Interpreting contemporary sexual morality

Alastair Roberts recently wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition that tried to summarize “the new sexual morality” in a systematic way. He believes that we should understand “that the shift we’re witnessing is not the abandonment of all morality but a shift to a new moral system, one with its roots firmly within the philosophical tradition of liberalism. This new moral system is loosely coherent, and its underlying principles will work like yeast through the dough of our moral vision. Rather than advocating mere amorality, it forcefully presses moral claims against Christian sexual and relational ethics: for this moral system, Christian morality isn’t just wrong, it is immoral.”

Here are the five principles, and the article contains fuller explanations of each:

First, sexual acts don’t have intrinsic meanings or purposes….

Second, our sexuality is a subjective sense and intrinsic to our self-identity….

Third, sexual agents are autonomous, rights-bearing individuals….

Fourth, freely given consent is the watchword for sexual relations….

Fifth, beyond the prevention of harm, sexual relations should be freed from social policing and constraint, from norms and from stigmas.

Liberalism and its enemies

Ross Douthat pointed to a long piece by Abram Shulsky on the tendency of liberalism to provoke “counter-ideologies,” from positivism to various types of socialism to Islamism:

However varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as opposed to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak. This sensibility is evident in the pejorative meaning of the term “bourgeois”: someone who is so immersed in the pursuit of petty material concerns that he is blind to both nobility of soul and the claims of social justice.

Roughly speaking, there are two ideal types of counter-ideologies: those holding that liberalism is too disorganized to work well and hence cannot survive, and those fearing that liberalism will succeed (or has already succeeded) and will diminish human life as a result. These sound like mutually contradictory objections, but by calling them ideal types we recognize that in practice most counter-ideologies have elements of both: Liberalism is bad because it is successful in forcing or seducing people to adopt a “bad” way of life, but its faults mean that it will fail eventually.

His conclusion makes sense:

So to assess the health of liberal democracy, we must keep in mind two opposing thoughts: It is strong because it opens the way to the satisfaction of the real needs and desires of most people, most of the time; and it is weak, ultimately, because its own intellectuals no longer truly believe in it and because there are seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul that it ignores or pretends do not exist—and, indeed, that its own liberality encourages into expression.

The “incidental” weaknesses (the “not invented here” syndrome and the stresses of transition) can perhaps be expected to fade over time, in some places more slowly than in others, no doubt. But the inherent ones [the lack of consensus on liberalism's tenets and its exclusion of the "seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul"] are another matter. Our only defense against them, in the long run, is the inculcation in the body politic of a sense of moderation that understands the inherent limits of politics in the search for human happiness.

Of course, this is easier said that done because it requires those involved in politics to accept limits. The more I understand about the modern state (ca. 1648-present) and modern politics, the more evident it seems to me that political figures and theorists promote the state as the universal solver of all problems that truly matter, making it difficult for modern political leaders of whatever stripe to stay out of the happiness-promotion business.

A critique of the Zimbardo prison experiment

My friend Kevin sent me an article by Peter Gray that criticizes the famous prison experiment in which Stanford students were made guards and prisoners to see how the environment of a prison affected human behavior.

Gray’s arguments are compelling, although of course it would be fascinating to see a response defending the experiment.

Begotten or MadeBegotten or Made by Oliver O’Donovan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

O’Donovan’s jumping-off point was a British government report on artificial fertilization in the 1980s. He explores the differences between making a child through technique (which a technology society wants to do for everything) and begetting (or attempting to beget) a child like ourselves but without the level of control that advances in reproductive technology promise. He attempts to think through these issues, and the purpose of medicine in general, in a Christian way, and also discusses sex change operations as examples of this modern assertion of technique over the human body.

I found his arguments provocative and persuasive, but I have read very little in the area of bioethics. It’s an area that I wish I knew more about.

