On the meaning of “Heterosexuality”

Over at First Things, Michael Hannon has a long essay arguing that we ought to move beyond our dependency on ‘sexual orientation’. He writes:

“These [conservative] Christian compatriots of mine are wrong to cling so tightly to sexual orientation, confusing our unprecedented and unsuccessful apologia for chastity with its eternal foundation. We do not need “heteronormativity” to defend against debauchery. On the contrary, it is just getting in our way.”

I’m on board with the general useleness of ‘orientation’ as a category for self or moral reflection.  In fact, I would go a step beyond Hannon and raise questions about the entire “identity” regime, as it tends to be less useful for getting about in the world than people sometimes think. The language of character, virtue, vice, desires, acts, intentions, obligations, goods, and the rest of the forgotten language of moral analysis is still abundantly fruitful for self-knowledge and for understanding society.

Hannon commends the old way of analyzing sex in relation to its created ends, but also seems to want to hold on to all the language of identities: “I will have all sorts of identities, to be sure, especially in our crazily over-psychoanalytic age. But at the very least, none of these identities should be essentially defined by my attraction to that which separates me from God.” One way of ensuring that doesn’t happen might be to not fragment ourselves into a bundle of mini-”identities” to begin with.

I have other worries, though, about Hannon’s essay. For instance, while he notes as an aside that heterosexuality and homosexuality are mutually interdependent as categories, he deploys his strongest rhetoric against ‘heterosexuality’ and ‘heteronormativity.’  (Or so it seems to me, anyway.  Your reading may vary.)

There’s a way in which Hannon’s understanding is almost right: I have argued that in evangelical circles the rampant and often unnoticed sexual idolatry starting in the 1960s undermined our ability to negotiate and respond to the challenges of homosexuality that arose within our community the past two decade. So I have a lot of sympathy for the notion that an overwhelming focus on other people’s sinful desires blinds us to the troubles in our own lives.

But it was not a peculiar attachment to ‘heterosexuality’ that stood beneath this idolatry, so much as a pursuit and defense of sexual pleasure within marriage as an apologetic against the sexual liberation movement. The vice is no more laudable, of course, and has produced its own harvest of rotten fruit. But if we are to find the solution to conservative Christianity’s troubles, it is important to appropriately identify the disease. Hannon’s suggestion that the problem is an attachment to ‘heteronormativity’ both fails as a diagnosis and misconstrues how identity formation happens in each respective ‘orientation.’

Consider Hannon’s opening claim: “Nevertheless, many conservative-minded Christians today feel that we should continue to enshrine the gay–straight divide and the heterosexual ideal in our popular catechesis, since that still seems to them the best way to make our moral maxims appear reasonable and attractive.” Hannon expands this with the bit I led off with above: that these conservative-minded Christians are “wrong to cling so tightly to sexual orientation…”

If by ‘heterosexual ideal’ Hannon means the proposition that marriage is between a man and a woman, then yes, conservative-minded Christians are clinging tightly to that. If it means that the *norm* for human sexual desires is that they are brought into conformity with the notion that marriage is between *one* man and one woman, and habituate themselves (as much as possible) so that those desires are *stably directed* toward one’s spouse or future spouse, then yes, conservative-minded Christians are invested in that too.

But ironically, it is many of those ‘conservative-minded Christians’ who have been the loudest objecting to the very ‘orientation’ conception that Hannon wants to toss overboard. The notion of a “gay Christian” is controversial among many evangelical circles, for instance, not because they are willfully ignorant that some people have stable desires toward members of the same-sex–as the laughable misreading at Slate managed to suggest today–but because they worry about how those desires are further integrated person’s character and self-understanding by incorporating the ‘gay’ nomenclature into their self-description. That’s Hannon’s reason for being worried about it, too.  But the irony is that the same people that Hannon would accuse of being wrapped up in being “heteronormative” who are most likely to be on board with his concerns.

Or maybe not.  To be honest, I have no idea which heterosexuals Hannon has in mind in his critique of them or how exactly their heterosexuality breeds the vices that he attributes to it. For instance, Hannon writes, “The most pernicious aspect of the orientation-identity system is that it tends to exempt heterosexuals from moral evaluation.” I have to confess that sentence made me laugh. Anyone who has spent a day on an evangelical college campus talking with students would realize that there is no temptation to exempt heterosexuals from moral evaluation. The disputes and arguments that the Christian community has seen over the past year about “modesty” are only one small part of the incredibly stringent moral code that exists within the evangelical world about any form of sex. Guys spend hours in their “accountability groups” rehearsing the litany of struggles around pornography and those who venture into sexual activity often have to keep it under wraps from peers and friends. All this has troubles of its own, to be sure. But the notion that conservative Christians who embrace the orientation paradigm are laissez-faire about their own sexual morality simply does not fit the facts.

Hannon goes further, though, and suggests that “the self-declared heterosexual” who makes themselves a member of the “normal group” displaces Jesus as the norm for moral reflection and so is the “height of folly.” He goes on: “But heterosexuality, in its pretensions to act as the norm for assessing our sexual customs, is marked by something even worse: pride, which St. Thomas Aquinas classifies as the queen of all vices.”

Now, it may be the case that a self-identified heterosexual allows their heterosexuality to displace Jesus as the norm for moral reflection. The question, though, is whether that displacement is necessarily tied to the conceptual framework of heterosexuality. That is a much harder argument to make, and I don’t think Hannon has succeeded at it, precisely because he overlooks the differences between how “heterosexual” and “homosexual” function as identifiers in their respective communities.

Hannon’s claim emphasizes those who take ownership of the “heterosexual” label: his polemic is against those who are “self-proclaimed” as or people who are “identifying as” heterosexuals. But few heterosexuals think of their own sexual identity the way those with same-sex attraction tend to think of themselves *as* gay or lesbian. Their majority sexuality is simply the tacit backdrop on which people live out their lives rather than that-by-which they are differentiated.

