dietrich von hildebrand in defense of purity

Sex as Mystery

6:00:00 AMMeredith Kuzma


There's no question about it: Americans love their pets. From gourmet pet food, to air conditioned dog houses, to bottled water, these pets enjoy luxuries above and beyond the simple comforts that a good master provides. If these pet owners are capable of such love and compassion for animals of the irrational kind, how much greater should their love and joy be for the beauty encountered in another person?


For some people, living out good manners and respect for the people around them is as simple as common sense. Yet for others, common sense means “an eye for an eye,” reflecting the treatment they receive back to the world. Pets may be a source of comfort and stability in a world of changing human motives and unforeseen human actions.


As a rational animal, man is capable of many things that irrational animals could never comprehend. Persons are capable of responding to the value of other persons. There are many examples of this, such as the response of love and affirmation, but a particularly striking example would be how persons approach sex.


Sex is a mystery. Hildebrand emphasizes this by calling sex a “mysterious experience” (p 14). It is a mysterious experience, a union of souls and bodies with the possibility of children,  and there is a mystery in the act of marriage that signifies a new human being. A new human being. Unfolding this mystery, Hildebrand comments, “it is no mere living thing, but a man, who comes into existence,” and that the weight of knowing this comes from understanding “the peculiar relationship that exists between physical sex and wedded love” (p 15).


Man surrenders himself in the union of love, surrendering the secret of himself, and encounters “either the mystery of wedded love or the mystery of a terrible sin” ie, sex outside marriage. Hildebrand is not trying to “shame” anyone here but rather show the importance of uniting this mysterious union to God. The mystery of this terrible sin occurs when “man flings himself away, surrenders his secret, delivers himself over to the flesh, [...] severs himself in a mysterious fashion from God” (p 15). There is a desecration of the self that happens in sex outside of marriage but there is also a desecration of the other person.


Many claim that sex outside of marriage is innocuous and anyone who claims otherwise is at least projecting morality on to what is merely physical or at worse paranoid about a nonexistent sexual law. There is a sense here that dismissing the mystery might be easier than accepting it. To reduce sex to merely a bodily passion, to strip it of mystery, to fail to recognize the surrender of the self that happens, is to fundamentally misunderstand sex. Respecting the mystery of sex does not require being prudish or paranoid. A mystery does not have to be something unknown and out of reach—rather, mystery is a reality to be honored with the recognition of what it demands by its value.

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Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1962)

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2 comments

  1. I keep returning to your initial paragraph and puzzling about what pet ownership has to do with sex as potentially an expression of a love that is mysterious in its power to transform. Pets do live pretty much in the present, ruled by instinct or stimulus and response. Humans, on the other hand, can will to live beyond their animal appetites and agression.

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    1. The connection is that the love we have for a pet is vastly different than the kind of love we should have for another human being. We can't take cues from how animals act in order to know how we should act. So, yes, your last sentence is spot on!

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