Pairs and Mates — Two are better than one
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? — Ecclesiastes 4:9-11
In this section of my reflection I will turn to two questions: Are men and women actually complementary on a physical basis? (we have already seen that they are not complementary on a human or moral basis) and Is complementarity a necessary component of a committed sexual relationship?
Vive la difference
In the previous section I demonstrated that there is no difference between men and women in their both being fully human. This is not, as some might think, so obvious when one looks to a tradition that had no difficulty following Aristotle in referring to women as “defective males.” (De Gener. Anim., II.3) Aquinas applies this to individual women:
As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active power in the male semen tends to the production of a perfect likeness according to the male sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active power, or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence, such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes... (ST I.Q92.1)
It is true Aquinas allows that in the collective women were not defective, but were rather “part of nature’s intention directed to the work of generation” — which he believes to have been the sole purpose for the generation of woman qua woman. As he says earlier in this same article:
It was necessary for woman to be made, as the Scripture says, as a helper to man; not, indeed as a helper in other works, as some say, since a man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation.
At this point some might be moved to raise the question, why should we pay any attention to a moral theology based in large part on the defective science of Aristotle, enshrined in the Church’s teaching through the absurd speculations of Aquinas? It is a very good question — since if people cannot be trusted in earthly things how are they to be trusted in heavenly things? And if their moral vision is bound and confused by defective biology, why should anyone trust their theology? (John 3:12)
The reason I bring this up is the remarkable persistence such baseless notions seem to have. Even with advances in science, and a better understanding of the actual nature of human reproduction (which, contrary to Aristotle and Aquinas has nothing to do with moist south winds!) there still persists in many circles a kind of archaic folk sexuality functioning alongside scientific knowledge, and often displacing it when moral questions are brought to the fore.
To put it bluntly: Men and women are only complementary in the archaic view of an ancient world innocent of the rudiments of biological science, or at the sophomoric level of tab and slot.
The creation account in Genesis 2, in its suggestion of partial complementarity (woman being derived from man and restored to him), is a part of that archaic world view. We should no more feel bound fully to embrace a literal view of Genesis 2 on human biology than we do Genesis 1 on cosmology. To over-literalize either creation account, is to fall into the disciples’ error in thinking Jesus’ warning about the “leaven of the Pharisees” was in reference to bread; or Nicodemus thinking that to be born again he would have to enter his mother’s womb. The inability to understand mythic or figurative language as myth or figure, or to accept the fact that even in divinely inspired Scripture God’s message is conditioned and limited by human fallibility creates a huge obstacle to coming to a true understanding of the moral principles involved — and risks making the faith even more irrelevant to the world as it is bound up with notions that are demonstrably false.
We need constantly to be reminded, it seems, that the female of the human species was not created from a man’s rib. Or from a moist south wind. Reading poetry as prose is as bad as bad science, and the pre-scientific world was restrained by boundaries to the understanding of reality itself — boundaries we are no longer forced to observe; indeed we would be very foolish to observe them.
The ancient world did not know much about sexuality beyond the crude mechanics of “the way of a man with a woman.” They knew almost nothing of the actual reproductive function. The prevailing view was that the male seed (zara‘, sperma, semen) was planted in the receptive female where it took root and grew; but the seed itself was the source of the person that would be born. It was commonly believed that human semen contained miniature human beings. This erroneous concept held sway until modern times in some places, in spite of advances in microscopy, which in its early days falsely attested to sightings of miniature animals and people in the corresponding sperm! This view is reflected in Hebrews 7:9-10: “One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.”
Some observant naturalists of the ancient world, noting that the menstrual flow ceased once pregnancy became obvious, believed that the embryo was compacted from the menstrual blood rather like cheese curdled by rennet. This view is reflected in Wisdom of Solomon 7:2. These are just two examples of the profoundly limited archaic view of sexuality.
So, given that much of the understanding of sexuality from biblical, patristic and scholastic times was based on errors of fact — and hence must call into question some of the conclusions reached — what might a better understanding of human sexuality lead us to?
Not complementary but mutual
First of all, let me acknowledge one thing about which Aquinas is correct even if he phrases it infelicitously. Procreation is one of the reasons for the existence of the sexes as sexes. I cannot join Aquinas in proclaiming it to be the sole reason for the sexes; nor can the general principle be held as binding on particular cases, as I laid out in my earlier essay on procreation. There I demonstrated that sex and procreation are not necessarily bound up with each other — that they are, on the contrary, actually separable both by purpose and by nature. Aquinas, of course, did not know this — he was unaware, for example, of the naturally infertile period during menses — or failed to take what he did know seriously, and apparently did not read any significance into menopause, of which he was surely aware. (Gen 18:11) This ignorance in itself raises serious questions about the bulk of his conclusions, and subsequent moral theology following his line of thinking on matters sexual.
