Friday, April 12, 2013

Faith, Doubt, and Sex

Rachel Held Evans has an interesting new blog post, "Is Doubt an STD?", that addresses a worrisome practice she's observed in some evangelical Christian communities: treating the religious doubts of young adults as if they were nothing more than a symptom of a guilty conscience--more often than not guilt about having sex.

Although she does an excellent job of critiquing this practice, there's one point she doesn't make (at least not in this post) that I want to raise here. But first, let's look a bit more closely at the worrisome practice. The idea underlying it is, roughly, this: If you feel guilty about something you did that's condemned by your inherited faith, you may decide to strike back at what's condemning you--by challenging the tenets of the faith. 

And, of course, since we're talking about young adults here, the "something you did" is usually sex.

So, rather than take a young adult's doubts about their inherited faith at face value, a pastor or religious mentor cuts to the chase and asks, "So who have you been sleeping with?" And this, of course, is supposed to uncover the root issue--guilt. The questions will be answered through repentance, the doubts laid to rest once one has confessed to getting laid.

Evans rightly notes the sweeping (and implausible) reductionism going on here, as if no one ever doubted Young Earth Creationism based on the scientific case against it. If you're not furtively indulging your libido, you'll never be bothered by the problem of evil. She raises other sound objections as well--such as the fact that correlation does not mean causation. Young adulthood is the time when one is most apt to start questioning one's inherited belief systems and when one is most likely to become sexually active. It doesn't follow that the latter causes the former.

Most significantly, she articulates nicely the hurtful and alienating effect of psychologizing away someone's sincere doubts. This is related to a broader issue of concern for me. Sometimes people really mean what they say. Sometimes their thoughts and ideas are efforts to grope towards understanding and truth, as opposed to merely being symptoms of a psychological condition. To dismiss what they say as the latter is a way of silencing them. Although Evans doesn't use this sort of language, I see this practice as a kind of intellectual violence. (And it is, interestingly, related to John Corvino's recent plea for philosophy.)

But there's one important point I'd like to add to Evans' essay, and it has to do with sex. Specifically, it seems to me that the advent of sexual activity can be implicated importantly in someone's intellectual doubts about the adequacy of their inherited faith--not because they are trying to avoid guilt, but because sometimes, direct experience with something can teach us that what we've been taught about it is wrong.

Put simply, sometimes sex can be a trigger for asking critical questions about your faith because what your faith has taught you about sex is a bad fit with your experience of it. And when a faith community is sufficiently obsessed with sex (as too many evangelical Christians are, especially in their messages to unmarried young adults), questions about the inadequacy of their sexual message can readily trigger or reinforce a more thorough critique. To put the point bluntly, evangelical Christians sometimes lie to young people about sex--and sometimes personal experience with having sex exposes the lie.

What I have in mind here is not the old "It can't be wrong if it feels so right." It doesn't take long to figure out--from sexual experience--that things can feel good in the moment and prove to be a really bad idea. Sex is fraught with hazards, emotional and physical, that help to drive home the fact that something can feel oh-so-right and yet be oh-so-wrong. When evangelical communities stress this message, they aren't lying.

The problem is that there are plenty of young people who approach premarital sex thoughtfully, deliberately, deciding when they feel right about their partner and the timing, taking precautions against pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease--and they aren't discernibly damaged by the experience but go on to have good, happy lives, including happy marriages. More importantly, their premarital sex lives often end up producing fewer damaging outcomes than is the case with the conservative Christians who are absolutely not going to have sex before marriage and so do not thoughtfully decide to have sex or plan for it--but who, as noted here, have premarital sex at the same rate as everyone else. But because they absolutely aren't going to have sex, when they do it isn't thoughtfully, deliberately pursued. Instead, they're swept up by the unexpected and enormous power of human sexuality (perhaps following something like the pattern I envisioned in this earlier post).

