The Conjugal Catacomb

As with Fight Club, the Christian churches have moved into the underground as a response to the transformation of eroticism. The catacombs that have been erected - those subterranean tombs - serve only one purpose. It is there that eros is made safe through an unholy marriage with the thanatological criteria of the ideology of morality. The proclamation of a new creation becomes little more than a pious platitude and the eschatological ethic of love is definitively eschewed in the assertion of a legalism that is, at the same time, a renunciation of the messianic intention of the church. In the latter's wake we see a Christianity that is domesticated and which refuses to confront the difficulty of the (moral) law and its significance for Christian sexual practices.

Only the persisting dominance of this revocation of the messianic imperative makes us misread the significance of one of the most sustained reflections on marriage in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul outlines an understanding of marriage from the perspective of one who, according to Peter Brown, "lived his life poised between revelation and resurrection" (P. Brown 1988: 46). Paul describes how the Christian is to live in the between-time, the "time that remains," and how the appropriate habitus might be constituted in a messianic time that is, strictly speaking, neither chronos nor kairos. The overcoming of the law, Paul suggests, demands a radically different rehearsal of what has, and is to, come: "I mean, brethren, the appointed time (kairos) has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7.29-31). This Pauline text consistently repeats a specific motif of the negation of a given historical nature of things in order to set up the possibility of living in the time that remains, a motif that signifies the arrival of a very different temporality to historical time. That motif, repeated five times in this short text, is hos me, "as if not." It signifies a radical reconstitution of the nature of life, because its telos in the wake of the risen Christ is the new creation, and daringly questions the state and status of the order of things, whether economic or affective but especially sexual.

It is this questioning of the status quo - whether of the law or of the conventions of the Greco-Roman household - that is forsaken in the modern incarceration of erotic practices. Paul does not compartmentalize eroticism but establishes it within a wider economy of desire, whether for power, status or mammon. Consequently, later on in the same chapter of his epistle, he suggests that "the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and he is divided" (1 Corinthians 7.33-4). This bold assertion leads Kurt Niederwimmer to propose that the Pauline uneasiness with conjugal relations, based on a disavowal of their immanent ends, results in an identification of the married person as "halfChristian" (Niederwimmer 1975: 114; cited in Brown 1988: 56). This is not an ethos that the moralistic Christian churches of late modernity would want to embrace. Yet the central thematic that is interrogated in Paul's discussion of the problematic status of marriage is that of the end of desire. Desire here is not restricted to any specific characteristics of sexual desire but is a wider erotic category that includes idolatry and immorality more generally and which Paul calls porneia (see 1 Corinthians 6.13; 7.2). Consequently, if marriage has any role in the Pauline scheme of (messianic) things, it is little more than a mechanism that guards against the desire for worldly things, a desire that must be discharged from sexual relations within marriage as well as without (Martin 1997: 202). For the churches today, Paul's view of marriage is neglected, even elided, because it threatens the basis of the modern morality that is so resolutely embraced and propounded.4

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