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Ordinary Sex

David Matzko McCarthy’s Sex and Love in the Home: A Theology of the Household is perhaps the best theological treatment of marriage and sexuality to be written in recent years. One of the great things about the book is the way in which it really explores what it might mean to think about sex “maritally” so to speak. McCarthy argues that sex only has its meaning and only is what it is in the context of a shared nuptial life which is in turn shaped and determined by the couple’s participation in the church-community. Thus:

“Within the though and practices of the church, sexual activity is shaped by our desires for unity with another person and by the duties and gifts that come from sharing our lives. In contrast to the market form of desire, marriage sets the meaning of sex within the environment and practices of housekeeping. In this context, sexual vitality has less to do with novel pleasures and more to do with sitting together at the kitchen table and sharing a meal. It has less to do with exotic night spots and more to do with sharing a bed night after night, year after year. Sex is our bodily coming to belong with another who knows us like no other. Sexual relationships have less to do with fleeting moments and more to do with the passage of time. Marriage, in short, sets our desires in household time and place.” (p. 43)

McCarthy also goes on to critique certain “personalist” theologies of sexuality which locate a sort of transcendence, or rapturous unity between spouses which takes place in the act of sex itself, setting it apart from all other experiences of unity:

“The chief problem in this personalist account of sex is, not that it goes wrong, but that it says too much to be right. Every sexual act is defined as full and total, so that sex has no room to be ordinary. The act of sexual intercourse, in this theological framework, transcends its particular meaning in time, in order to reveal the complete contours of our two-in-one-flesh humanity. With this total union of body and spirit, sexual relationships are lifted out the everyday activities of marriage. The everyday meaning of sex, in contrast, is extended through the day-to-day ebb and flow of common endeavors, joys, and struggles of love in the home. Not in an instant, but over time, we come to belong. In this regard, no sexual act represents a total or full relationship. Rather, what do today gains its meaning in relation to yesterday and what we will do tomorrow. For sex to have depth, it needs extended bodily communication over time. The transcendent personalist account, on the other hand, runs ahead of the day-to-day. Every act is understood to ritualize a ‘fully shared life’ and the ‘total self-giving’ of spouses. This ritual context suits a honeymoon or anniversary day consummation, but I dare to say that our everyday bodily presence is far more subtle and patient. Those who believe sex is earth shattering will put it out of marriage.” (p. 43-44)

There could certainly be some interesting discussion about this perspective, but for my part I think it is brilliant. McCarthy helpfully demolishes the capitalist sexual mythology of total relational fulfillment through and in the sex act. Precisely because sex has been lifted out of its marital context it must be given, in our culture, this sort of transcendent status. To not give it such status would be to admit that our obsession with unattached, uninhibited sexual activity is nothing more than banality and exploitation, which of course it is, but few people are willing to think of themselves this way.

McCarthy’s insights are also relevant to the broader phenomenon of romantic love as a whole. Rather than buying into the myth of transcendence-through-romance, a Christian theology of sexuality would insist that true romantic love is experienced, grows, and flourishes over time in the context of a shared life within the church. To posit romance as a privileged circle of two which somehow transcends all other relationships, obligations, and practices is to cast romance in an utterly agonistic role. Think any Disney movie ever made here. The romance is always the central point of conflict for the characters with everything else in their life; it gives them a sort of transcendence over the hum-drum realities of life and takes priority over it. (The Little Mermaid is the quintessence of this sort of story.)

A Christian theology of romance, sexuality, and marriage must, by its very nature, subvert these sorts of mythologies with an insistence that true life, in all its dimensions is realized through the submission of our desires to the discipline of the kingdom of God. True liberation, sexual or otherwise can only occur when our desires are rightly ordered to their true end, participation in the triune life of God. All such ordering takes place through embodied discipleship and participation in the gift of the sacraments. Through being apprenticed into the body of Christ and thus learning a different way of being-in-the-world through Word, Water, Wine, and Bread we are freed into a life of true liberation. A liberation of timeful partnerships and shockingly ordinary delights. A liberation in which all of life is lifted up into communion with God and one another.


