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The Lewis Legacy-Issue 85, Summer 2000

Sex, Love and Marriage

by Joshua Pong (First published in Chinese in a Christian magazine in Taiwan)

The Pilgrim’s Regress is a semi-autobiographical allegory by Lewis. We read in the story that John, the main character, in his search for the Island (the experience of joy), commits fornication with a brown girl in a wood and ends up producing a bevy of little brown girls who henceforth dog him wherever he goes.1 Obviously, Lewis is referring to the problem of lust which he had faced as a boy. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis confesses that he lost his virtue through the seductive behaviour of a dancing teacher at his school some time between thirteen and fifteen. We don’t know if he had committed actual fornication with her, but certainly he began to lust heatedly after her.2 Shortly before his conversion to Theism, he found himself to be, among other things, “a zoo of lusts”.3 Lewis was therefore no stranger to the temptations and failures in the area of his sexuality.

In line with the more open attitude towards sex in the world at large and in the western world in particular in this century, many Christians today believe that human sex is a good and glorious thing, something to be proud of and fully enjoyed, rather than to feel ashamed of and to be hushed up as in the Victorian age of the last century. Like all reactions, this reaction against the so-called Victorian morality no doubt also contain errors of its own. Lewis, however, was free from any reactionary error in the matter of human sexuality. Sex is no doubt a good and glorious thing and is nothing to be ashamed of, but this is true only in one sense and grossly untrue in another sense. It is true when sex is practised as God intends it to be practised. “There is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself in a certain way, nor in the fact it gives pleasure…If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once.”4 In fallen humanity an absolutely correct sexual act is of course more an ideal than a reality. We can now only talk about approximations to God’s original intention rather than a full realization of it in our sexual acts. But the sexual acts between Adam and Eve before their Fall (if they had any) would have been glorious beyond all our imagination. At least, the pleasure would have been immeasurably greater. “The older Christian teachers said that if man had never fallen, sexual pleasure, instead of being less than it is now, would actually have been greater.”5

But the statement is grossly untrue when it means “the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of.” Lewis believes there is everything to be ashamed of as far as our present sexual instinct and its accompanying acts are concerned. The desire to eat and enjoy food is normal, but if people thought about food the whole day long, dribbled over pictures of food and went to watch shows in which a cover was slowly lifted from a plate revealing, just before the lights went off, a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, one could not but conclude that there was something very wrong with their appetite for food. This is precisely what our present sexual instinct is like. It is warped, to a far greater extent than our appetite for food. “…perversions of the food appetite are rare. But perversions of the sex instinct are numerous, hard to cure, and frightful.”6

God of course did not originally make man in this condition. Our warped and inflamed sexual impulses are a result of the Fall. Before the Fall, man’s conscious will held perfect control over every part of his body. He consciously directed every organic process such as circulation and digestion down to the decay and repair of all the tissues in his body. “His organs sent up appetites to the judgment seat of will not because they had to, but because he chose.”7 But in the Fall, man had disobeyed God; a great part of his body consequently fell out of his conscious control. “And desires began to come up into the mind of man, not as his reason chose, but just as the biochemical and environmental facts happened to cause them.”8 The most unruly bodily impulses after the Fall are the sexual ones, shown appropriately and tellingly by man’s inability to directly control the modification of his sexual organs by his will. “You can clench your fist without being angry and you can be angry without clenching your fist…But the corresponding modification of the sexual organs can neither be produced nor dismissed by mere volition.”9 Hence the almost universally felt need to have them covered. (Genesis 3:7)

One of the modern reactionary errors about sex is the belief that sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. Lewis pointed out that since sex has been chattered about all day long nowadays and yet it is still in a mess, hushing up obviously could not have been the cause of its being in a mess. The truth is “the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess.”10 It seems that for Lewis, the proper handling of our sexual problem must begin with a honest admission that we are all born with a sexual instinct which is terribly warped because of the Fall and that many of its “natural” promptings are at odd with God’s clearly declared intention for us in this matter. And that intention is “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.”11 Now if we take “faithfulness” and “abstinence” as applying to the realm of thought as well (as we must, on the authority of Jesus’ own teaching), we can see that this ideal is truly impossible for anyone born in the grip of the original sin to completely achieve.

