More often than not, Ross Douthat’s New York Times columns serve as Rorschach tests for contemporary political and social issues. Today’s column, “The Redistribution of Sex,” has proved especially thought-provoking and line-drawing. And rightly so. You can read it here.
I recently read somewhere (Twitter, I think) that what we are witnessing now is not the dissolution of the Christian worldview but the dissolution of whatever worldview replaced the Christian one. I think there’s some truth to that. As such, it’s definitely a case for adding it to the “Notes for A World’s End.”
I quite like the column; I think Douthat gets a lot of things correct, particularly this paragraph:
. . . because the culture’s dominant message about sex is still essentially Hefnerian, despite certain revisions attempted by feminists since the heyday of the Playboy philosophy — a message that frequency and variety in sexual experience is as close to a summum bonum as the human condition has to offer, that the greatest possible diversity in sexual desires and tastes and identities should be not only accepted but cultivated, and that virginity and celibacy are at best strange and at worst pitiable states. And this master narrative, inevitably, makes both the new inequalities and the decline of actual relationships that much more difficult to bear …
Should we be disturbed by some of the conclusions drawn (and by some of the sources used). But in an immanent culture, economic terms are one of the few categories of thought that can apply (the other, really, is the category of personal rights and freedoms).
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So, if we ask questions of “what’s at stake?” and “what are we losing?” and “what can we do to salvage what is good but in danger?” a la Harris and Berry and others, what positive answer does Douthat give? Well, it’s a good one. A difficult one, but a good one. Near the end of the column Douthat asserts:
There is an alternative, conservative response, of course — namely, that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.
This, of course, is where the church could chime in. Unfortunately, we are too often as impotent as everyone else at addressing this well (partly from culpability and partly from a lack of language in most denominations). Monogamy. Chastity. Permanence. Those are words you don’t hear all that often, unless you might hear it in marriage counseling? And celibacy? Well, one of the reasons I spent a couple of weeks writing through Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep is because of his thoughtful articulation of the place of the celibate single in the context of the church traversing the seasons of life. No non-marital counseling opportunities to talk through celibacy in most churches, unfortunately. If you’re not a church that has wrestled with a theology of the body that goes beyond the wedding night (the Catholic church has and the Anglican church has a few thinkers who have wrestled with this), then you’ve got some real work cut out for you. If you want to be there to help pick up the pieces of the lives shattered by the sexual revolution (something Dreher has written about a number of times, I believe), then you’re going to need to enter into long and difficult conversations about truly significant things.
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Douthat, then, turns quickly back to the rest of his argument, teasing out the likely response of our contemporary culture (which doesn’t sound possible but totally is). It fits the saddest versions of our science fiction, really. And it should be a warning to us all.
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So you can add monogamy, permanence, and chastity to the list started with Berry’s “limits.” And celibacy, of course, connects intimately to the idea of limits. As with the other terms, the challenge is finding a way to articulate these ideas and practices in a way that brings out the life-giving qualities in each. The world, perhaps, is watching and waiting (even if they don’t realize it).
(image from thesharemagazine.com)
The vaguely remembered quote from the second paragraph is from Christopher Dawson, late “meta-historian, scholar, and philosopher.” The actual quote [from Twitter]: “What we are facing today is not the breakdown of the traditional culture of Christendom, it is the catastrophe of the secular culture which has taken its place.”