I was brought up Catholic and I kept receiving and seeking instruction in my faith way beyond the classes in “Sunday school.” My approach to my faith has always been one of curiosity and wonder, and I was never satisfied with perfunctory explanations, or no explanation at all. And when my questions fell in deaf ears, or seemed to have run into a wall, I still kept thinking about them, sometimes for years.
Maybe I am a bit of a “rationalist,” not so much in the sense that I expect to fully comprehend the Divinity (I understood early on that an infinite Deity cannot possibly be enclosed in a limited reason), but in the sense that it has to make sense, even when the sense meant to accept that certain mysteries lie beyond the reach of my reason, though never against my reason.
Among the things that kept me coming back for an explanation was the story of Creation of man and woman. There was something bizarre about Adam feeling unfulfilled after naming all the animals, then put to sleep so God could extract a rib “from his side” and around that rib create a woman. There had to be a specific meaning, a lesson that God was trying to tell us through that story.
My first observation was that, in the first story, there were not really two separate acts of creation, and that told me that God really meant to create one thing, that He really did create one thing. (Of course, all of creation is one act, because in His simplicity, everything that God does, even though we perceive as many, is done in one act.)
In the beginning, God did not created two human beings. In the beginning, God created One Humanity, and that humanity was male, and female. Humanity is the essence shared by at least two persons of different sex.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
There is not such a thing as an individual humanity, because humanity is, by default, pluripersonal. Or does it become pluripersonal…? I believe it was meant pluripersonal since the beginning, because the image being reflected in humanity was also the image of a pluripersonal being. A tri-personal being, to be more precise.
I believe that the point of the bizarre tale of the second version of the creation of Man is merely to emphasize the fact that God creates one only essence, which is the human essence, and that essence is both male and female. The image of God withdrawing Eve from the side of Adam could well be the way of picturing this unity in humankind, a unity that survives the image of Adam’s slumber and Eve being fashioned around the portion taken from Adam’s side.
There was an original union between man and woman, and something split that unity, and somehow that unity is meant to be restored. Man lost something, and woman was missing something, and that which they missed was in the other. They were meant to be completed by each other, and thus neither was in possession of the fullness of humanity, in the sense that neither of them exhausted what we call “human nature” (or the human essence). That nature was shared between Adam and Eve. Nowadays it is seven billion of us that share that one nature. There is not, there has never been such a thing as one individual in possession of the whole human nature, and the closest we could ever get to aspire to an identification between individual and nature was with the first couple of man and woman. Therefore, not even hypothetically could a human being be defined as a single individual, which is a compelling piece of evidence to buttress Aristoteles’ cogent theory of the essential sociability of human beings.
The act by which this original unity is restored—at least physically and biologically, even if fleetingly—is the sexual union of man and woman when it’s open to reproduction of new life. Any kind of sexual union that is not open to life does not have that quality of restoring the lost unity, since it is the complementation of male’s and female’s sexual organs in the act of reproduction that, in a very concrete way, realizes the feat of having two bodies working as one.
The unity of an organism is given by its purpose; not by the result of its operations, but by its purpose. The unity of a soccer team is determined not by the winning result of a game, but by the purposeful willingness of each and all of its members to win the game. It could further be argued that the fact that not every player at every second of the game has the primary goal of winning the game in mind (as in the case that those who play just for the fun of it) doesn’t necessarily thwart the unity of the team. But it is at least required that not a single player in the team has in mind at any point to NOT win the game: there is no possible unity in a team where some mean to win and some others mean to lose. Likewise, the unity of the sexual act is not determined by whether it actually results in a new life, but by the appropriateness of such an act, as act, to be reproductive of new life.
“I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.” (John Lennon)
If there’s one particular human act that brings the world together as one, it would be the sexual union of man and woman in the pursuit of one goal, which is the goal of humankind considered as a whole in perpetuating the species: the reproduction, the transmission of human life. The fact that many individual people do not engage in this kind of acts has nothing to do with this statement.
I think this is obvious, but since there is a common misconception that supports the argument against considering sex as an essentially reproductive act (basically maintaining that reproduction is a ‘side effect,’ an accident or a secondary effect at best), it might be worth pointing out that the sexual act is not required for the full realization of the individual as a human person. If it was, God wouldn’t have created the individual person with an incomplete body.
The full extent of human dignity resides in the individual person, and that is why it is not correct to talk about sex as a “biological necessity” of the individual. But there’s no doubt that it is a necessity of humanity as a whole. And when I say as a whole, I mean strictly speaking a man and a woman, for only a woman and a man together can represent the entire humankind and carry out the command to perpetuate the species. If there wasn’t anybody left on earth but just one man and one woman, they would be that “humanity as a whole,” in which case sex would remain a necessity for the species and become also a necessity for the individuals—I would even dare say, a duty of the individuals, as it indeed was for Adam and Eve.
