Book Review: On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewksi
J. Budziszewksi, On the Meaning of Sex. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2012. 168 pages.
Does sex mean something?
In our culture, sex means everything and sex means nothing. Sex means everything: we have made sex an indispensable key to a happy life. We cannot imagine fulfillment without it. And sex means nothing: sex is simply joining two bodies for pleasure. It implies no commitment. Its only constraint is consent. Unless by misfortune, or by increasingly rare choice, sex bears no fruit.
Our culture shouts these two contradictory claims from the rooftops. Many other contradictions, with similarly devastating effects, are built on this one.
Why does this contradiction remain invisible to many? Because fallen people are not neutral observers but truth-suppressors (Rom 1:18).
How can we escape such blindness and see what sex really means? One necessary and increasingly urgent means is staring again at reality until we can make sense of what we see.
That, in essence, is what J. Budziszewksi does in On the Meaning of Sex. Budziszewksi is professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. He was raised Baptist, then became an atheist, then an Anglican, and then, in 2004, a Roman Catholic. In this book Budziszewksi deploys his training in natural law to illumine, in my view compellingly, the meaning of “the sexual powers,” sexual differences, sexual love, sexual beauty, sexual purity, and how sexual love points to a greater love, the love between God and his people (Chs 2–7).
I am writing this review primarily to commend, and secondarily to apply the argument Budziszewksi makes in this book. I have not read as widely as I would like on matters related to sex and gender, but this is easily one of the best, most pastorally useful books I have read. If I were to recommend just one book for regaining a hold on sexual reality, it would be this one. Budziszewksi’s writing is lucid and lovely. His book is brief and well-built, delivering much good in few pages. I would recommend On the Meaning of Sex to just about anyone; I especially commend it to pastors.
In this review—given the length, really a review essay, if you pardon the posh term—I will take up three tasks. First, I will briefly explain and defend Budziszewksi’s use of natural law. Second, I will highlight some of the book’s most important and needed points. Third, I will offer three points of pastoral application, particularly regarding the book’s value for recent “intra-complementarian” debates.
I suspect many evangelical readers will suspect Budziszewksi’s appeal to natural law. Natural law, as Budziszewksi employs it, perceives “the embedded principles and the inbuilt meanings of the human sexual design” (22). To those who object that we merely imagine such natural meanings and purposes, Budziszewksi would ask, what are the purposes of our eyes and heart and lungs? “If we can ascertain the meanings and purposes of all those other powers, there is no reason to think that we cannot ascertain the meanings and purposes of the sexual powers. Natural function and personal meaning are not alien to each other. They are connected” (22).
What about the alleged fallacy of deriving ought from is? “If the purpose of eyes is to see, then eyes that see well are good eyes, and eyes that see poorly are poor ones” (22).
Protestants who affirm the sufficiency of Scripture can still find in natural law a fruitful avenue for confirming and expounding scriptural ethics. According to Psalm 19 and Romans 1, creation itself speaks. So Budziszewski’s project need not be read as competing with clear scriptural teaching. Rather, his work complements biblical exegesis by listening closely to the logic and music of creation. A natural law approach helps us affirm the consistency and harmony of the Bible’s ethical commands. What God commands goes with the grain of the natures he has given his creatures.
To further prove the natural law pudding by tasting its ability to refresh our savor of reality, consider how Budziszewksi reasons from sex’s procreative meaning to its unitive meaning:
If the procreative meaning of sex is granted, the unitive meaning follows. We aren’t designed like guppies, who cooperate only for a moment. For us, procreation requires an enduring partnership between two beings the man and the woman, who are different, but in ways that enable them to complete and balance each other. Union, then, characterizes the distinctly human mode of procreation. A parent of each sex is necessary to make the child, to raise the child, and to teach the child. Both are needed to make him, because the female provides the egg, the male fertilizes it, and the female incubates the resulting zygote. Both are needed to raise him, because the male is better suited to protection, the female to nurture. Both are needed to teach him, because he needs a model of his own sex, a model of the other, and a model of the relationship between them. Mom and dad are jointly irreplaceable. Their partnership in procreation continues even after the kids are grown, because the kids need the help and counsel of their parents to establish their own new families. (25–26)
In other words, we should be able to see that sex intrinsically means lifelong exclusive commitment (however people might try to deface that meaning), because the nurture of the children who are its natural issue calls for the permanent presence of both mother and father. To speak in this way is not to denigrate those who through tragedy raise children alone, but rather to recognize what single parents already know all too well: it is best for children to be raised by both mom and dad.
