On Post-Christian Sexual Ethics

Sexuality, if it’s to have meaning culturally, has to be rooted in what the human person is if we’re to avoid barbarism. I'm not sure, though, whether a meaningful anthropology—one that adequately provides a basis for sexual expression without devolving into barbarism—is impossible on naturalism.

romance_smA friend recently sent me an article titled, "Sex After Christianity" by Rod Dreher published by The American Conservative. In it, the author uses the topic of gay marriage as a jumping off point for discussing a broader cultural shift away from a Christian worldview towards a secular one and the implications that shift will have on the social fabric at large. The article is well constructed and, as one would expect, articulates in a clear way important aspects of the ethical foundation of a generalized American conservatism but takes the discussion beyond mere politics and talks about its philosophical foundations (and contrasts it with that of secularism).

It’s hard to disagree with the author's major premise. Certainly a religious system that makes moral demands and that is believed by a wide body of a given society will create moral center and provide a foundation for culture. Now that the West effectively is in a post-Christian era, was it the abandonment of Christianity that fostered the sexual revolution or vice versa? It’s hard to draw hard-and-fast conclusions about the causal order (and Dreher isn’t entirely clear on that either it seems).

As the author notes, Christianity helped constrain the male eros and that helped foster a “civilized” culture. But I think a large part of the basis for the development of the Christian ethic probably had to do with child bearing and rearing. So if the sexual revolution preceded an abandonment from Christianity, one could possibly point to the growth in available contraception as the key. As humans had more control over when and if they bore children, sex became less about bearing offspring and and the focus could turn more freely to sexual pleasure—the evolutionary order got flipped on its head. Evolutionarily, sexual pleasure appears to be a secondary quality designed to foster the primary “goal” of genetic distribution. Provide a means to control the distribution aspect and the secondary quality now becomes primary. Couple that with scares about overpopulation and its concomitant evils like ecological overuse and abuse, worries about space and having enough food and natural resources to support an over-burdened planet along with very real threats from disease and the like and you have a good argument for actually devaluing bringing more humans into the world. In fact, given all these worries, it’s better not to bear children. What, then, do we do with sex? Anything we damn well please it would seem.

My point is that the change in sexual focus that the author writes about may be less due to a degradation in Christian belief and more about other social factors. I think the degradation in Christian belief seems more to be the product of a nexus of many different social and ideological changes with the possibility for greater sexual freedom being just one of them.

Other comments on what I see as some key ideas in the article:

“For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.”

This is a fascinating set of ideas (particularly that first sentence) and one I’ll have to think more about. I also love the idea that a culture is essentially based on a shared metaphysic (and I'd clarify that this doesn't need to be a supernatural metaphysic) rather than being merely a normative description of what people actually do or the values they end up having. I love that idea and I’ll have to think about it more.

“You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality.”

I’d tweak this idea just a bit but in a way that probably doesn’t materially change the impact of his comments: “ . . . you do so because this moral vision is encoded in beliefs about the nature of reality.” I think the change actually is all that’s needed – it doesn’t matter much what the actual nature of reality is. All you really need for a cultus is religious belief and not any actually existing God or substance that provides a foundation for religious truth claims about the nature of things. Indeed, if postmodernism is informative at all, it’s on this point: all we have are our beliefs. But this is a philosophical point and doesn’t really impact his argument all that much.

“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 people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.”

I think this is a key premise for him and one that resonates with me. I think sexuality, if it’s to have meaning culturally, has to be rooted in what the human person is if we’re to avoid barbarism. I'm not sure, though, whether a meaningful anthropology—one that adequately provides a basis for sexual expression without devolving into barbarism—is impossible on naturalism as the author seems to imply. The author is essentially writing about what historically has worked and rightly notes that a belief system that is deeply metaphysical has been highly effective in controlling sexual expression. Certainly, Christianity, and let’s be honest, any religious system that has a deep anthropology, is a kind of shortcut to this. If you can get people to believe that their meaning and essence (from which normative ethics can be derived) is described and mandated from on high, you get what you need in fairly short order. But I wonder if a purely naturalistic anthropology could effectively do the same thing. It seems a deep anthropology could be developed naturalistically. Something like natural law without a divine lawgiver seems doable. What I’m not clear about is whether it could have the same psychological force and staying power to keep us civilized for very long.

I suppose we're going to find out.

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