The Meaning of Sex: Part 1

I know I’ve been blogging a lot about sex recently. I hope you don’t mind. But if you’re reading this, and therefore human, my guess is that you probably don’t mind at all. Sex and sexuality are rarely met with disinterest. Unfortunately, my recent geeking out over sex is more of a scholarly venture. You can Google elsewhere if you want the steamy stuff. (Actually, please don’t.)


While I know the passages and stories and laws about sex in the Bible, I’m more concerned with constructing (or recognizing) a coherent and distinctively Christian sexual ethic and placing it in conversation with the ethics of popular culture. (As you’ll see, at least some strands of modern, western Christianity has been duped by pop culture and have embraced an ethic that’s hardly distinguishable from secular Humanism. So I’m not using “pop culture” as a synonym for non-Christians, but to include dominant ways of thinking both inside and outside the church.) To this end, I’m thankful for Dennis Hollinger’s book, The Meaning of Sex, and I’m especially thankful for Baker Publishers for sending me a free copy. In exchange for an honest review, of course.


Dr. Hollinger is the president and a distinguished professor Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. His book is evidence that he’s a thoughtful scholar with a pastoral heart. Solidly evangelical and widely researched, Hollinger brings a wealth of biblical, theological, and ethical reflection to this important topic.


What I found most helpful about Hollinger’s approach is his lengthy interaction (chs. 1-3) with different worldviews that go into ethical discussions about sex. He reaches all the way back to ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Epicurus and brings them into conversation with modern players in sexual ethics and sexuality like Kinsey, Singer, Hauerwas, and Foucault. Hollinger wants to “see if the ethical theories can provide help in finding our way in the contemporary moral maze” (p. 24).


I love this approach. We often focus too narrowly on the weather that we forget to step back and examine the climate. (Props to my friend Greg Thompson for the analogy.) We judge this sexual practice as legit, and condemn that sexual practice as sin, while failing to provide a coherent, meaningful, and distinctively Christian ethical framework to base it all on. Hollinger’s book helps us look at sexual ethics with a wide-angle lens.


I found chapter 2 (“Worldviews and Sex”) to be particularly enlightening. Hollinger summarizes the worldview of asceticism, naturalism, monism, and pluralism, adding an irenic yet forthright critique of each one. Naturalism in particular claims some of the early pioneers of what has become a rather accepted sexual ethic (or lack thereof) today. Alfred Kinsey, Margaret Sanger, Havelock Ellis, Albert Ellis, Michel Foucault, and Peter Singer all made influential strides in shaping contemporary thought. “Singer notes that in sexuality one by one the old taboos have fallen. The only taboo that is left is sex with animals” (p. 55), though “Singer hints that sex with animals, barring cruelty to the animal, might be justified, since we are essentially one with them” (p. 55). Other evolutionary biologists, such as Kinsey, David Barash, and Judith Lipton argue that “humans are essentially polygamous in their biological makeup and that monogamy is essentially an artifact of culture rather than nature” (p. 55). Or according to Lipton:


In attempting to maintain a social and sexual bond consisting exclusively of one man and one woman, aspiring monogamists are going against some of the deepest-seated evolutionary inclinations with which biological has endowed most creatures, Homo sapiens included (citing on p. 55).


This reminds me of a recent article I came across in a law journal by a professor (Ann Tweedy) at Hamline University School of Law, who argues extensively that polyamory should be considered a sexual orientation. People have joked about this before. And some in the religious right use it as provocation toward LGBT+ activists. (Although remember when Dan Savage got hammered with criticism from polyamorous activists, when he said that polyamory was not a sexual orientation?) But I was shocked to see developments of this view reach back into the early work of some significant mid-20th century evolutionary biologists.


The part that struck me the most is how pervasive secular ways of thinking about sex, marriage, and sexual ethics are endorsed—unknowingly—by many Christians today. The Humanist Manifesto from 1973, for instance, says:


We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction…In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religious and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct…While we do not approve of exploitative, denigrate forms of sexual expression, neither do we seek to prohibit, by law or social sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults. The many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered “evil.” (p. 57-58).


Morality is based on human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational. Anything that’s between consensual adults is fine. This, of course, is the bedrock of the ethics of pop culture. But in my anecdotal experience in talking casually with many Christians about morality, I can’t see much difference between the ethics of the average pew sitter and secular Humanism. Or in the words of one pastor:


The popular claim that sexual expression should be limited absolutely to the boundaries of marriage or the bonded pair has no solid historical, philosophical or theological support. Sexual expression itself is limited only by the principles which delimit self-actualization. (Raymond Lawrence, an Episcopal priest, p. 59).


The primacy of individual freedom, the liberty of self-expression, and the pursuit of maximal pleasure are tempered only by consensuality.


American society is an individualistic culture that values the self with its drives for self-authenticity, self-gratification, and self-actualization. The self-affirming arguments borrow form the culture the very self-orientation that makes sex so central (p. 128).


This is all old news, of course. Even secular thinkers today realize that the cultural values that spring from the sexual revolution have not produced a flourishing society. When human autonomy reigns, destruction awaits.


But the biggest problem is that the American church has slowly absorbed this cultural narrative and has lost its prophetic voice. (Or at least a voice that compelling.) If it’s not this cultural narrative, it’s another cultural narrative. For the religious right, it’s the inability to recognize and weed out strands of misogyny, patriarchy, and a cultural view of masculinity—not to mention, the full-scale endorsement of Romanish patriotism, a strange addiction to military might, and a set of values that elevate the right to bear arms and build walls instead of loving our enemies and welcoming the other. For the left, it’s the deconstruction of a Christian sexual and marriage ethic, leaving in its place an ethic that exhibits very little—if any—protest to the values of pop culture. And we’re still waiting to see if, once the dust has settled and reconstruction has finished, this new ethic has the appearance of anything distinctively Christian.


Sorry for the rabbit trail. We’ll revisit Hollinger’s book in the next blog.