On the Meaning of Sex 7: Time to Transcend this Book

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex. Read my Introduction here.]

[I’ll never look into those eyes again…]

And, we have done it. We come now to the 7th and final chapter of On the Meaning of Sex, “Transcendence,” in which Budziszewski reveals that… dumdumDUM… he’s been preparing, through this whole book, to tell us about the beauty of God’s love for us. There’s not much argument in this chapter, and not much to dispute. At least, you won’t catch me arguing with the idea that earthly love points to Godly love.

But, still. Oh, man.

“Since God does not need us, why does he care for us, how could the Lover of Souls even bear such a name?” Budziszewski asks. “The very idea of a God of love was a stumbling block for the ancient philosophers, for whom God was less a person than a theorem, ‘thought thinking itself.’”

 Then he answers himself: “But suppose we begin at the other end; suppose it is actually true. What then? If God loves us even though He has no need of us, then the only remaining possibility is that love is not just something that He does, but what He is” (144).

Reading this, I don’t know whether to kiss the book or throw it away in frustration. Let’s just say it’s a strange conclusion from a man who has spent all six of the previous chapters making that case that love must be purposeful—and that sexual love is only good insofar as it aims toward the (higher) end of procreation.

Now he’s saying that the amazing thing about God’s love is that it has no higher purpose. That love is the higher purpose. That God’s love is good in and of itself, and that our earthly sexual unions point to that.

Dear Lord! Imagine if he had started with this observation! Imagine if he followed its implications! Imagine if that were the book he wrote!

His argument would be completely different. He wouldn’t argue, as he did in Chapter 2, that our unions exist for the end of procreation—he would argue that our unions exist because union is good (“It is not good that the man should be alone,” says the Good Book). And while he would still see procreation as an incredible fruit of sexual union—as a real blessing—he wouldn’t have to demean childless couples, because he would understand that their unions are good in and of themselves. He wouldn’t have to build a rickety structure of complementarianism, one that falls down anytime you think about the wide diversity of individuals, because his basis for understanding sex wouldn’t be man needs woman to produce children but instead human beings crave union. And, of course, he would have totally rethink his position on homosexuality.

In fact, his argument might then look like one of my favorite essays, Rowan Williams’ “The Body’s Grace.” In that landmark piece, the former Archbishop of Canterbury writes:

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff, but—just as worryingly—of non-functional joy. …

It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. If the creator were quite so instrumentalist in ‘his’ attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ?

Budziszewski finally asks that question in Chapter 7, but won’t follow where it leads. Not for any reason having to do with natural law. Did you catch Williams’ reference to the clitoris? That’s a nod to an honest anthropology, real natural law—a study of the human person in all of its “prodigality and redundancy,” not as an instrument but as an end unto itself.

For all his talk about heroic quests, Budziszewski won’t make that journey for one reason: fear. He thinks he has to leave the real meaning of sex unexplored because he doesn’t believe that people can go after non-instrumental joy without hurting each other. At the end of Chapter 6, making the familiar lament about the negative effects of the birth control pill, Budziszewski writes, “Should we seek even more radical ways to sever sex from the meaning of sex?” The (singular) meaning of sex in that sentence is, of course, procreation. But while Chapter 7 shows that, deep down, Budziszewski understands that the human meaning of sex goes way beyond that, the rest of the book shows that he doesn’t trust anyone else with that conclusion.

Williams has a good line about this, too. He writes that those who want to fence grace with conditions (as if grace comes with conditions!) risk turning “blessing into curse, grace into law, art into rule-keeping.”

That’s as good a place as any to leave Budziszewski’s book about the meaning of sex.

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