My friend John Corvino will sometimes talk about heterosexual folks who take a line akin to “it’s fine if gay folks do their think, so long as they don’t flaunt it in public.” Only “flaunt it” happens to mean holding hands, or kissing, or doing what opposite-sex couples do in public all the time. Many heterosexual folks don’t feel the asymmetry, as we are unaware of the extent to which sexuality structures our lives outside the bedroom. But that also means the emergence of heterosexual desires in a person lacks the same kind of formative power that the emergence of opposite-sex desires often has. I doubt most “heterosexuals” would ever recognize themselves in the term, at least not without someone who makes it a question for them: they don’t need to, precisely because being a part of the “normal group” frees them from the burden of self-ascription.

Which means that if such a pride does exist within heterosexuals, it must either be so tacit and structural that it is invisible to them and so outside the boundaries of conscious repentance or it is not structurally tied to their “heterosexuality.” The latter is more likely. The notion that pride necessarily accompanies “heterosexuality” is a difficult argument to make. If orientation as a category *does* exist for ethics, then on the traditional Christian view there is nothing *per se* wrong with being ‘a heterosexual,’ if by that we mean ‘a person whose sexual desires are generally stable in being directed toward the opposite sex under certain conditions.’ There are other questions to ply toward those desires, as I noted above conservative Christians so frequently do. But as the Catholic catechism would put it, the sexual inclination toward the same-sex–whether stable and recurrent or not–is itself “objectively disordered.” Heterosexuals may be prideful, and may be proud that they do not have same-sex attraction, but the pride has little to nothing to do with the substance of their “orientation” or its role in identity or social formation.

In fact, “heterosexuality” only seems to dethrone Jesus as the norm if we think that Jesus’s life and ministry somehow subverts the normative (creation) order of opposite-sex sexual desires, even if we don’t then describe those desires as an “orientation.” The singleness of Jesus does not put same-sex desires and opposite-sex desires on the same moral plane. It is, after all, not simply sexual acts that Christ suggests he is interested in, but the whole stable of thoughts, intentions, and dispositions that make up our inner life. These also need reformation, to be brought to conformity to the witness of the Gospel not only in the manner that we have them but also in their objects.

Recurring sexual desires of any sort are not themselves a sign of holiness: but recurring sexual desires toward a member of the same-sex raise questions that such desires toward a member of the opposite sex do not. Eliminating the aspect of “recurring stability” from those desires–or what has come to be known in shorthand as our ‘orientation’–doesn’t eliminate the deeper “heteronormativity” implied in the logic of Scripture. If nothing else, Jesus has a bride, and there is no understanding his life as the pattern for our lives without grasping the deep, mutually fulfilling stable and recurring desires at the heart of their union.

“Heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” need to be done away with. Hannon and I agree on this. But the reasons we provide for tossing them overboard still matter, and we ought be careful what we send over with them.

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The Poisonous Fruit Of The Randian Sexual Paradise

“I don’t even want a boyfriend. I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time and thinks I’m the best person in the world and wants to have sex with only me.”- Hannah Horvath

My mother likes to observe to other less jaded homeschool moms that no matter how well trained a teenage male might be, if he’s alone in his room for hours at a time he’s probably not memorizing his catechism.

My adolescence was spent in the conservative evangelical subculture that had the same approach to sexuality as I did at 14: obsessed with high ideals, beset by inconsistent practices, surrounded by a larger sexually schizophrenic culture, and awkwardly enamored with its own thoughts on the subject. We are still trying to figure out exactly how to talk constructively about sexuality in public, which naturally leads to experimentation. Who’d have thought pastors would describe explicit sexual activities and liberated feminists would put content warnings on their essays? Discussing what our couplings mean and how we ought to publicly speak about them is important, yet fraught with danger of doing harm.

One of the more peculiar 2013 year-in-review articles both celebrated sexual liberation and expressed shock and surprise that capitalism had killed it. I won’t quote the article itself. I will observe that the author rejects the “sexual economics theory” that reduces people to their body parts and then merely a paragraph later decides that because body parts are sometimes all that one wants, such desires should be our guide to sexual decision-making. The people who have been taught for years that sexuality must be atomized to individual choices and pleasures now unsurprisingly love a song celebrating a sexually aggressive man doing just that, while the people who are privileged enough to have enjoyed that atomization are now upset. For so long, though, we have opened the field for businessmen to exploit the bodies of people in order to take the money of others who either pay for the privilege of depersonalizing someone else or pay for the privilege of having their own bodily anxieties exploited. This media spectacle—as well as the reciprocal outrage by traditional moralists on social media and elsewhere that feeds the celebrity machine and the self-righteousness of the ranter—can only be described as onanistic.

This broader capitalist rape culture benefits greatly from both the fantasy that sexual urges are completely uncontrollable except in the cases where someone says “no” and the vestiges of pseudo-Christian morality that assigns as much blame as possible to the victims of sexual aggression. Ross Douthat has observed that a libertarian vision of a perfectly transparent free market is as unrealistic as an libertine vision of perfectly free decision-making. Sex and the representation of 9780679756514_p0_v1_s260x420hypersexualized bodies becomes a chaotic mess of people using sex for whatever power it gives them over others. Wendell Berry takes this apart quite skillfully in his essay Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community:

If you depreciate the sanctity and solemnity of marriage, not just as a bond between two people but as a bond between those two people and their forebears, their children, and their neighbors, then you have prepared the way for an epidemic of divorce, child neglect, community ruin, and loneliness. If you destroy the economies of household and community, then you destroy the bonds of mutual usefulness and practical dependence without which the other bonds will not hold.

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In this sexually Darwinistic world, those not desirable or desperate enough to be exploited are, of course, free to couple with one another and quite a number do. Most armchair defenders of sexual libertinism don’t take advantage of the freedom to hook up as conservatives fear that they do (surprise: it’s a privilege of the wealthy!) and instead have the similar sort of longing that Ms. Horvath expresses above. For those who can’t find a monogamous or quasi-monogamous pairing, you can always pay to have your desires sated or lower your standards. Some steal—just like white-collar criminals, it’s the most privileged who are the most brazen with this and the least privileged who are most likely to be stolen from. With your sexual choices atomized, however, you are subject to the vagaries of beauty, class, privilege, and race. Welcome to an emotional and sexual Randian paradise.

