Ambiguity and [Un]healthy Sexuality in the World and in the Church [5]

PART 5: SUMMARIZING AND TYING IT ALL TOGETHER

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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.

Is It Possible To Transition Genders?

There are two competing claims in the debate on transgender issues. The first is the historical norm of Western culture: one’s gender should be considered the same as one’s objective biological sex. The second is the core assertion of the transgender movement: a person’s gender should be viewed by others and by the law as a matter of subjective identity. Both claims are defensible, but both cannot be right. I will refer to these two views as the objective and subjective views even though I admit these terms are problematic. My conclusion (spoiler alert) is that both views should be respected, since (among other reasons) there is no possibility of any public proof that either is right or wrong.

The clearest thinkers on both sides of the debate acknowledge a valid distinction between (1) the mere fact of biological differences between males and females and (2) the things that culture and psychology do with the concepts of “male” and “female.” This culturally and psychologically generated construct has come to be distinguished from biological sex and called “gender,” though the terms are still often used synonymously. Acknowledging this theoretical distinction, the practical issue of what to do about the possibility that an individual’s gender identity may differ from the individual’s biological sex remains entirely unresolved.

Continue reading

What Is Needed To Heal Our Democracy Is Not Impeaching Trump But Fixing Our Rhetoric

There is widespread acknowledgement that political acrimony and partisan polarization are at a record high within living memory. “Americans are more divided than ever,” proclaims the Associated Press. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton noted in her concession speech that “We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought.” And then the last four years happened, culminating in the Capitol Riot and the second impeachment of Trump.

I do not believe that our nation is about to die, but I do think that our democracy has been growing increasingly unhealthy. And in the long run – by the time my grandkids are old – I do believe that our democracy will have fallen apart at the seams unless current trends are reversed. Continue reading

Amy Barrett’s Confirmation And The State Of The Union

I am personally thrilled with Amy Barrett as the newest Supreme Court Justice, though far from thrilled by the process by which she became such (including the Republican-controlled Senate’s procedural hypocrisy in deferring Garland’s hearing but rushing Barrett’s). But amid the discouraging signs of the politicization of the Supreme Court confirmation process, the decline of political discourse in general, and the nation’s increasing polarization, I read one article that I found very encouraging: a self-proclaimed liberal writer who personally knew Justice Barrett back in her days as a clerk for Scalia and who, though anticipating that he will disagree with many of her opinions, is glad that the court is getting a brilliant legal thinker who is also a good person. The nation deeply needs this kind of capacity to recognize goodness and merit in people who are on “the other side,” and I want to recognize and honor that when I see it. Continue reading

Why Liberals Should Find Heteronormativity Defensible Even If They Think It Wrong

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

The Inevitability and Potential Benefits of Gender Norms

The world turned upside down, by Israhel van Meckenem the Younger.

James Damore was fired from Google for saying that women are biologically less disposed towards engineering jobs than men. He then sued Google for discrimination against employees who were white, male, or conservative. Let’s take a moment to savor the craziness.

In a saner world, the layers of irony in the whole situation would prompt a serious discussion about gender norms across society. The question would be one of factual inquiry: are women in fact less predisposed to engineering jobs? If so, is the cause biological or something else?

Some (including the paid scientific experts) took the occasion to respectfully disagree with each other. But those phlegmatic conversations have been like the one remaining mobile home in the wake of a tornado. In general, the reactions were “hysterical” (CNN’s Kirsten Powers’ word). Various thoughtful persons across the spectrum deplored the ideological histrionics displayed by most the rest of us (see the excellent Wikipedia article).

A slight majority (55%) disagreed with Google’s decision to fire Damore, according to a Harvard-Harris poll. But that means that 45% did not disagree with it. Many in the 55% majority disagreed with Damore’s opinions about gender dynamics, but still felt he should not have been fired for expressing them at work. But to a full 45% of the polled population, the expression of such views is apparently so heinous that termination is the appropriate response.

Obviously, gender norms are rather unpopular nowadays. And not without reason. I admit that gender norms, mis-conceived or miscarried or related to in mal-adaptive ways, can and do injure people, whether because those people do not conform to the norm or because they do.

But I also submit that a society without gender norms is possible only in theory and that this theoretical society is not the one we should aspire to. Continue reading