If there weren’t any individuals of either sex left on earth, humankind can be considered extinct for all effects and purposes. It’s just a matter of time. A matter of just one lifetime, or whatever is left of it to the youngest man (or woman).
Sex as a gift
Sex is a gift in many ways. A gift from God, and a gift from man to woman and from woman to man. Man and woman give each other the gift of themselves in order to make the other complete, whole. By surrendering one’s self, by giving up their whole beings in order to become a new one, a new unity, in the act that is designed to give life, to transmit life by an act of love. We are called to be pro-creators with God in the creation of new human beings. And it only makes sense that if the act of creating is an act of love from the Creator, the act of pro-creating should also be an act of love.
To give life, means in a certain way to die. There is a strange connection between sex and death, if not for anything else, because there’s an essential bond between sex and life. The sexual act symbolizes the giving up of the individual selves, the death of the self that is meant when the spouses swear, with the most solemn and sacred vow, that they give their lives to each other. Where there were two, now there’s one. Whereas the giving up of the self is an arduous and long life endeavor, that needs to be actualized day after day; the sexual act has the capacity to physically, physiologically and biologically actualize that surrender, and that physical surrender becomes the symbol deeply ingrained in the human psyche of the giving up of the whole personal self in a free act of total and mutual submission that is the essence of love and the supreme achievement and realization of human freedom.
Worth it is to notice that the submission of love, to be truly human, must respect the sacred dignity of the human person. Only a submission accepted as an absolutely free and undeserved gift allows for the individual dignity to remain intact. There is not a chance in the universe to overemphasize the importance of this allowance, because the union in mutual and full submission of the self that cancels the sacred dignity of the individual person would ipso facto cancel freedom, the conditio sine qua non of love, turning the union into dust floating and disappearing in the wind.
There is an image of two fish swallowing each other in a Yin Yang kind of circular symbol that I find helpful to illustrate the dynamics of submission in love. The ideal love is that where both lovers submit to each other. But not in a fake kind of submission motion that is neither accepted nor intended, but as a true submission of the self, the whole self, that is accepted as a free gift, only in order to offer it back together with one’s own self in a virtuous cycle that feeds back, in a never ending romantic dance, choreographing the becoming of one in the mutual self giving of the lovers.
Of course, like I said, this is the ideal love. Alas, this kind of love rarely becomes fulfilled in this life. But is the kind of love that we should all strive for. And we should learn to identify its enemies, who are always there, lurking in the shadows to pounce on one or the other, or both. To a certain extent they all attack both sides, male and female, though it is my experience that some of them seem more powerful against the man, and some others seem more powerful agains the woman.
Probably the worst enemy of love, the most harmful when it succeeds, is to lose sight of the free quality of the gift. The moment one grabs the gift as something due, something one has a right to, the most fundamental requisite is taken out of the equation, and the giver is deprived from the freedom to give, without which love becomes a vacuous and perfunctory pantomime. His or her dignity is violated and only the interplay of some very colossal virtues and unlikely changes and circumstances can keep it alive long enough to even get a chance at surviving. The freedom in the giving must be preserved at every moment throughout the lives of the lovers, or else, the very capacity to love is taken away. Besides, when this happens, it is usually coupled with a sef-righteous sense that one is deserving of the other’s love just because of what he or she offers in return, which is very likely to hobble his or her own willingness to offer the full gift of the self that the love dynamic necessitates.
I hesitate to categorize this enemy of love as less harmful than self-righteous love, because even if it is not as overpowering and difficult to defeat once recognized, it is more covert and devious, and it can do a lot of damage before it is unmasked and confronted. I once heard that love is a verb, love is an action. It is not something you feel; love is something you do. Maybe that is why the Romans called it diligere, word that bequeathed its root to words such as “diligence”
I recently heard somebody trying to debunk the “myth” of self-love. She did not succeed, because there is a very strange paradox in Christianity. The call to action of the Beatitudes is totally counterintuitive. It seems to point away from the self, but the final goal is the strongest affirmation of the self. Because, what is the self in the end if not a perfect amalgam of the image of God printed in the deepest recesses of our shared human essence and the full realization of our potential as it is conceived in the incarnated Logos? Yes, because there is a crude image of our nature, and the perfect model of our selves as they are thought of by God when He creates us. And, as with everything else, God creates us, each one of us, through the Logos and in the Logos. And the Logos was the light that illuminated the goal at the end of our path.
