Noah Millman thinks I was too cavalier in my post in which I said that if the rest of America hates Christians for remaining faithful to the traditional Scriptural prohibition on homosexuality, then that’s just how it has to be. He writes:

That is to say, I think Dreher’s belief is that traditional teachings about homosexuality are non-negotiable, but that this doesn’t imply that Christians are obliged in any way to “secede” from a society that rejects those teachings. Christians may be obliged to believe that physical love outside of lifelong marriage between a man and a woman is sinful; they may even be obliged to believe that the determination to pursue such a love and to deny its sinfulness is even more sinful. Does that mean Christians are obliged not to take pictures of their sinful unions? That they are obliged not to hire them to teach their children?

I’m not a Christian, but if I understand correctly, the traditional view would be that “writing off” generations of people would literally be consigning them to hellfire. I’m pretty sure that, for a traditional Christian, that’s an abhorrent choice to make. So how can Dreher blithely accept that as merely a regrettable necessity if the culture at large becomes “post-Christian”?

Let me clear something up: in no way do I think this would be “merely regrettable.” I think it would be a terrible thing, both for Christianity and those who might become Christian. I do not look wish for this outcome, not in the least. But if the price mainstream America puts on welcoming us in the public square is to turn our back on what we believe to be a fundamental truth of the faith (note well I’m talking about the meaning of sex and sexuality, of which homosexuality is one aspect), then we have no choice but to refuse.

This does not mean Christians have to refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings, or anything like that. Some may feel compelled by conscience to do so, but others will be able in good faith to provide that service even though they hold to traditional Christian belief about homosexuality. Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion about either option. If it were simply a matter of both sides being tolerant, I would have faith that we could work it out. But at this point, that does not look like the deal we are being offered, or are ever going to be offered. If it were simply a matter of telling Christians not to behave like assholes toward gay folks, well yeah, I agree with that. But that’s not what this is about. Anything short of total approval is going to be treated as bigotry. I don’t see how anybody can deny that this is coming, and that in many places it’s already here.

Noah seems to believe that it’s foolish to insist on Christian orthodoxy on this point, if it means that Christianity cannot hold on to its children, and will find it much harder to win converts. I have a couple of things to say in response.

For one, Christianity, at least in its Catholic and Orthodox versions (I mean no disrespect to the various Reformation churches; I simply don’t know enough about their theologies to say) — anyway, traditional Catholic and Orthodox Christianity are like complex ecosystems. You cannot simply pull parts out that don’t fit with your understanding of how things ought to be and maintain the integrity and coherence of the faith. It would be like explorers coming ashore on a strange island, deciding that they could do without those annoying orange lizards that crawl around at dusk, and exterminating them … only to find that the lizards played a vital, if poorly understood, role in the ecosystem, which suffers greatly in their absence.

This, I think, is why the Christian churches that have liberalized on sexuality, especially homosexuality, to be more in tune with the times are collapsing. (To be sure, all Christian churches are in decline, but the liberal ones are falling faster than the others.) Jonathan Rauch is surely correct when he says that Christians holding on to their traditional teaching about homosexuality is going to cost us plenty:

Associating Christianity with a desire—no, a determination—to discriminate puts the faithful in open conflict with the value that young Americans hold most sacred. They might as well write off the next two or three or 10 generations, among whom nondiscrimination is the 11th commandment.

But we were all to become liberal Protestants, we would have to write off the future generations anyway, because adopting the suggested nondiscriminatory stance has done nothing to stop the withering of those churches. As I’ve said over and over — and put most succinctly in this TAC essay from last year — the gay rights moment is the end result of a long historical process of the West’s de-Christianization. From my essay:

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.

The affirmation of homosexuality that has come about over the last 10 or 20 years is a logical end point of the affirmation of sexual desire without qualification, ungrounded in anything like natural law. To be sure, Christ did not live, die, and rise from the dead so we would all keep our pants zipped except under religiously appropriate conditions. It is possible to be as chaste as a virgin martyr and still be damned (whitewashed sepulchres, etc.) The Christian faith is not primarily a system of ethics, or morals (“Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ.” — Pope Benedict XVI) — but it does imply a moral structure. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, as was Paul of Tarsus and all the Apostles, all of whom were willing to sacrifice their own passions, and indeed their lives, to follow Christ. There is no Christianity without St. Paul and his letters, and no Christianity without asceticism.