This contrast exposes the ugly fact that sexual libertinism is class warfare. The true victims of the sexual revolution are not the middle-class evangelicals who must now guard their children’s eyes during prime-time television; they are the poor families rent asunder by the chaos of liberated sexual decision making. The example of this that struck me most poignantly of late can be found here. Poor women have less power overall, and so they tend to be more susceptible to the relational chaos, unwanted pregnancy, and disease that goes along with the relentless destructive power of hyperindividualized sexuality. The latter two are things that can be remedied somewhat by the aggressive provision of the appropriate pills and medical interventions, but until the pharmaceutical companies can put relational stability in a pill, all bets are off. Furthermore, anyone who has ever provided such medical interventions can affirm that these prescriptions are no magic bullet.

The concept of consent, which undergirds the whole enterprise, should not be ignored. We have to learn from how feminism has decoded the power plays that attempted to undermine legitimate concerns about female sexuality. However, we must not buy into the deception that consent is all we need; as the inimitable Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry observed recently, a teenage girl can consent to working 16-hour days in an exploitative garment factory. As long as these sorts of power differentials exist, emotional and sexual Randianism will run rampant; “consent” is crucial but an insufficient basis for sexual morality. Thus, when choosing your own sexual adventure benefits the privileged, the harm done to the less privileged becomes the personal injury that complements the cultural insult of depersonalizing sexuality.

However, traditional sexual morality— at least as it has been commonly practiced—is not entirely a panacea. Continue reading

The Questions of Gay Marriage: The Authority of Scripture

This is the second part of an ongoing series I started a few months back.  I am proceeding more slowly than I should, but I am wanting to give myself the space to allow the subject to marinate and to reflect on how I want to proceed.  Your questions and dialogue are (as always!) both most welcome in the comments below.

Why might one believe that a society should not include within its institution of marriage monogamous couples of the same sex?  For many conservative Christians, the first and last word on the question belongs to the Bible.  There may be other reasons out there, but many Christians are wholly uninterested in them on grounds that they will either necessarily be unpersuasive or that they will prove impossible to find.

That sort of pessimism is particularly an acute temptation for young Christians these days; having witnessed the purported failure of the “secular” arguments against gay marriage, it is easy to conclude that unless the social conditions were to change dramatically there simply are no arguments that could “work.”

Yet such a pessimism is a problem for the Christian, I think, even if we ought not be optimists about finding such reasons either.  We are called to hope, in our search for understanding of society and the world no less than in our patient waiting upon the return of Christ.  We have only sub-Christian reasons to believe that there are no “secular” arguments that will be persuasive or that we will never find them out. And if we give up the search prematurely, we may actually foreclose on finding ways of putting the case that would contribute to the very renewal of the society that itself makes the case more plausible.  Onward, then, into finding and evaluating reasons wherever we can.

But nor can we ignore Scripture, at least not if Oliver O’Donovan’s formula that “the reasons to believe are the reasons of belief” has any wisdom at all.  We might have other reasons, but we have at least these. Or so it might seem, anyway.

I am intrigued, however, by the discomfort that I think many young Christians feel at taking a moral stance simply because Scripture says it.  It would be a bit humiliating, would it not, to examine all the arguments and then to find ourselves up against it, as it were, retreating to the privileged position of moral teaching based on special revelation?   To many young Christians (even of the conservative sort, like me) who have invested a good deal in defending the rationality and intellectual plausibility of our tradition, that sort of conclusion would not be far from finding oneself taking up the cross of the flat-earthers:  not only are “the facts” against our position, but society is as well.

That is precisely the sort of humiliation, however, that we ought to be willing to countenance.  It is not so different from the humiliation of the Word that is the center and presupposition of our faith.  It may be that such a humiliation is crucial to see the reasons of Scripture from within, to make sense of what’s at stake in the relationship between man and woman that makes such a relationship irreplaceably unique. In a world where the paradigmatic act of intellect is to doubt, such a credulous obedient stance can only engender embarrassment.

Two further cautions, though, are necessary.  First, I acknowledge the possibility of genuine humiliation here only to highlight the stakes and to see in which direction the prevailing winds will invariably push the argument.  In a society where appeals to Scripture’s authority are considered as inescapably anti-intellectual and where the stance that homosexuality is morally wrong is deeply offensive, those interested in the intellectual respectability of the Church’s witness will have built in motivations to seek ways of sanctioning same-sex romantic unions within the pages of the text.  The inquiry in such conditions will take a very different tack, and the forcefulness of various arguments will seem different because of the broader cultural pressures at work.  In other words, the rules of reading will be established in such a way to make progressive conclusions more plausible.

This temptation, however, works the opposite direction as well.  Appealing to a revelation that confounds the wisdom of the wise (1 Corinthians 1:26) has sometimes been used to foreclose the work of investigation and inquiry altogether, or to simply treat our status as cultural pariahs as proof of a position’s truthfulness.  There can be no room for such anti-intellectual fideism here, however, nor for bad logic. Authority can command obedience in the absence of other reasons (and even in the face of reasons to the contrary) as a provisional moment, but not a final one.  Our obedience may continue until we are dead (and beyond), but that is only because of the aforementioned hope that stands beneath the intellectual Christian life.  Our confident obedience to such an authority will hinge on how deeply we integrate other reasons for trusting in it in other areas.  If we had reason to believe such an authority was not only morally pure but also incapable of error, then we might cheerfully and rationally adopt its prescriptions without hesitation.

My hope is that we will not be in a position where the argument goes forward in terms of Scripture alone.  But acknowledging that possibility at the outset is helpful for clarifying what’s at stake in the method we adopt.  Acknowledging and submitting to the authority of Scripture gives Christians real reasons to look for arguments that comport with its teaching and to maintain a general skepticism or wariness about arguments that do not.

