A story was told by a modern, North American Orthodox Priest, about a young man of his Parish who came to confession. Among the sins confessed was “I cheated on my girlfriend.” Unsure what was meant, the Priest sought clarification: “I had sex with another girl, Father.”
I’m not making that up, though I don’t remember who told it. It has haunted me all the same.
This is not a “what is wrong with the younger generation?!” lament. Really. Bear with me. If you’re in the younger generation, I’m giving your mote a free pass today and focusing on my generation’s beam.
So if this is not a “what is wrong with the younger generation?!” lament, then what is it?
It’s primarily a commendation of Fr. Lawrence’s “Meditation on Fornication, secondarily to focus on why my generation failed to transmit it this “message”, and thirdly to spell out a few things that I, an intellectualoid and dilettante, found notable about, or might profitably be added to, Fr. Lawrence’s meditation. I hope that the younger generation (or its descendants) will give a little grace to my generation when they figure out how we failed them, and that any reader who has lost the way might follow the trail of breadcrumbs I’ll lay back to a safer and healthier place.
That sound like a book preface. It’s not, but I kinda worked and worked on this until I felt guilty about other chores and packed it up.
I shook my head in amazement at “cheated on my girlfriend,” as did the Priest. But Fr. Lawrence Farley tells a parallel story:
Our present secular culture has fixed a great gap between people of my generation (i.e. those from the Jurassic period) and modern young people. And this gap is most easily observed when looking at our divergent understandings of fornication. Indeed, I remember once giving instruction to a young (chaste) catechumen, and casually mentioning that the Church opposed fornication. The eyes of the young’un glazed over a bit before asking me what fornication was. The person wasn’t asking for a more precise definition; rather, the person had no idea what the word meant. The word had effectively vanished from modern vocabulary and could only be recovered by looking it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. The current phrase used to describe the practice is, I am told, “hooking up”.
(Emphasis added) It isn’t recorded whether the young catechumen was chaste by principle – whether he knew that he shouldn’t hook up. I assume he also didn’t know about “sublimation,” for which a synechdoche is “cold showers.” But the anecdote introduces something more:
If I were to respond to the question “Why should I not hook up?”, by saying “You should not ‘hook up’ because Scripture forbids it”, they would simply respond in turn, “Why on earth does it forbid it?” Young people are looking for inner rationale, and for a real and sensible reason, not for proof-texts. And, given our present culture, they have a point.
Fr. Lawrence really focuses on a principal reason for not hooking up. I highly commend his meditation, not just for skimming, but for, well, meditation. Especially if you’re in the generation my generation failed.
My generation failed to transmit any reason for not hooking up, and even failed to transmit the vocabulary of “fornication,” because we rejected it. We rejected it, in part, because it was clumsily transmitted to us. The way it came to me (and the fault may have been between my ears, though an effective communicator must try to discern such things) was as arbitrary and slightly dubious rules, or as scare tactics. It was, basically, a beta version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 1.0, though it sounded more like “God said it. Get over it.”
One of the Ten Commandment forbade adultery, and my elders (or so it seems to me) blurred the line between adultery and fornication so as to forbid us the latter. But the media, such as classic films, were soft on adultery (“we have a right to be happy” was the trope C.S. Lewis challenged) anyway, and a young person with “an urge to merge” could readily discover that fornication and adultery weren’t the same thing. There was no express Commandment against fornication, and you won’t find it in the red letters Jesus spoke, either. Last but not least, you could always stop at “shortstop” (though in those days we called that “third base”) and you weren’t even fornicating yet!
If you hadn’t made the connection yet, Bill Clinton is in my generation, and was raised Baptist; his equivocal deception “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky” was based squarely on “sex” = “home plate.” (This mechanical and legalistic approach was, it seems to me, a characteristic – though perhaps not universal – shortcoming of the Evangelicalism of my youth.) And a lot of the opponents who called him a liar believed the same thing, no doubt.
Penicillin and the pill, moreover, seemed to dispose of the scare tactics, so you might as well round third and head for home. That’s what James Howard Kunstler, in different context, calls “techno-triumphalism” (he’s not an Abstinence Educator): the sky’s the limit because technology has freed us from the bondage of our forebears. That’s generally delusional, at least in the area of sex, for reasons Fr. Lawrence explains.
