic Church calls “Josephite” or spiritual marriage. In such marriages both spouses mutually abstain from sex. Prior to contraception this was the only way to prevent the having of children, and it did happen from time to time, but in most cases it was undertaken only after grave consideration, usually late in life after having kids, often discontinued under obedience to a confessor, dangerous if improperly undertaken, and generally temporary if prior to having kids. Moreover, there was a constant worry about such marriages that it was because the couple was simply too irrationally afraid or imprudently pious to have kids. So they were rare. Sometimes they worked out well, but many times they just didn’t work out.

    Now we have contraception, which renders marriages infertile but not Josephite, thus neatly indicating (per actum) that someone wants to be intimate (spousal) but not immediately procreative (parental). And while we tend to make an idol of parenthood as much as romanticism, this does not mean that parenthood is not more primary to the purpose of marriage — if anything, idolizing it disfigures the proximate purpose of marriage, procreation, against the ultimate purpose of marriage, happiness and the making of saints.

    But contraception disfigures the act even from its proximate purpose, procreation (and therefore its secondary purpose, intimacy, which arises out of that ordering) in our minds and hearts — much like porn and masturbation. It does not bear spiritual children to allow it, because it is to expect grace while befouling nature. It is not human to say that the only difference between contraceptive and non-contraceptive sex is child or no child; the difference is also in an attitude towards the act, its principle, and its object, because sex is the most intimate communication between two people and in a communication so delicate, the mode of speaking is equally delicate in form. Contraception takes the communication that is sex and muzzles it, removing its expressive potential and rendering it as meaningless as a Justin Bieber song, and rendering its users and its objects infantile in like manner.

    This is, of course, my own claim — you may well disagree, and we are not all Catholic or Protestant or anything like that around here. But it seems to me borne out from experience. And if we can so disfigure marriage and the family as it seems to me we have, how could we possibly allow such a disfiguring agent to become part of the enriched concept of the spiritual family of the Church? It’s like skipping out on date night to go play the chapel pipe organ — unfair to one’s partner, and something the Church would say no to if they knew about it.

  5. Pingback: Sexual Ethics and the Trinity: A Follow-Up | Spiritual Friendship

  6. Pingback: Sexual Ethics and the Trinity: A Follow-Up » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  7. Pingback: Vocation Roundup | Spiritual Friendship

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