Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sexual morality

Christian ideas of sexual morality are based upon standards set down somewhere between 1500 BC and 50 AD. A lot has changed since then, to put it mildly. The Old Testament seems to me to have echoes of a conflict between pastoralists and agriculturalists (see Cain and Abel, and some comments about how Egyptians hated shepherds, for example.) It is also set in a time when patriarchy was just coming into its own, perhaps as a consequence of the transition away from a herding economy to a settled agricultural one. So the standards of morality were based on the need to pass land on from father to son, to have clear lines of patrimony, and to maximize fertility in order to "subdue the land." Women are treated as useful chattel.

Catholic teaching also reflects an overwhelming concern with making sure that people have the maximum number of children. Thus birth control, abortion, masturbation, and homosexuality all seem immoral because they detract from the imperative to have children. (Of course celibacy is a possibility, but actually priestly celibacy was imposed in order to prevent church property from being passed down to sons.)

Interestingly, Protestants and even people with no religious concern at all also had felt a moral imperative to have lots of children until fairly recently. Some American presidents had 8 or 9 or more. It was a sign of wealth and success. It was a sign of manliness to father large broods, and a sign of womanly competence to mother themn to adulthood. People viscerally wanted large families. The moral rules actually coincided with their inner moral sense that childlessness was selfish and immature and irresponsible. People needed children economically.

In the United States in particular (and no doubt Canada and Australia as well) the sense of a large unpeopled land made people uneasy. The idea that wilderness is attractive and appealing is very recent indeed. "A howling wilderness" is how people in the 1700s and 1800s perceived unsettled land. So having as many children as possible made instinctive sense to people.

But clearly both our reality and our inner sense of things have changed. We instinctively know that having more children is not economically necessary or helpful and that the world doesn't need as many more people as possible.

So our feelings about sexual morality no longer coincide with what we read in ancient documents. It takes real mental energy to explain why it's wrong to masturbate or to use birth control. (Protestants only became comfortable with birth control witin the past 60 years or so. In the past everyone knew that only a man having extramarital sex would have need for a condom.) The availability of safe and effective birth control makes pre-marital sex an attractive choice, whereas in the past pre-marital sex meant a child without the necessary support and a disaster for the "unwed mother" economically and thus socially. Now it doesn't mean any such thing.

If the spirit of God were moving among people today, leading them to look for the most loving and considerate answers to questions of sexual morality, would S/He not react to society as it actually is, rather than as it was 3000 years ago? Catholics in their millions have felt led by the most moral of considerations to use birth control and limit their families, and it's only the leadership which is stuck on old mores from old conditions. Most Christians who think much about it see the sense in allowing 2 men who love each other to form a family and adopt children. Surely this is more moral than condemning them to a life of shame and furtive unttached sexual encounters. Most Christians have already thrown in the towel on birth control, and pre-marital sex is condemned only in the faintest of ways. It is obvious to me that the hardline on abortion and homosexual relatinships are a rear-guard action that will whimper to an end within the next 30 or 40 years.

God in times past spoke through the prophets, but today His spirit resides within us, and we know that it is moral to have sex only with a person you are lovingly committed to and to only have as many children as you can provide with a strong start in life, and that they are not workers to help you but dependents whom you must nurture for 20 or more years.

Sensitive and thoughtful unbelievers probably have a keener sense of what today's sexual morality really entails than do people with their heads in an ancient book looking for rules. They hear what the Spirit has to say right now.


MikeL said...

Very interesting post, lots to think about here!

Can you explain a bit more about what I take to be your premise: "Christian ideas of sexual morality are based upon standards set down somewhere between 1500 BC and 50 AD."

What do you see as the source for these ideas? What I mean is, do you believe them to be divinely based, or more of a man-made construct derived from lived experience?

And kind of on a tangent, are you familiar with the growing chastity movement - more or less exemplified by authors Dawn Eden and Wendy Shalit? I don't know anything about Shalit's background, but Eden recently published a book in which she describes her embrace of today's sexual morality and the building emptiness that resulted, and how her life has changed for the better as she struggled and eventually succeeded to live chastely.