And when it's over they sometimes find themselves confronting the practical legacy of their philosophy of abstinence-until-marriage; and they contrast it with the experiences of a friend who wasn't swept away by the current of desire precisely because she acknowledged the current's power and treated swimming with it as a choice she might legitimately make when she was ready.

This kind of experience can drive home some of the complex realities of our moral situation, realities that are obscured in much evangelical teaching about sex. Let me be clear: I am not saying here that an ethic of "wait until you're emotionally ready and you're in love, and then use protection" expresses the moral truth about sex better than "sex ought to be saved for the context of marriage" (this broad question of what sexual ethic is the right one is too big for me to tackle here).  What I'm saying is that actual experience with sex and its consequences in our pluralistic world problematizes the latter ethic.

In fact, it raises questions about its adequacy similar in kind to the questions that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr raises about the adequacy of Christian pacifism. Niebuhr argues that what he takes to be Jesus' uncompromising condemnation of all violence, while it properly convicts all of us, is also something that it's impossible to actually live out in a fallen world. Given the pervasiveness of sin, we must treat this ethic of nonviolence as an ideal that can only be approximated in the messy business of life. For practical purposes in making decisions, we need something less compromising--something akin to the just war theory's restrictive conditions for when resort to war is allowed and how conduct in war should be waged.

The fact is that I have long been critical of Niebuhr's "realist" dismissal of nonviolence--but I'm also confident that no sound pacifist ethic, Christian or otherwise, can ignore the moral complexities and ambiguities that Niebuhr forces us to confront. Likewise, no ethic of sexual abstinence can ignore the complexities of the real world.

The problem, however, is that as soon as we confront these complexities, the moral landscape becomes cloudy. In the case of Niebuhr's critique of pacifism, it becomes harder to say with confidence that violence is always impermissible in this fallen world. Any Christian pacifist who has read Niebuhr has to concede that this is a complex moral question about which Christians equally committed to Jesus' love ethic can earnestly disagree.

And this, of course, is precisely where too many evangelicals are caught in a lie once young people experience the muddy realities of human sexuality. Too many evangelicals pretend that the Niebuhrian critique of their abstinence-until-marriage ethic doesn't exist, that there is just this clean, clear moral dictum that all sincere Christians must embrace on pain of violating God's will for the world.

Another deep problem with pervasive evangelical ideas about sex is that their teachings reify virginity--that is, they make it into this real entity that can be held onto or given away, either cavalierly or seriously, either to a spouse or to someone who isn't (and may never become) your spouse.

But virginity isn't a real thing at all. Sex is something you do. Virginity is the name for never-having-done-that-thing. It's a negation. To the extent that churches focus on this not-yet as if it were something that positively exists, they prime young people (especially young women) for some very confusing and often painful experiences--experiences that can readily lead them to a broader critique of evangelical sexual teachings.

What happens when doing something for the first time is represented as having lost something forever? What happens is that one comes to see the inaugural act of sex as a kind of invasive surgery that cuts into a woman's body (it's usually the woman who feels the weight of this purported "loss") and removes forever this thing. It has now been taken away and can never be reclaimed--and hence can never be "given" to the right person.

But of course, a woman  can still give her love, her sexuality, her intimacy, to her future husband--she can still give everything that is really something. But the act of premarital sex is represented through this "reification of virginity" as a permanent and unalterable loss that cannot be undone and which will render it impossible ever to give to one's future husband what that husband has a rightful claim to.

What becoming sexually active can do is confront someone with the experiential implications of this (mis)representation of virginity--and with the psychological damage it promises. What does it mean when an idea renders it such that a woman who can give her husband every real thing that any woman could give is represented as having a permanent disability, one that makes it impossible for her to give to her husband something she might have been able to confer? The idea infects reality, creating a functional stand-in for the disability it posits: What would be no disability but for the idea functions as an impediment to future relationships because of the idea.

The bad fruits of the idea are nothing but an abstraction for someone who hasn't had sex. For the person who has, these bad fruits become an intimate feature of their personal landscape. And there is only one way to get rid of these poisonous fruits: cut down the tree that produced them.