But with our better understanding of human reproduction, we can affirm that even in procreation the process is not complementary, but mutual — the man is not “completed” by the woman, nor the woman by the man, but rather each contributes an identical number of chromosomes — one from each set of pairs they possess, so that a half-set of chromosomes from each can pair up with their mates in the fertilized ovum. Thus men and women are different, but not by any means complementary — male and female do not contribute to or complete each other, but mutually contribute to the generation of the new human being. The only place complementarity enters into the picture iswithin each chromosome, in the DNA molecules themselves — but this has to do with truly complementary base pairs, not with male and female, as it is true even in species that do not reproduce sexually.
Still, in spite of this fact, people will fixate on the crude schoolboy level of tabs and slots, as if this represented the true locus of sexuality — or indeed as if these were the only tabs and slots with which the human anatomy is provided.
What, after all, are the “sexual organs”? Surely the external genitalia — the only parts of the sexual paraphernalia even remotely “complementary” in that crude sense of tab and slot — are not the source of sexuality. One might well say that the brain is a sexual organ; and when one looks beyond the clearly sexual gonads, themselves part of a larger complex of organs, one sees that between men and women there is remarkable congruence rather than complementarity, even when the function of a corresponding organ is no longer essential to procreation. The male breast or the female glans and prostate (clitoris and Skene’s glands) have functions as much geared towards the erogenous as the procreative.
There comes a time, as Saint Paul said, to “put aside childish things.” We are still not perfect in our understanding of human sexuality, but surely we do know things now that place some of the beliefs of the ancient world and the later church into the same realm as tales of the stork or the cabbage patch. Until we set aside some of the fables of the past, we will not be able effectively to address the concerns of the present.
In his likeness
Every beast loveth his like, and every man loveth his neighbor. All flesh consorteth according to kind, and a man will cleave to his like. Ecclus. 13:15-16
However, I still think much can be learned even from our sacred source material, as long as it is read as sacred text rather than as literal history or science. So I would like to return to Genesis for a moment to address another common assertion of the heterosexualist agenda: that the “difference” between men and women is crucial to the licitness of sexual love.
Although Genesis 1 (with its emphasis on procreation) partakes of the archaic and crudely anatomical distinction of the sexes (the words for male and female meaning roughly “memorable” and “has a hole in it”) Genesis 2 moves towards a more unified view of man and woman (ish and ishah). Even though this represents a folk etymology (and a folk biology) the emphasis is not on the distinction of the sexes but on the likeness of the man and the woman. It is their similarity, not their difference, that is important. One might well observe that Genesis 1 emphasizes the likeness of the couple to God, Genesis 2 the likeness of the couple to each other.
As I have noted in previous sections of this reflection, God’s “intention” in Genesis 2 seems to be at least as much based on Adam’s needs as on God’s “plan.” God’s intent, in Genesis 2, is to address Adam’s solitary condition; and God only chooses to create woman after the animals prove to be unsatisfactory companions. It is human companionship that Adam requires — the help of one like himself.
You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve as a helper and support. From the two of them the human race has sprung. You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.’ (Tobit 8:6)
In short, the man and the woman form a pair; they are mates; and it is clear that both of these words apply to two things like each other as much as to two things unlike each other. And in Genesis 2, the emphasis is on the likeness. In this sense, far from being complementary, the man and the woman are like the two blades of a pair of scissors — that work together because they are like each other.
Most importantly, the relationship they form is mutual, like joining with like — much as one joins right hand with right hand in the sociable interaction between two people, and in the marriage rite itself — the same hand, not the opposite one — in a pledge of mutual joy, in which the mutuality is as important as the joy. Their mutual union does not imply the literal disappearance of the two persons here any more than it does in the love of neighbor. (It is perhaps instructive to compare the similarity of the advice in Ephesians 5:33 and Romans 13:9.) The mutual union is the beginning, not the end, of a life-long relationship.
So it seems clear that not only is there no true complementarity between the sexes, but that the relationship of the sexes is not based solely on the differences that do exist, but at least as much upon the similarities.
In the following sections of this reflection I will take up the remaining “ends” or “goods” of marriage — the reflective (or symbolic) and the preventative (“as a remedy for fornication.”) I will also address the question of whether a same-sex couple can experience the mutual joy in unity enjoyed by mixed-sex couples.
It will be noticed that I have “backed into” this discussion from the point of view of marriage, rather than beginning (as is the usual course) with the alleged prohibitions on same-sexuality. I promise I will address those concerns at last, but my initial intent has been to challenge the presuppositions surrounding sexuality itself before engaging with the rather better-traveled paths of the seemingly endless discussion.
Tobias Haller BSG
The discussion continues with 6. Clash of Symbols.
Further Update: This post and those that follow, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.