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.