Saturday, March 25, 2006

Chastity and Choice (paca)

A couple days back I was following links from blogs that I read, and I came across a post from AlleyRat about the new state laws limiting abortion. Her post was that the fight over abortion was not just about abortion itself, but about sexuality, and trying to write a certain view of sexuality into law.

I had been planning to review some thoughts from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity (1943) for a few weeks, where he talks about sexual morality, and this gave me new impetus.

So, first, Lewis has a section on Sexual Morality in which he advocates the traditional view. Sex should be between a married couple, period. Why? Because this is what his Christian tradition teaches. This is how Lewis tackled everything. He tried to find the reasoning behind his Anglican teachings, which is why he is more commonly called an Apologist than a Philosopher. In the Eurppean tradition, philosophers are taught to question everything. Lewis tried to find the best in what he already believed.

Now, he is clear that there is nothing wrong with sex. He says flatly that there are some "muddle-headed" Christians who seem to say that pleasure and sex and pleasure in sex is immoral, but, says Lewis, that's plain wrong. Sex is supposed to be great. In his tradition, the earthly body is resurrected in heaven as well as the spirit, because the pleasures of the flesh are a real positive. He goes on to say that despite this, the natural desire for sex has taken a wrong turn. He gives the amusing analogy of the mutton chop strip tease. In his Britain, and today, you could get a woman to dance on a stage taking her clothes off and fill the house with hooting people. He presents the scenario of going to another land and discovering a theater where someone comes on stage and walks around slowly with a plate of delicious food, and everyone in the audience stares and drools. Would you not think somthing had gone terribly awry with the normal, natural desire for food in such a scenario? It's not that the audience is starving. They are well-fed. It is that they cannot get enough of food and will spend time leering at pictures of a ham hock. This, he argues, is where 1943 Britain was, where the natural desire for pleasurable sex has gone astray.

So, Lewis was very conservative on sex. It's only proper context is within marriage. But he didn't stop there, which is why I read the guy. Almost anyone could come up with the above stuff, but Lewis has a brain and keeps going. First, he distinguishes between "propriety" and "chastity". Chastity is the important Christian behavior. Propriety is a fluctuation of society and deals with mannerisms and how people dress and the like. A topless Pacific Islander might be equally chaste or unchaste as the head-to-toe covered Victorian lady. Rules of propriety change all the time, and older people should not assume anything about the morality of a younger person because of the way they dress or language they use.

Moreover, and this is more interesting, chastity is a real Christian virtue, but breaking it is "the least bad of all sins". Chastity is important, but it is not the fundamental principle of Christianity. "All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are Animal Self, and the Diabolical Self. The Diabolical Self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither."

After these few pages on Sexual Morality, he moves on to Christian Marriage. He argues that in a Christian Marriage the two people become one organism, one flesh, one entity. The problem with sex outside of marriage is that it tries to isolate the sexual union from the larger spiritual union of marriage. He likens it to eating to get the taste, but refusing to swallow. (Bolemia and anorexia keep coming to mind as modern problems with food as I re-read him.) Because a marriage is a spiritual union, it is for life, and it is based around a vow that you should keep. He discusses the fact that a lot of people get married with no real intention to keep this vow. He asks, what are you getting married for? To get a certain respectability that goes with marriage? (I was in the check-out lane at Safeway last week, and the guy behind me knew the guy bagging groceries from high school. "Hey, what you been up to?" says Customer Guy. "Well, I got married," says Bagger. "Oh, really? Who to?" "My girlfriend." "That's a good person to marry," I say out loud and Bagger just ignores me. "You know my girlfriend from school," says Bagger to Customer. "Oh yeah," says Customer though he clearly doesn't have a clue. Bagger continues, "She got pregnant and we had a baby, so...." He shrugs his shoulders. "Most romantic explanation ever," I think to myself.) But, continues Lewis, "If people do not believe in permanent marriage, it is perhaps better that they should live together unmarried than that they should make vows they do not mean to keep. It is true that by living together without marriage they will be guilty (in Christian eyes) of fornication. But one fault is not mended by adding another: unchastity is not improved by adding perjury."