Lewis believed there are three factors making people nowadays not even wishing to be chaste, let alone achieving it. The first is the incessant propaganda of our contemporary culture through films, advertising posters and novels, implanting in our minds the idea that what our sexual impulses urge us to do is healthy and normal and resistance to them almost perverse and abnormal. The second is that Christian chastity is so clearly contrary to the strong and persistent promptings of our sexual instinct that people just think (before trying) the thing is impossible. The third is the misguided fear that “repressed sex” is dangerous. Against the first, Lewis urged that every sane and civilized man recognizes the need to put restraints on human impulses in general. There is no reason why sexual impulses should be given a privileged status and be exempted from this general rule. “Surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humour and frankness.”12 Against the second, he said attempting chastity is not an option but a necessity. It is a compulsory question in an examination paper. If we attempt it we may get a few marks; if we don’t we will lose all marks on that question. Of course no one can really be chaste by his own effort. He must seek God’s help and the first step of His help is often to let us fail so that we may learn to truly trust Him after realizing our utter impotence and acquire the precious habit of always trying again after failure. Against the third, Lewis said “repression” is a technical term. Repressed sexuality, when it appears to the patient, will not be recognized by him as sexual urges at all. A person consciously resisting a sexual impulse urging a recognizably wrong act is definitely not dealing with a repression nor in the least danger of creating one. On the contrary, he knows more and more about his sexuality by fighting hard against it. “Virtue–even attempted virtue–brings light; indulgence brings fog.”13 Another wide-spread present-day error regarding sex is the belief that sexual intercourse is good if and only if it is done when the couples are “in love”. This is clearly at variance with the Christian teaching as well as common morality. It is a fact that sex can occur without the couple concerned being in love. A whole range of sexual acts, from rape to prostitution, are done merely to satisfy an urgent bodily need of the self. They are wrong because the doer uses the other merely as a tool for self-gratification, quite apart from the other evils involved. They want the “it” rather than the person.14 They desire brutally and desire to desire brutally, in the wanting of the “infernal Venus”.15 No doubt consenting adults, even within marriage, can sink to this low-level sex. But this certainly does not mean, without the feeling of being in love, sex cannot be good and right. Christianity justifies and sanctifies sex not by the presence of romantic feelings (being in love), but by the marriage vow which pledges life-long fidelity and the presence of a will (Christian love) to do one’s duties in meeting the other partner’s need (discharging one’s ‘marriage debt’) and in having children (making and extending history) and bringing up “families in the fear of the Lord.”16 If romantic love is present, good; if absent, no great loss. Conversely, sex carried on the crest of a soaring romantic love can be wicked if it involves “breaking a wife’s heart, deceiving a husband, betraying a friend, polluting hospitality and deserting your children.”17 Even if no aforesaid wrongs are involved, sex between lovers not married is still fornication and wrong in
God’s sight, because it involves “trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union.” It is like trying “to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.”18

Regarding sex within marriage, Lewis reminded us not to forget the funny side of the thing. Sex no doubt has its serious moment, but to take it seriously all the time is to mis-handle her to our own harm. “Venus is a partly comic spirit.” We wrong her (and ourselves) if we don’t play her game. “When all external circumstances are fittest for her service she will leave one or both lovers totally indisposed for it. When every overt act is impossible and even glances cannot be exchanged…she will assail them with all her force. An hour later, when time and place agree, she will have mysteriously withdrawn; perhaps from only one of them.”19 Those who deifies her and thinks her all-important will no doubt be filled with resentments, self-pities and wounded vanities when this happens. But sensible lovers laugh and laugh the whole thing away. Just play catch-as-catch-can with her; there is no need to solemnly consult the complete works of Freud, Kraft-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis or Dr. Stopes (or have expensive sessions with long-faced therapists of whatever persuasion) over her mischief. Following
the cheery old Ovid would be more to the point; “nothing is more needed than a roar of old-fashioned laughter.”20