Finally, I would note that I have only posited the authority of Scripture, rather than argue for it.  The latter would take us even further afield.  Additionally, I recognize that further work needs to be done on how Scripture’s teachings relate to our “experience,” whatever that is.  More on that later.  And I would also note that I have not attempted to explain what Scripture says, of course.  To those arguments we turn next.

 

Sex and Sacrifice: On the Structure of Autoeroticism

A few weeks back, I wrote the following for Rachel Held Evans’ symposium on whether masturbation is permissible for Christians:

If our ethic is to be Christian, then it must be qualified by the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  That is to say, the pattern for our lives and actions must be shaped by a love that treats pleasure as the (sometimes delayed) fruit of our sacrificial self-giving for others, rather than a good without qualification.

If we disconnect the experience of sexual pleasure from the moment of giving ourselves for another, to another in love, we fundamentally distort the meaning of the human body in its sexual dimension.  In the auto-eroticism of masturbation, we pursue a particular sort of satisfaction or a particular experience of pleasure.  But it is through the mutual self-giving in love that our humanity is established (whether in sex or beyond), rather than the abstract experience of pleasure or the fulfillment of a craving or felt need.  However enjoyable it might be, masturbation fails to fulfill this form of human sexuality, and as such is corrosive to the integrity of our persons and our intimacy of the Spirit.

That answer depends upon a number of prior commitments that, let’s face it, just seem weird to most people these days.  So let’s unpack the question with help from an objector, Danny Gulch.  In a comment he raised three lines of reasoning against my analysis that I take up below.

Masturbation and self-sacrifice

Gulch suggests that masturbation can be a form of sacrifice, as in a situation when a husband desires sex and his wife doesn’t.  In such a scenario, the man lays down his desire for his wife and the wife sacrifices, in Gulch’s words, “her desire to be the entirety of the husband’s sexual satisfaction.”  This sort of mutual self-sacrifice isn’t a total sacrifice—both the husband and wife make small compromise and everyone stays happy.

If my position were simply that the goods of sex were constituted by self-sacrifice alone, then I could see how a view like Gulch’s might be plausible . But the sacrifice and self-giving for another’s good go together.  The moment of sexual desire is not a desire for pleasure per se, but rather a moment of desire for another as other, for the union and consummation with a person made in the image of God. The formal structure of the masturbatory act seems to undermine the unitive dimension of this love, which is why I think it is wrong.

But notice what Gulch wants the wife to give up, namely that she is the “entirety of the husband’s sexual satisfaction.”  It’s not clear to me that she should, given that the only other options in this world for such satisfaction are himself—which destroys the externally directed nature of erotic love completely—or some person who is outside the marital bond, which doesn’t square at all with Jesus’s teachings on lust.

Asceticism and self-sacrifice

Gulch puts his second worry this way:  “A Christian ethic being tied to self-sacrifice quickly leads us to assume that the greater the sacrifice the better, or to be good at all it must require complete sacrifice.”  Gulch suggests that “ascetism earns no bonus points,” which is absolutely true.

Yet as he notes, this point is also open to the rejoinder that “sex is relational.”  He suggests that it’s tacit in my description, when it’s actually pretty explicit:  here too his argument only works if we cut off the “for others” that I added twice in pointing toward a sacrificial self-giving.

It is true that encorporating the askesis of self-denial and self-sacrifice into the structure of marital love might lead to abuses of a more extreme variety.  Yet it is also true that not permitting them may lead to abuses, too.  The possibility of abuse isn’t itself an argument—it’s simply a fact that prudentially minded people have to consider.

Sex and our Desire for God

Finally, Gulch restates Anna Broadway’s statement (which accords well with my own) that the desire for sex is fundamentally a desire for God, and that as such both marriage and masturbation are “imperfect substitutes for being united with God,” such that neither is immoral.

I won’t speak for Anna, but I will note that Gulch’s restatement seems to me to be more of a reinterpretation.  Anna never equates the desire for sex with a desire for God.  Instead, she suggests that the union of man and wife is an image of the unity of the persons of the Trinity.  There is a fundamentally creaturely dimension to this imaging—it is a desire for another person that results in a particular picture being given to the world.

That’s a very different claim than simply equating sexual eros with a desire for union with the Almighty, as Gulch needs to make the parallel between marriage and masturbation go.  And even if sexual desire was simply constituted by a longing for God, the form and mode of its expression would still have to be bounded by the terms God established for it.  Using Anna’s Trinitarian approach, masturbation would be the equivalent of pursuing a Platonic deity:  it is absorption into the personless Being, rather than a mutual self-giving.  That is, unless you want to say that Christ meets us uniquely in the mastubatory act, but then I wonder why we’d ever bother doing anything else like taking communion or reading Scripture.

Mutual sacrificial self-giving love for the good of the other by a husband and wife:  every word in that formula matters.  It’s not a complete statement about the shape of Christian teaching about sexual ethics—it says nothing about children, most obviously—but when thinking through autoeroticism it gets you a long ways toward seeing why it undermines marital and personal flourishing.

Sex without Qualifications: Christianity and the Meaning of Sex

Emily Esfahani Smith wants to inject a little love into the hook-up culture on college campuses, in hopes that the young liberated folks will begin to take sex seriously.

As a young woman in 2012—and as a feminist—I think that the hook-up culture has the opposite effect as that described by [Hannah] Rosin. Sexual liberation may be indispensable to female progress, but the hook-up culture is not empowering for all women. This isn’t to say that early marriage or abstinence is the solution. But these are not the only alternatives to the hook-up culture, either. There is a middle way: meaningful sex in the context of a non-marital relationship.

It’s this “meaningful sex” that she suggests is the way forward, rather than “back to 1950s-style courtship, parietal rules, and early marriage.”  Sex that’s ”founded on friendship, dating, and relationships,” that is.  That’s where we’re headed rather than those backwards notions about “abstinence.”

I mean, I kind of understand the eagerness to stake out this sort of “middle of the road” position on sexual ethics.  It’s the sort of “respectable” social conservatism that allows for everything sophisticated readers of The Atlantic might want–seriousness and purpose without the backwardness of chastity.

