Sex: The Church Vs. The World
Liberals and moderates both inside and outside the Christian churches have a habit of saying, “Why are you conservative Christians so hung up on sex, especially gay sex? You need to get over it.”
To that, I always reply, “To the contrary, it is you who have elevated sex and sexuality to the most important issue in the Church. This is no surprise. You have been formed by a popular culture that has elevated sex and sexuality to the center of our existence. The Church is the only institution left that tries to order sex rightly, to put it in its proper place.”
Well, not all churches. Just the ones that still believe in the Bible. A European reader sends in this screenshot of the schedule for the Church of England, whose bishops are meeting in General Synod now:
The Anglican bishops have declared the church openly welcoming to and affirming of transgendered people, and are considering coming up with a special rite to mark their transition from one gender to the next. That’s right, the Church of England is about to consecrate sex change operations —
and a prelate considered to be a conservative, Archbishop John Sentamu of York, supports the measure. Sign of the times. This is not a church that has any interest in providing an authentic Christian witness to the post-Christian culture. It is only negotiating the terms of its own swift demise.
Here’s a link to a helpful reflection by Jem Bloofmield, an Anglican blogger, reflecting on the Synod and how difficult it is to explain traditional Christian beliefs on LGBT to young people, “and how it prevents them from hearing the Gospel.” Bloomfield is a professor at the University of Nottingham, and begins by talking about the students. Excerpts:
One of the major points of view that I hear is that Christianity is immoral. They don’t use exactly that word: they’re more likely to describe things as “discriminatory”, “oppressive” or “unjust”, but that’s the general gist. There are moral principles of inclusion and justice which are central to their lives, which they see the Church as transgressing. They are used to looking at the media, or at politics, and criticising the misogyny or homophobia they see, and institutional Christianity is no exception. The same disdain for minority groups, the same discrimination.
I mention this because in public discussions of ethics, young people are often stereotyped as selfish and opportunistic, just wanting all the pleasure they can get out of life without taking any responsibility. I don’t think that’s true of my students, and it’s not what makes them suspicious of Christianity. When a lot of young people argue that the Church should be more inclusive of LGBT people, it’s not usually because they want to “get away” with anything, or because they don’t have moral standards. They’re not trying to drag down the general moral tone so their own transgressions can be allowed. It’s because they see the Church’s position as itself immoral, and they think that is a result of its oppressive beliefs.
To be clear, I call Bloomfield’s blog entry “helpful” not because I agree with his conclusions, but because he reveals the stakes clearly. I think we orthodox, traditional Christians have to respect the fact that for people (young and otherwise) who hold these particular views about LGBT issues, the traditional Christian teaching really is immoral. I think their views are morally wrong, of course, but that’s only to say that these views are irreconcilable.
That’s not to say that people are irreconcilable. I believe people on both sides of the issue can live in peace and tolerance — but only if they agree to tolerate each other’s immorality on these issues. People do this all the time, on other issues. The point here is that the LGBT issue really is a deal-breaker for a great many young people.
Another major theme I hear in my university life is that Christianity is essentially about sex. When I discuss the concept of “sin”, as it appears in Milton or Austen, my students almost always assume that word is a synonym for “sex”. “Original sin” is somehow about sex, though they’re usually unclear on how (and to be fair to them, they could read a certain amount of medieval theology and still have that general idea). I have discussed Paradise Lost with students who are convinced that the Bible says Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden because they had sex with each other. This suggests two things to me, on reflection.
Firstly, a lot of young people seem to view Christianity as a rather mucky-minded business, full of people forever going on about sex and who’s having it with whom. Again, this goes against a common stereotype: that young people are continually thinking about sex, and the Church attempts to direct their thoughts towards higher things. In the general attitudes I can discern among my students, it is the other way around: many of them see churches as unhealthily sex-focused organizations.
At other times, I have discussed the Bible and Christianity with liberal and progressive students whom I expected to veer away from the subject of sexuality and gender in Christianity. On the contrary, they weren’t going to avoid the topic in order to make anyone feel comfortable: for them it was a central question about the faith. Some of them were LGBT themselves, and some of them were not, but nonetheless took it as a first principle that a homophobic religion could not be an option for them. [Emphasis mine — RD]
Notice what’s happening here. These young people cited by Prof. Bloomfield blame the Church for being obsessed by sex, when it is rather they who refuse to consider any of the Church’s teachings or claims for itself because the Church does not affirm their views on sexuality. They cannot imagine that they might be wrong. They have decided in advance, without having confronted a single theological explanation, that sexuality is more important to them than Truth.
Who, exactly, is the obsessed-with-sex party here?
For the record, as someone who has been a practicing Christian for half my life, I have only very rarely had the traditional teaching on sexuality presented at all. Maybe it was different in your church. It seems to me that churches are in general terrified to talk about sex at all, in part because they don’t want to offend others. When people accuse the Christian churches of being “unhealthily sex-focused organizations,” what they’re really expressing is loathing of the church for not approving of something that they’ve placed at the center of their lives.
