Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Talk about Sex: For Whom? Toward What?

I guess there's no such thing as a given in blogging. Lesson learned: talking about sex does not secure commentary. My last post was salvaged by a charitable 'um?' (thanks Andrew!), which tells me one of two things: 1) I wasn't clear, or 2) I wasn't controversial. Perhaps both true? I fear so.

Even if the topic's spoiled by now, I'm ripe for a remix. Three things I want to say about my post, related to some of the comments in Andrew's. Then on to something else.

[1] There's a very simple point I want to make about sex, rooted in a very simple point I want to make about political liberalism. It is this: sex is unintelligible to Christians in the language of liberal ideals. Consider that the foundation of modern liberal societies is the freedom to choose the way you live your life, as our venerable D. of I. asseverates: 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' Consider, too, that marriage for Christians is a binding covenant established between two people who don't know what they're doing when they say 'I do.' A liberal society will not hold you to a marital promise you made when you did not know what you were doing when you made it, as Hauerwas is fond of putting things. In other words, it's well within your right to divorce. So my claim: it makes little sense for Christians to dispute whether marriage is a 'right,' as it equally makes little sense for a liberal society to worry about who remains faithful and who jumps ship. There are no resources in modern political discourse to treat 'faithfulness' as more than a convenient way to avoid legal restrictions; and there are no resources in the Christian tradition that allow us to treat marriage as a right to our own happiness and self-fulfilment. When therefore these two bring up marriage, they're hopelessly at odds with one another. So why aren't we talking about that difference?

[2] Rather than help things along, I think my point in [1] makes things more difficult. For it seems that in our zeal to be relevant, Christians have by and large forgotten the language that makes our marriages Christian marriages. Many, no doubt, will recognise the moral squalor that 'traditional' marriage in this country has degenerated to, led by Christians as much as anyone. I wonder, however, if we've really felt the friction between the principle of freedom we imbibe as Americans, against the principle of faithfulness that the Gospel commends, no, upholds, no, demands. Moreover, all talk about returning to the 'founding principles' of our nation seems to neglect the fact that America was borne out of efforts to reject most the traditional principles anyway. Whether all the founding fathers believed heterosexual marriage to be a cornerstone of future American society is therefore irrelevant to the principle they clearly did believe in, autonomy, which then took up a life of its own in ways they and the whole world had never seen nor anticipated. And how could they have seen it? The world is not omniscient, and neither were they. At any rate, the founding fathers' opinions are moot, and their emphasis obscures the resources Christians in America should be appealing to in their discussion of what marriage is.

[3] Lastly, several comments after Andrew's post suggest that what Americans need to do is think about what kind of society they want: one that embraces or ostracises the gay community, one that's traditional or pushes for change. I sense some question-begging here, as it takes a starved intellect to swallow these terms wholesale. But aside from this, the question is a good one, but impossibly applied. For if I'm right about the principle of freedom, then it follows that no 'society of Americans' exists that can ask itself whether it wants to be this or that. The reason such a society doesn't exist is because a principle of freedom is a framework that destroys all other frameworks that can produce those societies. Indeed, the very purpose of modern freedom is to deconstruct foundations, to release people from the obligations they did not choose.

For example, consider that the first tenet of social contract theory of government is the claim that you choose to be governed. The will of the people, not natural law, not tradition, not God, is the basis for government; and government is there to serve that will. This is the 'liberal' tradition of which I speak. Now consider: America is the premier experiment in just that form of social contracting. That means whatever collective thinking Americans want to do, is preempted by the principles of the contract we refuse to let go: namely, that we are let free to choose what counts as our obligations, what counts as our identities, what counts as our values. We share only as we will to share; we meet our neighbours only if we will to meet them.

So the question 'what kind of society do we want?' is impossible for Americans to ask: for to what or whom do we appeal as an authority to make sense of that change? the people? the government? the Constitution? Since the government is for the people, and the people rule it; since the people have no shared story, except the Constitution that binds them; and since that Constitution tells the people that their stories are now theirs to tell; it follows that political judgment has no resources outside its own system that can sustain its authority. The authority lies within us, doomed to incoherence.

Back to sex: no one doubts the government should have little say in what we do with our genitals. The problem is religion says a lot. My question, therefore, is what kind of substantive conversation about sex is possible in a tradition like liberalism, already committed as it is to autonomy? is it merely to tell religion to keep out the public square? to let the political process hum away, unthinkingly? And my question to Christians is: do we really think a 'conservative politic' is possible in this climate? that we have a 'right' to our religious opinion about sex? finally, that we have even remained faithful to the language of the Gospel in our own conceptions of marriage?


