Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Puritanism:
Fear of Sex, Fear of the Material Order, and Fear of Worship

Our society seems addicted to two very destructive fixations, which I hinted at in my previous post: namely the desire for wealth and the desire for power.  These manifest themselves in materialism and bureaucracy.  While I understand the concerns of the commentator to the previous post, I do not think these things are inevitable.  The worldly-wise may think so:  As Chesterton says "The wise men know what wicked things | Are written on the sky" (The Ballad of the White Horse).  However, I have hope.  As Russell Kirk is fond of pointing out, no cause is ever lost, because no cause is ever won.  There is victory, but there is no finally victory here, where the only perfection is that of the wayfarer, and our continued hope is manifest in our ability to continue striving.

What we can do, what is needful to our striving, is to analyze, diagnose, apply remedies, and do what we can to bring some health to our souls, and to our own little community, and to the community of man.  Much of this consists in putting ourselves in the way of God, in short, of cultivating sacredness, for sacredness is precisely openness to God.  Therefore let us begin with some analysis.

As I look at the history of the West, of Christian society, one problem in particular seems to take center stage, one that has finally erupted with full force in our time, and that is our inability to deal with human sexuality.  In fact, a theme emerges starting in the early Middle Ages, and reaching increasing force, and that theme is a real fear of sex, and especially of the male libido.  It becomes strongly apparent in the writings of the high Middle Ages, starting with Peter Damian, and also in other writers on the moral life who are otherwise well considered and rational, for instance Thomas Aquinas.  In particular, the Sin of Sodom comes to be seen, not as the Scriptures and the early Church saw it, as violence against the stranger (which may likely have included rape) but as anal sex per se, and the word "sodomy" was coined to describe it.  Anal sex is, in fact, elsewhere condemned by the Torah, but which rabbinical commentators do not relate to the story of Sodom.  This mediaeval redefinition of the sin of Sodomy was later expanded by moral writers, but not by canonists, to include any kind of non-procreative sexuality.  Thus "masturbation" (meaning to defile with the hand) came eventually to be included under the moralists' definition of Sodomy.

The Medieval Latin Church, and, following it, the Greek Church, came to see any kind of sexual activity which was not procreative as sinful. Even sexual intercourse of a man with his wife for the purpose of avoiding fornication was seen to be venially sinful.  Self-pleasuring, homosexuality, and sexual activity between married couples not ending in intercourse was mortally sinful, as they still are in the teaching of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches today.  The basis of these prohibitions was claimed to be Scripture, i.e., the Bible, but Scripture as expressing natural law.  By natural law, one means that these activities were contrary to how human beings were created to function, when functioning in a manner healthful to individuals and to human society.

Now, as Christians we should make a presumption that something which has been held, or apparently held, by most of the churches throughout history is in fact correct.  However, this teaching is accompanied by some serious problems that an honest analysis must face, and which may force their re-examination. The first, and I think, most telling, is the paranoia surrounding sexual matters, and the consequent inability to discuss them analytically and rationally.

There is in mediaeval texts a reluctance to name sexual sins, especially those associated with homosexuality, as if even to name them would let something uncontrollable out of its box.  These texts were written by celibates, which may explain this.  However, such an inability to name it reveals a neurotic inability to deal rationally with it.  There is further in these texts a despising of our "animal" nature.  It is indeed clear in some places that the goal is to become angelic, that is, for all practical purposes, free from our animal nature.  This represents a serious theological problem, given the Christian teaching regarding the goodness of the material order, and the resurrection of the body.

Consequent to this first problem is the increasing inability to deal with sexual language, imagery, and concepts when they occur in Scripture and the liturgy. One gets the sense, reading objections in the later Middle Ages to the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, that this is in part motivated by a fear that the laity will have to deal with, among other things, that there are a lot of sexual allusions in the Bible and in the liturgy.  That these might, by God's providence, be precisely in Scripture so as to give the faithful a means of facing their sexuality, dealing with it, and offering up their sexuality for sanctification is very far from consideration.

In light of this, an interesting thing happens at the Reformation.  The Bible and and the liturgy were translated into the vernacular, but then people began to realize, with some shock, that there was sex in the Bible.  Let me take an obvious example.  The Canticle, Benedictus, used in Lauds, and also in Anglican Morning Prayer, contains the phrase "The Lord, God of Israel...has raised up a horn of salvation to us, in the house of His Servant David" (1549 BCP, spelling modernized).  Any one who studies the Hebrew Scriptures should realize that "horn" is a standard, and rather common, term for the male member, and also associated with the begetting of children.  Used in the New Testament context, it means that the Christ is the "horn" who begets new children in the order of salvation.  It is, in fact, the only reference to our Lord by a part of his body in the New Testament (a fact which rather puts such devotions as those to the Sacred Heart in perspective).  However, the Reformers seem quickly to have realized that they had violated a sexual taboo, and thus altered the text to "mighty salvation" in subsequent editions of the Book of Common Prayer, even though that meant, in fact, obscuring the meaning of the original text.

This is not the only case of this. While for instance, the Authorized (i.e., "King James") version of the Bible is relatively explicit in its sexual (and other bodily) references, subsequent editions of the Scriptures and the liturgy move further and further away from literal translation precisely to avoid these things, culminating in many current "inclusive" translations, which seem bent on avoiding sexual references—especially references to maleness and male sexuality—altogether.

At the same time that this process of avoiding sexuality was gaining steam, another was also another going on, and that is the rise of what we may call Puritanism with regards to the liturgy and Christian art. Perhaps the first sign of this was the Cistercian movement, some of whose early promoters practiced a super asceticism, destructive to bodily health.  These "reform" movements grew in force, and contributed greatly to the iconoclasm of the Reformation.  In particular, religious emotions, and the material and bodily elements in Christian worship were attacked.  Was this because they aroused forbidden sexual feelings?

Certainly it is the case that the language of Scripture and of the liturgy plays on the erotic, and uses it as a means of approaching God.  In the time since the Reformation, precisely those elements in Christian life which involved worship and sexuality have been increasingly marginalized or removed.  There have been attempts to restore worship, of which I can take the Oxford Movement as a good example.  But this was met with powerful resistance in Victorian times, and, I suspect, one reason was the Victorian inability to deal with the erotic, especially as related to religion.

What has happened in the last century or so is the collapse of the old sexual mores.  But these have not been replaced by an ordered sexuality based on a nuanced and thought out approach to natural law and the role of sexuality in the economy of redemption.  Rather there is still an inability to deal with sexuality on a rational basis, but this is now accompanied by a large degree of irresponsible sexual acting out, mostly, it must be said, heterosexual acting out, with very destructive consequences, most obviously the taking of innocent human life.  At the same time, there has been an unprecedented attack on the liturgy, especially in the Roman Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council.   Part of the latter appears to be an a assault on a liturgical system which was seen as being sexually repressive.  This is ironic, as in fact the ancient Roman liturgy preserves the greatest wealth of sexual imagery, and thus the greatest possibility of putting our sexuality in God's hands.  Nonetheless, these two things, the inability to deal with human sexuality, and the assault on the liturgy and the whole concept of the sacred, do very much appear to go together.  We now live in a time where we as a society actually suffer from a great fear of worship, indeed, an inability to settle down, create sacred space, and have an attitude of openness ad worship towards God.  We suffer as well, despite our attempts at Sexual Revolution, from an utter inability to face our sexuality in its wholeness, and a fear of male sexuality especially.  That these two extremely destructive societal neuroses, destructive indeed of our civilization, are related, and that their mutual resolution lies in a common solution, I no longer have any doubt.