Or at least the appearance of seriousness, anyway.  It also presupposes the sort of “make your own meaning” approach to sex that stands beneath the sexual malaise in our culture.  Consider this as a good rule of thumb:  if you have to resort to describing your sex as “meaningful,” then maybe that’s because functionally it’s not.  Meaning isn’t made:  it’s discovered, lived out, revealed to us over the course of our lives.  No writer sets out to write a “meaningful novel,” or no very good writer does anyway.  Because the meaning of things aren’t determined by fiat.  They inhere in things and we respond to them.

Of course, to say that drives one into the possibility that maybe sex has a meaning in our lives that we don’t get to decide.  What that meaning is, of course, might be in question.  The traditional Christian answer, I think, has been to tie sex to marriage, and marriage to babies.  We’re clearly losing the stomach for that one, though, both inside and outside the church.  Still, the advantage of the traditional Christian sexual ethic is that it offers us sex without qualifications:  sex in itself, the meaning given not made, in all its distinctive glory and freedom.

But I’ll let Oliver O’Donovan handle it on the way out:

“To this given connection in our nature between male-female relationship and procreation it is possible to respond in only two ways.  We may welcome it, or we may resent it.  Christian teaching has encouraged us to welcome it.  Christian thinkers have said, in the first place, that the connection is good for the man-woman relationship, which is protected from debasement and loss of mutuality by the fact that it is fruitful for procreation.  When erotic relationships between the sexes are conceived merely as relationships–with no further implications, no ‘end’ within the purposes of nature–then they lack the significance which they need if they are to be undertaken responsibly.

(Is that Oliver O’Donovan anticipating the ‘hook-up culture’ way back in 1984?  Why yes, yes I think it is.)

Update:  Included the right link and deleted an errant sentence.

 

Altared: A Book on Marriage that Everyone Should Read

“Now here’s a strange thing: a well written, immensely thoughtful exploration of the meaning of marriage that challenges our obsession with it without devaluing it. This is a lovely and needed book that I hope everyone reads.”

That was the endorsement I wrote for Altared:  The True Story of a She, a He, and How they Both Got Worked Up about We.  And I meant every word.

Let me lay this out clearly for you, so there is no confusion:  This is not only one of the best books written by folks my age that I have read.  It is also a searingly thoughtful, earnestly heartfelt examination of how many young people in the church learn to think about sex and marriage set alongside a refreshingly biblical alternative.

altaredAltared is the tale of how two young folks met, fell in love, and then decided not to marry.  Yes, that gives away the ending.  But no, it doesn’t ruin the book.  Not. At. All.  Their reflections on loneliness and solitude, on forgiveness and love, on learning to love God before and within learning to love another–they have lived out the story and given to us the meaning.

And the results are edifying and, for my money, exactly right.

Buried on my hard-drive is a draft of a book that I have written but never published.  It is a book that explores how our view of marriage determines how we date, and how contemporary attitudes toward sex and singleness lead to a myopic focus on marriage within the church and an astonishing disregard of it outside the church.  Claire and Eli’s effort says much of what I wanted to say, only better than I have ever said it.

Take this bit, for instance:

The first [problem with the message that marriage solves our lust problems] is that marriage doesn’t solve all our lust problems. “True love waits” naturally implies a finish line, either for love, sex, or both. The phrase hints that our wait will, at some point, stop. And yet, as many of us know, the waiting does not stop, and love, to the contrary, is something to be nurtured and grown into rather than acquired in a moment. This is true both physically and relationally, and also as it relates to our sin. The fact that the married life is not free of lust and struggle might seem obvious to anyone with a few married friends, and yet we don’t have to search long before we hear someone speak as if marriage ends the battle. Teen purity talks more than implied this idea that marriage was the great solution to sexual sin—or at least they did for me.

Second, if marriage was presented as the main fix for lust, perhaps it was because we often had only a shallow vision of self-denial. If self-denial or self-control to us meant only that we didn’t have sex until we got married, and then we could gratify ourselves, we missed one of the larger implications of discipleship and of following Christ. Discipleship is not just hanging on until marriage; it is, as we’ve said, a gradual and complete reordering of all our desires, sexual and otherwise, so that we can live more wholly for Christ.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about the book is how not angry Claire and Eli seem to be about the whole thing.  In fact, contrary to Ted Cockle’s review, I found them to be disarmingly and refreshingly candid about the struggles evangelicals have on this issue without falling into blaming their upbringing for the sorrow they’ve experienced.  This is a book written to help the church, not berate it.  And that shows through in their prose.

That Jesus or Paul couldn’t get hired as a pastor of any of our megachurches suggests evangelical Christians idolize marriage more than we realize.  And that not only marginalizes single people and undermines our witness on other aspects of sexual ethics.  It has a corrosive effect on how we help young people enter into the institution and on our marriages themselves.

Altared offers an approach that is markedly different.  Serious without being dull and reflective without being narcissistic, the book strikes a balance that few are able to achieve.  If Claire and Eli’s work becomes the new standard bearer for books exploring marriage and dating within the evangelical church, the movement would be considerably better of on these questions than it happens to be today.

What’s at stake if Jesus had a wife?

The recent “discovery” of a fragment of a gnostic papyrus suggesting Jesus had a wife has been pretty conclusively overturned as fradulent, so this is old news now. But I’ve been ruminating on my friend David Sessions’ piece on the matter, in which he cites a number of feminist theologians who endorse the idea even if the evidence doesn’t add up for it:

“It’s easier for Jesus not to have been married, it’s easier for him to not have wet dreams,” said Emilie Townes, a professor at Yale Divinity School. “That way we don’t have to encounter things that challenge our separation of our bodies from our souls.” Townes said a savior with sexual needs would confront the “skewed” equation of perfection with male celibacy, to which women are inevitably seen as a threat.

Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian minister, said that very thought helped reveal her own subtle misogyny. “Many years ago, when I first read fictional accounts of Jesus being married, my reaction at some gut level was anger and repulsion,” she said. “I began to ask myself why. Was my view of sex so low that I couldn’t imagine Jesus having any part of it? Did I imagine that a woman could somehow corrupt his divine nature?”

Even if Jesus didn’t have sex with the woman mentioned in the new fragment, a close female partner in ministry would undermine the Christian tradition of seeing women as temptresses who should be kept under male authority. “It certainly gives Mary Magdalene a leg up among the saints—maybe even over the Virgin Mary,” said Emily McGowin, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Dayton. “Who is more important, the woman who birthed Jesus, or the one who became ‘one flesh’ with him?”

“Easier” here is strictly a matter of perspective, as we might instead suggest that it is “easier” to conceive of Jesus having a spouse because it challenges the notion that the integration of our bodies and souls requires sexual activity. And it happens to be “easier” to affirm that Jesus had a spouse because it is nearly impossible to conceive of a flourishing celibate life. All that is very easy, given the world we live in.

But affirming that there are goods beyond sexual consummation, that people can have sexual organs without using them? Well, that actually turns out to be astonishingly difficult. Especially when our distinguished professors of theology characterize the notion as a “low” view of sex. We might as well say that theirs is a “low” view of singleness and celibacy, which is a fun game that we can play all day.

Back to this point about “easier,” though, it strikes me that both lifelong singleness and faithful monogamy manage to be more frequently the object of jokes than the ends of our desires. We can make and laugh at The 40 Year Old Virgin, but while most people get hitched in our romantic comedies we’re never quite sure whether they stay that way. At least we don’t often see it, and so lifelong marriage turns out to be harder to imagine.

These two things are, I’ve argued before, intimately connected. It’s a trick to say that what we need for a proper sexual ethic is a Savior who experiences all that we might. If anything, what we need is a Savior who can understand without experiencing, who can look at the phenomenon from the outside in order to help us interpret it aright. What we are given in our single Savior is a vision of humanity—of humanity, I note, and not just of the male—who in his very life establishes a boundary around sex which is necessary for its enjoyment.

Sex, Submission, and Evangelicals: Doug Wilson’s Controversial Words

Gospel Coalition

Evangelicals have been beset by another controversy, and this one’s a doozy.

Jared Wilson was attempting to critique Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that I have no plans to read ever.  But the bit he excerpted from Doug Wilson to make his point was, to put it mildly, not well received.  The main offending part:

A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.

The comments on the post are instructive, as are both Jared and Doug Wilson’s (no relation) replies.  Rachel Held Evans is worth reading too, to get a sense whence the controversy springs.

The disagreement, at first blush, appears to be driven by semantics and the responsibilities that authors have for the unintended consequences of their words.  Jared Wilson’s suggestion that beneath all this is a wariness about authorial intent strikes me as interesting, but not quite complete.  Authorial intent is a helpful guide, but cannot be solely determinative of the meaning of the passage.  To refer to a cup as a “shoe” and then object when readers don’t get it would be an authorial error, and strikes me as just as “postmodern” in its approach to meaning as those dastardly deconstructionists.  We ought not be, I don’t think, semantic voluntarists.

That case study is, of course, more obvious than the one under discussion, the one where all this really counts. Here the question is not one of reference, but rather the range of connotations that the above words have and whether the author is responsible for the whole lot of them, or only those they intended.

As to that, Doug Wilson suggests that it does us no good to use different words and that people looking to find offense invariably will.  Perhaps.  And given the rush to judgment by their critics, I sympathize with that complaint.  The problematic excerpt should have raised a question before it issued forth in condemnation, but the “dismiss first and then move on” culture is one we are all now complicit in.

But I am not convinced we cannot use other words, even if it deprives us of vast portions of our rich linguistic heritage (and as a conservative, trust me, this is hard to say).  The emptying out of our language pool may have good reasons or bad, but in certain cases it is prudent to work to avoid the offense.  And the upside is that redrawing the boundaries may, as Chesterton might have argued, cause us to find a more innovative and expressive stock of images that themselves are more accurate. Continue reading

The End of Courage and the Surrender of Evangelical Sexual Ethics

“[W]hat the young properly demand is an account of life and the initiation into a community that makes intelligible why their interest in sex should be subordinated to other interests.  What they, and we, demand is the lure of an adventure that captures the imagination sufficiently that for Christians ‘conquest’ comes to mean something other than the sexual possession of another.”

                                                                                                                             — Stanley Hauerwas

Let us start with a given:  most single evangelicals have troubles with sex.  Or rather, they have no troubles with it at all.  Many of them are, as Jenell Paris points out, having a bit of a good time while showing up in our pews and then compounding their sin by choosing abortion.  That all of this is a scandal is a given on which everyone agrees.

The question is what our churches should do with this fact, what course of action they should pursue.   The solution put forward by Paris is to “encourage” and “educate” about contraception, to advocate for it even without “pushing” it.

What should we make of her reply?

Straight away, I’ve no problem walking back from the language of “pushing.”  It wasn’t mine originally, though I suspect I know why the editors chose it (pageviews, people, pageviews).  Whatever conceptual difference Paris sees between that and advocacy is one I am happy to let stand.

'Venus de Milo' photo (c) 2009, Chadica - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/What’s more, she is correct that the panel had a variety of voices.  And I didn’t intend to suggest that all of them agreed.  None of them objected, which is why I said the answer was “tacit,” but silence is not necessarily consent.  What’s more, Paris might be right that “many ideas” were presented for reducing abortion in churches.  But outside of contraception, there was precious little that was said about reducing pregnancies altogether.  Getting folks married before they turned 30 came up, but only to be criticized.

Moving on, however, Paris writes:

“By presenting young adults with choices that shut down conversation and relationship (either do it God’s way, or your own way that is so depraved we can’t bear to discuss it respectfully or extensively), churches don’t prevent people from learning about or accessing contraception, nor from having premarital sex.”