We have a natural tendency, almost morbidly dramatized by our modern culture, to be ourselves. “Be yourself!” they tell you, as if being oneself is a matter of choice, as if it is possible not to be ourselves. And, the funny thing is: that is the “honest to God” truth! I’m tempted to say that we are born with the instinctive knowledge of these truisms: that we must become our own selves, which directly implies the second truism, that we are not ourselves!
So, who are we if not ourselves? We don’t know. What do we know? We know that we are created for Life, not this evanescent animal life, but the fullness of human Life, the Life with capital L, that is a sharing in the eternal Life of God. And that Life is in the divine Logos, and that “Life is the light of men,” the light that shines on who we truly are and we are not yet. In other words, what we really, really are is in the divine Logos, and only looking at Him we can become what we are and who we are.
Because there is a unity of nature and individual in the human essence. We become who we are by becoming more human. Essence answers the question “what?” Our essence is “human”. “What” we are is “humans” and we are humans because we all share of this one human essence. Self, or identity, answers the question “who?” However, the human essence is fundamentally personal, hence who we are is also what we are. The more we become who we are (or who we are called to be), the more we become what we are. Person and nature are potentially one. And in this sense we are called to be one with the rest of humankind.
(In a quick side note, this is why it is totally absurd to argue about whether the unborn is a person. Personhood is not something conferred on the human being; personhood is the only possible way of being human).
Why is it so? Because the very essence of humanity is the one that reflects the image of God and aspires to the union of love with the life of God. Therefore, to be human is to love, because the Life we are called to live is the very Love of God. Love is God and God is Love. That is why person and human essence are intrinsically and indisolubly connected, for in personhood resides the capacity for loving. The very definition of a person is, precisely, a being that is susceptible to be loved and capable of loving. And the capacity for loving is sustained by the two spiritual powers that define the contours of the “imago Dei” and are the solid and immovable basis for human dignity: the rational mind and the free will.
And the Logos became human in Jesus the Christ, and in the human nature of Jesus we can come to know the perfect idea of each one of us. The ideal of what we are to become, the potential given
And, as it was said before, the essence of the gift is the completion of the beloved, since only completing the other through the surrender of the entire body can accomplish the most and dearest longing of all lovers: to become one with the beloved.
And here’s the catch: the entire body means the entire body and all its powers. And one very crucial power of the body is the sex, in a very unambiguous way, because it’s a matter of biology, and there can be no doubt that two bodies are working as one for a common purpose, which is the essential purpose of the sexual act. And that essential purpose is giving the other that one piece of the puzzle that is missing in their bodies: the other half of the reproductive organs. Thus man and woman become whole, by virtue of the act that makes them one, thanks to that complete surrender, that gift of the whole body.
And there’s no way around it: when we take out the possibility of procreation, we cannot possibly be completing the other, and there’s no real becoming one with the other. The purpose of making the other whole is gone, and what remains is, well, just as much as the intentions of the two different members of the couple, which can be to please the other or to please themselves. Of course, the sexual act is also a way to show the love between man and woman. But there are many ways to show the love, and only one way to give oneself up in the act of showing love with our whole bodies given as token gifts for the total surrender of the self in both spatial and temporal dimensions.
When the procreative power is withheld, there’s a silent and unnoticed breach. In a certain way, if done unbeknownst to the other, it would be a fraud. Since contraception is typically done of common accord, to use the word “fraud” sounds a little bit harsh. But in a certain way, there is a complicity in the act of using the other person’s body and letting the other person use one’s own for the satisfaction of an urge that we have in common with all the other animals.
God creates us for happiness, and it can be easily argued if need be that the way we accomplish such goal is through love. For love to be true, it has to be free. To love without having a choice in it is a non sequitur. Imposed love, forced love, is not love at all.
Freedom implies the possession of oneself and all of one’s decisions, in order to be able to steer our acts and our whole selves towards the goal of loving, which is another way of saying, the goal of happiness. The hallmark of full possession of a thing, of the property right to it, is the capacity to make that property alien to us: no one that is not the rightful owner of something has the power to give it away. In law, they call these kind of acts by which something is made to become alien to our possession, “acts of disposition” as opposed to “acts of administration.” An administrator can loan something, or rent something. But nobody other than the rightful owner has the power to sell something, or to donate something, as those acts imply the definitive alienation of the thing possessed, the property being definitively moved out of somebody’s patrimony and entering somebody else’s.
There are many kinds of love, and all of them require from us some measure of self-giving. There’s only one though that will require the full measure: marital love. That full measure encompasses the whole of the human person, in all its dimensions: space and time. Space, because the giving of the body is total, with no reservations and with exclusivity. Time, because lovers commit each other “till death do us part.”
