Something changed in the bedroom with the advent of Puritanism. The Puritans, we know, were dour, boring, colorless, and passionless in the sack. Or at least, so we think. It would surprise many today to learn that the Puritans pioneered a fundamental shift in sexual ethics which remains with us: the emphasis on volition (will) over telos (roughly speaking: nature). Whether or not the medievals were correct in how they equated procreation with sex, they had the good sense to note that sex needs to be something well ordered. We are not asserting that Puritans were somehow sexually appetitive monsters; history seems to indicate the contrary. Nevertheless, some principles—habits of thought—fell away to leave the metaphysics and theology of sex open to vicious corruptions.
As any reflective person would ask, what was it that the Puritans rejected in their sexual ethics? The history of Christianity—even American Christianity—does not begin with Puritans and Separatists. These splinter groups cast off centuries’ worth of teaching. If we hipster conservatives are indeed the forsworn elitist enemies of unnecessary novelty, we must assay to investigate these older, abandoned modes of thought.
First, let us understand the historical teaching of the Christian church. In formulating its understanding of the marriage bed, Christianity reacted against the predominant pagan view of marriage. Classical civilization’s unfortunate weakness was misogyny. Once married, men shut away their wives to produce the next heir. Men retained the freedom to indulge extramarital appetites, while women were expected to remain utterly loyal to monogamy. The real-life picture may not have resembled the horrid excesses touted by feminist classicists, but it does jar with contemporary conceptions (at least outside dismal Third World honor cultures).
Church teaching, as we see in St. Paul, audaciously demanded that men love their wives as themselves, even though the family retained a kind of hierarchy with male headship. In theory at least, the marriage bond contained and united both the husband’s affections and familial procreation with the wife, rather than separating him sexually to illicit authentic lovers and as the progenitor of children. In essence, the Christian approach perpetuated Jewish teachings going all the way back to the creation account of Genesis. The church revived these insights and spread them to the wider Gentile world. Sexual ethics continued to develop throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, finding systematic exploration in the medieval schoolmen. These, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, reveal the foundation which the Puritans rejected.
The philosophical realists of the Middle Ages understood sexuality as an extension of human nature. Natures, or essences, are directed towards a telos—an end or purpose. We as humans perceive nature via the faculty of reason, which Thomas Aquinas defined as participation within the divine mind. In ethics, behavior is to be directed by what is proper to nature; those behaviors contrary to nature are to be eschewed. As we find in the Summa Theologica II-II.153.2, “Wherefore it is no sin if one, by the dictate of reason, makes use of certain things in a fitting manner and order for the end to which they are adapted, provided this end be something truly good. Now just as the preservation of the bodily nature of one individual is a true good, so, too, is the preservation of the nature of the human species a very great good.” In terms more recognizable to post-Puritan Christians, even in the bonds of marriage and mutual consent, spouses can still sin in their sexual behavior, despite finding a shared pleasure.
In frank terms, coitus achieves a unity between lovers which other sexual acts simply cannot. Obviously, tied to this is the potential (even amidst artificial limitations of fertility, e.g. contraception) for new life to occur. Even if it is medically impossible for a couple to have children, marriage remains a holistic union, where a unique vow is sealed, incarnated, and refreshed by conjugal acts that truly, though imperfectly, reflect the relationship of Christ and the church. Thus, even in marriage sex is not a mere recreation; its meaning is unity and potential procreation. The Enlightenment’s progeny delight to mock this approach to sexuality, but in vain. Remember the contrast with the classicists? Classical Christianity, more than any other force, did more to elevate the wife’s pleasure and mutual joy in the West (and even in the Eastern portion of the Roman empire; it is, after all, that most prudish of institutions, the Roman Catholic Church, that proscribes fellatio in part because it is an act of selfishness against women). Man and woman became a felicitous union that reflected the nature of Christ and His church. Just like the latter union, the conjoining of husband with wife leads to fruition. Whereas the church produces the fruits of the Spirit, the human coupling bears children, which, shocking as it seems to today’s materialistic consumptive welfare culture, were seen as a blessing.
