Saturday, May 23, 2009

How to Ask a Good Question about Sex

Andrew's last post revives several lines of enquiry for me. Let me make a modest contribution to the discussion by focussing on one: as I see it, the imperative to ask good questions about sex.

My point of departure is the Canadian philosopher George Grant (d. 1988), who to my mind imparts a well-enduring criticism of Western (particularly North American) political liberalism in the age of modernity - that is, our age. Here's a snapshot from his Technology and Empire:
...The languages of historicism and values which were brought to North America to be the servants of the most advanced liberalism and pluralism, now turn their corrosive power on our only indigenous roots-the substance of that practical liberalism itself. The corrosions of nihilism occur in all parts of the community. Moreover, because our roots have been solely practical, this nihilism shares in that shallowness. The old individualism of capitalism, the frontier and Protestantism, becomes the demanded right to one's idiosyncratic wants taken as outside any obligation to the community which provides them. Buoyed by the endless needs of affluence, our art becomes hectic in its experiments with style and violence. Even the surest accounts of our technomania-the sperm-filled visions of Burroughs-are themselves spoken from the shallowness they would describe. Madness itself can only be deep when it comes forth from a society which holds its opposite. Nihilism which has no tradition of contemplation to beat against cannot be the occasion for the amazed reappearance of the 'What for? Whither? and What then?' The tragedy for the young is that when they are forced by its excesses to leave the practical tradition, what other depth is present to them in which they can find substance? The enormous reliance on and expectation from indigenous music is a sign of the craving for substance, and of how thin is the earth where we would find it. When the chthonic has been driven back into itself by the conquests of our environment, it can only manifest itself beautifully in sexuality, although at the same time casting too great a weight upon that isolated sexuality'*
Let's chew on this a bit. Grant is suggesting that North American societies since their inception have harbored within themselves a necessary yet corrosive first principle, viz. conquest. That principle served its initial purpose in the conquering of our literal environment, the subjugation of Natives, the subordination of Nature, etc. Yet it also carried within itself certain primal energies (note the Heideggerian resonance) whose later manifestations inevitably achieve total obfuscation of Nature, tradition, community, and finally, the human subject, who can no longer survive apart from these life-imbuing contexts.

It is within this matrix that Grant wants us to understand the sexual revolutions of the '60s (and onward) as those desperate attempts for youth and adults to grasp something for and of themselves, something that can give them life, something that can wrest back their humanity. Sexual intimacy bears the burden of the modern identity just at the stage where modernity strips our identities of their deeper obligations and belongings. It becomes who we are because there is nothing closer to us that may be genuinely claimed against the homogenized and polarized wasteland of much Western culture.

And so it is also within this matrix that I wish to make sense of the oftentimes inspiring and moving rhetoric of the LGBT community. It is rhetoric that so clearly clamors against the presiding powers of modernity, whilst at the same time so tragically nourishing itself by the very same principles that make modernity powerful. The same tragedy speaks for many of us. What the language of values, rights and universal equality has done for us is overmatched by what it is doing to us in our desperation to make a tolerable life out of so much thinned-out reality. Sex emerges as that last frontier wherein we seek intelligible connections in an increasingly unintelligible world. The tragedy rests in the presumption that it can withstand the very same conquest that has forced it to be what it is.

This perspective needs be sized up against the very true fact that many in the LGBT movement are deeply committed to the principles and language of modernity, and should very much detest the suggestion that a recovery of premodern traditions and insights represents the desirable way forward. That is where I think it best for Christians to remember that we never know the best way forward for this or that society, and sure as hell don't know what good it would do if we did.

Yet it seems equally clear that the kinds of questions Christians gay and straight should be asking of sex, needs be fundamentally of a different kind than those questions the modern liberal paradigm sustains. The real burden on sexuality, which many of us experience, must be confronted within the real burden of community. Moreover, for that community to be a Christian community it must inter alia believe that history is there for a reason, to be learned from as well as criticised, respected as well as disputed. To ask a good question about sex requires that Christians not discard the origins that tell us who we are, a community of Christians set apart for purposes uncircumscribable within the matrices of this or that historical phenomenon.

'What for? Whither? and What then?' These questions presuppose that there is movement in history that does not wait on us nor bend to us. They are the kinds of questions that cannot admit of facile answers, that must be taken up by the arduous task of practical reason within the strictures of given, inescapable authorities. No doubt for many, existence 'within' anything merely eclipses free expression. Yet it is wisdom that finds within these authorities the richest and deepest sense of what creaturely freedom affords.
* Grant, (1969), 'In Defence of North America,' Technology and Empire, pp. 502-3.


Andrew Faris said...


Since I'm not as smart as you, some of this goes over my head.

Any examples? Especially of the GLBT rhetoric?

The desire to conquest however makes plenty of sense to me, in part because it seems empirically clear, but also because my strong belief in universal depravity fits with it. And as far as I can tell, human pride is in some way or another at the heart of almost all sin.

So what Grant may call the desire for conquest, perhaps we Christians can label pride?


Ian Clausen said...


Maybe. But I think Grant's wider point is one that you're quite familiar with, if I read your entry correctly. The kind of conquest he's thinking of is one that consists in the modern notion of freedom. The modern notion of freedom is one in which human will determines human identity: Kant's dictum that we have an 'innate right to freedom' that is 'by virtue of [our] humanity' covers this point. There is nothing outside of us that can determine for us what we should be. Conquest quests to rid us of anything that stands in our way of that asserted freedom: which include metaphysical as well as 'natural' truths. This is how Grant would have us understand North American political and social identities.

Forgive my dearth of examples. I'm merely referring to the heartfelt pleas for legal recognition, for the open celebration of one's union, for the claim to 'right of marriage' which is fundamentally rooted in modern conceptions of rights, which I think makes sense within modern liberal ethics. If a right can be claimed whose only referent is the human will to be, then the LGBT movement is making a good point, and I have very little politically to say contrary to their wills.

The point at which rights language becomes incoherent, however, is when religious people can claim a right to their own conception of marriage, which they feel is threatened by the LGBT claims. For what keeps rights in check in a liberal system are other rights which cannot be contravened; and so I think the stalemate forces us either to reject one right over another (as I think will happen with respect to a 'religious right'), or to search for better terms by which to dispose of the whole matter. The problem is we lack a shared tradition and (if you will) 'metaphysic' to find any other language than rights. This is why I think Christians have less to say at the present moment than they might suppose, given the parameters of the discussion.

I'm willing to elaborate more if you wish. Sorry for not being clear.