“We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present.”
I’ve been reading through some marriage books lately and, since most of the material was on the current end of the timeline, I thought it would be good to go back and hear Lewis in The Four Loves. I’m nearly certain that my first reading of the book was over 20 years ago, before marriage and pastoral ministry, so this fresh reading has been immensely rewarding.
Two quick observations before I get out of the way. First, although the “Eros” chapter has the most to do with marriage, Lewis’ “Friendship” chapter is surprisingly relevant for married couples. I couldn’t help but think that all the talk we hear these days about “marrying one’s best friend” is a good thing so far as it goes, although I suspect we have a pretty weak grasp on what that actually means (or ought to mean). Second, Lewis’ dissection of Eros deserves a broader audience not only because he gets so much right (I speak as a husband) but because it exposes the shallowness of so much of our post-modern romanticism (I speak as a husband and a pastor). That said, here is Lewis describing the ebb and flow of Eros:
In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the center of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Can we be in this selfless liberation for a lifetime? Hardly for a week. Between the best possible lovers this high condition is intermittent. The old self soon turns out to be not so dead as he pretended–as after a religious conversion. . .
But these lapses will not destroy a marriage between two “decent and sensible” people. The couple whose marriage will certainly be endangered by them, and possibly ruined, are those who have idolized Eros. They thought he had the power and truthfulness of a god. They expected that mere feeling would do for them, and permanently, all that was necessary. When this expectation is disappointed they throw the blame on Eros or, more usually, on their partners. In reality, however, Eros, having made his gigantic promise and shown you in glimpses what its performance would be like, has “done his stuff.” He, like a godparent, makes the vows; it is we who must keep them. It is we who must labor to bring our daily life into even closer accordance with what the glimpses have revealed. We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present. . . And all good Christian lovers know that this program, modest as it sounds, will not be carried out except by humility, charity, and divine grace; that it is indeed the whole Christian life seen from one particular angle.
It is too easy for Christians to think of marriage as a discipleship-free zone. So that outside of marriage we talk about sacrifice, taking up our cross, and so on. But inside marriage we just talk about how to communicate better, how to be more intimate, how to have better sex, how to be happy. . . . Instead we should want marriages that serve God. If they are sexually and personally fulfilled, well and good. But if they do not serve God, no amount of personal fulfillment will make them right. After all, so far as we can see, Ananias and Sapphira had a marriage with excellent communication and shared values; each understood the other perfectly; and yet they died terrible deaths under the judgment of God (Acts 5:1-11).
That’s why the Scripture calls us to beware our own vulnerability. That’s why the Scripture tells husbands and wives to maintain sexual union with one another. It’s not because sex is an appetite that must be filled but because sex can connect us to one another, reminding us who it is that we are called to love and to serve.
If by this statement Moore merely intends to prioritize selflessness over personal pleasure but not deny the biblical imperative to (righteously) satisfy our sexual appetite, all is well. But we ought to prioritize wisely as we consider the whole counsel of God. The relational good and physical pleasure we derive from sex aren’t mutually exclusive benefits but two sides of the same coin. As Christians we affirm God’s intention to create us as sexual beings complete with sexual appetites although sin has disrupted the design and function of our sexuality on multiple levels. Even outside of Song of Solomon the Scriptures speak to our appetite for sex and the need to sate it. Consider just two passages where we are commanded to maintain our sexual union for the sake of our appetite:
Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? (Prov 5:18-20)
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1Cor 7:5)
In one sense it’s precisely because we hunger for sex that sex creates so strong a connection–it is the one pleasure we desire that only one person may fulfill. And let’s not forget that the appetite for sexual pleasure is a type of that hunger for even greater pleasures that only One can (and will!) fulfill in a marriage still to come.
“We are not engaged in a desperate attempt, like King Canute, to turn back the tides of social affairs.”
I was prepping for some premarital counseling when I came across this gem from Christopher Ash in 2003. With boundary lines constantly changing, this is good counsel:
…marriage (as a part of the created order) exists as a significant institution in the world whether or not societies conform to its free constraints. So when as Christians we seek to persuade society about this moral order, we are not defending the institution of marriage, as though the God-given institution of marriage were under ontological threat . . . it is not within the power of humankind finally to destroy created order. It was given to humankind in creation, it stands above human history and the human will, and finally it will be restored and transformed in the new heavens and earth. No institution that is part of the created order can be destroyed by human disobedience. Human nonconformity leads not to the destruction of the order, but to judgment on human beings. No Christian movement needs to defend marriage: rather we seek to protect human beings against the damage done to them by cutting across the grain of the order of marriage. That knowledge takes a burden off our shoulders . . . we are not engaged in a desperate attempt, like King Canute, to turn back the tides of social affairs.
-Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 81-82
In this final excerpt (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3) Tolkien presents his son with wisdom sorely needed today: you almost certainly made a mistake when you married your partner who is, in fact, your real soul-mate. This is my favorite part of the letter and I suspect it will soon find its way into my pre-marital counseling.
Have a great V-Day weekend!
. . . Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgment concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. You really do very little choosing: life and circumstance do most of it (though if there is a God these must be His instruments, or His appearances). It is notorious that in fact happy marriages are more common where the ‘choosing’ by the young persons is even more limited, by parental or family authority, as long as there is a social ethic of plain unromantic responsibility and conjugal fidelity.
