The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 3--The Idol that is the Sexual Revolution

[Note:  The piece on Confession is in progress, but needs more work, so a detour for now.]

When we worship an idol, our love, which is in principle a good thing, is trapped into grasping onto something made in our own image. This “something”, which we of course do not perceive as an idol, then becomes the repository for all the security and certainty which we idolaters need in order to survive in the world. We are unaware that the tighter we grasp it, the more insecure and uncertain we in fact become, and the more we empty the object which we idolize of any potential for truth and meaning. And of course because love is in principle a good thing, for us to get untangled from its distorted form is very painful. Nevertheless, against any tendency we might have to blame the idol for being an idol, it is really the pattern of desire in us, the grasping, that is the problem, not the object. For just as the Bible is not an act of communication that we can lay hold of, but the written monuments to an act of communication that takes hold of us, so the Church is not an object that we can grasp, but a sign of our being grasped and held; not something that any of us owns, but the first hints, difficult to perceive, of Another’s ownership of us.

-Jesus the Forgiving Victim, James Alison, Chapter 10

As I write this, Pope Francis is on his way back to the Vatican, after what must be described as an extremely successful trip to the United States.  Media coverage of the trip was (with a couple of exceptions) laudatory, and the reaction from non-pundit U.S. Catholics was even more laudatory.  People--Catholic people, but also non-Catholics--like this Pope, like his style, and by and large like his message.  He provides a face on Catholicism, Christianity, and religion in general that all three of those categories desperately need.

Even some conservative pundits have gotten in the act.  Contrary to the tack taken by some of his fellow Catholic conservatives, Ross Douthat more or less praised the Pope and the trip.  In particular, he held out hope that Pope Francis would represent, or perhaps be the catalyst for, the revitalization of liberal Catholicism/Christianity.  Such a reality would be good, Douthat asserts, because it would form a much more useful dialogue partner for conservative thought than what he perceives to be the nihilist tendencies of liberalism.  It was a good column, at least until the last five paragraphs, when it hit a proverbial, and predictable, wall.

Now, I continue to maintain that Ross Douthat is by far the most interesting and most thought-provoking of the Catholic conservative commentators, and probably conservative Christian commentators in general.  I think he is far more nuanced and thoughtful than his peers.  But it is precisely because he is more nuanced and thoughtful that his core fixation stands out more clearly.  It is the place where his thought, usually rather subtle and balanced, becomes absolutely Manichean.

That place, of course, is the dread Sexual Revolution.  (Or, as Frank Strong would suggest, when discussed by conservatives it should be rendered as THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION to reflect its grave and terrible nature).
Douthat argues that whatever potential good that a renewed Catholic Left might bring forth, it is always and forever in danger of receiving The Bad Touch of the Sexual Revolution.  Douthat takes as a given that the Sexual Revolution is capable of destroying any authentic expression of Christianity.  The complex social and demographic phenomenon that is the relative decline in the so-called "Mainline" Protestant churches in the U.S. is explained entirely by their willingness to countenance the fruits of the Sexual Revolution.  As such, it is an iron law of history that any similar moves by the Catholic Church will result in a similar withering.  Indeed, the possibility that the upcoming Synod on the Family might move in that direction makes any positive outlook for progressive Catholic thought radically contingent.  Only if this movement can avoid the siren song of the Sexual Revolution can it have the hope of making something of itself.

One can critique the substance of Douthat's stance in a variety of ways.  This Commonweal piece by Bernard Prusak criticizes some of the factual predicates behind Douthat's story.  Are the Mainline churches really "moribund"?  Is the Synod on the Family really on the precipice of endorsing the Sexual Revolution in any meaningful way?  One of the commentors on the piece also raised the important question--a question that Frank Strong has also discussed extensively--of what exactly is the Sexual Revolution, why exactly is it so terrible, and what about the good stuff like women's suffrage?

These are all true as far as they go, but I think they miss the deeper point about the role of the Sexual Revolution in this sort of conservative thought.  The Sexual Revolution is not a description of a set of concrete factual circumstances.  It is an idol, or really a kind of negative idol (or, perhaps we could say that opposing the Sexual Revolution/embracing a "traditional" sexual morality is an idol).

Let's go back to Alison's definition of an idol.  An idol begins its life-cycle as something true and something good.  No one, I suspect, would assert that absolutely everything that came out of the complex stew of changing sexual mores beginning in the 1960s has been an unalloyed good.  There are some structural problems with the way that modern Western society socializes sexuality and sexual expression.  It is neither irrational nor ridiculous to suggest that (especially in a nuanced and selective way) that previous sexual norms were better for people and led to greater happiness and human flourishing.  All of that is fine, and likely provides in certain places a corrective that people need to hear.

The problem comes when that position ceases to be about the factual, concrete claims made, and becomes a talisman of identity.  Opposition to the Sexual Revolution is no longer about the concrete reality of people having sex in X or Y manner and the consequences thereof, but about providing an anchor point for opposition to a world that is changing in ways that are uncomfortable and incomprehensible for the bearer of the idol.  In fact, the more things change, the tighter one holds on to the talisman to ward off the scary reality of the present, and so the more the actual substantive claims that form the kernel of the idol are vacated.  Because opposition to the Sexual Revolution is a talisman of identity for conservatives, it has to be left vague and amorphous, lest it get pinned down and disproven and robbed of its power.   As a result, the otherwise sensible and even important critique at the heart of the conservative position on sex becomes obscured by the efforts to grasp the idol.

Thus, pointing out that this or that factual element of Douthat's narrative is questionable is somewhat beside the point.  The starting point for Douthat is that the Church must resist "the sexual revolution and all of its works," regardless of what the Sexual Revolution actually means or what such resistance would entail.  The "moribund" Episcopal Church is a useful foil because it represents for Douthat in a crude way the disintegration of Christian life and practice, whether or not the Episcopal Church actually is moribund and regardless of the actual reality of its life or practice.  Opposition to the Sexual Revolution is not really about sex at all, but instead about the loss of identity and place in the world that comes from being unmoored from traditional structures and norms.  These terms become empty signifiers, devoid of any real meaning.

It is very important to note that this process works equally effectively in reverse.  It is entirely possible to make sexual liberation, or some particular sexual identity, into an idol that becomes the repository of meaning and purpose, one that functions in precisely the same manner as the idol of traditional sexual morality.  The process of idolization is not something unique to conservatives like Douthat, but something that all of us do.  As Alison points out, it is silly to blame an idol like the Sexual Revolution for being an idol, because we can make anything, even otherwise good and wonderful things, into an idol.  The problem is not the idol itself, the problem is us.  And the only solution to our problem is to slowly and painfully let go of our attachments to these fetishes of identity, whatever the specific content of those fetishes happen to be.    

Pope Francis ended his time in the U.S. by talking of change.  "For Jesus, the truly 'intolerable' scandal consists in everything that breaks down and destroys our trust in the working of the Spirit!" said Francis.  "It is this confidence that makes disciples encourage, support and nurture the good things happening all around them," said Francis. "To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not 'part of our group,' who are not 'like us,' is a dangerous temptation."

Idols of identity act as bulwarks against this action of the Spirit.  All of us are guilty of using them as shields to fend off this work of God in our lives and the life of the world.  We will never get it perfectly right, but we need to try to be as open as we can to where the Spirit is moving us.  Even if it is somewhere that seems scary and uncertain and ambiguous.  In the end, it will be fine.  After all, God is there at the end of the journey.


Popular posts from this blog

On the Amice and Ghosts

Two Christianities

Quick Hitter: Why Pastoral Discretion Is Not a Panacea