The following is a talk I gave at the PURSUE Conference, an Alabama Baptist Convention sponsored gathering of college students, campus ministers, and church college leaders, on Saturday February 21st, 2015.
I have a friend who is a philosopher and has taught and published in the field for nearly 30 years. On Monday we were discussing same-sex marriage and he made this surprising observation:
“There has been no major philosophy seminar or conference on sexual morality in years. I have asked other philosophers and they agree. Like most other disciplines, philosophy has accepted the consensual wave of sexual liberation in our society. It is shocking that those who by profession ought to be the most reflective and critically engaged people in the academy do not seem willing to engage the topic of sexual morality to any substantive degree.”
To confirm, I searched online for every philosophy conference scheduled for 2015 and I found every imaginable topic, but nothing on sexual morality. In other words, philosophers who talk about everything aren’t talking about this, at least not publically. Philosophers who critique everything about society aren’t criticizing this. I suspect there are three reasons for the silence. First, the topic of sexual ethics is now so volatile that if the CEO of Chick-fil-A states an opinion, or the star of Duck Dynasty makes a politically incorrect comment, the shock waves are so severe, so divisive, so lasting, that most consider it not worth the risk.
The second reason for the silence is that questions of sexual morality are largely decided by the culture at large. Our society now considers acceptable any sexual behavior that takes place between consenting adults, so there’s not much left to debate. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 37 states, and many experts think it will be 50 states in a matter of months. So with the legal questions mostly settled, the only major question remaining, it seems, is how churches will respond. The religious questions are the only ones left. Secular institutions have little interest in such questions, so the conversation shuts down.
Third, people aren’t talking about sexual morality because it’s viewed as a threat to sexual liberation, and thus a threat to self-actualization. In a post-Christian society, self-actualization is the only morally obvious truth. Tolerance is the only universally accepted norm. Few are willing to challenge our permissive sexual culture for fear that they will be viewed as bigoted, or fundamentalist, or regressive. In fact most people have now become so hypersensitive to intolerance that they’ve become ironically intolerant. The prevailing culture is so powerful, that philosophers seem unwilling to challenge it. Some of the most argumentative people in our society seem willing to concede the argument without an actual debate.
Sexual morality is still worth discussing and even arguing about, because sex is part of the world that God created. “And God looked at ALL that he created and behold, it was good.” So how should Christians contribute to a conversation about which secular society has become so closed-minded? We must engage with creativity and intelligence and compassion and self-awareness. The old rhetoric of “hate the sin, love the sinner” is not enough. We’ve got to do better than catch phrases like “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” We’ve got to use the Bible with greater care than simply proof-texting Leviticus and tossing around the word homosexuality, lumping behavior and orientation in one package and calling it all a sin. We have to distinguish carefully between biblical morality and constitutional rights in a secular democracy. We cannot claim that same-sex marriage is destroying family values while neglecting the fact that divorce and adultery and domestic violence have been eating away at the family for decades. We shouldn’t oppose gay marriage while simultaneously ignoring the fact that 60% of Christian teens who pledged to wait until marriage to have sex, broke that pledge. We have got to do more than merely address the hot topics of the day, fighting the culture wars, passing resolution after resolution, as if anyone outside our camp cares. We have to recognize that our sexuality is broken in multiple and complex ways, and we must re-affirm some foundational principles upon which sexual morality should be established in the first place. And here, Christians have much to offer, much more I would argue than any other group of people in our society.
So, here’s what the Christian tradition (Bible, the Church, the experience of Christians for centuries) has to contribute to the conversation at large on sexual morality:
- Sexual identity – We are sexual beings, but our sexuality is by no means the most important thing about us. If it were, that what would we say about people who are disabled to the extent that they cannot enjoy sexual pleasure, or the extremely young or old people for whom sexual pleasure isn’t possible yet or any longer, or people who choose not to satisfy sexual desires through celibacy? Are these people somehow less human? No. We are created in the image of God. We are known by God, every day ordained and every hair numbered. We are loved by God, and nothing we can do can make him love us more or less than he does. And in Jesus Christ, we are saved by God, justified by God, adopted by God, we are the Bride of Christ, the Church, we are the hands and feet of God, and one day we will be perfected by God. I am a follower of Christ before I am a man, or a heterosexual, or a husband, or a father, or a campus minister. I am Christ’s first and foremost, and therein lies my primary identity. That’s were our conversation should begin.
- Sexual fulfillment – Most believe that self-actualization necessitates sexual fulfillment. To be happy, satisfied, fulfilled, I must be sexually satisfied. Nonsense. Christians are crazy enough to claim that sexual fulfillment not necessary. We are crazy enough to follow Jesus, who was a single man. And we read, study, and follow the instructions of Paul, who was a single man, whose inspired teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 is that it is better to remain single; that it is “good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” We idealize marriage in the Church when the Church’s greatest leaders were single. I know what you’re saying. “That’s easy for you to say. You’re married,” as if being married means that I get all the legal sex I want whenever I want it. Nonsense. The only people who think like that have never been married. Marriage requires sexual discipline just as much as singleness. I know! I’ve been both single and married and I promise that fidelity is just as difficult as celibacy. In fact, celibacy is the best practice I know for fidelity. Life in Christ requires sexual discipline no matter who you are.
- Sexual environment – Our appetites have gone wrong. Pornography culture alone proves this. Pornography is now a $13 billion dollar industry worldwide, and much of that revenue funds criminality and terrorism. When you visit a porn site, the advertising revenue from that site not only helps to exploit the weak, to entrap women in sexual slavery, to objectify and degrade men, women and children, to re-wire your own sexual appetites rendering healthy relationships nearly impossible. The per-click ad revenue that porn sites generate also helps to fund global terrorism. This is where sexual liberation has gotten us. Can we all agree that whether heterosexual or homosexual, our sexual appetites are screwed up? We’re all in it together and it’s a big mess.
- Sexual future – Here Christians have good news. In addition to courage, and common sense, and some core convictions, Christians have good news. God is redeeming our world, and that includes sexuality. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” And that includes sexuality. Jesus died to fix our world. And that includes sexuality. But more importantly, it includes the things to which sexuality is meant to contribute: intimacy, security, community, companionship, and love. These are found first and finally in Jesus Christ, and that’s true whether you are gay or straight. That’s true whether you are single or married. That’s true whether you have a checkered past or not. God is going to fix all things:
And then I saw a new heaven and a new earth … and I saw the holy city coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away.
And that’s the way the story ends. Christians have good news about sex, because we have good news about the world. The world is good; the world is fallen; the world will be redeemed. And until that time we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”