According to a 2010 Pew Research Center study, Millennials are more accepting of living together without the benefit of marriage than their older contemporaries are. Only one in five Millennials is married today (half the percentage of their parents’ generation at the same stage), and there is a marked increase in the number of unwed parents. By contrast, the same study notes, “Protecting the planet is a multi-generational cause these days. Most Millennials recycle and try to buy green products, but the same can be said of adults of all ages.”
It’s popular to believe in creation care. It’s unpopular to believe sex belongs in marriage. But I’d like to suggest that marital sex deeply connects with creation care. Rather than seeing these as totally separate issues, we should think of marital sex as creation care.
It’s popular to believe in creation care. It’s unpopular to believe sex belongs in marriage. But I’d like to suggest that marital sex deeply connects with creation care.
The first step is acknowledging that, as human beings, we are part of the material creation. None of us relates to the world as mere mind or spirit. Rather, we all participate in a material world through material bodies. This point is taught from the first pages of Scripture, which recounts the creation of human bodies from “the dust of the ground” alongside the creation of the rest of the material world, from waterfalls to wombats (Gen. 1–2). The Psalms celebrate the high privileges granted to humans in creation (Ps. 8), while simultaneously affirming that humans are part of that creation (Pss. 90:3; 103:14; 104:29).
Too often, the Christian tradition has failed to give due attention to this fact. Wendell Berry is one contemporary writer who has thought long and hard about it, and has expressed his sentiments through 50 years worth of essays, poems, and novels. Berry’s novels are packed with affectionate, nuanced, sometimes comical descriptions of human bodies. One character, Big Ellis, is “a man of large girth and small behind, who customarily did whatever he was doing with one hand while holding up his pants with the other.” Jayber Crow is “all a morose, downward-hanging length.”
In his novel Remembering, Berry ponders the effects of radical body alteration. Andy Catlett loses his right hand in a farming accident. His hand had joined him to his wife, to creation (as he performed farming tasks to earn his livelihood), and to his community (in work exchanges with neighbors). As Berry simply puts it, “When he lost his hand he lost his hold.” Remembering tells the story of Andy’s painful, protracted reconnection to his world.
We have sexual drives since our bodies are part of nature, which is fertile and seeks to reproduce. Stewarding our sexual desires, then, means taking care of a small but vital part of creation. So the question becomes: how may we best steward our sexual bodies?
There are many wrong approaches to human sexuality in our day. Some Christian traditions are afraid of sex, viewing it as a necessary evil and keeping as far from it as possible. But this approach fails to recognize that, since we inevitably connect to one another and to the world through our bodies, sexual union—as one of the most basic and intimate of all bodily connections—can link us deeply to one another and to creation. It won’t do to minimize or ignore sex. An opposite view, held by many in our culture, advocates for total freedom of sexual expression. Nearly all sexual desires may be gratified. But this approach fails to acknowledge, among other things, that untamed sexual drives often wound our neighbors and destroy our relationships.
The covenant of marriage is a middle way of wise stewardship between these extremes. In his essay “The Body and the Earth,” Berry compares the farm and the sexual body. The well-used landscape of a well-tended farm requires elements of wildness if it is to be healthy:
That is what agricultural fertility is: the survival of natural process in the human order. . . . Similarly, the instinctive sexuality within which marriage exists must somehow be made to thrive within marriage.
This point is worth pondering. A healthy farm benefits from both wildness and fertility. A healthy marriage benefits from sexual desire. A healthy farm stewards wildness and fertility. A healthy marriage stewards sexual desire. Reserving sex for marriage neither allows the wildness of sexual desire to go untamed, nor fears that wildness. Instead, it wisely stewards sexual desire within life-giving bounds, knowing that good marriages are healthy in part because sexual desires are satisfied within them.
Reserving sex for marriage wisely stewards sexual desire within life-giving bounds, knowing that good marriages are healthy in part because sexual desires are satisfied within them.
What’s more, healthy marriages are glue for larger communities. In pledging faithfulness (sexual and otherwise) to one another, married couples simultaneously pledge a kind of fidelity to all members of their larger community (those they’ve chosen not to marry). Marriage benefits the entire community, not just the couple. This vision of sex within marriage is a beautiful picture of embodied humans stewarding their communities and the creation.
Every day we see the results of not practicing responsible creation care for our own sexual bodies, and the bodies of others. We see it in the use of sex to sell products. We see it in the prevalence of pornography. The harsh irony of pornography is that, while riveting attention on human bodies, it is an ultimately disembodied thing—sex abstracted from relationship and responsibility.
In Remembering, Andy Catlett walks through an airport terminal noticing attractive women. But the result is the disembodiment of Andy himself: “He lets [the female bodies] disembody him, his mind on the loose and rambling, envisioning unexpectable results, impossible culminations.” This is Berry’s depiction of the tragic quandary of our culture, which simultaneously heightens sexual desire while severing the bonds of marriage and community that preserve and sustain it. Andy wonders, “Shall we disappear with our longing, dismembered, in the annihilating flame?”
It’s a question that remains to be answered. But here’s one immediate implication: It’s senseless to be excited about stewarding our planet while failing to properly care for the one part of the planet most immediately present to us: our own sexual bodies.
Keeping sex within marriage is creation care. Save the planet—sleep only with your spouse.