Even in the marriage relationship, husbands and wives can still fall to lust, “which consists essentially in exceeding the order and mode of reason in the matter of venereal acts.” (Summa Theologica II-II.153.3) Eros must be held in its proper light, opposed to selfishness and covetousness. In a recent Touchstone article entitled “Marriage Made for Heaven,” Miguel Endara shows that lust disconnects sex “from both the earthly goods and the transcendent final end that God has ordained for it,” thus subverting human well-being. Endara goes on to show the insatiability of lust, gratifying its ever-increasing appetites. In Dante’s Inferno, lustful souls find themselves torn and bashed in a never-ending cyclone. Endara describes how lust works in marriage. In a quest for “ever more newfangled, novel, and ecstatic realms,” a husband “makes incessant demands on his spouse to supply him with a continual variety of sexual experiences. . . .” The wife tries to meet these imposed expectations, only to suffer complaints of sexual dissatisfaction. Her feelings of inadequacy, betrayal, mistrust, and anger only increase when she realizes that her husband is objectifying her. Thus, the husband in his perversion destroys true intimacy. Restlessness and emptiness loom large on the marriage. In today’s world, we see this ending in affairs and/or divorce. What was made for union—sexual desire—became cause for separation when allowed outside proper limits and when tainted by covetousness.
Complaints against the Medieval approach reveal much. The practice of sodomy is not new to the world. Pederasty flourished in the ancient world, but “marital sodomy,” which even the pagans denounced, is now widely accepted even by many Christians, few seeing any hypocrisy in simultaneously condemning homosexuality. But with the rise of Christendom all such behavior was deemed immoral for the aforementioned reasons. The return to sodomy represents a modern rejection of essence. It is the pleasure of death, not life, of use, not unity, prancing proudly in the modern bedroom.
To modern eyes, Puritanism did not instantiate a radical shift in sexual ethics. Nevertheless, as Leland Ryken records in Worldly Saints, Puritan thinkers began to place more emphasis on impulse and sometimes to pit natural reason against special revelation, as seen in some strains of Calvinism. Because of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, Aquinas’ idea of reason as participation within the Divine Mind did not meet a happy welcome in tracts and pulpits. Instead, conferencing together to interpret Scriptural texts in ways often contrary to traditional teachings, Puritans replaced traditional scholastic reasoning. Sex wasn’t the only moderate innovation of the Puritans either, by contemporary standards. They also held that communities could be based upon consent via a mutually agreed upon covenant. They in fact explicitly opposed the idea of church communities based on accident or inheritance. This short-sighted approach led to the problem with the Halfway Covenant. The novel approach to political theory that one finds in covenant community passed on through time and other trends, finally forming into contract theory (which removed God for the most part) via Locke and others. The shift in sex is similar. Puritans did not become, let us say, raving sodomites; they still followed some medieval mores: call it “working off borrowed capital.” Unfortunately, they removed the stronger safeguards found in medieval ethics.
Whereas the Puritans saw sex as an uncontrollable beast to be set loose within the bounds of marriage, the medievals, and many religious traditionalists through to the present day, continue to regard such relations by natural law ethics. The Puritans, with their nominalistic outlook, saw sex as a matter of volition. This prepared the way for today’s supposed Christian leaders, even self-professed fans of the Puritans, to assert that “anything goes” in the bedroom as long as it is consented to and enacted within the context of “Christian” marriage.
Evangelical protests against realistic sexual discipline expose something less insidious yet more obvious. Mark Driscoll, Ed Young, and others exhibit the fruits of American pornographic culture. The obsession with kinkiness, which sees every orifice as a potential sperm bank, belies the upsetting truth that most men in the electronic age have seen hardcore pornography. That such behavior humiliates women in particular and denies them pleasure while indulging the animalistic imaginations of men never crosses their minds. Instead, the pornography-generation Christians hope to “spice up” their “love life,” a particularly pernicious and perverse phrase if we’ve ever seen one. Young men—Christians no less!—fantasize about performing acts they saw in pornography. This should serve as a wake-up call if nothing else.
This is not to say that there have been no gains in the modern sexual ethic. But in abandoning sexual taboos, we thought passion would be unrestrained. Look around: where is our passion? Despite week-long sex-session challenges, allowances for sodomy and sex toys (as if the introduction of machines would make us feel more human!), we are bored. We, like the Puritans, have placed volition and pleasure first; we, like the Puritans, will be judged as dour and colorless by history.
In place of this, we would return to the traditional Christian view of sex, which to adapt a saying of G. K. Chesterton, has not been tried and found wanting, but found difficult, and left untried.
This article was jointly written by N.W. Smith and Bede Adulescens, with assistance from Holgrave.