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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Orthodox Sex

A friend articulates a critique of theological orthodoxy (and hence fundamentalism) that one hears often in the academy:

I would say that any orthodoxy wants to create totalitarian conditions (as in total adherence,
devotion, obedience, compliance), and hence political totalitarianism is not far from religious fundamentalism. Both require a form of literal reading and rigidly rational thinking (or should I say, rigidly rational lack of thinking).

Most of my clergy friends describe themselves as "theologically orthodox" or "speaking from the center of their tradition" while politically revolutionary and postmodern.

We liberals caricature the church a lot, but I've learned -- from history -- that this is not either fair, or in our best interest, considering the rebel, revolutionary saints of the centuries who spillt their blood to make sure that the texts of all orthodoxies have limits set into them.  The beauty of the system is that those creeds are *short*.  They're short because the orthodoxy realizes that it only has authority to comment on certain disagreements. 

Catholicism is, by definition of St Vincent, "what all have believed for all of time;" all of time is pretty liberal -- there's always been labor, there have always been women; any conservative aberrancy is by definition *not* orthodox.  Old "Tory" politics in Britain gets you somewhere near this definition of old conservative: we know you can't exploit workers too much or go too near capitalism, because if you do, you will cause revolt.  We've known that for all time.  Only recently have capitalism moguls found ingenious ways of escaping from eternal wisdom. 

So, for instance, I've been thinking all weekend about the article on birth control in the NYTimes, and I'm afraid I'm quite riled up about the false claims to orthodoxy there.  The fundamentalists claim that the pill is the "worst thing for man since the Fall," a great aberrancy; a plague of promiscuity descending since 1960.  A more distorting statement of theological orthodoxy for our times, I cannot imagine. 

Any social historian worth her salt can tell you that the unwed have been sleeping with each other for millenia.  Sometimes with social approval, sometimes without.  Before the pill there was withdrawal.  We know that women told each other about it.  We know that premarital sex happened at a high rate for all of the modern period, certainly, and that parents and villagers only intervened to force a marriage when there was a child.  This counters the fundamentalists not with some better *ideal* version of what God wants for women (although that has a place), but with *common* sense about what all people have known for all of time. 

All people know that sex is the possibility of a fundamental connection to another person.  All people know that having sex doesn't necessarily put one person in everlasting contact with the other: neither does conversation, neither does love; neither does marriage; and even marriage approved by a community and sanctified by God may turn into a nightmare if persons only vaguely in touch with themselves then learn to talk to themselves honestly and figure out that they're not the person their spouse thought they were.

 All human relationships, even the best intended, can turn into exploitation, for the human being is, as Heidegger put it, not a machine in that he always holds something in reserve -- something that can come out and complicate relationships -- sometimes to the point that those relationships will disintegrate. 

Human beings know that pair bonding is strong, that a good bond is a blessing to a community and to children, to be encouraged; they also know that the best conditions for human relationships of any sort are those of honesty.  Many humans for all of time have agreed that getting to know oneself is good for that honesty, and many have linked sex with a certain kind of honesty. 

Feeling honest about the passion one feels for someone just because their politics are the same as yours, or, well, they're a rebel and they wear cool shoes and listen to good music.  Is that enough?  Engaging them is a good way to find out.  It's hard to engage people.  We've known for all of time that individuals build up barriers before they talk to strangers.  We've also known for all of time that sex is a quick way to tear those barriers down.  So this is what people have done: not promiscuity with abandon, but enthusiastic coupling with the opposite sex before marriage.  Enthusiastic exploration of the self in the company of someone else.  Sex enables that – greatly enables it; it also complicates it.  So everyone for all of time has warned against too much, or several at the same time, or wantonly flaunting other commitments elsewhere.

Orthodoxy is moderate.  Fundamentalism, however – criminalizing premarital sex, fighting it by banning all statistics or medical information seen to enable it in any way – discards the wisdom of all experience, the knowledge of generations who loved God and their neighbor, in order to set up a new and dangerous barrier between the chosen and the not chosen. 

This barrier marks out the middle-class from the upper-class, the white from the nonwhite, the politically patriarchal from the feminist.  For the habits of certain groups are more prone to policing sex, although these groups are not necessarily those that best serve God in any other category. 

This radical non-orthodoxy draws the line between saved and damned for God, and most dangerously, draws that line down the middle of experience: that relationship – fleeting, adolescent – was not with God, no matter how much you learned from each other, no matter how much he taught you to value yourself or helped you adjust to the world. 

Imagine casting aside half of your experience and wisdom in order to enter into a dialogue with God.  The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer defines sin as “being out of dialogue with God, oneself, or one’s neighbor.”  Public wanton damnation of premarital sex sounds to me like all three. 

When feminist scholars learn to argue from a position of all of women for all of time, the church orthodoxy *by definition* will have to agree.  It's a strong political position, and I wish to God that I could convince the liberals in politics round here to listen to it.

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