The Economy of Love
On Birth Control & Hedonism
More than one reader took exception to comments made by our editors and writers on birth control in the January/February issue, an example of which begins our letters section in this one. I wish—speaking as one of the Protestant editors—to speak here to three of the correspondent’s observations in particular: his application of the word “hedonist” to God—placed in quotation marks, to be sure, but still calling for comment—his opinions on large families, and his remarks on Calvin’s treatment of Onan’s sin.
Sexual relations as ordained by their Creator must be contemplated within the entire circle of virtues that love comprehends, which includes faith, hope, and obedience. In that observation is the response to the opinion that God is a hedonist: No, that is not the word to use, for while he is the originator of joy and its pleasures, he is not confused about the place or weight of anything in the scheme of the whole, nor chargeable with the preoccupation this term implies, a preoccupation in which the actual duties of love (following on faith, hope, and obedience) are forgotten in pursuit of pleasure.
The full-orbed practice of love creates an economy where obedience to the command to be fruitful is not an imposition upon the human race, but part of its glory. Its microeconomy would include families, nuclear and extended, in which the regular disciplines and vicissitudes of life, energized by love in all its aspects, serve both to limit and increase family size, and in which the idea of a superfluous or unwanted child is unthinkable. Its macroeconomy would include a larger Christian society that would support—and by this I mean support in its fullest sense, in terms of both discipline and aid in the context of the church’s gifts and wisdom—families of whatever size came about.
The criticism leveled in the letter against unusually fruitful marriages devolves into the “too many children” argument—precisely where it does not belong. The problem in the correspondent’s prejudicial example is the parents’ disorderly life, which, if lived in a better way, may have produced fewer children, but even if not, would have given the family a better home.
And where is the church in this example? Only here active to the extent that its members help in Habitat for Humanity and pay their taxes to support welfare. Might the old women who could be helping with the children be locked up in their condominiums watching television, and moneys that could be helping used by church members to purchase things for themselves that will weigh down their souls like the chains on Marley’s ghost when they depart this life? How will they explain to the Judge that they considered their brother’s children a superfluity, but their own entertainments a necessity—too many souls in their brother’s family, but their own appetites perfectly ordinate?
There is also the suggestion here that very large families are by nature disorderly and tend toward degeneracy. Margaret Sanger could hardly have said it better. Reading this, however, I recalled shaking the hand of a German organ professor named Bach—a lineal descendant of a very large seventeenth-century Christian family by the same name. I am afraid the correspondent, alleging some knowledge of the dynamics of large families, but in fact expressing nothing more than a current prejudice, picked a bad example and generalized from it. One wonders why.
To be sure, this is easy to do in a society where large families are rare, and from churches complicit by default of teaching on the matter. It is unsurprising to hear from these environs the demand that we argue their inhabitants back into Christianity, indignant that the popes, despite fierce opposition from nearly all quarters, including their own house, kept their lamps lit while the Evangelical magisterium was busy becoming more inclusive and at home in the world, supinely treating the birth prevention issue as a Catholic rather than a Christian concern.
One is surprised at the confidence displayed here in the assertion that Calvin erred in saying that Onan “cast upon the ground the offspring of his brother.” It is as though the Reformer (or the editors of this magazine) was unaware that this act was not, juridically speaking, a homicide. What Onan did was deliberately remove himself from his place of duty as the provider of procreative potential on behalf of the God who “gives the increase” and who, as such, is the sovereign principal in and over every procreative act. Onan said No to the Giver of Life on behalf of those who had the hope of life in his seminal agency, and so, in an act of perfect justice, had all his own body’s potencies summarily taken by death.
We do not call Onan’s act, in whatever form it takes, “thwarting the purposes of God in the giving of life,” but “birth control,” a minimalizing locution that shows an almost complete amnesis of what it means sub specie aeternitatis—within the whole economy of love. Calvin knew it, though, and so does the pope. I would be more impressed with Christians who require biblical proofs against it, as another Evangelical correspondent did, if their arguments didn’t read like bad excuses for practices they have become comfortable with and have no intention of abandoning, making God the hedonist rather than themselves.
— S. M. HUTCHENS, for the editors
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“The Economy of Love” first appeared in the April 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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