Monday, September 29, 2008

Christians and sex

A couple of quick warnings. Firstly, please note that this post is about sexual matters. I hope that the content proves useful, particularly to Christian parents who need to talk clearly with their children about sex, but I would encourage mature Christians to read and think about this, and make sure that they understand it themselves, prior to simply pointing anybody else to it.

Also, this is a long article (over 2000 words). I suggest you print it out to read rather than trying to wade through it on screen. If it is of any use to you, I can send it to you as a PDF file - add a comment, and I can pick up your email address from there.

Christians are reluctant to talk about sex. I can suggest various possible reasons for this. One is embarrassment - there are too many "naughty words" that we feel should be omitted from polite discourse. One is a dualistic hangover that many of us still feel, namely that the physical is dirty and bad, and it's only the spiritual that can be good. One is the fact that it stirs up strong feelings and we are perhaps a little worried about them.

The effect of this is that Christians often offer nothing of substance to discussion about sex. This isn't a good thing. We are generally bad enough at understanding the impact of worldviews in any case, even when we are able to make the case for the Christian worldview. But when it comes to sex, the worldview of the surrounding culture is left to dominate, with Christians rarely seeming to say anything more constructive than "Do not taste, do not touch" - as though sex is simply a matter of rules that we have to adhere to. So this post is an attempt to redress this balance somewhat.

What happens when we start from a basically materialistic, darwinian worldview - the one that dominates intellectual discourse today? We deduce that we are fundamentally biological (and thus chemical, and thus physical) entities, and everything we see is of necessity derived from this. In this context, reproduction is - well, not the highest good, because "good" implies a value system which is ultimately absent when physics is all there is - but certainly the fundamental necessity in biological terms.

This would explain why our sex drive is so powerful. However, at this point, the explanatory power of materialism ceases to be helpful. As in so many other areas, materialism and darwinism aren't so much scientific theories as means of accounting for any observation - a worldview which is used to interpret phenomena.

At one end of the spectrum, if physics is all that there is, ultimately, then it really isn't possible to say much more in consideration of sex than "this is what happens". Objects with mass attract one another. Space is curved. De Sade felt that it was legitimate for the stronger person to dominate the weaker. Certain people abuse children and have a desire to rape. If physics is ultimately all that there is, then all of these are ultimately just observations about the universe, and disapproving of sexual "deviancy" is a bit like disapproving of gravity. Even when such people harm others, do we have any real basis for saying that this shouldn't happen?

Few people accept this, of course, although it is hard to see how to find fault with it intellectually. From a materialistic point of view, morality is usually defined in terms of sociological acceptability, with sociology being some kind of emergent property at the level of the species. Note that individual morality can't really provide much guidance - because if somebody else has a different morality, then how do we choose between mine and theirs? But sociologically, perhaps, "morality is a herd instinct". If this is the case, then sanctions can be applied by the "herd" to constrain the behaviour of individuals within appropriate boundaries. And this is pretty much where we are at. Although society generally accepts and enforces certain limits, it means that there are no absolute standards of morality, in sexual terms. A hundred years ago, it was considered morally correct that sex ought to be confined to heterosexual marriage (however widespread deviation from this actually was). Now things are different. It is assumed that people in the west will be sexually active before forming a permanent or semi-permanent relationship; that it is better for people to live together before they marry; that sexual fidelity is no more than an arbitrary choice. The change in the sociological landscape itself justifies the changes in behaviour.

Bear in mind that the dominance of the materialistic worldview is a relatively recent (last 30 years or so) phenomenon. During this time, the fact that we have a biologically strong sex drive has led to the general acceptance that fulfilment of that drive is pretty much a biological necessity. So over the course of that time, we have seen (for example) increasing acceptance of pornography and prostitution, and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality within mainstream culture.

But even accepting the consensus of the materialistic culture up to this point, it now breaks down. The analysis that a male within the culture might make (if - and it is often a big if! - he were able to string together the ideas sufficiently coherently to express them!) would be to say that the biological sex drive finds its release in the orgasm. This justifies the acceptance of pornography and prostitution, and sex before and outside marriage in general. These things don't hurt anybody, it is argued, therefore there is no reason for them to be considered immoral.

However, many women would increasingly reject this analysis. Female dissatisfaction with the limitations of sex - even within the boundaries of a materialistic worldview - can be found throughout the culture - in popular shows like Sex and the City, in the feminist rejection of patriarchal models of sexuality, and on an everyday level with the fact that following the liberation(!) of the sexual revolution, men walk away from sexual relationships far more easily than they used to, with far less guilt, leaving women to deal with the consequences - emotional, psychological and physical. Perhaps the biological foundation for this is that women are designed to nurture children, and seek a stable relationship with a male who can provide for them whilst they are caring for the child. But the point is that the materialistic metanarrative has not managed to establish a coherent justification for a new pattern of sexual behaviour, and over the last 15 years it has arguably ended up looking less likely to do so. Whereas the consensus about "right" and "wrong" prior to the sexual revolution provided a framework for a society which had largely functioned in a stable manner for thousands of years, I would suggest that the widespread acceptance of a materialistic and sociological consensus about sexual relationships has largely led to the breakdown of social structures, and has also had a negative impact on individuals' sense of identity.

Another challenge to the materialistic approach to sex comes from the fact that such a large proportion of sexual activity (using the term in its widest sense) is not and has never been related to procreation. And given that the explosion in all sorts of sexual activity following the rise of materialism and the sexual revolution has not led to a population explosion, it can't be seriously suggested that sex, and the sociologically permitted changes in sex that we have seen, are fundamentally about strengthening the relationship between partners for the purpose of rearing children. Therefore, it seems reasonable to cast doubt on the original premise - namely, that sex is about the biological drive to reproduce.

