Friday, July 8, 2016

Evangelicalism and sexuality

Recently I watched a documentary called Give Me Sex Jesus (2015) about evangelical sexual ethics, the abstinence movement, "purity", sex before marriage, and the rest. It consists mostly of the testimonies of numerous personalities on their experiences in broadly evangelical culture as regards sexuality. There is an evident bias against the stricter sexual ethics of evangelical Christianity, which is variously implied to be excessively stringent, impossible to obey, harmful in different ways, contradictory, and so on. For example, at least a few persons complained that sexuality was simultaneously described as eminently enjoyable and fulfilling, on the one hand, but also dangerous and potentially life-ruining if engaged in before marriage, on the other.

The documentary was not particularly great, and anyone who has read more than a couple posts on this blog of mine on the topic of sexuality can probably guess where I stand on the issue. The thing which stood out to me the most is that there was almost zero discussion of the procreative function of sex by any of the evangelical representatives of the no-sex-before-marriage camp. Of course, in Roman Catholic sexual ethics, the fact that sexuality is ordered per se to procreation is part and parcel of the explanation why exactly the Church's sexual ethical stance is so strict. Sex is an act with a certain intrinsic goal which implicitly ties me to the other person and to the child we potentially produce, and this is all something that my body itself tells me, if only I listen carefully. I have written on this in greater detail in past postings, for example here. But there was nothing about this from the evangelical pastors being interviewed.

To be provocative: the problem is with evangelicalism's absurd Bible-only mentality which refuses to acknowledge any sources of genuine knowledge in the discernible structures of the natural world. they consciously and intentionally limit themselves to what the Bible says and refuse to admit any outside sources of knowledge, such as general revelation through the natural world. This is a general evangelical/Protestant principle which manifests itself different in different topics; in the present context, it manifests itself through the preacher telling his youth not to engage in sex before marriage just because that's what the Bible says.

Not all evangelicals are like this, of course, but this is certainly what is most popular. And even those who do not go to extremes to maintain a Bible-only mentality still will end up tripping over themselves as regards sexuality because they don't accept the clear natural law argument. The others, because they do not accept the notion of a natural law, these pastors are left with a bare Biblical mandate: don't do it -- which they all ironically recognize only incites the youth to want to do it out of a sort of perverse curiosity about the forbidden. An empty commandment with no additional justification is insufficient to motivate very many people, neither does it answer the important questions they may be asking themselves. And so you have droves of young evangelicals who either disregard the teaching not to engage in sexual activity before marriage out of a refusal to obey, or else who find loopholes like oral sex or anal sex to try to avoid breaking the commandment.

There is a further thing which confuses me. In previous generations of Christianity, people in times of spiritual revival and vitality used to forgo sex altogether, whether by becoming monks and nuns if they were single, or else by voluntarily vowing celibacy with their partners if they were married. Something like this is unheard of in evangelicalism, where the common experience of many (certainly in my own context) is an expectation of marriage and sometimes shock, confusion, and suspicion if a person remains single into late-20s and 30s. When did the sexual drive become so impossible to resist? Probably the Reformation had something to do with this, too.

It was disheartening for me to hear the struggles and thoughts of many of the personalities being interviewed in the film. Perhaps my remarks on this topic are not adequately sensitive and temperate from a pastoral perspective, but on the other hand, I am not a pastor and have no obligations to speak in that way. I want to see seriousness and zeal and firm conviction about the truth from young persons, and many of them simply lack this. I don't know what can be done about it, since it is at least partly a result of their own agency: if they dedicated time and energy and effort to the truth, they would make progress. Maybe young people are lonely and alienated, and their apparently irresistible sex drive is attempting to solve the problem. I don't know.

It is not the first time in my life that I've heard of persons who have drifted away from Christianity because of struggles with sexuality. The sexual impulse is powerful and the rules of the Christian religion are strict, and a troubled conscience can't remain troubled indefinitely: either the person makes moral progress, or else she eases her conscience by rejecting the norms which condemned her. And the guilt which troubles the conscience is proportionate to the desire and temptation which provokes it. For that reason, sexual ethics is perpetually a stumbling block. In this respect, consider the words of John of Damascus:
Should [man], on the other hand through his disobedience turn his mind away from his Author—I mean God—and tend rather toward matter, then he was to be associated with corruption, to become passible rather than impassible, and mortal rather than immortal. He was to stand in need of carnal copulation and seminal generation, and because of his attachment to life was not only to cling to these pleasures as if they were necessary to sustain his life, but also to hate without limit such as would think of depriving him of them. And while he was to transfer his attachment from God to matter, he was to transfer his anger from the real enemy of his salvation to his own kind’ (De Fide Orthodoxa II, 30).
A sinful person is inclined to hate without limit any as would think to deprive him of the pleasures of sex. John connects this with some kind of postlapsarian subconscious awareness of our own mortality. Whatever the explanation is, the phenomenon remains the same: the sexual impulse can prove to be an insurmountable stumbling block for many people to come to true faith and obedience to God. Evangelicals and others ought to be aware of this fact and to address it in a way that is realistic and honest. I should think this will require an adoption of the natural law sexual ethics such as the Roman Catholic Church has, because only then will you have something beyond a bare imperative -- don't do it -- to motivate a person to right living.

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