It is all the more important to remember her levity, playfulness and comic spirit in view of Venus’ high and serious moments when pleasure, pushed to the extreme, shatters us like pain. For most (not all) pairs of lovers, the act of Venus invites “the man to an extreme, though short-lived, masterfulness, to the dominance of a conqueror or captor, and the woman to the correspondingly extreme abjection and surrender.”21 A Christian couple can permit this only on one condition: to enter the act, robed ceremonially with nakedness, as enacting a pagan sacrament and, for the duration, representing and focusing all the assailant masculinity and responsive femininity of the world. The man plays Form and the Sky-Father; the woman plays Matter and the Earth-Mother. It is a ritual, a play, a masque or even a charade. The man would be a fool and blasphemer if he really claimed such divine sovereignty and the woman an idolatress if she really offered this
extreme self-surrender to a man. “But what cannot lawfully be yielded or claimed can be lawfully enacted. Outside this ritual or drama he and she are two immortal souls, two free-born adults, two citizens” though “within the rite or drama they become a god and goddess, between whom there is no equality-whose relations are asymmetrical.”22

Lewis never spoke about homosexuality in public. He would no doubt consider the homosexual tendency and its felt impulses to be part of the result of the Fall. In a letter to his friend he said he took it for certain “that the physical satisfaction of the homosexual desires is sin.” This places a homosexual, from the Christian point of view, in no worse position than anyone who is, for whatever reason, prevented from marrying. In a sense he is no different from a married heterosexual who is tempted to unlawful sex with partners other than his own spouse. His perverse tendency and impulses are no doubt a disability, but this, like any other disability, can be turned into a glorious gain if its privations are humbly accepted and offered to God. As to what that gain might be, Lewis confessed that he was not too clear himself.23 Lewis calls that state of “being in love” with all its soaring (romantic) feelings Eros and our sexual impulses and acts Venus. On the natural level, Eros is indeed an overwhelming good, a many a splendid thing. “It helps to make us generous and courageous, it opens our eyes not only to the beauty of the beloved but to all beauty…”24 Of all human loves, Eros is most God-like in his total commitment and utter transcendence of self-regard. When he enters into us, he makes even Venus careless of pleasure and self-satisfaction but appreciative of the beloved as a thing most admirable in herself, “important far beyond her relation to the lover’s need.”25 His desire to be with the beloved disregards all prudential calculation of happiness. Facing the prospect of tending an incurable invalid, hopeless poverty, exile or disgrace in a joint life with her, “Eros never hesitates to say, ‘Better this than parting. Better to be miserable with her than happy without her. Let our hearts break provided they break together.”26 By loving one person so whole-heartedly and prodigally he shows us in what manner God wants us to love all. “It is as if Christ said to us through Eros, ‘Thus–just like this–with this prodigality–not counting the cost–you are to love me and the least of my brethren.'”27 From the spiritual perspective, such a glorious thing is god-like but not God. Like all natural goods granted to us in our fallen condition, Eros can go wrong and lead us easily into many errors and evils if higher principles, both moral and spiritual, do not rule him. As mentioned before, his presence frequently deceives people into thinking fornication a good.
Adultery, deception, perjury, neglect of parents and friends in their direst needs, desertion of wife and children, betrayal of friends, suicide-pacts and even murder can all appear like religious duties when viewed and done under the intoxicating influence of Eros. If he cannot be lawfully united with the beloved, Eros will break all laws to fulfill his own wishes. His grandeur and terror are such that his voice is readily mistaken by us to be the voice of God. “Of all loves he is, at his height, most god-like; therefore most prone to demand our worship. Of himself he always tends to turn ‘being in love’ into a sort of religion.”28 And lovers easily and willingly become devotees not to each other but to him. “When a true Eros is present resistance to his commands feels like apostasy, and what are really (by Christian standard) temptations speak with the voice of duties–quasi-religious duties, acts of pious zeal to love.”29 When their lawless acts prompted by Eros are condemned and opposed, lovers feel like martyrs. They may even feel a particular merit in committing evils in the name of love, for “what costlier offering can be laid on the love’s alter than one’s own conscience.”30

But the grim joke is that Eros who speaks most like God is in fact the most mortal of all loves. Eros wants to be ever true and sincerely believes he can be ever true to the beloved. He declares vows of eternal fidelity unasked and cannot be deterred from making them. Yet the world “rings with the complaints of his fickleness. What is baffling is the combination of this fickleness with his protestations of permanency.”31 Most certainly, Eros cannot keep his promises, however sincerely and ardently made. How is a Christian to think of Eros in relation to marriage?

