In the October 2011 issue of First Things, editor R. R. Reno ponders why it is so difficult for our culture “to identify a real difference between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.” Relaxed sexual mores and the erosion of traditional male-female roles have destabilized marriage. So, Reno emphasized, has the decoupling of sex from fertility. It is especially here that an effective defense of marriage today requires not only political effort, but “a renewal of our moral and social imaginations.”
Our erotic imaginations have been captured by what Yale’s Paul W. Kahn has called the “pornographic.” The pornographic imagines sex without the most elementary use of language—no names, please. It promises freedom, not only from moral rules but also from the responsibilities, powers, and pressures that result from sex. The pornographic represents a secular sacred, an erotic mysticism, an “ecstatic moment shorn of religion.” It is sex out of time, sex beyond the constraints of history. It promises, in short, to liberate sex from the intrusions of children.
The pornographic is political in its insistent a-politicism. It is no accident that the free love movements of the 1960s allied with radical political movements, and it is no accident that governments have traditionally seen pornography as a threat to public order. And we have the technology to realize pornographic politics on a grand scale. I am not referring to the Internet, but to the various technologies of child prevention, from pills to draining the skulls of half-born babies, we have perfected over the past century.
If the pornographic were limited to porn, its political effects would be comparatively slight. In the Western imagination, though, the pornographic is entwined with the romantic that shapes our most instinctive understanding of love. For the romantic tradition, “Lovers find their completion in one another.” From the latest chick flick, stretching back through Romeo and Tristan, through medieval troubadours and courtly lovers, to Aristophanes of Plato’s Symposium, the West has been infused with a romantic vision of love as union with, as Kahn says, “our mythic other half.”
Though apparently in competition with the promiscuous pornographic, the romantic is a secret “co-conspirator” with the apolitical politics of the pornographic. As Kahn says, “Romance shares in the structure of the pornographic just to the extent that it claims that a life can be complete—that is, full of meaning—in and through the singular experience of the physical presence of the other.” Both pornography and romance are tightly I-Thou, with no room for a third. For both, love reaches completion in the body of the lover, rather than in what the lovers produce together. The romantic shares the pornographic hostility to children.
There have been dissenters from this covertly pornographic consensus. Jane Austen closes the curtain before her lovers have a chance to settle into domestic fertility. In Austen’s world, though, marriage interlaces with a network of public relations. Love for Austen is never the couple’s business alone. Love always balances on the edge of the political. But we are a long way from Austen. In recent film adaptations, even Austen’s novels are gauzily draped in the vestments of the romantic.
Defending the traditional family requires something more than a re-imagination of the politics of love. We need to dig deeper, because every politics assumes a metaphysics. Hegel long ago defined for modern thinkers the dilemma that overshadows all human relationships. On the one hand, if I “objectify” someone, I reduce him to a tool for my own projects and satisfactions. On the other hand, if I do not treat the other person as an object, I don’t treat him as an other at all. Unless he is an object, I effectively absorb him into myself, and enslave him all over again. The other person faces the same dilemma, and so our relationship collapses into a struggle for supremacy. That this is no abstract philosophical point is evident from the countless blissful weddings that rapidly turn into pitched battles.
Robert Jenson argues that if we are to break out of Hegel’s dilemma and give an account of love, we need a third: “If you and I are to be free for one another, someone must be our liberator.” Jenson’s point is theological. A theology that minimizes the role of the Spirit cannot fully affirm the love of the Father and Son. Through an intrusive third, the Spirit, the Father is eternally what he is, “the available and lovable Father” to the Son.
Human relations need an intrusive third party if they are to be healthy. As Jenson says, “Friendship that is too exclusive either withers or becomes destructive,” and “a sheerly bipartite confrontation of economic or social entities is doomed to conflict.” Most especially, “God has arranged that the mutuality of married love—the inevitable paradigm of I-Thou relatedness—shall be achieved by acts whose term is the child—a paradigm of the intrusive third party—whose free agency or suffered absence is the final bond between the couple.”
The crisis of traditional marriage is imaginative and political because it is metaphysical and theological. In Kahn’s terms, the problem can be resolved only by breaking open the pornographic with a metaphysics that welcomes the intruder as a liberator and a politics that welcomes children as the normal fruit of eros. Here especially our culture will grope its way to sanity only by recourse to first things.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
R.R. Reno, Whither Marriage?
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