Holy Sex!--Final Thoughts

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On a plane flight last weekend, I read a book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark.  The core concept in the book is the distinction she draws between "solar" and "lunar" Christianity.  "Solar" Christianity, the standard way that Christianity is presented, involves a positive, pro-active, affirming message.  The news is good, your fears can be overcome, your struggles can be dealt with.  Solar Christianity provides a very clear (and comprehensive) set of solutions to your problems, or at least a set of tools to understand and manage your problems.  Those solutions are consistent, clear, and unchanging.  All you have to do is to remain in the light.  Because outside the light, there is the darkness.  The light and the darkness are wholly opposite, fundamentally opposed categories--everything belongs to one world of the other.  The goal of life is to stay out of the darkness and remain in the light at all costs.  Indeed, there is often a fear of the dark, and a tendency to err on the side of putting everything that doesn't neatly fit into comfortable categories into the undifferentiated box labelled "the darkness."

Taylor does not say that this solar Christianity is wrong--in fact, it is very necessary.  It is however, Taylor argues, incomplete, because there is also "lunar" Christianity.  Lunar Christianity also involves light, but the light is of a different kind.  Rather than the searing light of the sun that burns away all of the darkness, the light of the moon often appears to bend seamlessly into the darkness.  The darkness is not driven out, but changed and made understandable.  The light from the moon waxes and wanes, and you have to learn to adapt to these varying levels of illumination.  Not everything is going to be as clear or as easy as you would like it to be.  There is ambiguity and shadow.  But there are things you can see in the dark that you can't see during the day, and those things can be beautiful and wonderful in their own way.  The darkness is not an undifferentiated bad thing--it's just different from the day.

Taylor's point in advocating for the place of lunar Christianity is that sometimes the solar approach doesn't work.  It can be too rigid, too binary, too judgmental.  It can also be too fearful, pushing everything it doesn't understand into the outer darkness.  It has a tendency to flatten everything out.  And sometimes the solar answers that we have been given stop making sense in light of new experiences and new challenges, and we have to look at things in a different way--through our night vision as opposed to our daylight vision.

What does any of this have to do with Dr. Popcak and Holy Sex!?

The vision of sexuality proposed by Holy Sex!, and the other Theology of the Body commentators, is unapologetically and unflinchingly solar.  Popcak goes to great lengths to present the "news" about sexuality in positive terms. From page one of the book, Popcak makes the case that if you follow the ideas contained in the book, you can achieve "toe-curling, eye-popping, mind-blowing, deeply spiritual, and profoundly sacramental sexuality."  Your marriage will be healthy, your sex will be enjoyable, and your personal connection will be tight.  His advice is not really technical advice (though, there is a technical component), but rather advice about the proper attitude and approach to your relationship.  Some times he is a little vague, but on the whole he explains what he thinks couples should be thinking and feeling about their relationship.  Do these things, Popcak says, and you will be good to go.

But Popcak's solar orientation has an effect on his viewpoint on sexuality, one that did not come into focus for me until I finished the book.  Popcak repeats non-stop how good sex is, but only to the extent it is a product of, and in reference to, something else.  Sex is good because it is a sign of the unity of the couple, or because it is open to life, or it is sacramental, or what have you.  But sex by itself, sex as sex--that's not within the cone of light.  Having sex because you want to feel good and let of some steam, well, that's either a lack of "continuity" or, worse, a product of dread "eroticism."  That's why Popcak can't bring himself to say that a woman wearing lingerie is a good thing because it is fun and sexy, but instead must compare it to a priest wearing vestments at Mass.  Sex is only OK as long as it is really about something else.

More fundamentally, the focus on the bright daylight means that there must be very dark shadows.  Popcak's concept of "eroticism" is a perfect representation of how darkness works in the solar paradigm.  Everything that does not fit into the specific vision Popcak articulates is cast into the holding tank of eroticism and loaded up with scary predictions about how terrible the darkness will be.  If you don't use NFP, then you will be in an "romantic anti-marriage" that treats children as a disease.  If you don't view sexuality through an explicit Catholic spiritual lens, you will end up cutting to regulate your shattered emotional state.  If you masturbate, you will become a "sex addict."  The world of sexuality is divided into rigid categories of darkness and light, with no middle ground or nuance.

My experience of sexuality, and the experience of everyone I have spoken to about this, is profoundly lunar.  I do not mean to suggest that sexuality cannot be solar in the way Popcak would suggest--I suppose it is possible--but I don't think it is particularly common.  I find sexuality to consist in almost nothing but nuance and ambiguity.  Clear and unbending rules almost always prove difficult to apply and subject to exceptions at every turn.  As opposed to the lock-step, ontological categories of sexual beliefs and attitudes, sexuality waxes and wanes like the moon.  Sometimes sex between partners is a deep, spiritual communion.  On other occasions, with the same partners, it is almost entirely carnal and physical.  Both of those scenarios can be pretty awesome.

Most people view sexuality as lunar, not because of some pre-existing opposition to Catholic thinking on sex (as Popcak imagines), but because a lunar approach best reflects the reality of sex they experience.  People have experienced that sexuality can wax and wane and that this is OK.  People don't use artificial birth control because they are in "romantic anti-marriages"--they use it because it works, and they don't experience any of the catastrophic life consequences Popcak and the Church warn of.

For those who do try to follow the solar path of sexuality, they are placed in a circular trap that is characteristic of solar thinking.  Holy Sex is awesome and wonderful by definition, and if you aren't experiencing this awesomeness, the problem must be with you and your relationship.  There is never a product defect, there is only user error.  Popcak can't really come to grips with the folks that struggle mightily with NFP--that doesn't fit into the model, and so it must be excluded.

It is certain possible to conduct your sex life and your sexuality in the full, unblinking radiance of the sun at noon, or in front of a gigantic flood light.  But for many people, maybe even most people, sex is better in the moonlight, with all of the shadows and blurred images and inconsistency that this creates.  Those shadows create the ambiguity and "space" that people need to manage the incredibly complicated and scary task of two people coming together to become one.  Not only can people live with the ambiguity that the flood light burns away, but it also can be a great benefit to them.  Sometimes people need to see themselves in a different way from the the view they get from the bright lights in order to relax and let go enough to be intimate with someone.  Sometimes people need to become comfortable with the idea that the light can come and go and come again, without treating each episode of dimming as an existential crisis.  Sometimes people want to use the dim light to pretend to be someone else for a while, like a costume party, as a brief break from the other parts of their life.

This moonlight sex can be beautiful and challenging and joyful and life-giving.  And, yes, even holy.


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