At a reflective moment in the middle of the 1998 war film The Thin Red Line, Private Witt asks Sergeant Welsh, “Do you ever feel lonely?” Welsh answers, “Only around people.” Witt appears to ponder this for a moment and then repeats softly, as if in benediction, “Only around people.” The sentiment that Welsh expresses is the crisis of the human soul: alienation.
Alienation is the profound sense that, although we may surround ourselves by people at all times, we will always be alone. The sense that there is something—an infinite gulf—that will always separate us from even those closest to us and that will always leave us feeling misunderstood and empty. Because we are humans, we cannot accept this inevitability, and so we throw ourselves at it, not realizing that in our attempt to bridge the gulf between human souls, we are in truth hurling ourselves into an endless chasm. Or perhaps we do realize that all our actions to overcome the spaces between each other are doomed to failure and yet we persist, either because we possess Freud’s instinct of destruction or perhaps simply because we see no other option. There is no way out.
Sex is the ultimate act of de-alienation. It is a reckless act of self-abandon in which we attempt to overcome the gap in our souls by joining our bodies together. It is a vain attempt to defy the loneliness in our hearts by becoming as close as physically possible to another human being. We literally throw our bodies at each other, acting out a profound metaphysical desperation in physical space. Yet we often end up not with satisfaction but with deeper longing, with anger, and with hurt. The false intimacy simply makes us more painfully aware of the true sense of our alienation and our aloneness.
Why? Why must there be this deep longing? Why is love so painful? Why are we never content? Saint Augustine who, early in his life, spent years indulging the lusts of his flesh, diagnosed the problem very clearly at the beginning of his Confessions: “[B]ecause you [God] made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” The root cause of our alienation is separation from the divine. The act of sin brought alienation into the world as it severed the connection between humans and God.
Sex is more than simply pleasure and it is also more than just a tool for procreation. Both of these views of sex belittle God’s intention for this beautiful act. Sex is the imitation of divine unity. It is a foreshadowing of the union between Christ and the church. Jesus repeatedly compares the fulfillment of God’s plan to a wedding feast, and Paul uses numerous illustrations from marriage in his letters to the early church.
Sex does not have to leave us with a deeper sense of alienation than we had before; it does not have to leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled. The promise of sex is union: the union between man and woman mirroring the union between Christ and the church. The idea of union suggests the impossibility of separation, and this is where sex falls short—and especially sex outside of the context of marriage. In a real sense, sex does unite two people physically, but it is only in the metaphysical context of marriage that this union has any promise. The promise of unity is continuity, faithfulness, and the idea that the people involved can rest secure in the love they share. If we will be honest with ourselves, we will admit that this unity is what we really desire. The unity we seek is, as W.H. Auden put it, “Not universal love / But to be loved alone.” We are not satisfied with just a taste; we want the whole thing.
All this is not to say that sex—even sex properly placed within a faithful marriage—will grant us the peace for which our souls long. Humans are sinful and will repeatedly fail us. The alienation will persist as long as we continue to sin against each other and against God. Part of this sin is the refusal to admit that our soul’s true desire is not for sex or for human companionship but for God. This sin is destructive not only because it denies God’s proper place in our lives but also because it places unrealistic expectations on our human relationships. Humans fail and if we place our hopes in them, our hopes will fail, leaving us again in despair.
Sex is good, but it is not ultimate. It is the greatest act of human unity, and our desire for it reflects our yearning to overcome the alienation that is our common affliction, yet it will always—even in the ideal marriage—leave us with only a shadow of that which is to come. However, we should take hope. If the shadow is as good as sex in the marriage union was intended to be, then the reality—union with Christ—must be very good indeed.
This post was originally published as an article in Revisions: A Journal of Christian Perspective at Princeton.