In any case, how are the churches that have reversed 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy and affirmed LGBT practice doing? If they were growing, if they were attracting significant numbers of young people, there might be a pragmatic argument for abandoning orthodoxy. But liberalizing on sexuality has done nothing to arrest decline of the liberal churches (for example).
Look, I don’t think that holding the line of Christian orthodoxy regarding sexuality (hetero and homo) is any kind of cure-all for conservative churches. North America and Europe are rapidly de-Christianizing. As I write in The Benedict Option:
There is no other area in which orthodox Christians will have to be as countercultural as in our sexual lives, and we are going to have to support each other in our unpopular stances. We have to understand the rich Christian view of sexuality, understand how the Sexual Revolution undermines it, recognize our own culpability, and be prepared to fight to keep our children orthodox.
Sexual practices are so central to the Christian life that when believers cease to affirm orthodoxy on the matter, they often cease to be meaningfully Christian. It was the countercultural force of Christian sexuality that overturned the pagan world’s dehumanizing practices. Christianity taught that the body is sacred and that the dignity possessed by all humans as made in the image of God required treating it as such.
This is why the modern re-paganization called the Sexual Revolution can never be reconciled with orthodox Christianity. Alas, that revolution has toppled the church’s authority in the broader culture and is now shaking the church itself to its foundations. Christians living the Benedict Option must commit themselves resolutely to resistance and to helping each other do the same.
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 under way since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.
Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the Sexual Revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s demise. 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 and redirecting the erotic instinct was intrinsic to Christian culture. Without Christianity, the West was reverting to its former state.
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.” Chastity—the rightly ordered use of the gift of sexuality—was the greatest distinction setting Christians of the early church apart from the pagan world.
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 a person does with their sexuality cannot be separated from what a person is. In a sense, moderns believe the same thing, but from a perspective entirely different from the early church’s.
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.
Read the whole thing. There is far, far more going on in Christian thought and teaching regarding sexuality than what contemporary young secular Puritans imagine. And there is also far, far more going on there than contemporary church leaders desperate to abandon Christian orthodoxy grasp. The Christian faith is by no means entirely about sex, but neither is sex incidental to it. This is a stumbling block to modern people, no doubt, especially those acculturated to norms increasingly like that of ancient Pompeii (and hey, did you see that Teen Vogue is now teaching its young readers how to have anal sex?). To be faithful to the Gospel requires affirming what we have been given, even if the modern world sees it as immoral.
“The first task of the Church is not to make the world more just but to make the world more the world,” theologian Stanley Hauerwas recently said in a UK lecture.
“The church is not a secondary political community. It is first and foremost that community that commands our ultimate loyalty, to know when the demonic has raised its head. And therefore, I think we now live in a time when we may be discovering that the church must be a political force that doesn’t first and foremost look to the state as the expression of what will give you justice. As a matter of fact, we must be a people of justice, which reminds us first and foremost that justice is a virtue, and not a public policy, in a way that helps Christians know, even in the time of Trump, now how to go on.”
(This passage starts in the recording of the lecture around the 28:00 mark.)
Hauerwas says that we Christians should stop trying to “deny our difference” with the world, and instead “hope that God has turned us into lean, mean people.” By that he doesn’t mean “nasty” people, but rather people who are willing to suffer for the truth.
Hauerwas, of course, is a man of the left, though based on this interview he did last year with Peter Mommsen of Plough, he has not endorsed, or at least not fully endorsed, gay marriage. (And nota bene, Hauerwas criticizes the Benedict Option in this interview, but when I wrote him later about it, he conceded that he didn’t have a clear idea what I was getting at — this was a year before the book came out — and then graciously wished me luck with the project.) In 2002, he wrote these very true words, though I don’t know if he still would endorse them:
Now, when marriage becomes a mutually enhancing arrangement until something goes wrong, then it makes no sense at all to oppose homosexual marriages. If marriage is a calling that makes promises of lifelong monogamous fidelity in which children are welcomed, then we’ve got a problem. But we can’t even get to a discussion there, because Christians no longer practice Christian marriage.
What has made it particularly hard is that the divorce culture has made it impossible for us to talk about these matters–and many of you know, I’m divorced and remarried. It has made it impossible for us to talk about these matters with an honesty and candor that is required if you are not to indulge in self-deceptive, sentimental lies.
For gay Christians who I know and love, I wish we as Christians could come up with some way to help them, like we need to help one another, to avoid the sexual wilderness in which we live. That’s a worthy task. I probably sound like a conservative on these matters, not because I’ve got some deep animosity toward gay people, but because I don’t know how to go forward given the current marriage practices of our culture.
I bring Hauerwas up here only to point out that even when I disagree with him on a point of theology, or applied theology, he has a real seriousness about what it means to be the church in the world. In one of his UK lectures, he said that “the Church embodies the witness of an alternative reality, the people of God, telling the world to come home.”
