One day, when I was about eight years old, during a creative dramatics class where the teacher seemed willing to talk about anything, I blurted out a question that had been on my mind for a while:
"How did sex get started?"
The teacher, a woman in her twenties, was caught off guard. She hemmed and hawed for a moment, but I persisted:
"How did the first men and women figure out how to have sex?"
I still remember the teacher’s attempt at an answer, because it was so odd. She made up something vague about how perhaps the woman gave off a certain smell that drew the man over to have sex with her. It sounded sufficiently gross to throw me off track, but it wasn’t really an answer.
Eight years later, when I was a senior in high school, my question changed to the far more common "How do I start having sex?" But my experiences never taught me how sex got started—which is to say, why it got started. What is sex for? We know that sex is for reproduction. A strict materialist—that is, someone who believes that all thoughts may be traced to physical causes—would tell you that the feelings of intimacy one has during sex are simply biological trickery to get us to want to propagate the species. (Why biology would care whether we propagate the species is never explained.)
On the other hand, if you believe that what transpires between a man and a woman during sex has its source in something other than the couple’s DNA, their upbringing, and what they had for lunch, then sex must have a function that goes beyond creating more people to have sex.
During the past quarter century, Christianity has found a new way to state the answer to the question, What is sex for? It’s called the "theology of the body." A deeply profound interpretation of basic principles found in the Bible, it’s formulated in terms that contemporary people of faith can understand, and woven together like a seamless garment with the meaning of life itself.
First articulated by Pope John Paul II, the theology of the body is espoused by mainline Protestant denominations as well as Roman Catholicism. Focus on the Family, the Protestant ministry founded by Dr. James C. Dobson, offers several helpful articles based on the theology of the body at pureintimacy.org, and there are many good books on the subject, such as Christopher West’s Good News About Sex and Marriage. These are fascinating, life-changing resources, and I can’t recommend them highly enough if you’re looking to explore what Christianity has to say about the deep and mystical meaning of sexual union between man and wife.
The theology of the body starts in Genesis, with God’s creating man in His image. God is invisible. By giving us our bodies in His image, He has made the invisible visible, the intangible tangible.
So our bodies are living metaphors of God’s loving nature—but more than metaphors, because God, in creating us, breathed His Spirit into us. This divine origin of our bodies gives what we do with them meaning beyond the superficial. When we use them as God has instructed us, especially when we take part in something sacred, we are making visible a hidden mystery—bringing to earth a bit of heaven. This may be seen in baptism, when, in being washed with water—the means we normally use to cleanse our bodies and make us feel new—we instead are cleansed in our souls and made into literally new creations. It may also be seen in Communion, when God uses the most mundane physical processes of eating and drinking to bring forth a metaphysical experience where we touch eternity.
To really see the theology of the body at work, you don’t have to go inside a church. God uses your body every day to make the invisible visible and the intangible tangible. It happens every time you share His love with another individual.
I’m not talking about what Christians call witnessing. Ordinary acts of love and kindness—from telling a relative, "I love you," to smiling at the woman who sells you your morning coffee, to pausing to let another driver into your lane—all hint at heaven. Moreover, such actions align your body with God’s purpose for it—a loving purpose that rejects selfishness.
The idea that parts of the body have purpose in and of themselves is not terribly fashionable these days. As our culture would have it, if a friend of yours gets her tongue pierced with a silver stud, you’re not supposed to say, "That’s gross. It looks unnatural, and it’s going to be a real pain for you when you eat." You’re supposed to say something like, "Cool! What a bold fashion statement!"
Likewise, our culture rebels against the idea that the body has a higher purpose, because to suggest it instantly implies that we will suffer in our spirits for sins that we commit against our own bodies. This is too terrible for many people to even think about—so they deny the body’s deeper meaning entirely.
Just as your tongue is made to taste and speak, so your whole body is made to experience God’s love and communicate it to others.
This is a great responsibility, but an even greater blessing—especially when we consider the most intense and exciting means that God has created for us to share His love.
In marriage, God enables us to use our bodies to create a love that is more than the sum of their parts. On one level, He does this literally—by granting children. But even before that occurs, He does it figuratively, by making the bride’s and bridegroom’s love bear new and greater spiritual fruit.
Jesus compared heaven to a wedding feast, and John wrote in the book of Revelation that we would all celebrate a wedding in heaven: the marriage of the church—which is to say, all believers who make it to heaven—to Jesus. When you unite yourself to a husband, you will in a very real sense be practicing for your life in heaven, united to the Lord in a way far beyond what you can imagine. Likewise, God intends your and your husband’s love for each other to emulate His love for you—full, complete, and eternal.
One of the most beautiful and mysterious things about marriage is the fact that people get so excited about weddings even when they’re not terribly religious. Why is that? I mean, when you go to a wedding reception, why are people so exhilarated if all they’re celebrating is the fact that John and Judy can finally have socially sanctioned sex whenever they want? Why do people cry at weddings if they’re only glad that Liz can have a kid before her biological clock runs out?
On some level, even if they don’t fully understand it, people at weddings know that they are witnessing something greater than two people uttering timeworn phrases of fidelity. They know that even if John and Judy have been living together and already have a child, something changes once they’re married. They’re no longer mere individuals, but a couple, with the deepest, strongest commitment two people can have.
Now, if a couple who aren’t even religious can feel somehow strengthened by the force of vows made before friends and family, imagine the force the marital commitment takes when made before the eyes of God. A man and woman’s commitments to love, honor, and cherish each other as long as they both shall live take on new meaning and power when they both long with all their hearts for eternal life with God. The gift of self that they give to each other becomes a gift to the Lord.
God rewards the married couple with the gift of being able to participate in His act of creation. This is expressed in the gift of children, but also in the creative spirit that flourishes between the man and the woman. When a husband and a wife put their hearts, minds, spirits, and bodies together with no limits, the result brings a spiritual abundance that—used properly—makes the world a far richer place.
Excerpted from The Thrill of the Chaste (W Publishing Group) by Dawn Eden. © Copyright 2006 by Dawn Eden. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Dawn Eden is an assistant news editor and columnist for The New York Daily News. A former rock historian, her writings have also appeared in National Review Online, Touchstone, People, and her own blog, The Dawn Patrol.