Lewis goes on to discuss the relationship between marriage and love. He argues that "being in love" is one of the greatest human feelings, if not the greatest. It takes us out of ourselves; it enhances all our feelings; it gives us courage and strength; and it reveals the Beauty all around us. Marriage is bet undertaken when people are in love in this sense. But, after all that, being in love is just a feeling, and feelings change. The marriage vow is not a vow to have a feeling until you die. That is impossible. "You might as well promise never to have a headache." Even if you could keep it, who would want to be in a continuous state of delirium for every moment of their lives until they die? Instead we have to let that sense of love go in time. In its place a different and stronger type of love can grow. This love has a sense of deep union, maintained by will and habit and God. This love endures when people don't even like each other for a time. It can even endure if one of the partners allows themselves to fall "in love" with another.

He finally ends this discussion with a single page on the idea that, according to Christian tradition (in his view), wives are to obey the husbands. He justifies this with a brief anecdote intended to show that men often have a greater focus on the Public than women who can be overly devoted to their families. Lewis will be bashed here and has been forever. In a page, he just tried to justify the entire patriarchical system. One can dig up entire books on this topic about Lewis. I agree that this "argument" is silly and will only add one thing to the discussion. I think it is noteworthy that he only takes a page on this out of 190 pages. He obviously didn't think about it much. It's a defining issue of our time, but it just wasn't for him.

Finally, we get back to the way I opened this post. Alleyrat's issue was that a certain type of sexual morality was trying to be enforced on others through the government. Lewis has a very conservative view, though probably a rather common one in 1943. He thinks sex should only be between husband and wife. Divorce should not happen. (When he did get married later, he married a Jewish American who had been divorced, soo....) Men should be the head of the family. But, Lewis cannot fall completely to Alleyrat's charge because he holds these views.

"Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question - how far Christians, if they are voters or members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not."

I have not disputed Lewis' arguments because they are his interpretation of his own religious tradition of which I am largely ignorant (though I am baptised Episcopalean). And that is the key. This is a religious tradition, one that he likely thinks all people should participate in, but each person must choose to participate in for themselves. There is a difference between the laws that should apply to all citizens and the Church rules that apply to its own members. Scripture is not the absolute basis for government, because people must come to God of their own will. Chastity is not a virtue because sex is bad. It is a virtue because of the effect practicing chasitity has on your soul. Life-long marriage is a virtue because it build your character and brings you closer to God. If you are being forced into life-long marriage through lack of choice, you are not building your character at all. You are just living in a prison that some pseudo-Christians made for you. And this defeats the entire spiritual purpose of the behavior. Worth repeating. Forcing someone into Christian behavior can sometimes save them from a bad choice, but it simultaneously defeats the entire reason for the behavior.

So, to modern Americans who want to write their interpretation of Christian belief into law.... Well, if you are more conservative now in 2006, than C.S. Lewis, the foremost Christian apologist of the 20th century, was in 1943, you're out there.

UPDATE: From the comments on this post, I have realized that I got lazy at the very end with my "you're out there" comment. It would be more accurate to say that legislating that all marriage should be religious marriage or that all people should conform to one religious denomination's version of sexual morality is not the only way to understand the relationship between religion and the law. It is fully possible to be a good Christian and not legally force others to do what you believe is right. Indeed, if the behavior is totally forced, it could very well prevent the very spiritual growth that the behavior is supposed to develop, keeping people further from God than if you had let them alone.

7 comments:

MikeJ said...

Impressive respect shown to Lewis in light of your views. I suppose its fair to say that his views are from a christian perspective, but he was an athiest for a significant part of his life which gives him more credibility in my view. I'm a fan of his.

To your question, If you look at the situation as a desire of Christians attempting to "impose" something, then there obviously is no place for a non-Christian to agree.

So, why would anyone want to pass a law like this or any law for that matter? They must believe it would make things better. While I'm not smart enough to construct an argument that has any opportunity to actually change opinion, I think that it is safe to say that a Christian, as well as many secularists, believe that the family structure is essential to a healthy society. Witnessing the deterioration of the family and the effects on our society in a very short time has validated and motivated the desire for change. Whether or not someone agrees with that analysis, (I have seen some pretty good data to support it) It is safe to say their goals are noble.

Your concern seems similar to the broader critisim of "legislating morality". Well, I can't think of a single law that would not fit into that category. Every law on the books has morality as a driver to exact justice, protection, etc...

With that said I'll stop boring you and end with a quote from George Washington, who has a better claim on the title of "American" than anyone else I can think of...

"Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. "

Hopefully, if one disagrees on the issue, they may still see the honor and nobility of the opposing side. Based on your objective anlaysis of Lewis I suppose we can agree on that much.

pacatrue said...