When evangelicals lie about the nature of virginity, treating a not-yet as a real thing, they open themselves up to the critical backlash that experiencing the implications of this lie can inspire.

Of course, evangelical communities also have things to say about gay sex. I won't even get started on the issue of how a gay person's lived experiences surrounding sexuality expose problems with those evangelical teachings--because, well, I've addressed that topic at considerable length in other posts and articles.


  1. Eric-

    Thanks for a funny post.

    It is very interesting to test the limits of psychologizing. I doubt this meme you speak of would have arisen if there were not some nugget of truth to the idea, in some cases. Perhaps that hurling rhetorical thunderbolts against normal bodily functions is not a winning strategy and tends to sap people's overall belief in the ideology being hurled. So the issue could be sex, or masturbation, or consumerism, or keeping kosher.. the strictures that make up the art of living and communal identity (and likely constitute the psychological fixations of relatively old people) are sometimes left behind in the urgency of now. And loosening one helps loosen others.

    One hears all the time about people who have lost their belief, due to the smallest experience.. just the one little straw that broke the camel's back. So perhaps pastors are right to jump in and guess at precipitating issues if they think there is a chance of walking the soon-to-be ex-believer back from the precipice of hell, or whatever that destination is. If they are guessing wrong, well, we are always making stabs in the dark in our interpersonal relations, aren't we?

    Anyhow, the argument against psychologizing is truly interesting. The charge of "violence" is serious. Do you deny that people often have patently psychological motivations, which they may not be aware of as they engage in a rationalizing discourse? Ever?

    I'd agree that making such diagnoses is difficult, and is rude in cases when the target is in denial. But isn't that half of what humor is about? Isn't the Daily show's bread and butter showing up the base motivations of public figures who work so hard to paper over their ideologies with sweet sounding platitudes? Or even clever arguments? Ideally, one would just demolish the rationalizing argument the target is making, and thus reveal their motivations, even to themselves. But I find that some forms of ideology are thoroughly impervious to this approach.

    So psychologizing can not simply be dimissed out of hand. We are multitudes, and some internal demons may not be apparent to ourselves (or to our ideological bretheren) as they are to others. How to do it politely, well, that is indeed a difficult issue. I certainly have not mastered it.

    I thought your discussion of virginity was unnecessarily reductive. If people want to reify some aspect of our lives and behavior, making of it a precious gift to be given once only, then that is not intrinsically a bad thing, as part of the art of living. If it is a cloak for patriachial control and regressive antifeminism, well, that is another issue. (Oh- there I am psychologizing again!). But I believe atheism is, at this point, a real thing, for instance, even though it is about nothing at all.

    Let me point out that Mr. Corvino's video was pretty heavily on the subjective morality end of things, postulating that morality emerges from us naturally in our social interactions, reasoning, and behavior, not given by any exterior source or being. Which doesn't intrinsically mean that it mightn't be ultimately objective, but if we haven't pinned it down better by this point, after a few millennia of work, (cloudiness, indeed...), it seems a distinct argument for subjectivity.

    1. Yes--Upon rereading my remark about psychologizing, it seems I overstated the point. Speculating about the inner psychological causes of a person's viewpoints or thinking is not as such intellectual violence. The problem arises when a person's sincere efforts to communicate their thinking or perspective is dismissed as mere symptom. And it's likely too strong to say that all such dismissals are a form of intellectual violence. It certainly wouldn't be if a viewpoint were considered as such, found wanting for good reasons...and then a psychological account of how the person came to hold to such a view were offered for the sake of providing a kind of warning about ways in which our efforts to think about things honestly can become clouded.

      And I would agree that if the reification of virginity is chosen by the individual as part of a personal vision of life, it has a different meaning than if it is attributed by a community that imposes costs upon those who "lose" theirs.

  2. Brilliant post. Thank you! Your thinking closely parallels by own, but you've articulated it from a few perspectives I hadn't quite considered. I'm definitely hanging on to this for future reference.