But even in countries where the romantic tradition has so far affected social arrangements as to make people believe that the choosing of a mate is solely the concern of the young, only the rarest good fortune brings together the man and woman who are really as it were ‘destined’ for one another, and capable of a very great and splendid love. The idea still dazzles us, catches us by the throat: poems and stories in multitudes have been written on the theme, more, probably, than the total of such loves in real life (yet the greatest of these tales do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation; as if even in this sphere the truly great and splendid in this fallen world is more nearly achieved by ‘failure’ and suffering). In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an unfallen world. In this fallen world we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will. . . .
-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’
In this third excerpt (see pt 1 and pt 2) Tolkien explains why monogamy entails suffering for a Christian husband and begins to address the popular notion of finding a “soul-mate.”
[Women] have, of course, still to be more careful in sexual relations, for all the contraceptives. Mistakes are damaging physically and socially (and matrimonially). But they are instinctively, when uncorrupt, monogamous. Men are not. . . . . No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed’ ethic, according to faith and not to the flesh. Each of us could healthily beget, in our 30 odd years of full manhood, a few hundred children, and enjoy the process. Brigham Young (I believe) was a healthy and happy man. It is a fallen world, and there is no consonance between our bodies, minds, and souls.
However, the essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’ (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify & direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him — as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.
Too few are told that — even those brought up ‘in the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it. When the glamor wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only –. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’. And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. . .
–The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’
This is the second excerpt of a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his son, Michael, on the subject of marriage and relations between the sexes (see pt 1). In this portion Tolkien comments on the pros and cons of a cultural tradition of romantic chivalry.
There is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong, though as a product of Christendom (yet by no means the same as Christian ethics) the times are inimical to it. It idealizes ‘love’ — and as far as it goes can be very good, since it takes in far more than physical pleasure, and enjoins if not purity, at least fidelity, and so self-denial, ‘service’, courtesy, honor, and courage. Its weakness is, of course, that it began as an artificial courtly game, a way of enjoying love for its own sake without reference to (and indeed contrary to) matrimony. Its center was not God, but imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady. It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity . . . the object or reason of noble conduct. This is, of course, false and at best make-believe. The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril. But combined and harmonized with religion . . . it can be very noble. Then it produces what I suppose is still felt, among those who retain even vestigiary Christianity, to be the highest ideal of love between man and woman.
Yet I still think it has dangers. It is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars . . . It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).
-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’
In honor of Valentine’s week here is the first in a series of excerpts from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien to his son. The paternal counsel is a rarity: decidedly counter-cultural but not, I suspect, counter-intuitive. Tolkien’s depiction of the innate differences between the sexes rings true to me but I’d be interested in hearing what the rest of you think.
A man’s dealings with women can be purely physical (they cannot really, of course: but I mean he can refuse to take other things into account, to the great damage of his soul (and body) and theirs); or ‘friendly’; or he can be a ‘lover’ (engaging and blending all his affections and powers of mind and body in a complex emotion powerfully coloured and energized by ‘sex’).
This is a fallen world. The dislocation of sex-instinct is one of the chief symptoms of the Fall. The world has been ‘going to the bad’ all down the ages. The various social forms shift, and each new mode has its special dangers: but the ‘hard spirit of concupiscence’ has walked down every street, and sat leering in every house, since Adam fell.
We will leave aside the ‘immoral’ results. These you desire not to be dragged into. To renunciation you have no call. ‘Friendship’ then? In this fallen world the ‘friendship’ that should be possible between all human beings, is virtually impossible between man and woman. The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favourite subject. He is as good every bit at catching you through generous romantic or tender motives, as through baser or more animal ones.
This ‘friendship’ has often been tried: one side or the other nearly always fails. Later in life when sex cools down, it may be possible. It may happen between saints. To ordinary folk it can only rarely occur: two minds that have really a primarily mental and spiritual affinity may by accident reside in a male and a female body, and yet may desire and achieve a ‘friendship’ quite independent of sex. But no one can count on it. The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by falling in love.
But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does. There are plenty of young men (as a rule). He wants love: innocent, and yet irresponsible perhaps. Allas! Allas! that ever love was sinne! as Chaucer says. Then if he is a Christian and is aware that there is such a thing as sin, he wants to know what to do about it.
-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 Mar 1941’
The restorative effect of sexual delight on husband and wife may perhaps be considered by analogy with the blessing of the Sabbath. Just as rhythms of Sabbath rest are instituted by the Creator for the sake of man (cf. Mark 2:27) to refresh him so that his work may be a joy, so sexual delight within marriage may refresh and restore husband and wife for the work to which the Creator has called them….Just as God gives rest in order that man may joyfully work (and not work for the sake of rest), so he gives husband and wife joy in sex that they may more joyfully serve, and not the reverse. When reversed, sexual delight and relational intimacy become ends in themselves. The paradox and tragedy is that, having been made into idols, they inevitably disappoint, frustrate and fade. So often in a healthy marriage sexual delight creeps up on the couple at unexpected moments, in the midst of lives of active service and outward-looking work. –Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 188.