The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 70s promised freedom and bliss but brought pain and slavery instead. Women wake up crying with foggy memories of drunken hookups. Men are afraid to get married. They saw their parents’ marriages collapse, and their own brains have become so conditioned by porn that they fear they won’t be able to stay interested in one woman. Both men and women binge-drink to drown their guilt and pain–guilt from sex without love, and pain from broken relationships. Some feel shame because of abortion, others because of the STDs they live with. Most grew up in broken homes; those who have seen friends with parents who stayed together feel cheated because theirs didn’t.
Often it is said that the Sexual Revolution made sex too important. Actually, the problem was that our culture didn’t make it important enough. Rather than seeing physical love between a man and a woman as the profound mystery it is, pointing subtly to the meaning of the cosmos, it banalized it, reducing it to little more than a recreational exercise–or worse, the exchange of bodily fluids.
But there is hope. Reason has always hinted, often by whispering, that there is something profoundly meaningful in human sexuality. Other mammals reproduce by sexual coupling, but the mode of the human animal is different. Only human beings look each other in the eyes when they have sex. Only human beings joke and laugh during their “love-making.” Only human beings feel shame when they learn they have been seen in coitus.
Then there is the physicality of human sex, that by itself cries out for interpretation. Why must the woman open her legs, as if to welcome? The welcome involves trust, for she has made herself vulnerable to a man who is usually far stronger. Why does the man take off his clothes, opening himself to ridicule, if he does not trust the woman to welcome him? He exposes his most sensitive organ, which he knows the woman can harm if she chooses. He too must trust.
The two can avoid each other’s eyes, but only by dodging what is more natural. This is the behavior of persons whose souls speak through the eyes. It is plain to those with eyes to see that these are not merely bodies exchanging pleasure, but that this is an action meant to exchange love. If there are no words of affection, one will often object. Their physical oneness calls out for tenderness. But why should it, if this is merely a physical or emotional release?
The man releases semen, a word that means seed. He inserts his seed into the same canal that will deliver a baby–if the man and woman don’t prevent the seed from joining the woman’s egg. Clearly this act is designed to make a baby, even if the actors don’t want it to.
If sex is meant to create love and babies, does it also tell us something about God? Some years ago Gilbert Meilaender suggested that sexual difference forces us to grow as persons because the opposite sex challenges us in ways our own sex does not. Friends of the same sex tend to think as we do, and so don’t usually push us to be different. But those of the opposite sex, especially when we live with one of them (!), often see things very differently and challenge us to change. This can only happen in a close relationship. But because sexual attraction makes unmarried opposite-sex relationships unstable, it is usually only in a marriage—where sexual attraction can strengthen the relationship—that we can learn from the challenge, change, and grow.
Meilaender then asks, Why is this so? Why does God create his human creatures in this way, so that tension in marriage helps us become better persons if we let it? His answer is that God is the great pedagogue, training us for another world. “We are being prepared ultimately for that vast friendship which is heaven, in which we truly are taken beyond ourselves, and in which all share the love of God.”
Meilaender suggests that sexual difference is the most profound of the host of differences we find among people in all of life. All of these differences in this life are to be embraced in both the joys and stresses of friendship as they prepare us for the millions of friendships we will enjoy in heaven.
There are two last ways that sex helps us think about God. The first is the thirst that sexual fulfillment leaves lovers with. Paradoxically, even when sexual intercourse seems fulfilling to each partner, both are sometimes left with a thirst for more. If not more physical fulfillment, then more emotional and spiritual union with each other. William F. May wrote of the love that “asks for a continuance of love.” Its love-making awakens “a further thirst even while it slakes. That is the grandeur and the misery of sexual love.”
And even when the two feel united in love and spirit, the spiritually sensitive will sense there is still something missing. This is a deeper thirst for the ultimate love of God. “In the very union of the two, man and woman render themselves needier, which increases in them the thirst [for] the mystery” of God. Reason shows us, reflecting on human experience, that sexual love, even when accompanied by emotional fulfillment, suggests the existence of a greater fulfillment.
The second sign in sexual difference that reason can discern is eros. C.S. Lewis famously explained that this is not sexual desire but the desire for union with the beloved, even if union brings suffering. Oneness with my lover is more important than my happiness. This is the eros of which Plato and, more recently, Allan Bloom wrote. It is not Christian agape because while eros desires the beautiful, agape loves even what is not beautiful. And eros is a “wild and unruly” god that can become a demon if it is not submitted to agape. But even alone it is a type. For it points to love for God which seeks union with him and not happiness. Of course happiness will come when we are united to God. But in the meantime we must seek God and not happiness, lest we confuse our desires with his and lose both him and happiness.
None of these signs of sex tell clearly the final meaning of sex, which can be seen only through biblical revelation. But these natural signs, parts of what the Christian tradition has called natural law, can serve two useful purposes. They can help believers “train up their children in the way they should go” by making sense of what to many young is arbitrary dogma. They can also provide a mode of discourse accessible to unbelievers in the public square. If we want to continue to argue in public for what makes for a healthy society, these signs can be useful.
This is adapted from McDermott’s recent book, Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in All of Reality (Brazos, 2018) Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.
 Meilaender, “Men and Women—Can We Be Friends?” in Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying (Notre Dame: UND Press, 2000), 145-46.