So here are some additional reflections on the Christian view of marriage and the family. They are mainly based on what I read in Christopher C. Roberts’ excellent Creation & Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage. Everything I say here is provisional and questionable, a very rough draft of something that might become sensible.
Thomas Aquinas, of course, is the Christian thinker most attuned to the idea of created nature and so natural persons. For him it’s clear “that the rhythm of nature demands that male and female should mate in copulation for parenting.” So it’s also clear that Adam and Eve as natural beings engaged in procreative sex even before the fall. Having sex in the state of innocence occurred in the absence of sinful lust, without losing one’s mind in uncontrollable frenzy. Man and woman completing each other through procreative sex has always been part of who we are. It was not, along with death, a just punishment for sin. So human sexual behavior is not to be disrespected as connected intrinsically with falleness.
After rising from the dead, Thomas thought, we would continue to be wholly natural beings. The point of the resurrection was to repair the defects of our natures, not to abolish them. That means we “will lack none of the things that belong to the perfection of our nature,” including the “members of the body…that serve the purpose of generation.” My body is an indispensable part of my being a particular being, and so it is an indispensable part of my irreplaceable personhood. Because each of us “is no mere soul, but a compound of soul and body,” my identity—who I am—dissolves in the absence of my body.
It is possible to find some equivocation in Thomas here. By thinking of each of us as a compound or mixture, he might seem to follow Aristotle, in his way, in thinking of each of us as more essentially soul. It is as souls that we made in God’s image, he says, and in that image we aren’t differentiated into sexes. Aristotle says we must live, as mixed beings, practicing the moral and social virtues. But it’s the mind that’s most of all who I am. It’s who I am when I’m most divine.
Now Thomas doesn’t think of God as mind (nous), but as persons. The personal logos—unlike Aristotle’s thought thinking itself—is intrinsically relational. Having said that, part of the mystery of the Trinity is that God is a relational and personal without being embodied. And, for Thomas, in heaven, our deepest erotic longing is satisfied through loving contemplation of who God is. Our relation to the personal God—and other persons—is not sexual or driven by biological desire.
Thomas says men and women enjoyed procreative sex in innocence. But he doesn’t say that there’s any procreation or sexual enjoyment in heaven. To say, of course, that one of the pleasures of heaven would be the endless enjoyment of “safe sex”—sex detached from birth and death—would be to detach the biological act from all its relational or even natural meaning. It more reasonable or personal, so to speak, to observe that nature would no longer need or want babies. And so we would no longer need or want sexual enjoyment. There would be no need for replacements, and so no inducement to the deed required to generate them.
That suggests quite a transformation of who we are as natural beings. Personal identity would no longer depend on the limits and responsibilities of our biological existence as social animals. It would be easy to say that we would morph into a kind of divine self-sufficiency. But Thomas, of course, doesn’t say that. Our relational pleasures no longer depend on the body, but don’t become merely intellectual either. They are self-consciously personal–the love of persons for other persons. Still, our deepest longing is satisfied by loving, relational contemplation of the sexually undifferentiated, personal God.
Thomas’s thought tends in the direction of the irreducible particularity of whole persons and, of course, the particular providence of the personal God for persons. But he doesn’t wholly abandon the classical distinction between body and soul. He says, for example, that “in matters pertaining to the soul the woman does not differ from the man,” and the difference between the sexes is insignificant when it comes to our spiritual lives and redemption. But he doesn’t go on to abolish the significance of sexual differences and even male superiority when it comes to political life. We aren’t most deeply social or political animals, but we are social and political animals. When it comes to our relationship with God, sexual differences are insignificant, but in our personal relationships with each other we are men and women. Our liberation through Christ somehow both is and is not from being a man or a woman. Our liberation both is and is not from being a social (Darwinian, we might say) and political (Aristotelian) being.
For Thomas, the life of celibacy or virginity might be understood to be superior the vocation of being married with children. It’s about freedom to be more “devoted to the divine things,” as opposed, we might say, to the merely human things. The liberation, of course, can’t be for everyone, because the species would disappear. Concern for the perpetuation of the species and especially the city is why in “olden” or pre-Christian times everyone was legally required to marry. Contemplative liberation was denied even Socrates for political reasons, and he never denied that his “conscientious objection” displayed in his leisurely life to being a parent was an offense against biological nature and political justice. The family wasn’t a personal—but a natural and political—institution.
Christianity liberated persons from the universal requirement to procreate by encouraging the choice of the virginal or celibate life by those called to it. That choice, of course, can’t be universal or even common. It depends on a division of labor between those who live primarily as spouses and parents and those who will perform other indispensable human functions—from securing the city through military service to serving God. People, as Roberts says, are divided “into breeders and nonbreeders,” and there’s no denying that one choice seems higher or more personally liberating than the other. Those who choose the celibate life are denying themselves one human good for another, for one that is more properly divine, one more in anticipation for the life to come.
This division into breeders and nonbreeders might easily be understood too starkly. Thomas understood, of course, that Christianity transformed the character of marriage itself. The goal isn’t merely to perpetuate the species but to procreate and cultivate persons. That’s why human sexual morality is different from that of the other animals. The personal love of human beings is not shared by the other animals. The sexual exclusivity and lifelong permanence of sacramental marriage aren’t a merely biological requirement. Marriage—the complementary union of two persons—isn’t merely for the raising of children. John Locke, for example, says there’s no natural reason why a marriage couldn’t be dissolved after the children are raised. If we were merely natural or political in the way thought by the classical philosophers, Locke would be right. Still, we return to thought that marriage is for life—for this world—and not for forever. Each of us can sing to our spouse, with Whitney Houston, that “I will always love you,” but not as my husband or wife.
Augustine, for personal reasons, actually denies that, after our redemption, we have any requirement for perpetuate the species. According to Roberts, “Augustine, at least from mid-career onward, believed that with the birth of Christ, the vocation of celibacy opened, in principle, to all.” We’re not to be understood as divided into breeders and nonbreeders. The future of the species is no longer to be thought to be our responsibility. If everyone were to choose celibacy and the species wither away, it would make no difference for the heavenly city. To be personal, it appears, is to be liberated from the proud presumption that one’s preservation is in one’s own hands. That’s not to say that Augustine denies or disparages sexual difference, and we’ve already said he raises up the family—and loving paternal servant leadership—as the model for all personal relationships. It is to say that Augustine gives a different emphasis to the thought that to be personal is and is not to be liberated from the limitations of being biological.
For Augustine, it’s not all that Christian to be obsessed with our birth dearth. We shouldn’t be concerned at all if most people were choosing against marriage for the vocation of being celibate for loving service to God. But we have to acknowledge that there’s something perversely semi-Christian—something heretical—about our allegedly liberated women these days choosing against breeding and for their vocations, for being productive and fulfilled through their careers. They are, of course, choosing against both the earthly city—proudly refusing to be reproductive machines for the state—and the heavenly city. Maybe that’s what it means to be autonomous, to be “one’s own person.”