Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Thirteen and a Half

In my last piece, Screwtape explained how love is part of sex and that makes it totally logical that God would command lifelong monogamy or chastity for everyone, except without the part where he actually explained that in a way that makes any sense. Now that he’s not made his point, he goes into the details of the implications.

“Now comes the joke. The Enemy described a married couple as ‘one flesh.’ He did not say ‘a happily married couple’ or ‘a couple who married because they were in love,’ but you can make them forget that the man they call Paul did not confine it to married couples. Mere copulation, for him, makes ‘one flesh.’ You can thus get the humans to accept as rhetorical eulogies of ‘being in love’ what were in fact plain descriptions of the real significance of sexual intercourse. The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured.”

This is more or less what I was taught as a kid. If you have sex, you should get married, because in a sense you already spiritually are. Arguing anything else is just falling prey to silly modern romantic notions. Now, there was a fair bit of hypocrisy built into this. I did know a fair number of divorced people and pregnant teens who were not forced to marry the teen who provided the sperm end of the equation. That said, when it was hammered into my head, again and again, that sex outside of marriage was Bad, this was the general rationale. My parents were never abusive towards people who had gotten divorced or pregnant, but they had no tolerance for people openly sleeping together before marriage, and they accepted the former group with a tacit assumption that they had repented to God and felt properly ashamed of themselves.

Screwtape goes on to explain that love almost inevitably follows marriage, whether the couple is in love to begin with or not, but that our ridiculous modern culture regards being in love as both a prerequisite to and the only good reason for getting married. He happily takes credit for demonic help in encouraging individuals to come to this conclusion, because it serves their evil plan.

“In the first place, humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves ‘in love,’ and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical.”

Deciding you’ll just marry some random decent person because you aren’t allowed to have sex until you’re wed and you feel really, really horny? Yeah, that seems a bit cynical to me. Lewis tries to make us see it in another light with a bit of snark and some sleight of hand, “Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.” Funny, because just a sentence ago you were actually suggesting that only the middle qualification really mattered. It’s not like I can’t skip back a line and reread what you said. The proof is right there. Don’t try to backpedal and pad “lets get married because I just really want to have sex” out into “lets get married because I really want sex and babies and to trust and rely on you forever.” Those two statements are not the same.

I think the whole idea of getting married is awesome. I also think that rock climbing, getting your driver’s license, getting a tattoo, owning 34 pets including some highly exotic species and starting your own business are awesome. These things all require some degree of forethought and preparation and personal maturity before you dive into them. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up to lose all your money, kill an innocent creature because you didn’t know Petco is the worst place on Earth to get advice about iguana husbandry, have Spongebob’s face on your butt forever, crash and break your neck, fall and break your neck, and someday face the dilemma of either getting divorced or living the rest of your life with someone who makes you miserable.

And that’s the thing that’s wrong here. What he frames as “not happily married” is what many people experience as “really goddamn miserable.” I’m not just talking about explicitly abusive relationships here, although I’m certainly including them. I’m thinking about, for example, the situation where one person has feelings for the other, but for reason the other has lost interest in them. I was in that situation once. It’s really soul crushing, and there is no solution except to get out. He needed to be with someone he loved, and I needed to be with someone who loved me.

But according to Lewis, because we had sex, supposedly my boyfriend and I were transcendentally bonded and we were obligated to stay together (I’m ignoring the fact that he probably wouldn’t have counted our relationship as real in the first place, on account of our being gay). What, precisely, was the effect of the transcendental bonding? Was breaking up destructive to the fabric of our souls? I feel fine. I’m still me, no differences noted beyond what you would expect after any kind of significant life experience. Are my future relationships all going to suffer from that trans-dimensional tearing? Well, my current relationship is awesome, and I think I learned things from my previous relationship that helped me make this one better, so I don’t really find that plausible. Is there some invisible effect that I’m just incapable of perceiving in any form, but that is definitely capital-b-Bad? I’m just supposed to trust him that I would have been better off making both of us miserable because of some spiritual effect that neither of us can perceive and that he can’t explain beyond calling it “transcendental”?

Yeah, I think I’ll stick with ethical sluttiness, thanks.

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