The sexual morass we currently find ourselves in as a society—in particular, as that morass manifests itself in its more heinous forms—will not be overcome with the tools presently available. We will need something more to climb out of this mess.
Two summers ago my wife and I were enjoying a little anniversary vacation when we stopped at a nearby outlet mall to do some shopping. We strolled by an American Eagle Outfitters only to be appalled by what we saw. The retailer was advertising a new line of undergarments for young women, and the models posing for the line were quite evidently teenagers.
Teenagers. Children. We both stopped dead in our tracks, dumbfounded. Child sex-trafficking is reaching pandemic proportions, and we are okay with THIS?!
The old and oh-so-illuminating quote by Wendell Berry came rushing back at me:
In this cult of liberated sexuality, “free” of courtesy, ceremony, responsibility, and restraint, dependent on litigation and expert advice, there is much that is human, sad to say, but there is no sense or sanity. Trying to draw the line where we are trying to draw it, between carelessness and brutality, is like insisting that falling is flying—until you hit the ground—and then trying to outlaw hitting the ground.
Is #MeToo Enough?
“Carelessness” and “brutality” are two words that certainly typify the sexual “moment” we are in as a culture. How we expect to live in a 50 Shades sexual fantasy world while also managing to avoid it’s unintentional (but by no means unforeseen) ugly consequences totally escapes me.
I grieve with our culture over the abuses we have seen—the serial disrespect of women, the growing scourge that is child sex trafficking, the many forms of pornography masquerading as entertainment. I hate it all. And I rejoice that with the #MeToo movement we are seeing at least the beginnings of a reckoning—of society’s attempt to say, with a unified voice, “This we will not tolerate.”
But is #MeToo enough? It seems obvious to me that it is not.
As long as the roots of the problem are left unaddressed, the same ugly fruit will continue to spring up from polluted earth—now in one way, now in another. We will keep recycling brutality and abuse.
Consider, for example, the recent public outcry regarding allegations leveled against comedian Aziz Ansari. A woman Ansari went on a date with later accused him of sexual misconduct, claiming that their sexual encounter was pressured, that the comedian had failed to pick up on “cues” she was sending him that she was distressed. According to Ansari, he was surprised at the allegations and felt that their encounter was “completely consensual.” When TMZ caught up with fellow comedian Joel McHale to ask for his comment on the situation, McHale predictably lauded the importance of the #MeToo movement and pledged his own enthusiastic support while adding, perhaps paradoxically, this analysis of Ansari’s encounter: “It sounds like it was consensual,” and, “if someone had a bad date, it was a bad date.”
I bring up the Ansari/McHale story not because it is an outstanding example of our public’s capacity for self-deception, but because it is so fantastically commonplace.
What on earth can be the meaning of “if someone had a bad date, it was a bad date” as an ethical evaluation? And how on earth can we expect “consensuality” to bear the weight we need it to bear in rescuing our sexual lives from annihilation?
The Gnosticizing of Our Sexuality
Lack of mutual consent is indeed a problem. But the problem, in fact, goes even deeper than quibbles about what qualifies as “consensual” and what does not. Lack of mutual consent is a problem, but the brokenness of our sexuality runs even deeper still. Click To Tweet
There is a “gnosticizing” impulse at work in our culture’s understanding of sexuality. This impulse to theoretically divorce personhood from sex corrodes the unbreakable link between between soul and body, and thereby—even while it touts the supposed “liberation” of our bodies—in point of fact degrades them by implying that the sexual encounter “says” nothing that is abidingly true about us.
This gnosticizing impulse underwrites our society’s many brutalities and makes possible this lie: what we do with our bodies—or other people’s bodies—does not really matter (as long as, once again, what we do is “consensual”—whatever it is that means).
That is not to say, of course, that mutual consent does not matter. Surely it does.
But it is not nearly enough to save our sexuality from calamity.
Scripture is instructive for us through the words of St. Paul here. Against gnosticizing tendencies present in his own congregations, St. Paul declared that the human body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19).
That is to say: there is an irreducible sanctity—a holiness—to the human body, and that therefore what we do with those bodies, especially when it comes to our sexuality, matters and matters deeply.
Only by respecting the truth of that sanctity can we flourish as God intends—not just individually, but communally, socially, politically.
Christ Jesus, moreover, took to himself a body, uniting the divine and the human in a way that will never be broken. Now that the Holy One has come among us, walking in our shoes, living our life, everything is different. In the Incarnation, the total truth of our embodied-ness as male and female made in the image of God has been disclosed: we were made for agape-communion with one another and with God. Christ Jesus is the form of that embodied agape-communion: other-preferring, utterly honoring, self-sacrificing. It is only in following the pattern of his life that true, joyful union with God and others is achieved.
To the Christian mind, therefore, the misuse of our bodies ruptures communion—with one another, within ourselves, and with God. The human project collapses upon itself. We are not talking about sin as some kind of “legal fiction” here. We are talking the actual destruction of our actual humanity.
Christianity Offers a Clear Ethic: the Human Body is Holy
That is why we recoiled at the Andy Savage repentance-and-forgiveness episode. It was too easy. Does a two-minute apology undo the damage done when an spiritual leader coerces a minor into sex, and when, by all accounts, every effort was made to cover it up? Certainly not!
We recoil because we know better than that. We know that, to quote Cornelius Plantinga, sin “disturbs shalom”. And sin against the sanctity of the body disturbs shalom at so many levels that we must go to great lengths to restore it.
We take such lengths, both to restore the body when it is broken and to protect the sanctity of the body before it is broken—not because we are prudes—but because in our better moments we know something that the world does not know: our bodies are holy.
Our bodies matter.
Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, appointed for union with God.
They are precious beyond measure—so precious to God that he tabernacled with us in one to save us.
The awesome reverence that Christianity affords the human body is what accounts for our unique sexual ethic. Because of what we believe the human body is ordered towards, destined for, we believe there is never a situation in which what we do with those bodies simply “doesn’t matter.” The awesome reverence that Christianity affords the human body is what accounts for our unique sexual ethic. Click To Tweet
Our gnosticizing impulses have been overcome by the power of the Incarnation.
The testimony we give to the world is this: there is a way of being sexual that is altogether greater than whatever it is we mean by “consensuality.” We have a more robust account of the human body than such thin ethics can ever provide.
By grounding the sanctity of the body in the miracle of the Incarnation, Christianity bestows a transcendent worth to the body that has the power to cut the sexual carelessness of our culture—which inevitably leads to brutality—at the very root.
Only when bodies are seen as holy will they then be honored as truly human. Then, and only then, will we flourish in those bodies as God intends.
The Church has often been accused of holding a sexual ethic that ultimately represses or diminishes our sexuality. The truth is that our ethic is the only ethic capable of saving our sexuality from certain self-destruction. It’s high time that we remember that, and do all we can to hold before the world the hope given to us in the Incarnation—the very redemption of our bodies.