Picking up the thread from Saturday’s post:
The next supernatural light upon nature is the light of affirmation. Affirmation is not a command to do or not do something, but a declaration that something is or is not the case. Whereas a command presupposes that something is so, provoking the mind to discover what it is, affirmation declares that something is so, provoking the mind to see it for itself and work out the implications. The faculty of reason responds to preceptive illumination like this: “I see now that I am to live in such and such a way; can I find out by my own proper methods what it is in the design of creation that makes this right?” But it responds to affirmative illumination like this: “I see now that such and such is true; can I find out by my own proper methods what might follow from this fact?”
Conjugal sexuality is richly illuminated by the light of affirmation, as in the following passage from the prophet Malachi:
Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the LORD the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.
If the intellect concedes Malachi’s claim that the sexual powers have a procreative purpose, then the logic of the rest of his argument is not hard to work out. After all, marriage is the only form of association in which the family-building aim of the sexual powers can be adequately realized. If a couple should say, “But we never meant to have children,” we should not think that they have a different, dissoluble kind of marriage, but that they do not have a marriage. What they have is an affective liaison characterized by sexual intercourse outside of the conditions which allow the purpose of such intercourse to be fulfilled. These conditions are stringent, because procreation is more than making children. It also means raising them. We can make them outside marriage, but raising them that way is like trying to churn butter in a furnace. For at least two reasons, the bond must also be permanent. One is that the knowledge that it will endure into the future radically affects its quality in the present. The other is that the children of the union will go on to have their own children. Not only will they need parental help to establish their new families, but the grandchildren will have need of their grandparents.
I began the previous paragraph with an “if.” Should reason concede that sex has a procreative purpose? Moderns object that the purposes of things aren’t natural, that they are merely in the eye of the beholder. Supposing that nature is purposeful is derided as “metaphysical biology.” But do we say this about the other natural powers? On the contrary, sex is the only natural power about which we do say it. The purpose of respiration is to oxygenate the blood; apart from it there would be no reason to have lungs. The purpose of circulation is to deliver nutrients and other substances to the places they are needed; apart from it there would be no reason to have a heart and vascular system. If we are consistent, we will reason this way about sex. We will say that its purpose is to generate posterity; apart from this purpose there would be no reason for sexual organs. Instead of saying this, we interrupt the argument to say that the purpose of sex is pleasure.
On its face, the interruption is absurd. Of course sex is pleasurable, but in various kinds and degrees, pleasure accompanies the exercise of every voluntary power: eating, breathing, even stretching the muscles of the leg. The problem is that eating is pleasurable even if I am eating too much, breathing is pleasurable even if I am sniffing glue, stretching the muscles of the leg is pleasurable even if I am kicking the dog. For a criterion of when it is good to enjoy each pleasure, one must look beyond the fact that it is pleasurable.
We have been considering the unitive implications of the procreative realities, but the unitive realities can also be considered in themselves. Here, the prime example of affirmative illumination is the declaration, “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” A great deal is happening in this brief passage. What it has to do with natural law might at first seem obscure, because God is not part of nature; He is not something created, but the Creator. Although unaided intellect can draw inferences about Him from the evidence of what He has made, it can neither see Him as He is nor take the measure of His relation with us. Here is the astonishing thing: Although the fact that we are His image exceeds unaided reason’s power of discovery, the things that are true about us because we are His image do not exceed it. To mention but two of these things: If God is personal, and we are His image, then it pertains to our essence that we are personal too. And if two kinds of personal reality are required to image Him, male and female, then male and female must complement each other not just in gross anatomy but in the very root of their personhood.
The antecedent parts of these statements, the ifs, go beyond what unaided reason could confirm. We need revelation to know that God is personal, that we are made in His image, and that it takes two kinds of personal reality to image Him. But the consequent parts of the statements, the thens, lie entirely within reason’s range. Revelation interrogates reason. It asks, “Now that I point it out to you, can’t you see for yourself that your fundamental reality is personal?” “Yes,” replies reason, “I do.” This stirs us to penetrate still more deeply into personhood, and through even longer reflection, we finally come to see that an individual person is a complete individual reality, existing in itself, different from all other somethings, made for rationality, the ultimate possessor under God of all it is and does. A person is not just a piece or part of something, it is not just an instance or process of something, it is not just a clump of different somethings. Nor is it merely a thing to be owned, a thing to be used, or a thing of any sort at all. It is not just a what, but a who. This insight has transformed the Western world.
But there is more. Revelation goes on to ask, “And can you not see for yourself that your two kinds of personal reality, male and female, depend on and co-illuminate each other -- that neither can be understood in isolation?” It would be impossible to understate the depth of this affirmation, or the abyss of the error from which it saves us. How does it do this? In the language of philosophers, personhood is incommunicable. I cannot transfer the mystery of who I am to another person. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to leap from this true statement to a mistaken conclusion. I may falsely imagine that because I am complete in a certain sense, therefore I am complete in every sense; that because I cannot transfer myself, therefore I cannot give myself; that the incommunicability of persons precludes the communion of persons. That would be bad enough, but in a fallen world, the difference of sex deepens the error and gives it sharper teeth. To the mutual alienation of man and man is added the further disaffection of men and women. They come to seem adverse to one another, natural enemies like fox and bird, perhaps drawn together by their senses, but sundered by difference in kind. As the truth of personhood transformed the Western world, so the distortion of personhood bids fair to destroy it.
Revelation stays the error, showing that reality is the other way around. If it takes both kinds of us to image our Creator, then our two kinds of personhood presuppose each other, and everything about us is made for communion. Notice that just as before, the antecedent part of the statement, the if, goes beyond what unaided reason could confirm. Just as we need revelation to see that we image God, so we need revelation to know in what mode we image Him. But just as before, the consequent part of the statement, the then, lies entirely within reason’s powers. Once it is called to the intellect’s attention, the intellect can say, “Yes, thank you -- now I see it for myself.” I am complete in the sense that I am a whole person, not part of a person, yet when provoked to think more deeply, I perceive that I am not complete in the further sense that I could know myself if estranged from the opposite sex. Wonderful to relate, the gap between the sexes turns out to be the very condition of the crossing of it. To speak even more generally, the incommunicability of personhood does not preclude the communion of persons. On the contrary, it is exactly what makes it possible. Because I exist in myself, therefore I can give myself; if I were not a person, I would be incapable of such a gift.