[Disclaimer: In what follows I offer a brief phenomenological sketch of human intimacy. Read on at your own peril.]
In chapter 12 on “Immutability and Impassibility” in The Attributes of God, Ostler claims that: “In the view I am proposing here, the ultimate moral criteria is the intrinsic value of creativity exemplified in its highest form in personality realized in full personhood” (386). Or again, taking Martin Buber’s phenomenological analysis of “I/Thou” versus “I/It” ways of relating to other people as a frame, Ostler says:
The highest good consists precisely in the relationship that is created between two persons who fully and properly value each other through entering into relation with one another. This relationship is accomplished precisely in entering into the emotional life of the other so that the “other” enters into the shared life of the lover. God enters into this relation constituted as a Thou by taking our very experience and value into his life. God penetrates our being and envelops us in his being. He allows us to enter into him and become a part of his experience just as he enters and induces, to the extent we value him and accept his love, sublime unity and joy.
The most analogous human experience is the intimate agape united with eros of husband and wife in sexual union. The spouse who is properly valued in the relationship is a source of greatest value and the most extreme pleasure and satisfaction known to mortals; but a spouse who is used as a mere thing in such an intimate relationship is a whore. (386)
I think Ostler is on to something here, but I wonder if, in general, we’re not still too Platonic (in all applicable senses of the word) and/or too German-Romantic, in our discussions of sex.
Does sex – in all its raw emotional, material, and spiritual intimacy – really involve bodies as vanishing points for the reciprocal interpenetration of two free subjects? If I am clearly both a subject (a “Thou”) and an object (an “It”), does sex unfold as the union of two increasingly transparent Thou’s?
I wonder if we’d be better off inverting the frame.
Granted the profound intimacy of sacred sex, what is the character of this intimacy? What is the most obvious thing we can say about sex?
Sex (especially sex as sacrament) is about bodies and aspects of bodies.
Take pornography as a counterpoint. From the perspective of consumption, the problem with pornography is not that it involves too much flesh, too much objectification, too much materiality. The problem with pornography is that it disconnects sex from the difficulty and demands of real bodies and substitutes air-brushed spectacle instead. Pornography is spectral and it is consumed by ghosts.
Being a body, being human is not simple. We are objects, not just subjects. And our bodies, as objects, vastly exceed the grasp of our subjectivity. A defining phenomenological feature of my lived experience of my own flesh is its strangeness, its opacity, its willfulness, its quasi-autonomy.
What’s to be done?
Sex, it seems to me, is that one place where we jointly confront, negotiate, and celebrate precisely this being-body, this being-more-than-a-subject. The intimacy of sex hinges on the intimacy of a shared confession that we both are bodies and that these bodies we share are, even to ourselves, a mystery.
In sex, we are smack at the intersection of divine purposes we don’t quite understand and a blind animal drive 3.5 billion years in the making. In sex, we are two Thou’s joined in the intimacy of a shared It.
Practicing intimacy, do you find the other person’s thoughts and desires and feelings growing increasingly transparent, obvious, accessible? Or do you find instead that the intimacy spreads from a common willingness to trust in both the opaque mystery of the other’s body and your own?
Is sex an emptying of the body’s opacity? Or a joint emptying of selves into the opacity of these bodies?
Sacred sex is sacred because, in all material tenderness, it allows our It-ness to actually take center stage.
Or so it seems to me.
With respect to theology, we might then ask two related questions:
1. If Ostler is right that sacred sex is as close as mortals analogously get to divine union, then is the centrality of our intertwined but opaque bodies an accidental feature of this sexual intimacy, a feature that will eventually be purified and rendered translucent in divine light? Or is this dark matter essential to sex being what it is?
2. Further, on what basis should we decide what’s accidental and what’s essential to this intimacy? Scripture? Metaphysics? Phenomenology? Biology? All of the above? Which in light of which?