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
PART 5: SUMMARIZING AND TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
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.
PART 1: SEXUALITY AND AMBIGUITY
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 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.
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
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