  1. Hill wrote:

    Kristin Lavransdatter is going to blow your mind.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I’ve now got it on order (after reading a bit about it, yeah I couldn’t not get it).

    Do you mean it will blow my mind by being analogous to McCarthy’s sort of thinking? Or opposed? I imagine it would fall in the same vein…

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    The same vein. It is of course in a completely different mode, being a narrative, but it handles these sorts of issues with such subtlety and sophistication, informed by an authentically Christian understanding of God, Church and family, the ways in which sin compromises our relationships within those spheres and the infinitely redemptive power of God’s mercy. There is a heavy emphasis on the encounter of romantic love with the more “mundane” realities of family life and the demands of kinship all in the light of Christianity. I can’t put it down.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Awesome, I can’t wait to get it. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  5. Evan wrote:

    I’ll have to read Kristin Lavransdatter, as Hill seems to be quite the partisan for it. This is one of those times where I sheepishly have to admit, “Uh, seen the movie… never read the book.”!

    This sounds like a great book (McCarthy’s rather than Undset’s). I’m not familiar with personalist thought to say much of it, but the way McCarthy describes it I get the sense that he is overemphasizing any error of transcendence in it. I could certainly see how such an error might happen, though, even if it’s not characteristic of more responsible personalism. Anyone who knows more of it please enlighten me!

    I also wonder what thoughts like this mean for marriages outside of the Church. I agree with you and these excerpts completely in how marriage is situated (contra the usual romanticism), but I don’t know if I’d want to say that romantic love is EITHER a “privileged circle of two” OR “a shared life within the church”. That’s sort of what I read you saying, but I may be missing something.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Evan, I think that McCarthy is correct in his diagnosis, at least of the personalist thinkers with whom he interacts. I couldn’t say beyond that, as I have little exposure myself.

    I also don’t think there needs to be a rigid binary between self-enclosure and ecclesial openness as if those were just two spaces people just inhabit. Rather, (just me talking now, not McCarthy necessarily) I think that those two poles represents points between which we are all in transition in one direction or another (and sometimes switching directions!). The imperative of the Christian gospel in regard to romance and marriage is one that establishes us as on the way from darkness to light, from self-enclosed infatuation to self-expending openeness.

    That’s the way I’d want to look at it at least. For those outside the church I suppose we could say that they still inhabit the same continuum as we do, though I don’t want to make things sound too “progressionist.” Christian marriage (at least as a practice we are called to) must always be distinguished in some significant way from marriage qua marriage.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  7. Devin Rose wrote:

    “The transcendent personalist account, on the other hand, runs ahead of the day-to-day. Every act is understood to ritualize a ‘fully shared life’ and the ‘total self-giving’ of spouses. This ritual context suits a honeymoon or anniversary day consummation…”

    I assume he is including or especially responding to John Paul II’s philosophy here.

    I would argue that just because we say things like “total self-giving” when it comes to the marital embrace, it doesn’t take it out of the “ordinariness” of life.

    For example, I as a Catholic belief I receive Jesus Christ himself in the Eucharist at every Mass. I have gone to daily Mass and Sunday Mass thousands of times in my 7 years as a Catholic, so it is often an ordinary part of my life, if you will, and oftentimes my mind and heart are dimmed to the reality that–oh my goodness–I am receiving the Almighty Lord of the Universe, the Savior Himself, on my tongue and into my puny self.

    Yet I am receiving our Lord, and it is very ordinary, in a dumpy little parish with smelly human beings like myself, and my life is not radically altered in that one instant. So then, by McCarthy’s logic, we should reserve talking about really receiving Christ in the Eucharist only for big events like First Communion, but if we do so even in the ordinary daily Masses of our life, it lifts the Eucharist out of the ordinary of our life.

