I don’t know when Rod Dreher sleeps. He must read and write about 22 hours a day. He’s currently on a book tour – ten cities in eleven days – while suffering mono.
Bearing in mind that he’s a journalist, which means that he popularizes (and perhaps, even worse, further popularizes the popularizers), I think his piece on the cosmology of the sexual revolution, released Thursday, is stunning in its scope and perceptiveness. This may be the piece he was hurrying to finish, and with which he muttered some dissatisfaction, before the book tour.
This whole blog today, accordingly, is a reflection on it. All block quotes are his unless otherwise identified.
I have written in defense of traditional marriage largely in terms of anthropology. That doesn’t mean I’m an anthropologist in any academic sense, nor does it mean that academic anthropologists ipso facto have a better idea than I do about these matters.
It means, rather, that anthropologies are sort of like a******s: everybody has one, tacit or explicit.
Everyone has a cosmology, too, and Dreher points out that the sexual revolution, of which same-sex marriage is the latest and most definitive battle, is the defeat of Christian cosmology.
Back in 1993, a cover story in The Nation identified the gay-rights cause as the summit and keystone of the culture war: All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.
That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.
It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.
In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.
Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.
(Citing Phillip Rieff as well as Ruden; hyperlinks added)
Channeling sexuality and turning the other cheek; no wonder Ayn Rand so hated Christianity.
So: what if we do re-paganize around sensuality and “sexual liberation”? “[W]omen, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure” will be – no, make that “are rapidly becoming” – foremost among the victims. Doubt it? Then you haven’t been paying attention to things like this, this and this.
It didn’t start with William Jefferson (“Fellate Me, Low-Status Woman!”) Clinton, but he’s a nice emblem. Now boys are not just rapists, but they’re shameless and fearless about it, and with good cause. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police spent a year concluding that there was no evidence of a rape although “dozens of teens and adults had heard the rapists brag about taking part in the gang rape, that the photo taken of the rape was … widely circulated ….”
The Steubenville convictions are the exception, not the rule. They’re the exception because of phenomena like my own shameful mixed reaction: what are 15- and 16-year-olds doing getting drunk at parties? Where are their parents? What did the victim expect: all the fun, but without the social media nudes?
I, too, grew up in this culture.
What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.
To Rieff, ours is a particular kind of “revolutionary epoch” because the revolution cannot by its nature be institutionalized. Because it denies the possibility of communal knowledge of binding truths transcending the individual, the revolution cannot establish a stable social order. As Rieff characterizes it, “The answer to all questions of ‘what for’ is ‘more’.”
Our post-Christian culture, then, is an “anti-culture.” We are compelled by the logic of modernity and the myth of individual freedom to continue tearing away the last vestiges of the old order, convinced that true happiness and harmony will be ours once all limits have been nullified.
Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship of Christ to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.
“The answer to all questions of ‘what for’ is ‘more’”; I’ve got to think that Rieff had read his Chesterton:
Every one of the popular modern phases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid talking about what is good . . . The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.”
(Chesterton on Modern Ideas from The Quotable Chesterton, than reading which one could do much, much worse. Emphasis added.)
If the charge of “anti-culture” seems abrupt or a nonsequitur, maybe it’s because I hadn’t yet quoted this: “For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids.”
Conservative Christians have lost the fight over gay marriage and, as we have seen, did so decades before anyone even thought same-sex marriage was a possibility.
Gay-marriage proponents succeeded so quickly because they showed the public that what they were fighting for was consonant with what most post-1960s Americans already believed about the meaning of sex and marriage. The question Western Christians face now is whether or not they are going to lose Christianity altogether in this new dispensation.
Too many of them think that same-sex marriage is merely a question of sexual ethics. They fail to see that gay marriage, and the concomitant collapse of marriage among poor and working-class heterosexuals, makes perfect sense given the autonomous individualism sacralized by modernity and embraced by contemporary culture—indeed, by many who call themselves Christians. They don’t grasp that Christianity, properly understood, is not a moralistic therapeutic adjunct to bourgeois individualism—a common response among American Christians, one denounced by Rieff in 2005 as “simply pathetic”—but is radically opposed to the cultural order (or disorder) that reigns today.
For Krustian readers, that second paragraph – nay, this whole blog, and Dreher’s whole piece – will scan like this: “… same-sex marriage … makes perfect sense … individualism … American ….”
And there, gentle reader, is the rub.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)