Technology only frees us from obviously uncharitable effects of fornication, and from those it does so quite imperfectly, as exotic new STDs and contraceptive failures demonstrate. It does nothing about the subtler uncharitable effects or about the scars we put on our own souls by indulging the heck out of lust while trying to observe the bright line we’re not supposed to cross.
So basically, my generation ended up without a very satisfying rationale for chastity, which reminds me of one more thing: my elders gave me no positive incitement to chastity, which is a virtue. All they effectively gave me was limits on how far I could go into vice, which in my mind is a potential problem with today’s Abstinence Education as well. It tends to be “all stick, no carrot” – and penicillin and the pill broke the stick.
Add to that that while cinema today has turned negative on adultery (think Fatal Attraction), it’s now all-fornication-all-the-time (do you really need an example?). Our imaginations get even more strongly into the feedback loop – or speed up the death spiral, if you prefer.
I’ll leave it to the few remaining members of my “older generation” to explain why they didn’t know about “chastity-the-virtue” and not just about “abstinence-the-cross-to-be-born-cuz-god-sez-so.” It may involve flappers, the Great Depression, and the rigors of war (and opportunities for adultery wrought by wartime separation).
Now: what’s so notable about Fr. Lawrence’s meditation?
What I found notable is, first, that his rationale is rooted in an anthropology. He has an idea of what humans are for, what constitutes authentic human thriving.
In other words, Fr. Lawrence’s rationale tacitly gives a positive human reasons for chastity (though he doesn’t use the word): fornication costs us something we all should cherish: “I refer to the secret cost to the inner ability to make connections, to the creeping insensibility to the other, and the denied possibilities for growth [read “thriving”].” (Fr. Lawrence)
Second, his Orthodox Christian anthropology leads him to a different emphasis and tone than arguments from “Natural Law,” characteristic of Roman Catholic apologists – even ones so fine as Robert P. George or Ryan Anderson.
Archpriest Professor John Strickland in his podcast series on the Rise and Fall of Christendom just uploaded his 5th episode on the rise of anthropological pessimism in the West following the Great Schism. I think he’s onto something. I’d characterize the different emphasis of Fr. Lawrence’s meditation as compared to Natural Law arguments as being on the communion of persons (Orthodox) versus the procreative teleology of sex (Natural Law).
I still remain something of a fan of Natural Law, but that’s probably partly because my imagination was formed in the West, I want to know articulable truths, and I remain less than 100% comfortable emotionally with tacit knowledge, though I believe it’s legitimate.
one two three four more things.
- I think Fr. Lawrence’s meditation might leave one “out” for a young person with that old urge to merge: “fornication” = “home plate.” Don’t believe it. Sexualizing a relationship, even if it stops at first base (a very difficult stop to make, to be sure; I still remember the first girl who “slipped me a tongue”) also tends to diminish the ability to make connections, and to feed a creeping insensibility to the other. Not going even to first base, not beginning to sexualize a relationship outside marriage, is included in what I think of, and commend, as “chastity.” It may keep you from thinking of other people in terms of sexually attractive or unattractive body parts, too, as a celebrity “conservative” very recently and infamously did, revealing some scars on his soul in the process.
- There may be a continuum of promiscuity to commitment. Traditional Marriage, with no “no fault” escape door and with mental as well as physical fidelity, involves the ultimate commitment. Promiscuity is no commitment – selfie sex. It’s tempting to say that selfies shall not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, not because they’ve ticked off God, but because self-absorption alienates one from God as well as from other humans. Read C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce. The young penitent who “cheated on his girlfriend” at least knew that sex should involve commitment. That’s better than nothing for a spiritual physician to work with.
- I am not here denying that same-sex love (setting aside for now whether it’s storge, philia, eros or agape) can contribute to some aspects of human thriving. (I’ve got a link to Spiritual Friendship in the side bar, for goodness sake, and just added a category for “The New Homophiles.”)
- It is my concern for emotional and spiritual health that makes me return so often to sexuality topics, as I do believe that the inappropriate use of sexuality (construed most broadly), homo- or hetero-, coarsens us and poisons darn near everything in interpersonal relationships. The eventuality of that is “Hell is other people.” I’m trying to join the battle for human dignity where it’s most radically threatened today.
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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)