Developing a Kierkegaardian Sexual Ethic

I wrote this post a month ago while I was in the throes of passion with the Danish philosophical theologian, Soren Kierkegaard and his book Works of Love. I’ve been hesitant to post this because the implications and implementation scare me. But before I scare you with all the disclaimers, let’s just get into it.

The God-relationship is the mark by which the love for people is recognized as genuine. As soon as a love-relationship does not lead me to God, and as soon as I in the love-relationship do not lead the other to God, then the love, even if it were the highest bliss and delight of affection, even if it were the supreme good of the lovers’ earthly life, is still not true love. Kierkegaard, Works of Love

One of the claims that Kierkegaard makes throughout Works of Love is that God must be in the midst of our love lest it not be true love. In our works of love, we must always consider God because it is God who helps us know how to rightly love and order our love. Considering this, a lifetime of “love” flashed before my eyes and I thought about every person whom I ever thought I loved and, measuring that against Kierkegaard’s words above, wondered if I have ever truly loved. I also began to think about what the sexual-relationship would look like using Kierkegaard’s framework. What would happen if I took Kierkegaard’s Works of Love and applied them to sex, making it Works of Sex or Works of Sexual Love? Take this interpretation for instance,

The God-relationship is the mark by which the love for people is recognized as genuine. As soon as a sexual-relationship does not lead me to God, as soon as I in the sexual-relationship do not lead the other to God, then the sexual-relationship, even if it were the highest bliss and delight of affection, even if it were the supreme good of the lovers’ earthly life, is still not true sex.

Now bear with me. I know it may seem extreme to replace love with sex–although people do it every day–but I also think doing so is challenging. Many of us want love and, before that love, some of us want sex. This is not altogether a bad thing, for as people have so tirelessly said, “we are sexual creatures.” But, being creatures who are sexual and have desires doesn’t preclude us from thinking about how to rightly order our sexual relationships particularly so that we are leading ourselves and our partners to God, so that it is beneficial to our partner’s life and soul, and to ourselves.

In regards to the love-relationship, Kierkegaard talks about God being the middle term. As the middle term God is the mediator between the two persons and God is the being who the two should be fully aware of in all of their actions. Their actions apart from reflection on God is a detriment to each other, but the interaction with God informs their interaction with each other. Their actions should lead them to God, thus in the sexual relationship, each participant should lead the other to God. It would seem that one’s first thought would be, “Is engaging in this type of relationship going to help or harm the other’s and my relationship with God?” This requires reflection before the act  that takes into consideration what Kierkegaard would consider the highest love–love of God. He suggests that this is the most important relationship that we have and the primacy an individual gives it overflows into other relationships for the benefit of both parties. Furthermore, the idea of including God in the sexual relationship seems to require sex be about more than self-pleasure which requires a move away from self-love and a move toward a higher regard for the other, another concept that Kierkegaard addresses in Works of Love.

Kierkegaard states that self-love must be directed out and that “out” is toward God so that God may lead us to knowing how to rightly love the neighbor. In terms of the sexual relationship, this means that moving past self-pleasure, out of the realm of self-love, one is better able to discern the needs of the other. But this move is not to discern how much one thinks the other person needs to experience erotic pleasure from them because they believe they are so good at what they do, but to discern whether the other persons even needs to experience erotic pleasure in the moment at all.  This makes one’s desire to have sex not first based on desire for temporal pleasure but desire to know whether this would be beneficial for the other on, dare I say it, an eternity-seeking level.

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard also draws attention to the necessity of knowing about the condition of one’s soul. He says,

You who speak so beautifully about how much the beloved means to you or you to the beloved, remember that if a pure heart is to be given away in erotic love the first consideration must be for your soul as well as for your beloved’s! This consideration is the first and the last; from this consideration there is no separation without guilt and sin. Works of Love

Re-interpreted for the sake of this discourse, one might suggest that being concerned about the soul of the intended sexual partner becomes the first and the last question. This, by far, is one of the most challenging dimensions of this Kierkegaardian sexual ethic. How does one even begin to consider an individual’s soul? All I can think of at this moment is an old church song sung as funerals, “It is Well with My Soul.” This is not meant to conjure up images of death but it is meant to provide a baseline by which one might start their consideration of their partner’s soul. Would it be well with their soul for your two souls to become one in the sexual event? Would it be well with their soul should their sexual relationship die shortly after penetration? Is their soul well enough to handle the seriousness of that sexual relationship you are about to participate in? These aren’t just questions for the intended sexual partner but for the individual as well. The individual comes in last in this Kierkegaardian sexual ethic.

The claim that carries Works of Love is Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to keep the second and greatest commandment, “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Given this Kierkegaard believes that the person of faith must not have preferential love for anyone, including himself/herself. Of course this seems confusing in terms of the subject at hand, but what one can pull out from that concept is the fact that the individual, in Kierkegaard’s love ethic, takes a back seat to the neighbor. The person outside of the individual and nearest to the individual is the neighbor who takes precedence. Kierkegaard scholars might notice that I’ve taken a slight liberty because Kierkegaard wouldn’t advocate for giving an erotic partner neighborly consideration, but I am suggesting here that the erotic partner becomes the individual’s primary concern before themselves. At the heart of this developing Kierkegaardian sexual ethic is the individual’s ability to allow God to be the middle term of the sexual relationship and to be primarily concerned about the other before themselves. This ethic requires reflection on the rationale for wanting to participate in a sexual relationship with another that goes beyond one’s personal experience of pleasure and considers it and the other in light of God. It takes into consideration long-term possibilities over short-term pleasure, the eternal consequence over the temporal award.

So I know I just said a whole lot, but what do you think of this Kierkegaardian sexual ethic? Do you buy it? Does it even make sense? Do you feel weird about making God a part of your sexual decision? Is it possible to consider someone’s soul or is this something only God can rightly discern? Does this seems to idealistic? Does this scare you? What might you add or subtract? Let’s talk about it.