Reader Brendan posts an important comment about Christianity and the Sexual Revolution:
It’s not about marriage or homosexuality. It’s about sex, period. People just don’t genuinely think sexual sins especially matter anymore.
Indeed, this is the core problem.
I mean, traditional/morally orthodox Christians need to face the reality that the sexual revolution (at least when it comes to straight people) is extremely popular, de facto, among almost all Christians — again, apart from the abortion issue. When it comes to sex outside marriage (not just “before” marriage in a relationship that is leading to marriage, but in or even outside of any relationship), divorce and remarriage, Christians are more or less 100% on board with the sexual revolution in terms of their behavior, and, outside of liberal Christian churches who actively and openly celebrate these changed behaviors, simply ignore the contradiction between the behavior and the traditional moral teaching — they simply turn a blind eye to it.
Again, some churches celebrate the changes openly, others still endorse the traditional moral teaching while turning a blind eye to its rampant flouting, but across the board Christians have broadly and deeply embraced the sexual revolution, full stop. Virtually all Christians in the US are like this, barring outlier-ish exceptions — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, it doesn’t matter, the behaviors are broadly the same across the board.
When that’s the context, and young people are very aware of the context (due to parents and other relatives divorcing, fornicating outside marriage, then remarrying, due to Christian peers fornicating to beat the band and so on). In this almost universal context, it becomes a very, very hard sell to young people that it’s ok for the churches to tolerate broad and deep embrace of the sexual revolution, regardless of it violating traditional Christian sexual morals, as long as we’re talking about straight people and not gay people. I think that this is a virtually impossible sell to young people apart from the small group of them who may be swayed by some kind of natural law argument (which isn’t many). It’s virtually impossible to sell that contradiction to young people in terms of accepting widespread sexual immorality among straight people but condemning any of it among gay people. Doesn’t fly, and it is perfectly understandable why it doesn’t fly with young people.
The churches that want to adhere formally to the traditional Christian moral orthodoxy on sexuality (as opposed to the progressive churches who celebrate the sexual revolution) have two choices, it seems to me:
1. Extend the tolerance/”looking the other way” policy from heterosexual fornication and adultery to include same sex behaviors;
2. Clamp down on all sexual sins, whether gay or straight, by instituting stricter rules on full participation based on adherence to the traditional moral teachings (not a perfection standard, obviously, everyone sins, but a standard nonetheless).
I am betting that almost all churches will take Option 1. Why? It seems to me that Option 2’s ship has sailed already — to go from a largely “look the other way” approach to a stricter approach would cause pandemonium among the overwhelming majority of the members of these churches and would lead, at a minimum, to massive schism, and likely to massive membership loss. I just don’t see very many formally traditionally moral churches taking Option 2 realistically.
Keep in mind this is addressing a split within formally traditionally orthodox moral churches — not a split within bigger tent churches between progressivism (i.e., open embrace of the sex rev and changing the moral theology to match it) and traditional morals, as we have seen in many Protestant churches. This is discussing how the morally traditional churches will deal with this issue in the years ahead, and I fully expect that almost all of them will go with expanding Option 1, which almost all of them already have for heterosexual interaction with the mores of the sexual revolution, rather than the rancor of Option 2.
This means that those who are morally orthodox on sexual morality will need to either (i) found new churches/parishes or (ii) stay in these churches and adopt the tolerant/”look the other way” approach themselves. No other realistic options exist, it seems to me.
To me, how the BenOp intersects with this depends on the Church. Catholics and Orthodox are not going to be able to found their own churches to avoid the de facto tolerance practiced by their churches, of course, so the BenOp in these contexts is more “within” a broader church that is likely in the “look the other way” mode, whereas for Protestants it very well may mean founding new churches.
This is entirely true, and important to say. It has long been my belief that the reason same-sex marriage won so thoroughly, and so quickly (relatively speaking) is because all gays and lesbians asked for was the same thing that heterosexuals already granted themselves. I’m not talking about the legal right to marry per se; I’m talking about the belief that marriage is about nothing more than the formal contractual joining of two people who love each other into a single legal entity that may (or may not) have spiritual and moral meaning.
That is to say, marriage ceased some time ago within normative heterosexual culture to be about anything more than that as a matter of metaphysics. Don’t get me wrong: I grant that many couples who marry — gay and straight alike — view their union as having a spiritual dimension. What I’m talking about is about more than the spiritual. This essay I once wrote for TAC drills down deeper. Excerpts:
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.
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.