    But if we really do receive Christ in every Eucharist, as I believe we do in every Mass, even if we rarely feel the majesty and glory of it, it is still really Christ that we receive–the same is true, I would argue, for marriage: It is a total self-gift, and it is every time we renew our wedding vows in the marital embrace.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Devin, McCarthy is, like yourself a Catholic. I think that he would question your analogy between the eucharist and sex. For him, sex is never “total” in the same way that Christ’s presence is in the eucharist. Sex is always partial and always shaped and determined by the whole context of shared life in which it occurs. The “total self-giving” that marriage is supposed to embody cannot be “located” in the act of sex, but only and always in the whole life together of married people.

    And, as a Protestant, I suppose I might also posit that I don’t know if our eucharistic experience of Christ’s presence is ever something “total” either. But that’s neither here nor there.

    What I like about McCarthy’s work is is that it actually liberates sex from having to be some sort of transcendent experience. Instead it is given the freedom to be ordinary, to be partial, to be something that means different things depending on the state of married life in which it happens.

    Again, you’d have to read the book to see clearly who he’s really responding to. I don’t know much about personalist philosophy. In McCarthy’s book he engages a number of specific thinkers that he gathers under that rubric, but I’m sure they don’t speak for all (I don’t think Pope John Paul II was among them). From what I’ve read so far, McCarthy seems to characterize the views of those he engages very fairly and thoroughly.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  9. Nathan Smith wrote:

    “McCarthy argues that sex only has its meaning and only is what it is in the context of a shared nuptial life which is in turn shaped and determined by the couple’s participation in the church-community.”

    I must admit that my first reaction in reading that was to think “gnostic sex?” That is, I am often skeptical about concepts where a shared human experience only has “true” meaning in the context of Christianity. That being said, the rest of the post has some powerful ideas, so I will probably add it to my queue.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  10. Jared wrote:

    I always want to say something, but the pool of conversation gets far deeper than I can keep up with after spending a full day caring for DD/mentally ill individuals.

    I’ll simply state, I think the thoughts are great. I’m not quite sure how the marital relationship works out in the context of church-community. I’ve spent too much time in shallow churches, and I’m not quite sure what to make of our current fellowship(s) in that respect.

    I can tell you that weathering the ups and downs of life and day-to-day faithfulness when you’re suffering at the hands of each other brings a deeper unity and understanding of the love of God than any single magical moment of climax during intercourse. Jen and I are almost at nine years together, and we love each other in a way that is not easily committed to words and transcends understanding of the uninitiated.

    Thanks for keeping relevant and important topics on the forefront.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 10:07 pm | Permalink
  11. vassilip wrote:

    its really profound his critique on personalistic views
    –rather political, i would say

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  12. Evan wrote:

    From Nathan, “I am often skeptical about concepts where a shared human experience only has “true” meaning in the context of Christianity. That being said, the rest of the post has some powerful ideas, so I will probably add it to my queue.”

    That’s what I was trying to get at. I don’t know if I’d want to distinguish Christian marriage so strongly from marriage in general. I can, however, fully get behind the idea that sociality in general (marriage being both a source and summit of it) points to true sociality, the people of God (sorry, I ain’t gonna take this to the Trinity as “true sociality”… for those of you who buy into that, you can go there!) I’d say this in the same way that Barth might talk about Christ as “true humanity”. If that’s what we’re talking about with marriage being fulfilled within the Church, then I can get behind that.

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 7:07 am | Permalink

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ‘Ordinary Sex’ - Inhabitatio Dei « Seeking Your Face on Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 11:50 am

    [...] The rest [...]

  2. “Crunchy” theology of the body? « Philosophia Perennis on Friday, September 5, 2008 at 10:25 am

    [...] consider this from the theology blog Inhabitatio Dei: David Matzko McCarthy’s Sex and Love in the Home: A Theology of the Household is perhaps the [...]

  3. [...] that without sexual activity in our lives we have no meaning.  This is reflected well in a post by Haldane about David Matzo McCarthy’s book Sex and Love in the Home (Thanks Bec for pointing out the post) and a quote from McCarthy’s book “Those who [...]

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