Erotic Desire Beyond Sensuality

You can’t just avoid talking about sex in the Church (I’m saying this fully aware of the dangers of exciting sexual titillation in teenage boys, given the widespread porn problem). Discomfort with our own sexualities is what’s bending us all out of shape in various ways; I suggest that we embrace the erotic nature of things that are meant to be erotic without being hush-hush about it all.

The danger of being prudish

Being prudes rather than drawing the parallels between Christ and husband, between Church and wife, will only disable people from thinking about sex in any mode but the pornographic. Since, however, the relationship between Christ and the Church is erotic,[1] just as the relationship between Solomon and his Shulammite is erotic, we can’t afford to avoid eroticism and privatize what’s intensely public in the Song of Songs. If we do, our faith is impoverished, being pushed farther and farther into the hidden areas of our consciousness, till at last we have only cerebral faith at the surface and in the deeps a wayward remnant of spiritual eroticism that’s become both privatized and individualized.

If Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church and not of my individual soul, we cannot be prudes about this. If we are, the faith will be pushed continually away from the public sphere, and what we call Christianity will not resemble the Christian’s bond, which resides in both the individual heart and in the human commonwealth, the latter no less than the former – in the same way, a marriage between a man and his wife is meant to be public, the romance celebrated, though consummation happens in private aloneness. We must hear the Song of Songs for our relationship with God as a Church and for our relationships with our spouses, responding to that celebration of love with desire, with longing, with eagerness, with passion.

Erotic desire for all

When eroticism and pornography aren’t distinct in the public consciousness, even sex between a husband and a wife will be born of lust – or else we’ll be having no sex. Either way’s unhealthy. What we’re hoping to recover is an erotic love that encompasses more than the sensual aspects, a love that doesn’t objectify the spouse.

What I’m calling erotic involves more than the physical: we’re talking about the whole person, because even the metaphors we apply to describe the woman’s body aren’t just about the physical appearance. A lot of the metaphors are about what’s true beyond that physical resemblances. If I say my wife’s lips are sweet, for example, that has nothing to do with what flavoured lip gloss she chooses, nor do I necessarily have alcohol on any part of me when she says my kisses are like wine. If I compare a lady’s hair to the dark and gentle night, I’m saying something about her, not just about what her hair looks like to the eyes.

We often imagine that erotic love is only physical and that love for our wives that goes exceeds the limits of mechanical physicality is simply not erotic. But I want to suggest here that even as we celebrate physical beauty, we should be glorifying the beauty of the whole person while also not wishing that we could do this thing without bodies. Neither body nor ghost (often called ‘soul’), I think, is simply adjunct (that is, attached but structurally inessential) to the other when we consider what man is: even when we love another as a friend as not as an amatrix, we love the whole of him without separating ‘body’ and ‘soul’.

Loving the beauty of the Spirit

The apostle Peter says it’s not by ‘the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery, or the clothing [they] wear’ that wives will win over their husbands to faith in Christ: ‘but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.’ This is not to say visible, tangible, physical things are immaterial, but a gentle and quiet spirit makes the whole person beautiful, and then the husband’s heart is aroused to know who gives his wife her beauty. Her spirit dazzles him:

Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah,
 comely as Jerusalem,
 terrible as an army with banners.
Turn away thine eyes from me,
 for they have overcome me:
‘Who is she that looketh forth as the morning,
 fair as the moon, clear as the sun,
 and terrible as an army with banners?’ [2]

Everyone knows this woman is strong and gloriously beautiful: her beauty seems greater than all the sadness we have ever known, and desire for this godly lady is also desire for the hope of the world to be consummated by Christ. ‘The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.’ The King comes.


[1] In Ephesians, Paul takes a metaphor from Hosea, of God’s relationship with the Church, comparing it to human marriage and comparing human marriage to it. When such a metaphor controls an entire book, we’re supposed to believe it, not just decode it. God chooses metaphor because strictly literal expression is inadequate. And instead of describing Christ’s love for the Church primarily as brotherly love or agape, God describes it as eros.

[2] From Song of Songs 6. It’s interesting to compare the words Galadriel says to Frodo in her garden: ‘And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!’


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