A Strange Post-Liberal Ecumenism
At Tim Montgomerie’s compulsively readable new website Unherd, the prominent left-wing Anglican divine Giles Fraser finds that he has a lot in common with … me. Excerpts:
But Macintyre’s reception in the United States has been very different. Whereas in Britain, the political influence of After Virtue has been on those who have been seeking to bring new life to society in general, with the conservative Christian Rod Dreher (and with Stanley Hauerwas too), the After Virtue legacy has taken on a more sectarian and inward-looking turn.
Public culture has become irredeemable, Dreher argues, it has been captured by the forces of individualism and liberalism, and there is no way to build communities of moral purpose in such hostile territory. The Benedict Option represents a tactical withdrawal, an attempt by serious Christians to regroup in community, to construct an ark with which to ride out the storm and from there to present a challenge to mainstream culture.
This is why I admire Dreher: he is one of the few conservative Christians to recognise and publicly to admit that the United States is not really a Christian country at all, that it worships a god that has been made in its own image – that is, it worships itself. And that capitalism and a belief in the total freedom of the individual is not the unmitigated good that the Christian Right has so often trumpeted.
Capitalism is a threat to traditional Christian values, he reluctantly admits. This is a decisive break from Ronald Reagan’s folksy conviction that God and Mammon made for easy bedfellows. These days, Dreher maintains, Christian conservatives must think of themselves as what Hauerwas called “Resident Aliens”. They have to learn to be faithful in an overwhelmingly hostile environment. Christians have to prepare to live like Orthodox Jews, sufficiently separate from the mainstream to preserve Christian patterns of life.
Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way. The US is a country in which many Christians live, and was a Christian country once — not in its constitutional structure, but by dint of the fact that most Americans considered Christianity, in a substantive sense, to be the story by which they understood themselves. That’s gone.
Dreher is wrong about a lot, though. Like so many American conservatives, he is creepily obsessed with homosexuality. His analysis of Freud is risible. And unlike the pacifist Hauerwas, he doesn’t understand that the greatest corruption of public Christianity in the US comes from the American war machine. Jesus didn’t care all that much about sex. And said nothing whatsoever about homosexuality. But he cared a great deal about loving your enemies.
The fixation that American conservatives have with sex is a convenient way for them to avoid a much harder and challenging question: the unchristian obsession they have with guns and bombs. I would prefer my Benedict Option to look a bit more like that proposed by the extraordinary Dorothy Day who founded a number of Catholic communities of resistance committed to non-violence and feeding the poor. But in the context of the scale of the incoming crisis, this may look like haggling over the details.
It is indeed odd that a socialist like me finds common cause with an American conservative like Rod Dreher. But the faith we share is under threat. We both diagnose liberalism as the common enemy. And opposition makes for unlikely bedfellows.
These are typical contemporary left-wing Christian shibboleths, alas, but I don’t want to get into “haggling over the details,” especially given that the Revd Fraser and I do, apparently, have a lot in common. I wager that I care a lot more about the war machine than Fraser thinks I do, but it’s not unfair of him to assume that I don’t, given that I don’t write a lot about it. My recent visit to war sites on the Somme reinforced within me a disgust for war that has been present since changing my mind on Iraq.
Still, it must be said that there is no way to excise Christian teaching on sexuality — hetero and homo — from a truthful and holistic account of Christian teaching. One ought to be suspicious of why Christian progressives are so eager to do so. My chapter in The Benedict Option on sex and sexuality is largely based on this TAC essay, titled “Sex After Christianity,” which is one of the most popular things I’ve ever written. It says, in part:
This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?
Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.
Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.
You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis of natural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary secular arguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).
Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.
It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.
In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.
Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.
It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.
What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.
Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.
How this came to be is a complicated story involving the rise of humanism, the advent of the Enlightenment, and the coming of modernity. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes in his magisterial religious and cultural history A Secular Age, “The entire ethical stance of moderns supposes and follows on from the death of God (and of course, of the meaningful cosmos).” To be modern is to believe in one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self-definition.
Gradually the West lost the sense that Christianity had much to do with civilizational order, Taylor writes. In the 20th century, casting off restrictive Christian ideals about sexuality became increasingly identified with health. By the 1960s, the conviction that sexual expression was healthy and good—the more of it, the better—and that sexual desire was intrinsic to one’s personal identity culminated in the sexual revolution, the animating spirit of which held that freedom and authenticity were to be found not in sexual withholding (the Christian view) but in sexual expression and assertion. That is how the modern American claims his freedom.
To Rieff, ours is a particular kind of “revolutionary epoch” because the revolution cannot by its nature be institutionalized. Because it denies the possibility of communal knowledge of binding truths transcending the individual, the revolution cannot establish a stable social order. As Rieff characterizes it, “The answer to all questions of ‘what for’ is ‘more’.”
Our post-Christian culture, then, is an “anti-culture.” We are compelled by the logic of modernity and the myth of individual freedom to continue tearing away the last vestiges of the old order, convinced that true happiness and harmony will be ours once all limits have been nullified.
Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship of Christ to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.
Read all of “Sex After Christianity” here.
I would invite Fraser and those sympathetic to his point of view to watch the documentary film Liberated, now on Netflix. It’s about the devastation to basic human decencies wrought by contemporary sexual mores, in which men and women treat each other as nothing but meat. I understand there’s some controversy over whether or not to show it on the Baylor University campus this weekend. I can understand why some are reluctant to do so; it is foul-mouthed and at times sexually explicit, if not graphic. But it is a documentary in which the filmmakers turn their cameras and microphones on spring break culture, and interview college students there about sex and sexuality.
For me, it had the same effect as reading Michel Houllebecq: it shows the dead souls, and the dead end, of the Sexual Revolution. It is a kind of hell. The film reminds me of Sarah Ruden’s book about St. Paul, and why his message — especially his sexual ethic — was seen by women in pagan Roman culture as truly liberating. It restored their humanity to them. What Fraser et alia ought to think about is what liberalism has done to turn human sexuality, a topic that is inextricable from the questions, What is man? What are people for?
Of course as Fraser rightly points out, conservatives ought to be asking themselves the same question about our economic system, and how it turns human persons into materialist objects, into mere consumers. But you knew I would say that. Anyway, I was onto all this in 2006, with Crunchy Cons. The book drew a lot of comment when it came out, but sales were not proportional to the agita it caused on the Right. I wonder how it would be received if it were freshly released today…?