What then does Budziszewksi say that sex means? He discerns two “natural meanings and purposes of the sexual powers”: “One is procreation—the bringing about and nurture of new life, the formation of families in which children have moms and dads. The other is union—the mutual and total self-giving and accepting of two polar, complementary selves in their entirety, soul and body” (24). And these two purposes are intricately interwoven.
Another crucial contribution is Budziszewksi’s description of the meaning of sexual difference. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? Budziszewksi offers definitions that he carefully qualifies as starting points, not ending points. Nevertheless I will argue below that his definitions of manhood and womanhood improve on at least one set widely used among evangelicals. To begin where Budziszewksi begins, with womanhood: “We can say that a woman is a human being of that sex whose members are potentially mothers” (54). This potentiality for motherhood “includes more than potentiality to give birth” (55). Hence an adoptive mother really is a mother. And it is crucial to perceive what Budziszewksi means by “potentiality”:
A potentiality is something like a calling. It wants, so to speak, to develop; it demands, so to speak, a response. Of course this is figurative language, because a potentiality has no will of its own. Yet it really is directed to fruition. The potentiality for motherhood is like an arrow, cocked in the string and aimed at the target, even if it never takes flight. It intimates an inbuilt meaning, and expresses an inbuilt purpose, which cannot help but influence the mind and will of every person imbued with them. (55–56)
Many widespread, general, cross-culturally consistent differences between men and women make sense in this light:
The other sexual differences make sense in this light, too. As Edith Stein reminds us, men are more prone to abstraction, and women more prone to focus on the concrete. Men don’t mind what is impersonal; women are more attuned to the nuances of relationships, and to what is going on in other people. A man tends to be a specialist and single-tasker; he develops certain qualities to an unusually high pitch, using them to do things in the world. A woman tends to be a generalist and multitasker; she inclines to a more rounded development of her abilities, using them to nurture the life around her. The woman’s potentiality for motherhood ties all her qualities together and makes sense of her contrast with men. Consider just that multitasking capacity. In view of what it takes to run a home, doesn’t it make sense for her to have it? A woman must be a center of peace for her family, even though a hundred things are happening at once. (57)
More briefly: “A man builds a dwelling; a woman is a dwelling. This is true with utmost literalness for the first nine months for every human being, but it is true at many figurative levels too” (115).
And Budziszewksi defines manhood as follows: “He is a human being of the sex whose members have a different potentiality than women do: the potentiality for fatherhood” (58–59). Throughout, Budziszewksi insists on the crucial point that both motherhood and fatherhood can be realized in ways beyond the natural begetting of children. All women are called to develop their inbuilt capacities and inclinations by “mothering” in an extended sense; so too all men are “called to fatherhood in a larger sense” (59). Nevertheless, the complementary realities of manhood and womanhood are perceived most clearly in the shared, differentiated labor of raising children:
Although the directive geniuses of the father and the mother are not the same, both of them truly rule the home. We may compare the father with a king reigning over a commonwealth, the mother with a queen. These potent archetypes express nobility, glory, and self-command. Men joke about their wives telling them what to do. The joke would have no point unless two things were true: On one hand, they would not want their wives to be kings; on the other hand, they know they are really queens. . . . When all goes well, fathers and mothers also exemplify and specialize in different aspects of wisdom. A wise father teaches his wife and family that in order to love you must be strong; a wise mother teaches her husband and family that in order to be strong you must love. She knows that even boldness needs humility; he knows that even humility needs to be bold. He is an animate symbol to his children of that justice which is tempered by mercy, she a living emblem of that mercy which is tempered by justice. Each of them refracts a different hue from the glowing light of royalty. A wise father knows when to say, “ask your mother,” a wise mother when to say, “ask your father.” When they do this, they are not passing the buck, but sharing sovereignty. (60–61)
I have given such room to quoting Budziszewksi both because his writing is already so distilled that further distillation poses chemical challenges, and to illustrate something of the organic harmony of his argument. Budziszewksi starts from the unitive and procreative meanings of sex, and takes complementary procreative potential as the point of departure for understanding the differences between men and women. In so doing Budziszewksi enables us to make sense of sex, not merely as a biological reality, but as something that renders men and women “[c]omplementary variations on the same musical theme. Different voices singing in polyphony” (37).
