In the previous post I placed before us an ideal for the meaning and use of our bodies. It’s a lofty ideal, I know. But it’s not too lofty given the greatness of human destiny. We don’t sink into a life devoted to sensual pleasure because we think too well of ourselves; we do not think well enough. Our noble task is to bring our bodies under the control of reason guided by divine light. In this way we participate in God’s eternal plan to unite all things to himself in Christ (Eph 1:10). By spiritualizing our bodies we make them instruments useful for bringing glory to God and communicating love to others.
By the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ unruly bodily urges can be made to serve the most beautiful harmony, as we see in Paul’s teaching about marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33. In submission to Christ, the union of husband and wife becomes a mystery participating in the Mystery of Christ’s union with the church. The union of body and soul in marriage signifies the larger uniting that is taking place in Christ. By their submission to Christ in the power of the Spirit the chaotic urges of the male and female bodies and souls are ordered, united and directed toward the higher end of the unity of all things in Christ.
As we all know, however, few people live up to this ideal. Indeed, most have never imagined it. Every society has rules about who can have sex with whom because without such rules even the most primitive civilization would not be possible. These rules and the punishments for breaking them vary from society to society and from age to age. I am not an anthropologist, but I know this: whatever the rules and punishments governing sexual behavior plenty of people will break them. And I think the explanation for this is very simple. For many, the urge for immediate sensual pleasure or acceptance is stronger than the threat of distant punishment or respect for order. To pursue this phenomenon further I would need to enter into psychology, a subject in which I have little competence, or the theology of the fall and original sin, which would lead us down a side trail. Instead, I want to deal with a cultural phenomenon that raises a very important moral question.
There is a growing trend in mainstream western culture to reject all moral and legal restraints on the use of one’s own body, especially in any area that has to do with sex. This trend involves more than the demand for tolerance. It demands approval and even celebration of whatever an individual does in this area. This cultural wave is full of ironies and contradictions, which I will point out in future posts. But for now let’s focus on the moral/philosophical perspective that underlies this cultural change and energizes it.
First, let’s consider the logic of individual autonomy or liberty, which finds its deepest roots in the seventeenth-century Enlightenment. For 350 years a significant number of western political and moral thinkers have been arguing for increasing the control individuals have over their lives and, correspondingly, lessening the sphere governed by state, society and associations. Thinkers have proposed a variety of justifications for such liberation: (1) nature has endowed individuals with reason; hence, they should be given space to use it to make their own decisions; or (2) nature has given individuals the desire for pleasure and happiness; hence, they should be given space to pursue it as they see fit. How many times have you heard the maxim that “individuals should be able to do whatever they want as long as it does not harm others”? This rule was most famously articulated by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty (1859).
A second moral/philosophical perspective was articulated by thinkers of the Romantic Movement. Rather than basing their appeal on the power of reason common to all people, these thinkers emphasized the unique feelings and sensitivities of each individual. No two individuals are alike; hence, there is no single way of life good for everyone, no one path to happiness. Moral rules are by definition general and apply to everyone alike. But if each individual must follow a different path to find happiness, depending on their unique combination of feelings, desires and needs, conforming to a one-size-fits-all moral code will produce unhappiness and alienation in individuals. According to this perspective, to force, insist or pressure an individual into moral conformity is to condemn that person to an unhappy life.
These two moral perspectives have been at work in our culture for 300 years, in art and architecture, in literature, the performing arts, in movies and television, in education and law. In light of these two ways of evaluating human behavior, think about how the dominant culture approaches the body and sexuality. At least until it affects them negatively, the average person in our society thinks that each individual owns their own body and possesses the right to use it as they see fit. As long as an individual is not hurting anyone else, the average modern person would be unable to think of a good reason to limit that individual’s freedom to do as they wish. Any such restriction would be considered unreasonable, attributable only to bigotry, exploitation or oppression; and in our world these attitudes are considered especially detestable. Ironically, then, the demand for adherence to a universal moral code will be judged immoral by the dominant culture.
Our culture has also internalized the romantic notion that every individual is unique and must pursue a unique path to happiness. The average person can make no reasonable response to a protest of the following type: “Do you want to condemn me to a life of unhappiness? You are following your path! Let me follow mine! Do you think you deserve happiness but that I do not?” There is no answer to this complaint within the romantic view of morality. Add to the romantic view of the individual the near deification of sexual experience that dominates our culture and suppression of the individual search for happiness becomes blasphemy. (Or “hate speech” in contemporary terms.) Sexual ecstasy is portrayed as if it were the meaning of life and the only way to ultimate truth and eternal happiness. In the popular mind, to miss out on sex is to miss heaven, to be less than a full human being. And to disapprove or deny individuals whatever form of sexual fulfillment they desire is to condemn them to a living hell. No modern person could feel good about themselves for doing that, nor approve of anyone who did.
One thing is missing in all this: God. The modern culture of autonomy, self-ownership, unique individuality, sensuality, and deified sex takes no note of God, creation or the moral law. Everything is evaluated from within the human framework. But once you acknowledge God, the whole thing falls to the ground. We have to seek again for the truly good and right. And we raise our minds again to that lofty ideal and catch a vision of our true greatness: we are priests of creation and images of God whose destiny is Spirit-bonded union with God through Jesus Christ our Lord. I for one will not settle for less.
To be continued…