Andrew Faris said...


I have wrestled with the same issue quite a bit in the past, knowing that I was getting at something, but not able to put my finger on exactly what. That's why if you go back to my first post on gay marriage that actually was in defense of it (despite my firm belief that homosexual practice is sinful in the eyes of God), you'll find a mix of what I think are reasonable points and incoherence. So it goes.

In any case, you appear to be dealing with that central difficulty: the state has one set of precedents, but Christians have an entirely different set. For the state, maximal freedom is the ultimate precedent, so far as I can tell. The goal of the American government is to create the most possible autonomy for the most possible people. But the goal for Christians is much different.

So what precedent does the state have to say really anything about gay marriage? Well, not much.

Which gets back to an even more fundamental question: what precedent does the state have to talk about any kind of marriage?

And thus the push that is starting to come from some folks to simply take "marriage" out of the vernacular of the government, and to talk about "civil unions" instead. This makes sense to me.

Except for one thing: if in fact a mass will of the people is central to our system, then doesn't a democratic decision about what we want constitute precedent? That is, if more than half of us all say, "We want 'marriage' to mean such and such", then doesn't that qualify as reasonably acting within modern liberalism?

Am I doing better at getting at what you're saying yet?

Any thoughts would be great!


Nate said...

When talking about homosexuals the topic is gray,or has more gray areas. Let's apply the same liberal pursuit of happiness to abortion where the line seems a bit clearer. Are we stuck at the same impass? If liberalism is truly the precendent of the constitution then we are all in trouble. Liberalism really doesn't have a basis of arguement in "rights". For every right there is an equal and opposite right. Liberalism is also a onesided religion yet undiscovered. Whatever right is compensated for one person is derived from another person. That's what welfare is. Abortion. Public Education. Minorty Contracting. Social Security. These are not all bad, but to support them from a government stand point it must take something in order to enable something else. Our taxes are used to give every child a right to a good education. They take the taxes from those that may not exercise that right, or even believe in it.
Liberalism is useful, but it is to narrow a view point. There must be other values to base the determination of rights greater than will. There will always be an opposite will. Religion is a good place to derive those values! It may not always be right, but creating a vacuum of values is a worse alternative.
Regarding homosexual rights, the opposite right valued is the primarily held by christians. To say the opposite right is simply religious is a moot point because it is still the will and desired right of some people. Their conscience desires to have an enviroment where they can raise children and live free of publicly recognized homosexuals.
For the state there is no such thing as maximal freedom in reality, there are some rights that we all sacrifice a little to the greater benefit of society. That is the true question for the debate. Is it worth the sacrifice for the benefit of recognizing homosexual marriage or polyamory marrige or any other marriage.

Ian Clausen said...


I like your thoughts. Since I find myself swaying one way, then another as I read them, I think you've probably hit the nail on the head - which is to say, hit all over the board hoping you hit it, which is all any of us can really do in a comment on this topic.

So I'll not make much of a response, but I will disagree with the way you've phrased your last question. The reason is that I just can't see how a 'we' arises that can really ask itself what it is willing to sacrifice or not. I'm pretty sure the gay community doesn't feel like it's yet part of a 'we' - that's the whole point of their protest. Put that aside, my main concern is with the language: I just can't envision what the Church in America can say, which will make marriage intelligible to a liberal society in a way that's faithful to what she thinks marriage is.

My problem, in other words, is not whether a decision can be made - it is clearly being made, and will no doubt continue to be made, so long as the language stays the same. Rather my problem is this: how is the Church to behave as the Church, when the language that makes her the Church is excluded from public dialogue? I'm still thinking it through, and I like that we're agreeing on some important points. Come back on it if you have something more.

Andrew Faris said...


American liberalism is our specific context where Christian marriage is unintelligible. But I tend toward theology, so while we're talking about language, perhaps we ought to say that Christian marriage is unintelligible to all non-believers who are stuck in their sins.

I guess the point is that perhaps we avoid implying that a different cultural system might be better-suited for understanding Christian marriage. But if I get what you're saying about Christian marriage, then no system that is not explicitly and biblically Christian gets it.


Ian Clausen said...


We are drawing closer, I think, to understanding one another. I'll suspend further reflection for the moment, but just a teaser: if the 'will of the people' is all we have to go on to explain what is, then we're in trouble. I'd like to think there's a little more thinking to be done outside that will, in lieu of all this soul-searching that we're allegedly performing, before we declare what we want to see happen. It's clear to me where that thinking needs to start: God's action in Christ, i.e. the Gospel. I'm just not sure that's any place our society is heading in the future. So what is 'reasonably acting' in a liberal society is not telling me much, as it is no doubt not telling you much either. Whatever the reasons people want this or that, it's inevitably processed through the same liberal jargon, spread across the same thin reality. That jargon has indeed gotten us far, but now that we're there I'm not so sure it's been forward. Let's talk about reasons that have some deep roots. They're there, and I've heard them from both sides; but our political processes all too often snuff them out. And it's just killing our witness.

