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Posted May 19, 2010

Passion and Purity

by Ron Rolheiser

The church doesn't understand passion and the world doesn't understand purity. That's an axiom a friend of mine likes to use to explain why the moral landscape around sexuality is as it is, polarized, intransigent, and particularly ill-equipped to invite people to assess their sexual lives honestly.

A healthy sexuality is predicated equally on both passion and purity, but that is a truth that both the church and the world struggle to accept. Each tends to highlight half of that equation.

Few analysts have articulated this with as much insight (and real understanding of both sides) as has Charles Taylor in his monumental work on Western Culture, A Secular Age. In a section of the book entitled, The Age of Authenticity, Taylor analyzes the sexual revolution as precisely a search, however misguided at times, for authenticity. He suggests that it was not just hedonism and rebellion that drove, and are driving, the sexual revolution and radically changing how today's generation thinks about sex. We should not, he says, treat the sexual revolution simply as an outbreak of hedonism that has radicalized, as though its reality would fit into the discourse of Hugh Hefner and Playboy. The sexual revolution was triggered by our culture's attempt to do a number of things. What things?

By its attempt to rehabilitate the goodness of sensuality itself, to affirm the equality of the sexes, to free women of stereo-typical gender roles, to affirm sex as liberating (the Dionysian ideal), and to highlight the conception that sexuality is an essential part of one's identity (as can be seen in the language around gay liberation). The sexual revolution carries inside itself much more than is found in Playboy or in the simple notion (now prevalent in our society) that sexuality can be cut off from its link to marriage. While hedonism and rebellion do play a role, much more than Hugh Hefner and hormones undergird the mammoth shift in our sexual mores and in our understanding of sex.

But, with that being acknowledged, it is also becoming evident that the dream of sexual liberation as expressed in much of today's culture, is sometimes pretty na´ve. What initially feels like liberation can soon feel like defeat. There is enough bitterness within our relationships and there are enough broken lives and murder-suicides in our world to alert us to a fact that we would rather not admit, namely, that sexuality cut off from a long-sanctioned link to the sacred, to community, and to life-long commitment sometimes turns very ugly. Why? Are there inherent flaws inside the new sexual morality?

For Taylor the new sexual morality is not so much flawed (at least in its higher ideals) as it is na´ve. Jacques Maritain once suggested that only two types of persons conceive of love as easy: Those who through long years of sacrifice are already saints, and those who have no idea what they're talking about. Much of our discourse today about sex, I fear, falls into the latter category. Taylor simply submits that the dream often turned out badly. Why? What went wrong?

The hard discontinuities and dilemmas which beset human sexual life, and which most ethics tend to ignore or downplay, had to assert themselves: the impossibility of integrating the Dionysian into a continuing way of life, the difficulty of containing the sensual with a continuing really intimate relationship, the impossibility of escaping gender roles altogether, and the great obstacles to redefining them, at least in the short run. Not to mention that the celebration of sexual release could generate new ways in which men could objectify and exploit women. A lot of people discovered the hard way that there were dangers as well as liberation in throwing over the codes of their parents.

However, even given this admitted failure, people are not flocking in large numbers to their churches to seek guidance for their sexual lives. Why not?

Because the churches, past and present, have been too reluctant to radiate much appreciation for those elements, beyond hedonism and adolescent rebellion, that undergird the sexual revolution. The churches have for the most part, and rightly so, defended purity and chastity, and, in their best counsel, have also shown how real passion is dependent upon purity. But, too often, that defense has been too one-sided.

Here is how Taylor puts it:

People are searching for moral codes to help guide their sexuality, both for themselves and their children. The churches need to offer their teachings. But these can't be simply identical to the codes of the past; insofar as these were connected with, e.g., the denigration of sexuality, horror at the Dionysian, fixed gender roles, or a refusal to discuss identity issues. Taylor, himself a devout churchgoer, then adds: It is a tragedy that the codes which churches want to urge on people still (at least seem to) suffer from one or more, even sometimes all, of these defects.

A healthy sexuality is both passionate and pure. The church and the world can learn from each other.