In summary, sexuality is ambiguous. The gap between sexual desire and nature’s procreative goal is the space in which imagination has immense interpretive play. The ambiguity of the words and symbols we use to represent sexual things to each other and to ourselves and differing philosophies and world views interact with each other and with the interpretive play afforded by the vagueness of sexual experience to enable radically different interpretations of sexuality.
Of the infinite number of possible responses, two poles emerge. The World responds to the ambiguity by letting each individual interpret their own sexuality without guidance and with only such ever-diminishing restraint as the law imposes–and it claims for each person the “right” to do so. With increasingly limited exceptions, the World denies that there is anything wrong with doing whatever feels good in the moment and defies any purportedly moral authority that would constrain sexual desires. And yet everybody knows in their heart of hearts–and the popularity of miserable break up songs attests–that sex without care, commitment, or lasting emotional meaning, is inherently violent and ugly–a zombie that tears its pleasures with singleminded inanity, ungoverned and ungovernable. It is not difficult to see how porn, adultery, and casual sex participate in this violence and ugliness. In contrast, moral and healthy sex is a coherent part of a whole life, relationship, and belief system that does not set desire against wisdom or rectitude but harmonizes them, and that means a marriage-like state of mutual commitment, respect, and care.
The Church responds to the ambiguity by learning from religious tradition what God says about it and trying to conform to those teachings, including by imaginatively reconnecting sex to marriage and procreation. This is the correct approach, but the teachings are often transmitted as a list of ultra-strict “thou shalt nots” without the contextualizing that would reveal the “everlasting yes” to which these “everlasting nos” give rise and without recognizing that chastity is a thing to be learned by hard experience and long struggle and repeated repentance rather than a pristine sheet to be kept unsullied at all costs.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can do much to enable healthy sexuality and avoid the excessive guilt that in its own way can become as damning as the World’s drunken sexuality, though much less enjoyable. While I defer to those whose callings entitle them to receive revelation for the church, it seems to me that the following steps would be salutary:
Teach the law of chastity more accurately and always in the context of marriage and parenthood.
Relatedly, focus on Zion-building rather than self-mastery.
Clarify that sexual sin is not categorically the third most serious sin after murder and denying the Holy Ghost.
Acknowledge the difficulty in recognizing the line between sinless and sinful sexuality.
Practice greater frankness in sexual matters.
Avoid sexualizing anything not inherently sexual or defining as sinful anything that is potentially innocent to the extent practicable.
“The World” here is defined in contradistinction to “the Church.” The fundamental difference for present purposes is that the Church recognizes the authority of God’s commandments respecting sex while the World follows its desires regardless of God’s commandments. People do not divide neatly in the World and the Church, but at the same time the distinction is more than theoretical. I am sure that there are atheists who eschew sexual whateverism and, for their own reasons, promote faithfulness within loving dual gendered marriage as the only ethical expression of sexuality; but I cannot think of a single person I actually know who fits this category today. The vast majority of those who remain unmoved by the sexual and ideological revolutions of the last century are the religious–and most major religions (including at least Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and Judaism) have historically spoken with virtual unanimity on the subject. Buddhism, of course, considers liberation from all desire and attachment the ultimate goal, and it therefore has perhaps an even less permissive stance towards sexuality than the other major religions.
While the nearly unanimous consensus of the world’s major religions is so strong an argument in favor of traditional sexual morality as to be, in my judgment, very nearly conclusive, I do not insist on traditional sexual morality for present purposes. What I insist on is that people must attempt to comply with a moral and philosophical system that is dictated by reason and conscience and not by desire. Desire must bow to Right (“as God gives us to see the right”), not Right to Desire. To the extent that a rigorous and conscientious atheist regulates his sexuality by the morality that seems to him correct and yet denies the authority of God’s purported commandments, he is outside the Church but also outside the World. Continue reading →
Our actual experience of sexuality is full of ambiguities. There are at least three major sources of ambiguity that I can discern:
The gap between reproduction itself and the bodily and mental processes associated with reproduction.
The slippage inherent in language.
Differing world views and philosophies of sexuality.
There can be no serious claim that sexuality lacks ambiguity, because intelligent people and cultures interpret it so differently. I am not an anthropologist, but I know just enough to know that anthropology furnishes precious few universals across cultures within the realm of sexuality. The few that do exist, according to Wikipedia’s page on cultural universals, include a prohibition on incest, some form of cultural dress code (sexual modesty is described as a “cultural universal” here), and some form of marriage. Continue reading →
There are several reasons that I am an attorney instead of an English professor (my original plan). A relatively minor reason that I don’t usually mention is the dominance of multiculturalism in the academy as a lens for talking about and judging literature and culture generally.
What I mean by “multiculturalism” is a particular kind of intense focus on race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality, and other categories that might make a person a minority, and the ways in which cultures construct and deploy these categories (generally in ways that disadvantage the minority). Anyone who has studied English literature at today’s universities should understand what I mean. But so should anybody familiar with the rhetoric of certain liberal politicians, some of whom (for instance) have recently assumed it unnecessary to make any substantial explanation of why they deem it deeply wrong for Joe Biden to have had collegial relationships with segregationist senators. Continue reading →
You have expressed, by your words and/or your actions, that you feel no need to go to church. You don’t see how it would benefit you and your family (as I believe it would). I appreciate the frankness with which you shared how you feel, and I will also be frank even though that will entail explaining why I think you should feel differently than you do. In explaining this, I want to be clear that I don’t think you are a bad person for thinking as you do. But I do think you are mistaken on this point, and I consider it a point of sufficient importance that I want to explain why I think so.
On my mission in Taiwan and since then, I have met many people who have said they don’t see the need for church even though they believe in God. Many of these have told me something to the effect of “I’m happy with where my relationship with God is right now.” And if this is what they sincerely think, rather than glibly saying it to brush aside the matter, then I think it is their first and greatest error. Continue reading →
To many modern minds, including the minds of most people my age (thirties) in the Western world, it is practically inconceivable that there might be any legitimate rationale for inculcating a preference for heterosexual marriage over any other expression of sexuality, including homosexual marriage. This preference is the historical status quo, but it has been so dramatically rejected in the last 75 years (and especially the last 15) that, for many today, the whole business of disapproving sex for any reason other than nonconsent is wholly alien, bizarre, and even evil–a thing to be dismissed with a word: “Victorian,” “repressive,” “culturally insensitive,” etc. But can it be so easily dismissed? Where did the tradition of disapproving expressions of homosexuality come from?
Is it, as many moderns imagine, entirely irrational, evil, and indefensible? Continue reading →