Here’s my dilemma:  Paris is writing, I take it, in response to my original piece at Christianity Today.  Her opening paragraph suggests that she is, on some level, framing her points in reply to mine.  That’s how I think I’m supposed to read it, because that’s how internet conventions work.

But that simply can’t be right, as I am pretty sure my suggestion doesn’t imply shutting “conversation and relationship,” or that those who have premarital sex are “so depraved we can’t bear to discuss it respectfully and extensively.”  If that sort of straw man is what the argument for contraception needs, then I may just bow out and go drink my tea.  It so badly misrepresents doesn’t even rise to the level of misrepresenting my views because I didn’t say anything close to it.  And no responsible person who holds an “abstinence absolutism” position would be committed to holding it either.

Besides, who said anything about churches preventing people from accessing education about contraception?  I take it that if a single person likes to read, so much the better for the world.  In fact, keep reading about contraception long enough and you come across interesting little pieces challenging the premise that contraception reduces abortion anyway.

But let’s entertain the idea.  Maybe churches should educate folks about contraception.  What would they say?  They could say, for instance, that there is significant debate over whether the pill is actually abortive.  And they could discuss the way taking steps to create the conditions for sin actually incline our will toward it (I’d like for someone to explain how contraception follows the Biblical exhortation to “flee temptation”).  Those are, of course, cheeky ways of framing it.  But my point is that information about contraception isn’t the issue here (though we can haggle over who should deliver it, and what this means about the failure of both the home and those hallowed sex education programs in our public schools).   The question is instead one of encouraging and advocating for its use, of presenting the information in ways that signal (tacitly or otherwise) approval and exhoration.

Let’s move on:

“Instead, we deny young adults conversation and prayer about the moral, spiritual, and practical dynamics of their intimate relationships, support that is not nearly as easily available as contraception. If church support is available only when abstinence is practiced or professed, many will either go elsewhere or feign chastity in order to avoid shame or even expulsion. When unintended pregnancy happens, church may then be far down the list of potentially helpful places to go, and deservedly so.”

Paris and I are agreed that the culture of shame around pre-marital sex is a problem and that our communities are not the sort of grace-filled places that they ought to be.  I said as much in my original piece, after all, the existence of which I’m still looking to see reflected in Paris’ response.

But I frankly don’t understand the logic here:  we deny our young adults sober and adult conversations about their intimate relationships, a form of support that’s harder than contraception.  Is she meaning to suggest that our communities ought turn to contraception because it’s the easiest form of “support” for young people?   Because, you know, nothing says “love” these days quite like denying ourselves the cross while handing out the pill.

The only other alternative is that while we’re denying young folks the difficult support of serious conversations, they’re out getting easy access to contraception and so having more sex and making more babies (and, Lord have mercy, then seeking abortions).  That can’t be right, though, as that seems to undermine the premise of the discussion:  given that both the education and the access to contraception are easy to get, it’s not clear why churches need advocate for it at all.

I think at the heart of this paragraph is the same false dichotomy on which this whole argument depends:  the churches who major on abstinence cannot be hospitable to those who do not.  Paris has, of course, the full weight of empirical and anecdotal evidence on her side.  The churches that are “abstinence only” in their approach have not been particularly welcoming of those with unplanned pregnancies.  But for that, Paris wants us to change our sexual ethics while I’d like to set about changing the churches.

But the paragraph that gets me is this one:

Advocating contraception for unmarried churchgoers certainly is a compromise, but consider what that really means. Com- means with, and promise means to agree, or to make a pact. To compromise is to work toward agreement or commitment with another. Like compassion, community, or companion, com- is about being in relationship with others. Unipromise isn’t even a word; without compromise, you’re just alone, speaking your ideal into thin air. It’s fine to have ideals, and to proclaim them with perfect phrases in perfectly planned church services. Contemplating perfection is a holy exercise that lifts our aspirations. Lived experience, however, is far from perfect; when I consider ideal parenting, ideal marriage, or ideal teaching, my life pales in comparison. I count on my gracious children, husband, and students to make daily compromises—as I do for them—as part of healthy relationships in the real world.

I take it that the bit about “perfect phrases in perfectly planned church services” is a reference to my line about the ways in which we ought speak about sex (namely, with reverence).  That bit of evidence that she’s read beyond the title isn’t exactly comforting, for reasons I’ll articulate below.  And yet I should make clear that there’s no reason to limit my point to our worship services:  I’d like that way of speaking to pervade our small groups, our mentoring relationships, and every part of our communities.  And for whatever it’s worth, I serve in a local church in a role where I’ve had some opportunity to try to make that happen.

But let’s address the sacredness of this compromise.  Contraception may be a compromise, but it doesn’t seem particularly sacred.  As a solution, it lacks any imagination that takes its cues from the cross.  There are all sorts of compromises we could make with single people who are sexually active and desiring to change, but the problem with an easy technological solution is that it precludes them from ever coming up.

Here, for instance, is a promise we could make to our unmarried folks:  we will open our homes and marriages to you so you can see why sex is worth waiting for (a good, I will point out, that can be discerned outside the bedroom in the quality of our lives).  What’s more, for those single folks I know, I promise to make my phone line available to talk if you think you might go home with someone you shouldn’t.  Or we can chaperone, to make sure you both go home alone.  Or better yet, double date and do the same thing.

There are, then, a host of compromises that our communities could make before ever encouraging someone to take the pill.  Yes, pregnancies might still occur.  But the communities that have taken steps toward solving the problem where it really lies—in the arrangement of our lives together—an unplanned pregnancy will be more of a gift than a threat.

One final paragraph, then some closing thoughts:

After all, “just saying no” to premarital sex, important as it is, is not the heart of the gospel. The heart of the matter is saying yes to God. Maybe we often rely on shame and fear because it’s hard to believe that people would say no to something as tantalizing as sexual pleasure if they didn’t stand to lose something extremely valuable such as honor, the affection of family and church, or even eternal life. If people knew they were loved, no matter what, and that God and God’s people would have their backs even if their own sin is the cause of their troubles, wouldn’t they just sin freely because grace abounds? Perhaps some would, but even then, love can be a kindness that leads to repentance. Others may find the real reason to reject immorality: not for fear of shame, disgrace, or hell, but for love of the right and the good. Right loving—full of compromise, compassion, and companionship—is the best encouragement for right living.

