Von Hildebrand and Schindler make rather heavy criticisms when implying that Christopher West is forgetful of concupiscence, as if at any moment the good must be watched carefully against the intrusion of evil. It is said, for example, that Augustine held for some venial sin even in marital sexuality. And one could analogously think of the tendency to overeat or overdrink even at a very proper banquet. Somehow that does not so easily translate into the sexual area. How can a man be too tempted by his wife? (Though of course there are improper times even for marital love to be expressed). Not every desire is met upon its emergence.
Let us say rather that we do have, as fallen, a fragmented existence, not an integral one. Thus, Aquinas could hold that pre-fallen humanity would have had greater pleasure in sexuality than we are ever capable of now. That is, as post-fallen we are divided into parts. Hence, some of the evil in misplaced sexuality lies not in its indulgence but in its incompleteness or half-way indulgence. If West is aware of this he has a point. Pre-marital sex, for example, is more of a quitting, a dabbling, the squelching of a total self-donation almost as much as it is a voyage into the forbidden. Lovers are meant to last for life because of the transcendental nature of the spiritual-bodily experience. Is this what West means?
However, the danger in West’s approach, as it could be misunderstood at least, is in its domestication, intended or not, of the mysterious. He and Hefner want to get it all out there, so to speak, as if to overcome the mystique of the forbidden. He is not so much forgetful of concupiscence as he is of that which is awesome, the tremendum (though surely he tries to preach the awesomeness of sexuality). He might thus forget that the opposite of the beautiful is not the normal but the ugly, the sickening. Both he and Hefner in a way seek to “normalize” sex, to naturalize it and make it all OK. It won’t hold still for that.
Their celebration of sex is too forced. Sex escapes the attempt to rationalize or tame it with further exposure. Hefner’s campaign never ends. It cannot. The mysteriousness of our imaging of God in co-personal marital union will look for a recovery elsewhere, given our unrestricted desire to know and love, to be known and to be loved, which nothing short of the infinite will ever satisfy.
The dark underside, the counterpoint of the mystery, is enlightening here. West and Hefner are not so much neglectful of concupiscence as they are of the stronger evil, the demonic. The opposite of the reserved and untouchable hidden and holy human body is, once again, not the clinically exposed flesh, hang-ups dismissed, but the polar opposite of the beautiful; namely, the profane, the despicable, the unmentionably ugly. Why do Satanic cults need a truly consecrated host to celebrate a black Mass if they don’t believe it is real? Or do they at least perhaps fear it is real?
Pornography attempts to normalize a mystery but ends up seeking ever more degrees of its ugly project by celebrating ever newer and forbidden extremes (a woman being actually killed in a porn movie, for example). The awful cannibalism of Dahmer and Merwes were an integral part of their homosexual rituals of killing and dying.
West and Hefner, to put it simply, seem to forget why dirty words are dirty. The F word, for instance, is sometimes referred to as much as it is actually spoken. The reader even hears and sees it when reading this sentence but it still will not appear on this page. It belongs to almost every part of speech – adjective, noun, adverb, verb — in our attempt to control our lives and our world exhaustively. That our world is sexual West assures us. “Damn you” won’t work, however passionately uttered. But that the sexual can take us over, for better or worse, he hesitates to point out. When we thoroughly tame the F word we will find another, far worse if possible, to take its place.
Some have thought that rap music represents an attempt to control the unspeakable by getting it all out in the open, no holds barred about mothers and cops, gadgets and positions. As if in saying it out loud we remove its sting and its ugliness and become less likely to commit murder and rape. But mere exposure once again soon bores us. The sexual refers to our total being, not to body parts. The potentially vulgar verbs of to “have” to “make” or the now popular to “do” someone reveal the comprehensiveness of sexual union but also hint at its hidden temptation to control, to dominate, even to hurt — to refuse to let go and be taken.
Though West’s desire to carry out what Hefner began presumes far better intentions than Hefner deserves, West is not totally off the mark if he means to overcome prudishness and unworthy shame. But the danger lies in stripping us of the inhibitions and sublimations that occasionally protect us from harm. Insofar as he and Hefner recommend to us more “exposure” both are misguided. Between the beautiful and the demonic there is no clinically neutral middle. Our sexuality is anything but “harmless.” As Donald Keefe has said, there is no common ground between yes and no. Sexual love in marriage, he would note, is the occasion for blissful joy, not simply the elements of fun. Any attempts by West or Hefner to domesticate the beautiful, to make the holy into something manipulable, even manageable, will be about as successful as rap music has been in lowering the crime rate.
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