It also remains to be seen whether we can keep Christianity without accepting Christian chastity. Sociologist Christian Smith’s research on what he has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism”—the feelgood, pseudo-Christianity that has supplanted the normative version of the faith in contemporary America—suggests that the task will be extremely difficult.
Conservative Christians have lost the fight over gay marriage and, as we have seen, did so decades before anyone even thought same-sex marriage was a possibility. Gay-marriage proponents succeeded so quickly because they showed the public that what they were fighting for was consonant with what most post-1960s Americans already believed about the meaning of sex and marriage. The question Western Christians face now is whether or not they are going to lose Christianity altogether in this new dispensation.
Too many of them think that same-sex marriage is merely a question of sexual ethics. They fail to see that gay marriage, and the concomitant collapse of marriage among poor and working-class heterosexuals, makes perfect sense given the autonomous individualism sacralized by modernity and embraced by contemporary culture—indeed, by many who call themselves Christians. They don’t grasp that Christianity, properly understood, is not a moralistic therapeutic adjunct to bourgeois individualism—a common response among American Christians, one denounced by Rieff in 2005 as “simply pathetic”—but is radically opposed to the cultural order (or disorder) that reigns today.
They are fighting the culture war moralistically, not cosmologically. They have not only lost the culture, but unless they understand the nature of the fight and change their strategy to fight cosmologically, within a few generations they may also lose their religion.
Brendan’s comments amplify the point in the final paragraph.
Here are some remarks of mine on the topic, taken from The Benedict Option:
In speaking of how men and women of the early Christian era saw their bodies, historian Peter Brown says
the body was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. Whether this pulse of energy came from benevolent gods or from malevolent demons (as many radical Christians believed) sex could never be seen as a thing for the isolated human body alone.
Early Christianity’s sexual teaching does not only come from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul; more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God. In that order, man has a purpose. He is meant for something, to achieve certain ends. When Paul warned the Christians of Corinth that having sex with a prostitute meant that they were joining Jesus Christ to that prostitute, he was not speaking metaphorically.
Because we belong to Christ as a unity of body, mind, and soul, how we use the body and the mind sexually is a very big deal. Anything we do that falls short of perfect harmony with the will of God is sin. Sin is not merely rule breaking but failing to live in accord with the structure of reality itself. The Christian who lives in reality will not join his body to another’s outside the order God gives us. That means no sex outside the covenant through which a man and a woman seal their love exclusively through Christ. In orthodox Christian teaching, the two really do become “one flesh” in a way that transcends the symbolic.
If sex is made holy through the marriage covenant, then sex within marriage is an icon of Christ’s relationship with His people, the church. It reveals the miraculous, life-giving power of spiritual communion, which occurs when a man and a woman—and only a man and a woman—give themselves to each other. That marriage could be unsexed is a total novelty in the Christian theological tradition.
“The significance of sexual difference has never before been contingent upon a creature’s preferences, or upon whether or not God gave it episodically to a particular creature to have certain preferences,” writes Catholic theologian Christopher Roberts. He goes on to say that for Christians, the meaning of sexuality has always depended on its relationship to the created order and to eschatology—the ultimate end of man.
“As was particularly clear, perhaps for the first time in Luther, the fact of a sexually differentiated creation is reckoned to human beings as a piece of information from God about who and what it meant to be human,” writes Roberts.
Christians — straight and gay alike — who deny the Bible’s clear teachings on sexuality (hetero and homo) ultimately deny the Bible’s authority, and even deny the created order as revealed in the Bible. The churches can capitulate either actively or passively to the Sexual Revolution, but either way it is going to mean their ruin. Philip Rieff knew this.
I heard something interesting the other day in a YouTube discussion between Jordan B. Peterson and the Orthodox icon carver Jonathan Pageau. I can’t find the link now, but when I do, I’ll post it here. At some point in the conversation, the account from Genesis 18 of Abraham entertaining angels unawares, and being blessed with miraculous fertility because he showed them hospitality, came up. Pageau contrasted this with the story of Genesis 19, when the same angels went to Sodom. In violation of the cultural law of hospitality, the angels were set upon by the men of the town, who wanted to rape them. God, of course, destroyed Sodom.
Pageau interprets these two stories as giving a symbolic lesson about sexual order. Hospitality here symbolizes the way we humans welcome the life-giving power of sex. If we do it according to the guidelines God gives us, then we will be blessed and fruitful. But if we allow sexual appetite to consume us, then we invite catastrophe.
