When I truly love, whether the object of my love is a planet or a person, a symphony or a sunset, I am celebrating the otherness of the beloved, wanting the beloved to be what it really is, greater than my imagining or perception, stranger, more mysterious. Love celebrates that mystery: in that sense, it is truly ‘objective’; but it is also of course delightedly ‘subjective’. Without the subjective pole, it becomes mere cool appraisal or ‘tolerance’. Without the objective pole, the celebration of the other as other, it is simply lust, cutting the beloved down to the size of my desires and projects, whether it be sexual lust exploiting another human being or industrial lust exploiting raw materials for profit despite the consequences. A colleague of mine put his finger on the first of these, speaking of ‘the decline of sex’, and explaining, ‘We all know how to do it but we’ve all forgotten why.’ That is exactly the same as the second, the Frankensteinian scientism of our day: we can do it, so why not and who’s to stop us? And this is where Jonathan Sacks’s aphorism comes in again: science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean. And sometimes the meaning tells you to stop pulling them apart. It’s a crisis of meaning that we face in our day, and a crisis of knowledge that brings that into focus; and the answer to the false antithesis of objective and subjective, which has been throttling our culture for too long, is a full-on reawakening of an epistemology of love. We have had enough of the Faustian pact in which we merely ‘tolerate’ one another; ‘toleration’ is an Enlightenment parody of love. It is time for the dangerous gospel notion of love to make a comeback in our culture.
Some people try to treat sex as an animal act. In a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind, the brilliant but socially inept mathematician John Nash approaches an attractive woman in a bar: “Listen, I don’t have the words to say whatever it is that’s necessary to get you into bed, so can we just pretend I said those things and skip to the part where we exchange bodily fluids?” He learns quickly, from the imprint of her palm on his face, that reductionism does not work well as a pickup line.
Schizophrenic is the best way to describe modern society’s view of sexuality. On the one hand, scientists insist that we are organisms like any other animal, and that sex is a natural expression of that animal nature. The pornography industry (which in the U.S. grosses more money than all professional sports combined) happily complies, supplying sexual images of the famous and the anonymous to anyone willing to pay.
But when people truly act out their animal natures, society frowns in disapproval. John Nash gets slapped for telling the truth. A few states in the U.S. allow legalized prostitution, but no parents encourage their daughters to pursue such a career. Hollywood may glamorize adultery onscreen, but in real life it provokes pain and a rage sometimes strong enough to drive the wounded party to murder the rival or jump off a bridge.
The root cause of this schizophrenia is the attempt to reduce sex between humans to a purely physical act. For humans, unlike sheep or chimpanzees, sex involves more than bodies… [A]ny rape counselor knows that the real violence occurs on the inside and may lead to years of depression, nightmares, memory loss, and sexual dysfunction. Victims of abusive relatives and pedophiliac priests testify that something far more than a body gets hurt when a trusted adult abuses a child sexually. Decades later, suffering persists.
In a 2007 article (now in his website archives), atheist Richard Dawkins frowned upon those valuing faithfulness. In “Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster,” he asked, “Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place?” He says that we need to intellectually “rise above” the sexual jealousy that blind Darwinian evolution has produced in us and cheerfully permit our spouses to carry on any sexual recreation they choose to have outside the marriage bed. “Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others if he or she is that way inclined?” he asks. Dawkins is being completely consistent with his worldview by denying any objective sexual morality, even where marriage is concerned, so long as no one is harmed. (It remains unclear, however, why harming anyone or anything is objectively wrong in his view, where morality is nothing but an evolutionary social construct.)
My sense is that most self-described atheists, particularly those who are in happy marriages, have a deep-seated conviction that something is truly wrong with marital infidelity. As God’s image-bearers, the Truth of Things resonates strongly within their soul, and they know that spouses should be faithful. Just like they know, intuitively, that it is wrong to stab puppies with scissors for fun. The Apostle Paul talked about how even those who do not profess to follow God often still follow His law, for it is written on their hearts—“their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:15).