Ian Clausen said...

I respond, you respond: we agree.

It's the Gospel that I want to think through. The current political processes tell us that to be good citizens means we must think outside the Gospel. Why buy it? There's a whole millennium+ tradition of political theology spread out before us: imperfect bonds between Church and State, yes, but not something to be veiled in fear of that insidious modern belief that 'they didn't know better back then, we do now.' We have some new times to think about; let's not start thinking where the Gospel is not.

Johnnie said...

"The current political processes tell us that to be good citizens means we must think outside the Gospel. Why buy it? There's a whole millennium+ tradition of political theology spread out before us..."

And so, as I said in an earlier thread, perhaps we end up akin to the Hasidic Jews or the Amish--thankful we live in an America liberal enough to allow us our religious freedom (to live inside the Gospel as we read it), but recognizing that, under the same freedoms that allow us to live as we do, we have to let other people live in ways we condemn. Ah well.

Norman Jeune III said...

There are a number of thoughtful comments here, and this is a topic I've spent some time thinking about, so I thought I'd offer my two cents (forgive me in advance for any rambling or lack coherence).

Anyway, my thought is that any authoritative conception of Christianity may simply be incompatible with the American political system, or any political system for that matter.

I think Johnnie touches on an important point here when he made the comparison to Hasidic Jews or the Amish simply being content to exist undisturbed within the bounds of liberal culture. This is ultimately the type of choice that Christianity faces, in my opinion. On one hand Christianity loses its teeth; it can no longer offer an ultimate cultural, anthropological, and metaphysical metanarrative with any punch if it chooses to participate actively within the bounds of a system that places freedom at the pinnacle of its value system. But what's alternative- anarchy? Pacifism? Or Perhaps the continued political manuervering of the "moral majority" in the political sphere? All of these represent a capitulation to various cultural ideologies.

(My comment was too long, so see the rest of it in a second comment immediately below)

Norman Jeune III said...

(Here is the rest of that comment)

This also touches on the theological issue of one's commitment to the sovereignty of God. Is God in control even when it looks like the liberals are on the march to destroy all this good? Some might see the implications of my suggestion as a capitulation to sin, and that as Christians we cannot fail to represent our views in the political process, or the world will regress into the ultimate manifestation of sin; something like 'we have a responsibility to represent Christian family values,' we cannot give up God's nation to the left-wing radicals!' In other words, what if the worst fears of the right come true? Have we failed God? Has God failed? Can he still redeem this world?

The point is that I think our responsibility as Christians is not so much different, regardless of where we live in this world. There are various govermental powers that manifest themselves in a variety of capacities- Christians are to represent the Gospel by example in whatever context they happen to be placed. If the Christian way of life is truly better, and benefits of that system are truly apparent as being better than those of the world, than some will be impacted enough to follow.

The problem may be that as a corporate body- the body of Christ in America- we may be more concerned with exerting our ideas in a forceful way than living consistently with the ideas we profess as true. If this is true- and I think it is (at least to a large extent)- this would explain why we continue to fuel animosity toward religion and faith (toward ourselves) in general. The historical narrative of religion in world history, particularly according to the left, is that religion has been and continues to be the oppressive force in this world. The fundamentalists of world history, in whichever past era you want to choose have been the cause of violence. Something like, 'God's messengers sent to manifest his will on earth'- I'm sure you could come up with a variety of other variations. This is exacty the criticism that guys like Dawkins raise against religion. I'm no fan of Dawkins, but before we dismiss the point, think about it. What about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, as an example? Read the history there and you'll find a story of political manuervering on part of fundamentalist Christians and Zionists to force what they believed was the will of God. What has been the result? The disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, the worst religious and military conflict facing the world today, and the possibility of a military and religious showdown between the eastern and western worlds. Did God need our political manuevering, or are we just getting in the way? This is just one example of many.

The point is that God's values, or way of life as he intended it can only originate from him, which I think is a consistent point theologically and scripturally. Christians can live as examples and pray for each other and this world, but as soon as we exert our authority outside the bounds of our community, I fear we flirt with something resembles oppression. Worse than that, I fear it is eveidence of a lack of faith in the God to whom we call our Lord.