So why are some Christians so invested in cultural battles over sexual ethics and sexual politics? The common claim is that we Christians are just prudes. But my interests in the matter stem from a belief that our mode of civilization itself is deeply informed by our sexual ethics.
This article, which reflects on sociologist Philip Rieff’s book “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”, helps explain why some of us think sexual politics is about more than just shifting our standards a bit but instead marks the possibility of very serious and severe cultural consequences.
“The late sociologist Philip Rieff was not a religious man, but he was a chronicler of the cultural revolution and a prophet of it. Rieff’s theory of culture, put simply, is that a culture is shaped by what it forbids (in his term, "remits"). In his 1966 classic "The Triumph of the Therapeutic," Rieff identified Christianity’s teaching about sexuality (that it is only licit when expressed between one man and one woman, in a state of holy matrimony) as a core principle of Christian civilization. "Historically, the rejection of sexual individualism (which divorces pleasure and procreation) was the consensual matrix of Christian culture," Rieff writes. He goes on to say that what is "revolutionary" in modern culture is the complete abandonment of the idea that renunciation (of whatever kind) is necessary, toward the belief that impulses should be released. Christianity never preached crude renunciation of sexuality, but rather developed a sophisticated way of spiritualizing it — and built an entire civilization around theories of the human person, and human purpose, that all depended on Christian sexual ethics.
[But] despite the failure of those who profess Christianity to have lived up to its highest ideals, "Christian culture survived because it superintended the organization of Western personality in ways that produced the necessary corporate identities, serving a larger communal purpose institutionalized in the churches themselves." Today, though, the self can only find salvation in "the breaking of corporate identities and in an acute suspicion of all normative institutions."
It is very nearly chilling to read Rieff writing 45 years ago about the kind of civilization and religion coming into being. He said that while the old basis for Western civilization (Christianity) had collapsed, no new set of binding remissions — that is, a source of authority that would give the culture cohesion — had come into being. So, we move into a culture that is without effective remissions, in which we no longer live in a culture organized around the principle of "right doctrine, administered by the right men, who must be found, but rather in doctrines amounting to permission for each man to live an experimental life. Of the religion of the future, he wrote: "In the emergent culture, a wider range of people will have ‘spiritual’ concerns and engage in ‘spiritual’ pursuits." But the churches won’t be preaching that old-time religion, because few people will still believe it. They will have been culturally conditioned to believe that what is true is what makes people happy — hence the triumph of the therapeutic. Rieff:
If "immoral" materials, rejected under earlier cultural criteria, are therapeutically effective, enhancing somebody’s sense of well-being, then they are useful. The ‘end’ or ‘goal’ is to keep going. Americans, as F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded, believe in the green light."
What I find so interesting and important in Rieff (who was a scholar of Freud) is his understanding that what our culture takes as sexual liberation was really a stake through the heart of Christian civilization. Remember, Rieff was not writing as a religious believer, or an enemy of religion, but as a sociologist and diagnostician. People who intuit that there’s something epochal in the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, but who cannot articulate it, may sense what Rieff spelled out plainly.”