23 June 2014

Sex and Christianity - Same Sex Acceptance is Just Another in a Series of Revolutions

For centuries, the Catholic Church taught that every kind of sex was sinful. Well, all but one kind of sex: sex between married people who were - in that very instance - trying to make a baby. Sex between two women who didn't know each other's middle names or sex between a couple who were madly in love after 20 years of marriage was all sin if it wasn't part of creating the next generation.

Pleasure. Strengthening a relationship. Sex for such suspect reasons was sin.

Few Christians today would agree with that. What was so obvious in one century eventually became anything but obvious in another.

Social conservatives like to think that they are holding to something timeless. In fact, they are holding onto some notion of normal they learned when they were first forming their opinions about the world. It's true that what they believe falls into the category of  "how it has always been" but that "always" simply describes all they have ever personally known. Time doesn't even leave continents in one place, much less notions of normal.

History changes everything and you can see why this unsettling fact would lead so many social conservatives to reject the notion of evolution. Once you admit that things have continually changed, you have to admit that there's no reason your generation will be spared from - or ruined by - change.


Bill Abendroth said...

Far be it for me to impugn the intellectual integrity of the author, who by all accounts is smarter than I am (despite having attended an inferior high school), but I was hoping for specific examples of "revolutions" in Christian ideology.

On his general point--that "...but it's **always** been this way..." really means "...it's always been this way, since the latter half of the 20th century in western Europe and North America"--there's no doubt. But some examples would be nice.

The classic example is how/why the church adopted the Aristotelian view that the sun revolved around the earth (which can't be supported by anything in the Bible), then abandoned that belief (sort of), when the calendars weren't working out. Copernicus saved the day--kind of--because he didn't push the issue, as Galileo did.

In terms of sex, though, even Martin Luther believed that marital sex was a sin, unless specifically for procreation. There's also a long, torrid history of taboos around menstruation...But the point remains: Be very careful before saying "always."

Three last points.

Eventually, when the Roman Catholic Church accepts/adopts same sex marriage--just my personal opinion--while that is a huge deal, the reforms from Vatican II were still a bigger "revolution."

And second, in Steven Pinker's The
Better Angels of Our Natures, Pinker points to like half a dozen "political" changes in human society, that have led to a steady decrease in "violence," from our bad ol' days of hunter-gatherers. One of those tendencies is the change in legal status of women and children from chattel to actual people, independent of someone of age with a Y chromosome...A true social revolution in both Christianity and the world (if you have not read Pinker's book, it is a fun read).

Finally, let me just repeat what we all already know: everything you need to know about life, the universe, and everything can be found between the covers of The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization.

Ron Davison said...

Ha! I am beginning to suspect that your confidence in the 4th Economy rests on not having read it.
You are right that this is terribly high-level. Intentionally so. And while Martin Luther thought it was wrong to have sex for pleasure, he didn't think it was wrong for priests to have sex or take a bride. That was revolutionary. And it seems like in history that revolutions come in small increments.
Examples of changes in attitudes towards sex within Christianity include Martin Luther's inclusion of priests among the wed and legally sexual. And you are right that it is more recent that most of Christianity has more or less accepted sex for pleasure. (In defense of medieval theologians who didn't understand how to avoid pregnancies and STDs, abstinence in every instance except for willful procreation was actually a pretty honorable goal, however tough it was to get anyone to listen.)
My always sort of language, is, I guess, more a vote of confidence in the long game based on how far we've come - exactly the sorts of things that Pinker points to. What is normal keeps changing but - I think - in one particular direction: the institutions (like the church) increasingly defer to the individual. And if they don't, individuals will just go create another institution. Social invention won't stop any sooner than technological invention.