No limits, no culture: portents of a post-Christian America
May 23, 2013 (Breakpoint.org) - On May 7th, Delaware became the eleventh state to legalize same-sex marriage. On May 14th, Minnesota became the twelfth.
While that leaves thirty-eight states that haven’t redefined marriage, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves. As Rod Dreher recently pointed out in “The American Conservative,” historians will one day remember our time as “a cultural revolution.”
Now to students of history, that phrase “cultural revolution” brings to mind Mao’s attempt to re-invent Chinese society by waging war on what he called the “Four Olds”—Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas—in the mid-1960s.
Something infinitely less violent but no less drastic is underway in American culture today. As Dreher writes, “same-sex marriage strikes the decisive blow against the old order . . . For better or for worse, it will make ours a far less Christian culture.”
Nowhere is the waning of Christianity’s influence more keenly felt than in the relationship between culture, restraint, and sex.
Dreher cites classics scholar Sarah Ruden, whose book “Paul Among the Gentiles” was the subject of a BreakPoint three years ago. According to Ruden, “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.”
On the contrary, “Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time . . .” Christianity “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.”
As Ruden put it, Christian ideas about marriage were “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.”
Remove Christianity from the equation and the grounds for restraint, which were based on a Christian anthropology, are gone. And it’s not just sex: there would be no grounds for “[restraining] individual passions and [channeling] them creatively towards communal purposes.”
And this is a problem that goes far beyond same-sex marriage or even sex—it goes to the heart of culture itself. As Dreher, citing the work of the sociologist Philip Rieff, writes “the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands.”
These demands, in turn, grow out of that culture’s “sense of sacred order.”
In the West, that “sense of sacred order” came from Christianity. That’s not to say that the Christian West always lived up to its own professed ideals. But those ideals did serve as a standard by which to measure our actions.
In post-Christian America, what is left is, in the words of the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, the belief “in one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self-definition.”
We are embarking on an unprecedented social experiment: What kind of culture is possible when prohibition itself is prohibited? When the only limit concerning sexual behavior is on making limits? As the millennia-old definition of marriage is quickly becoming incomprehensible, it is foolish to think that the experimentation will stop with same-sex marriage.
As Christians we must recalibrate how we prepare students for this culture. The just-say-no approaches of the past that went after sexual behavior will fail in an age in which young imaginations about sexuality are continually assaulted and shaped by broken images, teachings, and examples.
Reprinted with permission from Breakpoint.org.