Basing on Christ’s words that in marriage a man and a woman are “one flesh” or one organism, Christianity teaches that marriage is for life. Though different Churches may hold slightly different views on divorce, all agree that it is a thing most serious, to be compared to the cutting up of a living body, a major surgery like cutting off one’s two legs rather than to the dissolving of a business partnership. “Some of them think the operation so violent that it cannot be done at all; others admit it as a desperate remedy in extreme cases.”32 A Christian can go into a marriage with Eros as his fuel and model, but he cannot rely on Eros to help or make him keep his vows. Those high feelings of selfless liberation which prompt the most lavish and meticulous care for the beloved’s pleasure and well-being and the robust confidence which prompts vows of everlasting fidelity are intermittent between the best possible lovers. They last hardly for a week. Soon the old self with its characteristic self-regard returns and the flames of love may easily flare again but for a different beloved. “Eros, having made his gigantic promise and shown you in glimpses what its performance would be like, has ‘done his stuff’. He, like a godparent, makes the vows; it is we who must keep them…We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present.”33 The prevailing modern folly believes that falling in love is an irresistible affair; Lewis, on the contrary, thought it is a matter largely of our own choice.34 We must therefore also work hard to keep Eros’ original vow specially when his impending resurgence fixes our feelings on another beloved, urging and commanding us to break God’s laws in obedience to his own.

Many people believe that being “in love” is the only reason to enter into and stay in marriage. When the romantic feelings for the spouse die, as they certainly will, they conclude that their marriage has failed and will either seek divorce or be miserable. But in Christian marriages, ceasing to be ‘in love’ with one’s spouse need not and does not mean ceasing to love the same. In fact this may well be the point where “real marriage begins.”35 This Christian love, which Lewis called “Charity” and other theologians call “Agape love”, “is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by…the grace which both partners ask and receive from God.”36

In the act of Venus, the man temporarily plays the role the supreme sovereign and the woman, the abject subject. The Christian marriage confers on the man another kind of headship of incomparably higher import. He is to her what Christ is to the Church. His headship is a symbol of Christ’s headship. Lewis believed that husband does have a divinely ordained authority over wife. “I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife…to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.”37 That the King of Perelandra (Venus) is greater and higher than the Queen is an assumed fact. When the devil-possessed Weston suggests to the Queen that the King may not be older (i.e. higher and wiser) than her in something, she instantly retorts, “That saying of yours is like a tree with no fruit. The King is always older than I, and about all things.” A further suggestion that she will be older than the King is again met with the reply, “Maleldil (Christ) would not make a thing like that happen. It would be like a fruit with no taste.”38

Lewis also spoke approvingly of Milton portraying “Adam smiling with ‘superior love’ on Eve’s ‘submissive charms’ like the great Sky-Father smiling on the Earth-Mother”39 in Paradise Lost. This constitutional authority is necessary if marriage is to be permanent and disagreement between the partners cannot, despite every effort, be resolved. One party must have the final say in deciding the family policy. Lewis believed that the husband, being by nature and in general fairer to the outside world than the wife, is more suited to the role of the head.40 Yet the thing Lewis wanted to emphasise most in the headship of the husband is not the obedience of the wife but the self-sacrifice and sufferings of the husband. For if the husband is to love the wife as Christ loved the Church he must give his life for her as Christ did for His bride. (Ephesians 5:25) This love is to be seen most prominently “not in the joys of any man’s marriage but in its sorrows, in sickness and sufferings of a good wife or the faults of a bad one, in his unwearying (never paraded) care or his inexhaustible forgiveness”.41 The crown on the husband’s head is, like his Master’s, made of thorns.