The temporal dimension of the self
Of course, there’ll be those who say: “oh, but that ideal of indissoluble union between man and woman is just a religious notion.” To which I will reply that it might be a religious notion, but before and above all else, it’s a very human notion and a yearning of the heart, a notion and a longing of a man and a woman in love. Even after divorce laws have been enacted almost everywhere in the world, a man and a woman in love say to each other, “I’ll love you till the end of my days,” and those who don’t say it will certainly love to hear it said to them. And in the solemn moment of the final commitment, “till death do us part” are their vows. Because their purpose (and I may say, their expectation) is the giving up of the whole self, and of the whole life, with no limitations. And if somebody’s purpose is “till divorce do us part,” my guess is that more than a few girls will not like it one bit.
Of course, the giving has to be mutual, nothing else would befit the limitless dignity of the human person. And the acceptance of the gift has to also be mutual and devoid of limitations. There are no exclusions in the act of giving, and should there be no exclusions in the act of receiving. You cannot say “I accept the gift of your whole self, but you can keep all those bad habits to yourself,” or “I’ll take you but I can’t deal with your….” And feel free to fill in with “nagging,” “bad temper,” “depression,” “distractions,” “lack of attention,” etc.
Paternal and maternal loves are in a different category. Parents do give up their lives in order to transmit new life to their children. Their blood is in their children; they are a continuation of their lives, to a point that they could be considered to many extents as an extension of themselves. But paternal/maternal love is one way. The way back is filial love, a different kind of love, an asymmetrical love, if you will.
Instead, marital love is a two way love. It only makes sense as a two way love. There’s no measure here. The only way to understand marital love is a full self-giving of the spouses. Any lesser measure will leave the door open to unwanted asymmetries that invariably undermine the dignity of the human person. Besides, the lack of reciprocity undermines, and ends up destroying it if it lasts, the very capacity for self-giving, which is the essence of conjugal love.
The dance of love that I referred to before, is only possible if the self-giving is mutual, full, and unceasing. It starts with an act of self-possession, the acceptance of the self that is the prerequisite for the freedom to dispose of it. Then comes the disposal, the actual giving and acceptance that should be literally intended to become enslaved by the beloved.
I know, I know, “slave” is a very strong word, repugnant to our modern cultural ears. But the truth is, when people are truly in love, that is precisely the desire that burns their hearts. There is nothing “imposed” or contrived about this feeling when one has really fallen in love. We soon forget it, and become cynical, and want to disown it, thinking that we were young and immature. But deep inside, we cannot lie to ourselves, we cannot hide from the truth that the desire that burned in our hearts when we first fall in love is probably one of the most spontaneous and authentically human feelings that we will ever feel.
The romantic literature and the even the common language of two people in love will not let us deceive ourselves as to the extent of the desire. We use expressions such as the “madness of love” or being “crazy in love” and “crazy for you,” etc. In Spanish, the word “enajenado” (literally, alienated) is used to refer to a mad person, because is a person that has lost touch with their own self, a person that has become alien to themselves. In other words, they don’t belong to themselves anymore. The phrase “being beside oneself” has this same connotation and, interestingly enough, the first time it was used in print was to translate the French expression “hors de soi,” which literally means “outside oneself.”
In other words, it is not something that is culturally or religiously imposed on the institution of marriage as though from outside; it is a very natural feeling, an intuition springing from the deepest core of the human being.
Once the self is offered and accepted, gone into the dominion of the beloved, once one does not belong to oneself anymore, love can only subsist if the other does the same in return. And now, what is being given is richer—is two in one. If Anna loves Francis, her self will be offered and come out of her orbit. Now Francis is in possession of Anna, and when he loves her back, he is not only giving his own self but also Anna’s self back to Anna, so the love can go on in this kind of wonderful loop of self-giving. And when this is done without reservations, the growth potential of this love knows no limits.
There is an egotistical way of seeing marital love, as a “do ut des” contract, as the Romans would say, and we would say, a “tit for tat”. This view interprets that the marriage contract is a fifty/fifty percent self-giving from the spouses, and that one’s fifty percent is due as long as the other’s fifty percent is given. This does not make sense because it makes love subject to a measure, a conditional love that sooner or later will fall in the vicious spiral of mutual retaliation. “I don’t love her because she doesn’t love me;” or “I don’t love him because he doesn’t love me.”
It’s little surprise that this notion of marital love has led to a veritable divorce epidemic. Besides, in this view, love becomes subjective, and therefore, inconsistent, fickle, whimsical and unfaithful. There’s no way to determine where one’s fifty percent of giving ends. But we’ll know where the hundred percent ends: because it doesn’t. And because it hurts. There’s always something else to give; there’s always room for self-denial increments. That’s what keeps marriages alive, always new, always fresh and youthful. The moment one or both spouses say, “I’ve given everything I got,” that’s when love begins to grow old, and to rush down the path of self destruction.