View all my reviews

Ronald Reagan, nuclear weapons, and the Cold War

George Weigel has a short article at First Things that discusses Reagan’s attitude toward both the USSR and nuclear weapons. The whole thing is worth reading, but I found Reagan’s attitude toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki especially noteworthy:

As for his nuclear abolitionism, Reagan, according to his arms control director, Ken Adelman, was appalled by the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and hated the idea that an American president could wreak immeasurably greater destruction. Thus Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, far from being the cockamamie “Stars Wars” scheme it was promptly dubbed by political adversaries and journalists stuck in the conventional thinking of the era, was the technological expression of the president’s moral conviction that nuclear weapons were a grave danger that ought to be taken off-the-board in international public life.

Portraying Hugo Chavez as Christ

At First Things, Lisa Carroll-Davis recently described the Venezuelan president’s striking language about his predecessor Hugo Chávez on the one-year anniversary of his death: “Christ the Redeemer became flesh, became spirit, became truth in Chávez” and was “the Christ of the poor, the Christ of the humble, he who came to protect those who have had nothing.”

This was hardly an isolated incident:

The social unrest and economic privation that spilled out in protests in February 2014 were met by Venezuela’s leaders with redoubled proclamations of Chavista messianism. During the height of the protests, in a speech made March 5, 2014 at a military parade in Caracas marking the one year anniversary of Chávez’s death, Maduro proclaimed, Chávez “the Redeemer of the poor” and said that the poor were calling to Chávez the “Redeeming Christ of the 21st Century” to help them against the capitalist protestors attempting to undo all he had done for the poor….

In Venezuela, the conflation of politician and messiah have saturated the popular culture, as not only are the leftist political actors making statements exalting the deceased Chávez as Christ, the average citizens venerate the former president. Immediately after his passing in March 2013, public processions honoring Chávez included his supporters carrying posters of him and Jesus together. There were reports and pictures of widespread household altars to Chávez, with an effigy or image of him replacing Christ on the cross. Presenting Chávez as the messiah is not merely a convenient rhetorical trope for the ruling party. It is a sentiment that has been internalized and codified by those who supported him. What otherwise would be considered unorthodox, or at least heterodox, has become fully acceptable to a largely Catholic population.

Carroll-Davis puts this devotion to Chavez in the context of the Latin American Left and liberation theology.

World War I’s impact on world religion

Philip Jenkins’ new book on World War I’s religious dimensions, The Great and Holy War, sounds fascinating. In a post about how culture can change rapidly, he sums up the changes that he describes in the book:

The First World War’s impact on faith and faiths was immense. Reacting to the war’s horrors, thinkers of many shades rebelled against claims for human reason, culture and civilization, and sought new fundamental bases for religious authority – in Catholic terms, this would be a return to original sources, or ressourcement. In Protestant Christianity, we see this reaction in the work of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, both directly inspired by their responses to the war. More broadly, we look at thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Otto. In the same years, the war destroyed one ancient realm of Christianity – in the Middle East – and laid the foundations for a new Christian world, in Africa.

Judaism was transformed by the war, which for the first time made the Zionist dream feasible. At the same time, the widespread sense of national betrayal – of failed participation in the ultimate apocalyptic struggle – powerfully motivated the Anti-Semitism that flourished from the 1920s onwards. Neither of the two greatest events in modern Jewish history – the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel – would have been possible without the First World War, and its religious underpinnings.

Finally, the war’s outcome was critical to the modern history of Islam. The end of the Caliphate left the world’s Muslims in quest of alternatives, of a return to fundamental sources of religious authority. All the various solutions that we know in the Islamic world – from state secularism to radical Islamism – have their roots in the First World War and its immediate aftermath.

So the war sparked huge changes, and we are still living with the consequences. It marked a global religious revolution.

Studying the densely packed events of the Great War, it is often easy to forget just what a shockingly brief span of time they covered: just four years for formal hostilities, with several more years of chaos immediately following—but still less than a decade in all. And yet, as we have seen, the world changed totally in this time. Although Norman Stone was speaking chiefly of military and political trends, we readily echo his observation that “in four years, the world went from 1870 to 1940.” In religious terms, we might prefer to set the dates still wider apart—perhaps from 1850 to 1950.

I posted once before on Jenkins’ summary of the dark mood in Europe before World War I.


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