So although people accept the materialistic idea that sex is the biological imperative, we find that we have moved away from any shared concept of how this ought to be expressed, and the phenomena we observe doesn't really seem to be consistent with the idea anyway. So the evidence suggests that the worldview may not be correct.

What is the Christian alternative? Firstly, sex has to be moved away from being the central item in the discussion. Christianity argues that although humans are animals (and therefore have a biological nature), there is more to them than this - there is a fundamental difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, which Christianity talks about as being the image of God. Whereas sex might be considered the biological driving force throughout the natural world, it isn't for humans.

Even this assertion starts to show Christianity as being different from some highly pervasive materialistic ideas. It allows the possibility, for example, that aesthetic sense isn't solely on some level about sexual arousal. It suggests that creativity isn't fundamentally about attracting a mate. It permits the possibility of a desire for knowledge which isn't just about passing genes onto the next generation. These are helpful steps forward, as explanations of these phenomena which reduce them to outworkings of our sex drive were never really convincing.

I would suggest that relationships are a fundamental part of our identity as humans, and this is different from animals - it is part of the image of God. Incidentally, this assertion also means that the worldview which I am talking about is distinctively Christian (in which relationships exist within the divine nature, as a consequence of the Trinity) rather than any other monotheistic worldview. Inherent in the idea of relationships is the idea of love. There are different Bible words which are translated as love, but the focus should be on what they have in common, rather than their differences. Love, in Christian terms, is about giving myself for the other person. This is most completely expressed in the love that Christ had for his people, which resulted in him laying down his life for them ("Greater love has no man than this ..."). But we can see that this is the key component of love in all sorts of relationships - a parent's sacrifice of their own time and money for the sake of their children; a child's love for its parents expressed in the acceptance of the parents' authority over their life; the love for a friend which sacrifices time and care for them. Of course, the nature of love is that sacrifices don't feel like anything of the sort - but from the perspective of the observer, it can be seen that a person is giving up something of their own for the sake of another.

The example of Christ and the church is an important one, as the Bible talks about this being the prototypical marriage relationship. Christ gave up heaven, privilege and ultimately his very life for the sake of his people. Within the institution of marriage is the idea that husbands should give themselves up for the sake of their wives ("Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church..."), and that wives should be as devoted to the husbands who give themselves up for them as the church should be to its Head. Whereas love can be expressed in many ways to many different people, there can only really be one person to whom you give yourself up in this complete way - only one person to whom you can really say, "All I am and all I have is yours." Having done that for one person, you are no longer yours to give away.

Sex is the physical expression of this complete abandoning of yourself to another person. "All I am and all I have is yours ... and that includes my body, which is yours for your delight." The husband and wife give themselves to one another in a physical way, and again, this complete giving of themselves is something that is only really meaningful in the context of a relationship with one person. It follows as a physical act from a commitment that has already been made.

Of course, this is thoroughly consistent with the content of the wedding service with which we are still so culturally familiar. But it is a major departure from the ideas of sex which we get from the culture around us. The ideas which have become common currency in the last 30 years and which simply didn't exist before - like sexual compatibility and trial marriages - simply have no place in the Christian worldview. It's not a question of a reactionary attempt to turn the clock back. It's the fact that the Christian worldview is so fundamentally different from the materialistic one that hardly any of what has been derived from materialism can be meaningfully accommodated if you start from the Christian worldview.

Christians don't talk about this too much, and in many cases they haven't thought out what their worldview says about it. There are many sections of Christianity which simply work out some way of accommodating the materialistic approach - after all, this is usually easier than being "in the world but not of the world". Sections of the church work out how to accommodate homosexuality at all levels, nobody asks questions about people's lifestyles, Bible teachers avoid speaking about, or relativise, the sections of the Bible that address matters of sexual morality. Perhaps most disturbingly, Christian parents lack confidence in offering guidance to their children. The consequence of this is that even people who consider themselves Christians rarely demonstrate anything distinctive in terms of their sexual morality.

As Christians, we need to have a clear idea of the impact that the Christian worldview has, in this area as much as all others. We also need to understand the change in worldview which has been expressed in cultural changes, and be prepared to point out to the people around us the consequences of their worldview. If Christianity is true (which we believe it is), it should be true no matter how deeply you scratch it. If the alternative worldviews are false (which we believe they are), then at some level there must be a contradiction between expected and observed phenomena. This can be seen in the breakdown of society which has taken place following the adoption of the materialistic worldview, and the fact that materialism simply fails to give a good account for so many of the things that we see.

I hope that this article helps Christians to be more confident in giving a reason for the hope that is in them ....

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Berlusconi killed Alitalia

... by making a promise that he couldn't keep, to keep the airline going, apparently unconditionally.

So the "intransigent" unions basically sat there thinking to themselves, "We can hold out as long as we like, because Berlusconi won't let it fail."

They were wrong. Berlusconi has no choice. Had he acknowledged that in his election campaign, the unions might have been more realistic about what of Alitalia could survive, and accepted a workable deal.

Friday, September 05, 2008

I said ...

... that this was the book I would most like my friends to read.

And this is why. It's nothing to do with "I told you so". It's everything to do with - "Can you see this?"

Incidentally, still no substantive response to "A Meaningful World" from an anti-teleological perspective.