Hi mikej. Thanks for stopping by. You mention other views of mine, which might incline me to not show Lewis respect. You later discuss issues of family deterioration, so I am guessing that you are referring to my support of same sex legal marriage? It is true that I am agnostic as well, but I haven't mentioned that in a long time.

Anyway, I should say that Lewis is one of the pillars of my moral beliefs. It's not an accident that I have a copy of Mere Christianity lying about. I started reading Narnia as a kid and I've been reading him ever since. I am a very sympathetic reader of his, because I can almost always find something of value in his easy, direct writings, even when I don't accept many of his conclusions. Essentially, I find his insights on spiritual growth and the nature of the human character very fruitful. I disagree frequently on the specific behaviors that he recommends.

You bring up so many great topics that I don't even know where to begin.

Morality and government. Yes, undoubtedly, laws are based on morality. We outlaw murder because it is wrong. I think one of the keys is that one of the morals we are also trying to encourage is freedom or liberty of the individual. This is a moral as much as sexuality, marriage, and the like. One way to try to guard this value is to only legislate on the other values when they harm others. So even if one person is doing something immoral, you only legally coerce them to stop when their actions hurt another. John Stuart Mill's On Liberty is the classic account of this and remains perhaps the best defense of the doctrine.

As for whether or not you can have morality without religion? It's going to depend a lot on what religion is exactly. Does it have to be a belief in the divine exactly? Maybe not. Confucianism is sometimes called a philosophy and sometime a religion, but Confucius kind of forbid contemplation of the afterlife and gods, because understanding our own lives was complicated enough without worrying about other worlds as well. And yet Confucianism was the moral basis of an extremely successful society for hundreds of years. If morals must be in some way "spiritual" and not merely "intellectual" to work, then I might be inclined to agree. I also am inclined to be one of those people who says that God encourages certain virtues because they are right instead of those virtues being right because God encourages them. If so, then you can believe very much in God but think that morality is separable from God's will.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I think you will discover that I often, not always, do get where other points of view are coming from. But I confess that sometimes when lazy, I don't bother to do them justice. Sloth is one of the sins, is it not?

naughtyloki said...

I want to comment on your first paragraph. I didn't read Alleyrat's blog; I'm depending upon your summation. I believe that some people, on both sides of the argument, are indeed using the abortion issue to try to further their own ideas of sexual morality. Some people, however, believe that a fetus is a human deserving of the rights and protections which our society gives to all of its members. I'll throw in a PacaQuote:

"So even if one person is doing something immoral, you only legally coerce them to stop when their actions hurt another."

Some of these people ascribe to the same belief. They assign higher priority to the life of a fetus than to the freedom of action of an individual, and want legal protection for the fetus.

Oversimplification of issues seems to have become a strategy of argument, at least in this country. Maybe this is true because the practice lends itself to arriving at nifty phrases which people can chant without thought. Anyway, the abortion issue is complex. Is a fetus a human? Is a fetus deserving of the rights and protections given to other humans by our laws? If so, do these rights and protections trump the rights for individual action of the mother?

The issue will not be settled until people are willing to look past the arguments of agenda-pushers and actually examine the issue itself. I also think that some pro-abortion activitists need to understand that some people do view a fetus as a human, and that they are reacting with moral outrage at what they see as unpunished murder. Whether one agrees with this view or not, one must recognize that it is a very powerful emotional response and not just an argument used to further a particular view of sexual morality.

pacatrue said...

I very much agree, Loki. I consciously chose not to get into which portions of Alleyrat's post I agreed and disagreed with because my main post was long enough by itself. Alleyrat's discussion of legislating sexual morality made me decide to do the post on Lewis that I had been planning for a long time.

MikeJ said...

I don't have time to type as much as I would like, but I have to ask how Lewis could serve as a moral reference if you disagree with the foundational principles that he bases his entire view?

Maybe I can't see the forest for the trees because I happen to share his core beliefs, but aren't his agruments a logical progression that break down past any point of significant disagreement?

By the way, I very much enjoy your reasoned approach to these issues versus the all too common emotional diatribes.

pacatrue said...

Welcome back, mikej. It's nice to know I haven't offended you yet.

I hate to do this to you, but to answer your question brings up lots of questions that I would rather put as a main post, yet my co-blogger, the llama, just got back, and I don't want to bury his post in another huge one of mine, since most of this blog's readers are his friends. Thus, I promise that I will answer, but I am going to wait a couple days to do so, if I can show sufficient restraint. So check back Tuesday or so and I will have a nice long post.

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