In just a moment I will apply Budziszewksi’s argument in two directions, one facing outside the church and two facing within. Before I do, I should note that of course my commendation comes with qualifications. For instance, while I find little to disagree with in the book, some may be put off by the echoes of chivalry and knighthood that resonate in some of Budziszewksi’s images and illustrations.
Now for three pastoral lessons. The first faces the world.
1. Created sexual difference is reality.
First, created sexual difference is reality. It is hard even to type a sentence that should be so banal, so uncontested. And yet huge cultural, intellectual, legal, and medical machines are, so to speak, cranking away in an effort to keep us from seeing this reality. But to be a man or a woman is something objective, given not assigned, fixed not malleable.
It takes work not to see how different men and women are. Our culture is busy about that work. This is one reason why Budziszewksi found this book difficult to write: “[I]t is harder to write about what is obvious but unrecognized than about what is really obscure” (15).
By drawing solid, clear lines from physical realities to relational and vocational dispositions, Budziszewksi reminds us that the differences between men and women are not restricted to the presence or absence of certain sexual organs. For instance, despite stiff cultural headwinds, neuroscientific study has demonstrated that men’s and women’s brains are at least as different as our bodies, in ways that significantly bear on our behavior (38–40).
Why is it important for pastors to recognize and to teach that created sexual difference simply is reality? One reason is that it moves us to compassion. To deny these differences is like trying to deny gravity. And people who perceive these differences as threats to each other rather than as gifts for each other have been persuaded to regard a gift of God as a burden.
Recognizing that what is at stake here is the ability or inability to perceive and embrace reality should make us pastors not only more compassionate, but less defensive. Differences between men and women are not hard to see; they are hard not to see. That these differences will inevitably influence every aspect of a person’s life, like food coloring diffused through water, should not be a terribly controversial observation. It’s just the way things are. So we should have a kind of calm, quiet confidence as we advocate for the goodness, the given-ness, and the fixedness of our creation as male and female, and as we labor for the flowering of manhood and womanhood as distinct, equally crucial, complementary glories.
Particularly as we face the world, whether speaking to non-Christians or engaging prevailing ideas about gender, knowing that reality is on our side should produce gentleness, patience, and compassion.
2. This robust, natural-law account of created sexual difference should help us to see, celebrate, and articulate the harmony between who we are and what we are called to do.
Secondly, this robust, natural-law account of created sexual difference should help us to see, celebrate, and articulate the harmony between who we are and what we are called to do. (This point faces within the church in the sense that, for those keeping score within recent evangelical debates, I mean it to support a “thick” construal of “complementarianism”).
In other words, perceiving the polar, complementary differences between men and women, and the way those created differences set complementary trajectories for growth and flourishing, helps us to see that God’s different designs for men and women are not arbitrary. Instead, the prescriptive roots in the descriptive. In a blog post that resonates with this book’s argument, Alastair Roberts critically observes of much Christian teaching on gender:
The impression given is that, while there are differences between the sexes, they are not differences that make that much of a difference: the real differences are those made by divinely commanded gender roles. Christian teaching, however, is better understood as a clarification and intensification of internal beckonings of being that we experience as men and women within the world.
The Bible’s prescriptive teaching flows from a descriptive vision of the divinely created differences between men and women. The less attention we pay to the descriptive, the more arbitrary and constraining the prescriptive will appear. When Scripture instructs husbands to lead their families and wives to submit to their husbands, or limits pastoral leadership of the church to men, it formalizes, codifies, and extends what is already written into our nature.