If Rieff is right in The Triumph Of The Therapeutic, the abandonment of Christian sexual morality is like removing the keystone linking the vaulted arches holding up the structure of Christian belief. Rieff says ours is the age of “psychological man,” who has displaced religious man. In what Rieff calls “the consensual matrix of Christian culture,” sexual individualism was rejected. Rieff quotes the 19th century German Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack — a liberal and proponent of the Social Gospel — about the critical importance of sexual purity in historical Christianity. I’ve gone back to Harnack’s History Of Dogma (Vol. 3) for the fuller quote, which I present here:

Protestants at the present day can hardly form an impression of the hold that asceticism held over the mind in the fourth and fifth centuries, or of the manner in which it influenced imagination, thought, and the whole of life. At bottom, only a single point was dealt with, abstinence from sexual relationships; everything else was secondary: for he who had renounced these found nothing hard. Renunciation of the servile yoke of sin was the watchword of Christians, and an extraordinary unanimity prevailed as to the meaning of this watchword, whether we turn to the Coptic porter, or the learned Greek teacher, to the Bishop of Hippo, or Jerome the Roman presbyter, or the biographer of Saint Martin. Virginity was the specifically Christian virtue, and the essence of all virtues; in this conviction the meaning of the evangelical law was summed up.

But not only did the evangelical law culminate in virginity, but to it belonged all promises. Methodius’ teaching that it prepared the soul to be the bride of Christ was from the fourth century repeated by everyone. Virginity lies at the root of the figure of the Bridegroom (Christ) and the Bride (the soul), which is constantly recurring in the greatest teachers of East and West… .

Harnack goes on to say, quite rightly, that asceticism and purity become destructive to the faith when they become ends in themselves. Our Orthodox priests tell us when we begin the strict Lenten fast that abstaining from certain foods is no good when it is not accompanied by a conversion of the heart (“Even the demons fast,” they say). But the converse is true as well: it is difficult to have a transformation and purification of one’s heart if one is unwilling to deny one’s passions.

The point here is that Christianity makes little sense, historically or symbolically, without asceticism, and in particular, a specific notion of what sex is for. As Rieff said, every culture is defined by what it forbids. There is a reason why the sexually liberated Christian churches are dissolving: because at a deep psychological level (at least), it’s hard to make sense of the faith absent its ascetic spirit, particularly governing sex and sexuality.

Rieff says that what makes our era distinct is it has become one in which we have thrown off all “remissions” (his word for “thou shalt nots”) and instead of denying our desires and channeling them into spiritual ends (a positive asceticism, rather than a purely negative one), instead embrace their desires, and see their fulfillment as the summum bonum. Joel Osteen, the Houston megachurch pastor best known for his massively popular book Your Best Life Now, is an epitome of therapeutic Christianity — which, by any historical standard, is hardly Christianity at all.

“Religious man was born to be saved,” Rieff writes. “Psychological man is born to be pleased.” This is the war between the ascetic and the therapeutic — and in the West, the therapeutic is already triumphant. Sociologist Christian Smith calls the pseudo-Christianity ascendant today “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. As he distinguishes it:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.

To accept this counterfeit faith is to apostatize. It really is as simple as that, from an orthodox (and Orthodox) Christian point of view. The Catholic writer James Kalb wrote the other day about how futile it is in our society to make natural law arguments against the normalization of homosexuality:

Today everyone respectable rejects the idea of natural order, especially with regard to sexual conduct. People have been taught to view the concept as a high-toned rationalization for bigoted actions growing out of atavistic feelings of disgust.

But if that’s what people think, how helpful can it be to keep bringing up such arguments?

The question points to a basic problem for Christian proclamation in public life today: we’re stuck preaching the word out of season, because the basic assumptions on which discussion is carried on are radically anti-Christian. Reilly presents secular philosophical arguments for his views, but the basis of those arguments—the principle that the natural world and human body have meaning—is also basic to the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation. Do away with natural meanings, and so with a nature fitted to completion by grace, and you may get Buddhism or some other religion but not Christianity. If you try to present a teaching like charity in such a setting, in which things mean what people want them to mean, it’ll come out sounding more like the celebration of diversity: we should love not what people are, since there are no settled identities, nor what they should be, since the very concept is oppressive, but instead whatever they choose to make of themselves.

So it seems that presenting natural law arguments on sexual matters is necessary, but not because they are going to persuade Justice Kennedy any time soon. We need them because natural law is essential to the picture of the world we want to present.

This is what it means to live in a post-Christian world. Kalb goes on to say that we have to keep talking, if only to ourselves, to preserve our faith and what we know to be true until the day, perhaps many generations from now, when the world will be willing to listen again. That is the great task that Christians in the West face. And the great temptations will be on the one hand to apostatize — either abandoning the faith, or accepting a counterfeit version to be “good Americans” — and on the other hand to return hatred for hatred. A Christianity that does not love truth is not Christianity, but a Christianity that does not love others, even to the point of martyrdom, is not Christianity either.

 

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