God can, of course, redeem this catastrophe. Later in the story, Lot’s daughters get their father drunk, seduce him, and become pregnant with his sons. Some commentators see this incestuous disorder as the result of Lot’s having offered his daughters to be gang-raped by the mob in Sodom, to satisfy their lust and to protect the angels. Whatever the truth, it was through the line of Moab, one of Lot’s sons with a daughter, that King David came to be, and ultimately the Messiah.
The point here is that there are consequences for violating the created order, and God’s commands. This is something that much of the contemporary Christian world denies. To deny what the Bible teaches about the meaning of sex and sexuality is to deny what the Bible teaches about what it means to be human. There is no getting around it, though heaven knows contemporary theologians, pastors, and laypeople do their very best to try.
This is a big reason why the Benedict Option is so important for small-o orthodox Christians. At best, most of us can expect our churches to fall silent on issues related to sexuality (again: homo and hetero), because most Christians do not want to hear, much less to obey, what the Bible and the Church have to say. But these truths don’t cease to be true because they are unpopular. We are going to have to figure out how to teach our kids right from wrong in this context, which is a lot more complicated than simply teaching them doctrine. We are going to have to create communities of families committed to fidelity to these teachings. And we are going to have to accept the fact that in many cases, the religious authorities will not only not have our backs, they may indeed be shooting us in them.
I feel strongly about this because I know from personal experience how important it is to proclaim these countercultural truths to a world that doesn’t want to listen. I didn’t want to listen either at one point in my life, and very nearly paid a heavy price for it.
Those churches that assimilate the Sexual Revolution are going to die. Those that do not are going to pay a heavy price, but they will survive, because they will have been faithful.
(Hey, liberal readers, if the only thing you have to add to this discussion is taunting, or the silly “Jesus never talked about this,” or some form of whataboutism, don’t bother commenting. I’m going to monitor these comments more closely, simply for the sake of encouraging a meaningful conversation.)
UPDATE: Reader Rob G.:
“Christians–straight and gay alike–who deny the Bible’s clear teachings on sexuality (hetero and homo) ultimately deny the Bible’s authority, and even deny the created order as revealed in the Bible.”
Isn’t this precisely what one would expect once you baptize human autonomy? As I heard Fr. Peter Gillquist once say, once you are free to explain the Bible any way you’d like, you are free to explain it away. And what would then be more “natural” than seeking to explain away the Biblical strictures that the faith places around our human drives?
Combine this autonomy with a jettisoning of the notion of asceticism, and Christian morality devolves into legalism. We’re presented with a series of rules, but with no explanation of why they’ve been instituted. The opposite course then, barring a reclamation of the ascetic, is to escape legalism by moving towards antinomianism, which makes Christians sitting ducks for Sexual Revolution evangelism.
Also, heteropraxy has a funny way of turning into heterodoxy. If I’ve already given up on following Biblical morality personally, it becomes very easy to turn it into a faux-theological issue as a means of justifying my own misbehavior. The problem, however, is that once you open that door it becomes difficult to keep this heterodoxy confined to the area in question. This, I think, is what the patristic writers were getting at when they said that heresy always begins below the waist.
Lenin wrote somewhere that Communism did not have to attack religion directly because over time atheism would automatically result from Communist praxis. What we’re seeing in the Sexual Revolution is something along the same lines: doctrine is following practice, not the other way around, but it does result in a vicious circle whereby each resultant “new” doctrine leads to a further erosion of orthopraxy.
UPDATE.2: I strongly encourage readers to go here to read the introductory chapter to Philip Rieff’s book The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Below is a key passage having to do with the Sexual Revolution and Christianity. Remember, Rieff was not a religious man; he’s writing as a sociologist (in Rieff’s jargon, “remissions” means “thou shalt nots”):
Until the present culture rose to threaten its predecessor, our demand system could be specified by the kind of creedal hedges it raised around impulses of independence or autonomy from communal purpose. In the culture preceding our own, the order of therapy was embedded in a consensus of “shalt nots.” The best never lacked binding convictions, for they were the most bound, mainly by what they should not do—or even think, or dream. “Thou shalt” precipitated a sequence of operative “shalt nots.” Cultic therapies of commitment never mounted a search for some new opening into experience; on the contrary, new experience was not wanted. Cultic therapy domesticated the wildness of experience. By treating some novel stimulus or ambiguity of experience in this manner, the apparently new was integrated into a restrictive and collective identity. Cultic therapies consisted, therefore, chiefly in participation mystiques severely limiting deviant initiatives. Individuals were trained, through ritual action, to express fixed wants, although they could not count thereby upon commensurate gratifications. The limitation of possibilities was the very design of salvation.