Differences between men and women are not threats but gifts. As Alastair Roberts has pointed out in another insightful piece, “It is not about difference from each other so much as difference for each other.” Learning to both describe and delight in these differences is an important pastoral task in a world that sees their very existence as a threat.
3. Defining manhood and womanhood as the potential to be a father or mother is at once more precise and more flexible than other definitions in common circulation.
Third and finally, I want to suggest that, following Budziszewksi, to define manhood and womanhood as the potential to be a father or mother is to offer conceptions at once more precise and more flexible than other definitions in common circulation.
To define manhood and womanhood as the potential to be a father or mother, in both biological and metaphorical senses, has several advantages. First, it maps nicely onto Scripture’s use of the terms “mother” and “father” as metaphors for complementary kinds of spiritual influence. Paul became Onesimus’s father when Onesimus was converted during Paul’s imprisonment (Phlm 1:10), and Paul testifies that Rufus’s mother “has been a mother to me as well” (Rom 16:13). We know what a good father does and what a good mother does. And while they do much in common, they are characteristically different. Transposing into a spiritual key, we can reflect on other kinds of leaders and mentors who have either stood in for, or acted in ways resembling, fathers and mothers: pastors, neighbors, coaches, teachers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, older siblings, mentors, bosses. While there is some overlap between all of these, we readily recognize the differences between a spiritual father and a spiritual mother. This provides at least some purchase on the question of how our sex influences the particular ways we will inflect godly virtues, the particular flavors our fruit of the Spirit will embody.
Another advantage of defining manhood and womanhood as the potential to be a father or mother is that it presents one’s sex as opening up a particular mode of fulfilling the creation mandate (Gen 1:26–28), and by implication, the great commission (Matt 28:18–20), rather than strictly in terms of how one relates to the other. In other words, Budziszewksi’s definitions present man and woman as facing creation and the future—begetting and nurturing children, whether physically or spiritually—instead of primarily as facing each other.
As an example of the latter, we can consider the definitions of masculinity and femininity offered in John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s edited volume, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:
At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. . . . At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.
There is much to commend in these definitions. Nevertheless, I think they suffer from a structural weakness. That is, these definitions seem to start from how a husband and wife should relate to one another (lead, submit), and then generalize and dilute those roles in an effort to apply them to how men and women should relate to one another in general. Among other problems we might suggest, these definitions tell us only how men and women should relate to one another, not what it means to be a man or woman per se.
While I am not quite prepared to offer comparable, Budziszewksi-inspired definitions, I hope this entire summary and engagement has shown the promise of reasoning outward from the potentiality to father and mother. To father is not only to procreate but to provide, protect, and lead. To mother is not only to nurture life physically but to nurture every facet of life, to care comprehensively and intimately. These roles and dispositions are flexible and extendable. They are relevant to a multitude of situations where men and women are not primarily defined, as in marriage, by how they face one another—venues such as the workplace, the civic sphere, and the neighborhood.
To be a potential father or mother influences the entire cast of one’s body, mind, and affections. That is description, not prescription. Accordingly, when we talk about what it means to be a man or woman, we would do well to hone language that strives to capture something of just how pervasively our sex influences who we are and at the same time preserves the flexibility of the thousand legitimate ways manhood and womanhood can express themselves, and not just in relation to each other. That’s a tall order. It’s certainly a task for another time. But I think Budziszewksi’s book points the way, just as it points to many other crucial, neglected, and even opposed aspects of God’s good creation of us as man and woman.
 For an introduction to this debate, see Jonathan Leeman’s post, “A Word of Empathy, Warning, and Counsel for ‘Narrow’ Complementarians,” available at https://www.9marks.org/article/a-word-of-empathy-warning-and-counsel-for-narrow-complementarians/.
 Alastiar Roberts, “Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are,” available at https://calvinistinternational.com/2016/09/13/natural-complementarians-men-women/; accessed 5/23/18.
 Alastair Roberts, “The Music and the Meaning of Male and Female,” in Primer, issue 3 (2016), 38.
 John Piper and Wayne Grudem, ed., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 35, 46.