Yes, there are some of us small-o orthodox Christian who hate gays. Shame on them. But there are many others who wish gays no harm, but who sincerely believe that fidelity to the truth we have been given in the Gospel is — recalling historian Peter Brown’s discussion of the pre-modern world — to at one level embed ourselves in a cosmic matrix that gives coherence and meaning to all of life. Hauerwas is entirely correct that Christians (conservative and otherwise) can’t talk persuasively about homosexuality and marriage because we can’t talk persuasively about sexuality and marriage, period. But that doesn’t make the orthodox position wrong! It means that we have to figure out how to talk about it and (more importantly) live it out in a world that radically rejects the metaphysical understanding of the pre-modern era. To most people today — including poorly formed Christians — there is no inherent meaning in the natural world. God is not immanent within it. Everything can be fractured, fragmented, negotiated, and revalued according to individual desire.
If that’s how it’s going to be with the church, then we are not going to survive. Hauerwas, an Episcopalian, has said that American Christianity is going to disappear, because it has been assimilated into liberal modernity. Excerpt:
I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism – at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America – come to an end. It is dying of its own success. Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end reinforced by belief in the common sense of the individual. As a result, Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world. Ironically, the feverish fervency of the religious right in America to sustain faith as a necessary condition for supporting democracy cannot help but be a strategy that insures the faith that is sustained is not the Christian faith.
More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives or the lives of the churches to which they go. For the church is assumed to exist to reinforce the presumption that those that come to church have done so freely. The church’s primary function, therefore, is to legitimate and sustain the presumption that America represents what all people would want to be if they had the benefit of American education and money.
Let me try to put this in a different register. America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story. That is what Americans mean by “freedom.” The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism. Thus the presumption that if you get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television, you have had a “free choice.” The same presumption works for choosing a President. Once you have made your choice you have to learn to live with it. So there is a kind of resignation that freedom requires.
But Americans do not have the ability to acknowledge that they have not chosen the story that they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. As a result, they must learn to live with decisions they made when they thought they knew what they were doing but later realized they did not know what they were doing. They have a remedy when it comes to marriage – it is called divorce. They also have a remedy regarding children – it is called abortion.
The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story produces people who say things such as, “I believe Jesus is Lord – but that’s just my personal opinion.” The grammar of this kind of avowal obviously reveals a superficial person. But such people are the kind many think crucial to sustain democracy. For such a people are necessary in order to avoid the conflicts that otherwise might undermine the order, which is confused with peace, necessary to sustain a society that shares no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common.
So an allegedly democratic society that styles itself as one made up of people of strong conviction in fact becomes the most conformist of social orders, because of the necessity to avoid conflicts that cannot be resolved.
Such a view has devastating effects on the church. For the church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.
But a church formed capable of challenging the reigning ethos that sustains America is no easy achievement. You may well think that the Catholic Church surely would be up to that task, but you need to remember that, as Archbishop Francis George of Chicago often remarks, Catholicism in America has largely become a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume that there is no essential tension between being a Christian and being an American. As a result Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private (and their “faith” clearly falls into the latter) is a given that cannot be questioned.
What does all this have to do with the travails of the dying Church of England, and more generally of how the Church of history and Scripture ministers to a post-Christian world that will have no God greater than the desiring autonomous self? This: that an ecclesial body so desperate to cling to power that’s slipping through its hands by making a deal with the world to capitulate on the things about itself the world hates about it is not an ecclesial body that will survive. We already know what that kind of church is; it’s just a matter of negotiating its price.
So, when Jem Bloomfield worries that the Church’s insistence on adhering to Biblical orthodoxy on homosexuality is preventing young people from hearing the Gospel, I wish he would reflect on the moment when the Rich Young Ruler met Jesus. Would Prof. Bloomfield advise Jesus that His insistence on living up to a moral code that the young man found intolerable was keeping the young man from “hearing the Gospel”?
Or was Jesus teaching the young man an irreducible principle of the Gospel itself?
Unless you are willing to believe that the Anglican divines gathered at the Synod today know the Bible and the Gospel on sexual matters more faithfully than the early Church, than St. Paul, than St. Augustine, and the faithful witness of most Christians who ever lived, then this is an easy question to answer, even as it is a hard one to live out in this world. But then, what is the Church founded by the man who said he came “not to bring peace, but a sword” for, anyway?
The world promises the Church power if only it will fall down and worship it. It always has. It is a scandal to see prelates in the Church promoting this temptation in a world that desperately needs to hear and to see faithful witness on sexuality. But not surprising.
UPDATE: Here’s the thing. I’m just coming back to this post to approve comments, and unbelievers are filling up the thread with the usual boring complaints, e.g., “the churches are a bunch of hypocrites,” “they’re targeting gays because they’re easy,” “they have no credibility because of child molestation,” “Donald Trump! Donald Trump!”, etc. I welcome constructive criticism of my statements and arguments here. Let’s have a discussion. But if you just want to come get your dime-store Ditchkins on, save your efforts. I’m not going to publish them.