Hauerwas on sex, marriage, politics and love

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.

‘The dominant assumption has been that the evaluation of different kinds of sexual expressions should center on whether they are or are not expressive of love. On the contrary, the ethics of sex must begin with political considerations, because ethically the issue of the proper form of sexual activity raises the most profound issues about the nature and form of political community. I am not denying that sex obviously has to do with interpersonal matters, but I am asserting that we do not even know what we need to say about the personal level until we have some sense of the political context necessary for the ordering of sexual activity. Indeed, one of the main difficulties with the assumption that thc ethics of sex can be determined on the basis of interpersonal criteria is the failure to see how that assumption itself reflects a political option. To reduce issues of sexuality to the question of whether acts of sex are or are not fulfilling for those involved is to manifest the assumption of political liberalism that sex is a private matter. The hold this political theory has on us is illustrated by how readily we also accept the assumption that the private nature of sexuality does not involve issues of political theory …

‘We must understand that if Christians and non-Christians differ over marriage, that difference does not lie in their understanding of the quality of interpersonal relationship needed to enter or sustain a marriage, but rather in a disagreement about the nature of marriage and its place in the Christian and national community. Christians above all should note that there are no conceptual or institutional reasons that require love between the parties to exist in order for the marriage to be successful …

The requirement of love in marriage is not correlative to the intrinsic nature of marriage but is based on the admonition for Christians to love one another. We do not love because we are married, but because we are Christian. We may, however, learn what such love is like within the context of marriage. For the Christian tradition claims that marriage helps to support an inclusive community of love by grounding it in a pattern of faithfulness toward another. The love that is required in marriage functions politically by defining the nature of Christian social order, and as children arrive they are trained in that order.

Moreover, Christians should see that the family cannot, contrary to [Bertrand] Russell’s claim, exist as an end in itself nor by itself provide a sufficient check against pretentious rationalism. Such an assumption is but a continuation of the liberal perversion of the family and only makes the family and marriage more personally destructive. When families exist for no reason other than their own existence, they become quasi-churches, which ask sacrifices far too great and for insufficient reasons. The risk of families which demand that we love one another can be taken only when there are sustaining communities with sufficient convictions that can provide means to form and limit the status of the family. If the family does stand as a necessary check on the state, as Russell and I both think it should, it does so because it first has a place in an institution that also stands against the state – the church …

‘ … the ambivalence of the church toward marriage is grounded in the eschatological convictions which freed some from the necessity of marriage – i.e., singleness becomes a genuine option for service to the community. This is a dangerous doctrine indeed, for it is a strange community which would risk giving singleness an equal status with marriage. But that is what the church did, and as a result marriage was made a vocation rather than a natural necessity. But as a vocation, marriage can be sustained only so long as it is clear what purposes it serves in the community which created it in the first place. With the loss of such a community sanction, we are left with the bare assumption that marriage is a voluntary institution motivated by the need for interpersonal intimacy …

‘Many want to treat sex as just another form of communication – like shaking hands. I suppose in response to such a suggestion one can at least point out that sex is often more fun than shaking hands. However, the reason that we seem to assume that sex should be reserved for “special relations” is not that sex itself is special, but that the nature of sex serves the ends of intimacy. But intimacy is indeed a tricky matter to sustain, and that may be the reason why many have argued that marriage is necessary to provide the perduring framework to sustain intimacy.

Moreover, once the political function of marriage is understood to be central for the meaning and institution of marriage, we have a better idea of what kinds of people we ought to be to deal with marriage. Most of the literature that attempts to instruct us about getting along in marriage fails to face up to a fact so clearly true that I have dared to call it Hauerwas’s Law: You always marry the wrong person. It is as important to note, of course, as Herbert Richardson pointed out to me, that the reverse of the law is also true: namely, that you also always marry the right person. The point of the law is to suggest the inadequacy of the current assumption that the success or failure of a marriage can be determined by marrying the “right person.” Even if you have married the “right person,” there is no guarantee that he or she will remain such, for people have a disturbing tendency to change. Indeed, it seems that many so-called “happy marriages” are such because of the partners’ efforts to preserve “love” by preventing either from changing.

This law is meant not only to challenge current romantic assumptions but to point out that marriage is a more basic reality than the interpersonal relations which may or may not characterize a particular marriage. Indeed, the demand that those in a marriage love one another requires that marriage have a basis other than the love itself. For it is only on such a basis that we can have any idea of how we should love’.

– Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Sex and Politics: Bertrand Russell and “Human Sexuality”‘.

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