Evelyn said...

I said that our ideas of sexual morality were set down in 1500BC to 50AD based on rough dates for the OT and NT writing. I do not deny that the people who wrote the scriptures were sensing the spirit of God in creating these moral boundaries. What I question is why God would reveal these in a certain social and economic setting which was very different from ours (for example, desert nomads in pre-modern times) and then have nothing further to say on the matter. Is there any good reason why what was moral for them is exactly the same as what is moral for us? I argue that it's not. That as conditions change, so do moral decisions. If I am to believe that God wrote the Bible and that all He ever wanted us to know is contined therein, then I would have to conclude that He was neglectful in not giving us ethical and moral guidelines for organ transplantation or blood transfusions or cloning and so on. I think it is more realistic to admit that people intuited the will of God in connection with actual socioeconomic realities, and that we are abnle to do the same.

Evelyn said...

I am not familiar with either of the authors you mention, and I have no argument with people who want to live "chastely." I just think that God can speak to our spirits about what is moral as much as He could back in biblical times. And that in fact, people have evolved moral standards that work well in our socioeconomic situation, and those standards are not the same as those of previous generations. For a quick example, even 50 years ago, society would approve of the heroism of a woman who stayed with an abusive husband, seeing her as a martyr for her children's sake perhaps. Now, almost no one would come to that same moral decision. The reason is economic--that the woman can be expected to provide for her children apart from her husband, and thus self-sacrificing martyrdom is just stupid. 50 or 100 years ago, the realities were different and so were the moral responses of sensitive people.

On a slightly different issue, I am reading a book set in 1848 aboard a British naval ship. According to this source, the punishment for sodomy (ie homosexuality) on board a ship was death by hanging. That was felt to be necessary to maintain discipline. Almost no one, however conservative, would support the biblical or societal injunction that calls for the execution of male homosexuals. Are we wrong and they right? Are they right and we wrong? I think they had their reasons and it may have been "moral" at that time, but the circumcstances have changed, as I argue in my post, and now the instincts of our consience are not the same. That's as it should be. Slavery may not have been wrong in 1000 BC. It certainly is today.

MikeL said...

You said: "What I question is why God would reveal these in a certain social and economic setting which was very different from ours (for example, desert nomads in pre-modern times) and then have nothing further to say on the matter. Is there any good reason why what was moral for them is exactly the same as what is moral for us? I argue that it's not. That as conditions change, so do moral decisions."

Ahh, I gotcha! Thanks for the clarification. I disagree with you on this point, in that I believe morality is independent of societal conditions.

I think we both agree that God has not stopped talking to us, and that the Bible does not contains all that he wants us to know. However, I suspect we disagree, at least to some extent, on the practical implications.

Thanks for you replies, I hope you blog does well, I've always enjoyed your posts on CARM and AARM/Talk Beliefs, they are well thought out and interesting. Looking forward to more discussion.

MikeL said...

BTW, what's the book about the British Navy that you mentioned?

Evelyn said...

It's not exactly about the British Navy, but it does involve them. It's called The Terror. If you like adventure stories set in cold climates, you might enjoy it. It's about a ship locked in arctic ice while searching for the Northwest Passage. It's 700+ pages long and I'm in the middle, but it's interesting. A bit of what appears (so far) to be almost supernatural events, but maybe they're natural.

Lily said...

I read your original article, earlier in the week andthought is was entertaining and very thoughtful.
My beliefs and thoughts on sexual practices or lack of them have changed over the years and my situation(s).
I listen in meditation and prayer and allow my actions to be based on what seems right and sane for me....not what the specific religion I was baptized into is preaching on the altar on any speicific weekend.
There is more peace in my life now than when I allowed the interpretor of scripture in any given venue to dicate my life to me in any realm of activity.

the cryptic cactus.............