Frankly, I’m at the point where I’d rather not believe that Paris read my piece at all, evidence noted above notwithstanding.  The alternative is that she read it and has strategically decided to ignore its substance, or is grossly distorting what I’ve said.  All those options are, honestly, rather frustrating.  It’s one thing to say that the church should have a conversation about contraception.  It is a very different thing to have that conversation badly, to ignore your interlocutors together or badly misrepresent them.  If this is how the “conversation” is to proceed, well, I don’t expect it to get far.

Which is to say, I categorically reject the notion that the above paragraph has anything to do with what I said.  I’m not “just saying no” to premarital sex or relying on shame and fear.   Allow me the pretention of quoting myself, please:

It is not enough to name human sexuality as a good before moving on to our list of rules. We must allow ourselves to linger there, to reflect upon its unique texture and explore its inner recesses. If we will do that, our proclamation will ring with the sort of poetry that will convince people that we can genuinely say with God that he has made it very good indeed.

The fear, shame, and isolation that unexpectant mothers feel suggests that our churches rarely exude the warmth and grace of those who live under the mercy of Christ. Their report is reason for repentance, and for serious self-examination.

It may be the case that churches that have taken an abstinence only line have depended upon shame and fear.  But they need not do so.  If I am right—and the comment boxes are God’s gift to those who are eager to show how I’m not—their  “yes to God” leads to a “no to contraception” and another “yes to sinners and their children.”   All that can and must be held together, as without it the church is something less than the community of sinners covered by grace and called to perfection and holiness.

The idea that evangelical churches should advocate for contraception for their unmarried members signals the end of our courage.  To en-courage is to instill the virtue, to fortify, to equip a person to stoutly face the challenges before them.  It takes no courage as a community to blame our unmarried people’s ignorance about contraception for the abortions in our midst.  It takes no courage to say that the forces of sexual libertinism are too great for our young people to overcome, and to give up calling the single people to a form of life that our culture resists.  It takes no valor, no mettle, no virtue to shift the blame for our community dysfunctions on to our unmarried people and hand them a pill to make up for it.  It takes no vision, no imagination, to undermine the work (under the pretension of supplementing it) of helping our young people imagine their single lives in ways that do not include fornication, of instilling in them the strength and the desire to actually bring them about, and of building within our communities the systems of support and care that can help them become a reality.

The paradox, of course, is the very thing that every high schooler, college student, and young adult I have met so desperately wants is that which the solution of contraception necessarily denies them.  It may be sex that they’re having, but it’s meaning and adventure and romance that they want.  And those are goods that are only attainable through a heroic self-denial that refuses the lure of compromising with sin, even as we seek to work with and alongside the people who inevitably will commit it.

The Church and Contraception for its Single Members

The ending to my latest piece at Christianity Today, on whether churches should advocate contraceptive use for the sexually active single people in their midst:

Beneath the issue of contraception is a question about the role ideals and norms play in our communal lives. Yes, they restrict our behavior in ways that are sometimes inconvenient. Yet in doing so, they intrinsically call us and our communities toward a life that we might not otherwise choose on our own. What’s more, they amplify the need for repentance and reconciliation, rather than watering down such a need through the “pragmatic” concession to the fallenness of the world. We may occasionally fail to meet them. But confronting our failures can be heroic and acknowledging our sins a moment of beauty. The only thing to be gained from lowering the expectations is greater secrecy about our sexual lives within our communities. And that, somewhat ironically, only stigmatizes unplanned pregnancies within our midst all the more by making them all the more rare.

At the same time, ideals can inspire. “The more transcendental your patriotism,” Chesterton once said, “the more practical will be your politics.” Communities where contraception is advocated as a solution (whether from the pulpit or in the counselors office) are communities free from the deadly burden of the cross, free from the sufferings and co-laboring that will inevitably come from caring for single mothers and their children. When I posed this idea to someone they suggested that no one would be with the single mother at 3 a.m. while the child is crying. That the possibility is ruled out before it can be considered says more about the extent to which we strive to keep our communities free from a bloodless martyrdom than it does about whether we should accept contraception.

There is no question that we need to reduce abortions, both inside the church and without. But as a church, we are not called to reduce abortions by any and every means available to us. Sin is compounding: error has a long train, and abortion is near the end of it. It is easy to turn to contraception in order to prevent abortions. But in doing so, we have not done what only the church can do: call people to repentance for our sins and exhort us toward the holiness that ought to mark us off as the people of God.

Let’s do a bit more here, though, some thinking out loud:  Can anyone name a sin that Christians commit that we would suggest, as a pastoral measure, taking preemptive action to free people from experiencing the consequences–good or bad?  Analogies are tricky business, as I’m one of those rare souls who thinks that sex is sui generis, one of a kind, within the moral landscape.  But give it a whirl:  you might be more successful than I.

Try, for instance, lying.  Deceit is a moral wrong with potentially only the most positive of consequences. Would we counsel a chronic dissembler who refuses to listen to pastoral guidance to at least do their best to avoid the consequences of their actions?  Hardly likely, despite the fact that lying is clearly corrosive to the soul of the one committing it and to the community where it is enabled.

Remember, an analogy.  Yes, a pregnancy is an incredibly grave consequence for a sin, almost certainly more so than what comes from most lies. But that alone does not justify letting go of the principle so that people can have their sex.  If anything, the suggestion seems to further engrain in our evangelical communities the notion that the kids are going to have sex anyways, so we might as well keep them safe.  That notion is not only false:  it is self-fulfilling and inherently infantilizing.

But let’s have a go at this, please.  This is all too important of an issue to simply let it drift into the ether, forgotten and undiscussed.  I’m curious to hear the feedback, pro et contra.  So let me have it in the comments:  what, precisely, am I missing?