Contemporary life in America, while full of material blessings, is plagued by emotional and spiritual poverty, mental health issues, and loss of felt community. Among the chief contributing factors to these plagues is a loss of several kinds of meaningful connection.
to worthy purposes
to nature and food
to local community
to our bodies and the material world
Contemporary work is marked by a shallowness of purpose: we work for employers whose goal is to make money and in return they give us money. That’s it. Very often, it is not even imagined by either party to this transaction that a higher state of things is possible. Furthermore, the extreme division of labor that has taken place since industrialization means that our work is often so specialized and narrow as to be almost entirely disconnected from the rest of our lives and our larger ideals. Thus, not only the purpose of our work but also its content lacks the ability to connect us to meanings worthy of a life’s devotion: the purpose is money; the content is a super-specialized function so narrow and obscure as to be spiritually impoverished. Our careers–for those who are fortunate enough to have a career rather than a mere job or unemployment–most often lack any sense of vocation.
The complexity of contemporary economics and social life also obscures certain realities and involves us in moral compromise. Continue reading →
How’s this for a lighthearted proof of the devil’s existence: there is no reason that a person cannot at one and the same time have a robust moral code and charity towards those who fail to satisfy its rigors. That is in fact what Christianity has always demanded. Likewise, there is no reason one cannot have both a commitment to systematic foundational doctrines and openness to other perspectives and even to revising one’s own most basic beliefs in response to new evidence or insights. Yet for some mysterious reason, despite numerous individuals and even small sub-cultures demonstrating that these ideals can be achieved, they have never been realized by any society in recent recorded history, nor have any of the ancient societies that have claimed to have achieved some utopic vision at some point in their history been able to maintain the achievement.
Western society before the Enlightenment had a comparatively exacting moral code and a strong commitment to certain doctrines, including but not limited to those of Christianity, yet it was decidedly unchristian in its responses to moral infractions and religious dissent. There is no reason it could not have progressed towards tolerance and openness while keeping its faith. That is exactly what Christianity’s law of love required, and I think it was desire for power far more than for truth or for God that caused intolerance and dogmatism to be so dominant for so long. Martin Luther King Junior’s message, though not all aspects of his life, perfectly demonstrated the possibility of remaining fully Christian while moving away from dogmatism and intolerance, and he is only one prominent figure within a multitude of whom the same could be said. Their stories are the leaven within the story of civilization. “I have seen the promised land,” he claimed–and for my part, I believe him.
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.
While the World’s sexuality belongs properly to hell, the Church is too often caused to lift up its eyes in torment because of sexual guilt. If sexuality’s main effect in one’s consciousness is to cause guilt, it is not healthy, albeit still preferable to the drunken sexuality that is past feeling the tug of morality.
I have previously defined the Church broadly enough to encompass any religion that recognizes that God rightfully regulates human sexuality, and I assume that the experience of the practitioners of other religions is comparable. But I do not actually know that, and for the remainder of this essay, the Church will refer more specifically to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where I know from personal experience and by report that the problems I identify are not uncommon. I will designate this as the (lower case “c”) church.
The prevalence of excessive sexual guilt is understandable, especially given the toxic cultural environment in which the church operates, where sexual desire is intentionally and incessantly stimulated by advertisers, media, and peers alike. Lucretius once theorized that the male sexual response to the visual stimulus of female bodies is a strictly automatic, glandular event. While I can positively affirm that this oversimplifies the matter, I see where he was coming from. It is perhaps strictly impossible for most men to avoid being attuned to the sexual. It is interesting as well as fraught—an object of curiosity as well as desire. While a man may be enabled to choose a chaste response to a beautiful woman immodestly advertising her availability, he cannot choose indifference. And yet those who align with the church are taught that they must not intentionally stimulate or condone the intentional stimulation of sexual feelings in their own bodies or those of anyone else except within marriage—and even then only when it edifies. Anything outside this context violates the law of chastity. Continue reading →
“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 →
Plato’s Republic gives what I think is a true pattern of “healthy” humanity, although I disagree with him on certain details. The true pattern is that each part fits within a harmonious whole and plays its proper role. For him, this means that the belly (symbolic of the lower passions such as hunger and sex) and the heart (symbolic of the higher passions like ambition and patriotism) are both under the direction and control of the mind, the seat of pure reason, which itself serves the Good.
Strongly influenced by Plato, Augustine holds out a similar pattern: our loves must be correctly ordered, with love of God most dominant and everything else falling into order below that.
Plato and Augustine both depend on some highest entity as an ordering principle: reason/the Good or love of God. Here, if I want to say anything that will apply to both the “Church” and the “World,” irrespective of one’s worldview, I cannot assume any consensus about what that highest entity is. For the health of the full person, we do, in my opinion, require higher commitments than mere desire to inform and order our lives. For purposes of this essay, I will simply posit that whatever the ordering principle or set of principles, our sexuality should fit within the whole as a contributing and harmonious part. That does not mean that there can be no remainder after subtracting out sexuality’s contribution to the ordering principle. But the remainder, if any, must not sabotage the ordering principle. Thus, healthy sexuality entails a moral system that regulates sexuality. Continue reading →