It must be pointed out that what Lewis portrayed concerning the headship of the husband is more an ideal than reality. Lewis believed that if mankind had not fallen the sole lawful form of government would be patriarchal monarchy. But since in fallen man unchecked power can corrupt so rampantly, democratic checks and balances are required to ensure at least a government of lesser evil to provide a milieu in which humbly exercised authority and delighted obedience may yet offer mutual ministrations. Democracy is a remedy, a medicine for sicknesses fallen man is born with. It is not food and man needs food to lead a healthy life. “Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live.”42 Likewise, with marriage in a fallen world; many legal and extra-legal egalitarian measures must be instituted to prevent the possible abuse of masculine power so that a true husband may learn to rule humbly and sacrificially and a true wife may learn to submit devotedly and delightedly.

Lovers often feel they were made for each other. This feeling, I believe, is largely subjective and illusory: they feel very differently once they fall out of love. But there is one fundamental truth which they must learn whether they feel it or not and that is they are both ultimately made for God. However blessed a marriage may be, it is only for life: their existence is for eternity. They must learn to love each other and all God’s creatures as God loves so that they may love God first and foremost. The process of learning to love like God does and love God is often painful.

The better the lover, the sooner he is ready for tougher lessons and more difficult exercises. His sufferings on earth therefore would seem to us unaccountably the greater as the great Teacher moves him on to more demanding challenges when easier lessons have been mastered.43 Lewis’ celebrated love for and death-bed marriage with Joy Davidman cannot be repeated in detail here. Suffice it to say, after Joy’s miraculous recovery from terminal cancer, Lewis had a most fulfilled and happy time with her as husband and wife. Then cancer returned and took her away; and he was utterly shattered. From angry rebelliousness and dark despair, he gradually rebuilt his life and faith. This is what he gained from his pains: “I wonder. If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. We are ‘taken out of ourselves’ by the loved one while she is here. Then comes the tragic figure of the dance in which we must learn to be still taken out of ourselves though the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very Her, and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow, or our relief from sorrow, or our own love.”44

Is it then better not to love mortals at all, as they will all die and cause much pain? Should we not (in order to avoid pain) love God alone whom we have no fear of losing because He will not and cannot die? Augustine seems to suggest this recipe for avoiding pain in his Confessions when his heart was broken by Nebridius’ death. To this, Lewis answered thus: to love at all is to expose ourselves to the possibility of pain. “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.”45 The alternative to love and all the dangers and perturbations of love is damnation and Hell. How can we truly love God and man if our reason for choosing Him and them is to avoid pain? If it comes to that, can we even love a dog truly on such a prudential ground? “We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the suffering inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.”46 Dare we love? Dare we not love? Let one of Lewis’ poem answer our questions:

All this flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love–a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains. 47

Sources for Sex, Love and Marriage

1 C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1933,1943,1960) pp. 29-31.
2 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: Fontana, 1955, 1959) pp. 59 -60.
3 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 181.
4 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fontana, 1952, 1955), pp. 87-88.
5 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 87.
6 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 87.
7 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Fontana, 1940, 1957), p. 65.
8 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 70
9 C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: OUP, 1942), p. 70.
10 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 87.
11 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 85.
12 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 89.
13 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 91.
14 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (London: Fontana, 1960, 1963), pp. 87-88.
15 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Fontana, 1942, 1955), pp. 104-105.
16 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 86. Also C. S. Lewis, Letters, ed.Walter Hooper (London: Collins, 1966, 1988), pp. 347-348.
17 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 86.
18 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 92-93.
19 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 92.
20 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 91.
21 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 95.
22 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 96.
23 Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977),p. 147.
24 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 95.
25 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 88.
26 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 99.
27 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 101.
28 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 102.
29 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 103.
30 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 104.
31 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 104.
32 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 93.
33 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 105.
34 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 98.
35 C. S. Lewis, Letters, ed. Walter Hooper, p. 348.
36 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 93.
37C. S. Lewis, “Membership”, The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949, 1965), p. 37.
38 C. S. Lewis, Voyage to Venus (London: Pan Books, 1943, 1953), pp. 94, 95.
39 C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 80.
40 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 99-100. Also C. S. Lewis, Letters, ed. Walter Hooper, pp. 349-50.
41 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 97.
42 C. S. Lewis, “Membership”, The Weight of Glory, p. 38.
43 C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber & Faber, 1961, 1966), p.40.
44 C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, p. 41.
45 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 111.
46 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 112.
47 C. S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964), pp. 109-110.