To the ironic question “And, being saved, how are we to behave?” Western culture long returned a painfully simple answer: “Behave like your Savior.” Christian culture, like other organizations of moral demand, operated, however imperfectly, through the internalization of a soteriological character ideal carrying tremendous potentials for fresh intakes of communal energy; the highest level of controls and remissions (which together organized systems of moral demands) experienced an historical and individualized incarnation. Such euhemerist processes may have been indispensable to the vitality of the old culture. To adjust the expression of impulses to the controlling paragon, or character ideal, defines the primary process in the shaping of our inherited culture; the arts and sciences define the secondary process, in which exemplary modes of action are extended further, into a central moralizing experience, thus transforming individual into institutional action.
In the classical Christian culture of commitment, one renunciatory mode of control referred to the sexual opportunism of individuals. Contemporary churchmen may twist and turn it while they try to make themselves heard in a culture that renders preaching superfluous: the fact remains that renunciatory controls of sexual opportunity were placed in the Christian culture very near the center of the symbolic that has not held. Current apologetic efforts by religious professionals, in pretending that renunciation as the general mode of control was never dominant in the system, reflect the strange mixture of cowardice and courage with which they are participating in the dissolution of their cultural functions. Older Christian scholarship has known better than new Christian apologetics.
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 (servile peccati iugum discutere) 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.Historically, the rejection of sexual individualism (which divorces pleasure and procreation) was the consensual matrix of Christian culture. It was never the last line drawn. On the contrary, beyond that first restriction there were drawn others, establishing the Christian corporate identity within which the individual was to organize the range of his experience. Individuality was hedged round by the discipline of sexuality, challenging those rapidly fluctuating imperatives established in Rome’s remissive culture, from which a new order of deprivations was intended to release the faithful Christian believer. Every controlling symbolic contains such remissive functions. What is revolutionary in modern culture refers to releases from inherited doctrines of therapeutic deprivation; from a predicate of renunciatory control, enjoining releases from impulse need, our culture has shifted toward a predicate of impulse release, projecting controls unsteadily based upon an infinite variety of wants raised to the status of needs. Difficult as the modern cultural condition may be, I doubt that Western men can be persuaded again to the Greek opinion that the secret of happiness is to have as few needs as possible. The philosophers of therapeutic deprivation are disposed to eat well when they are not preaching. It is hard to take Schopenhauer at his ascetic word when we know what splendid dinners he had put on, day after day, at the Hotel Schwan in Frankfort.
The central Christian symbolic was not ascetic in a crude renunciatory mode which would destroy any culture. Max Scheler described that culture accurately, I think, when he concluded that “Christian asceticism—at least so far as it was not influenced by decadent Hellenistic philosophy—had as its purpose not the suppression or even extirpation of natural drives, but rather their control and complete spiritualization. It is positive, not negative, asceticism—aimed fundamentally at a liberation of the highest powers of personality from blockage by the automatism of the lower drives.” That renunciatory mode, in which the highest powers of personality are precisely those which subserve rather than subvert culture, appears no longer systematically efficient. The spiritualizers have had their day; nowadays, the best among them appear engaged in a desperate strategy of acceptance, in the hope that by embracing doctrinal expressions of therapeutic aims they will be embraced by the therapeutics; a false hope—the therapeutics need no doctrines, only opportunities. But the spiritualizers persist in trying to maintain cultural contact with constituencies already deconverted in all but name. Even the Roman Catholic clergy must now confront their own constituencies, as their Protestant and Jewish colleagues have had to do long before. Nevertheless, the religious professionals have reason to hope for survival, precisely because they have come to be aware of their situation and are seeking ways to alter it, in the direction of a fresh access of communal purpose, centered in the Negro protest movement, or in some other movement of protest against the effects of that very dead culture which they think, by protesting so belatedly, to survive.
The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves. Many spokesmen for our established normative institutions are aware of their failure and yet remain powerless to generate in themselves the necessary unwitting part of their culture that merits the name of faith. “Is not the very fact that so wretchedly little binding address is heard in the church,” asked Karl Barth, rhetorically, in 1939, “accountable for a goodly share of her misery—is it not perhaps the misery?” The misery of this culture is acutely stated by the special misery of its normative institutions. Our more general misery is that, having broken with those institutionalized credibilities from which its moral energy derived, new credibilities are not yet operationally effective and, perhaps, cannot become so in a culture constantly probing its own unwitting part.