Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sex and the iWorld: A Brief Review

A new book by Dale S. Kuehne called Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationships beyond an Age of Individualism (Baker, 2009) is worth reading for several reasons. The author is a professor of politics at a Catholic liberal arts college and a pastor of Emmanuel Covenant Church in Nashua, NH. So he writes from unique position on a highly controversial topic.

1. Modern Individualism Warps Our Sexuality: One notable feature of this book is his critique of modern individualism. He is perceptive in his analysis of the morality of the world of modernity. He identifies what he calls "three taboos," which seem to me to function analogously to the way the Ten Commandments functioned in the pre-modern world and continue to function in the Church. The three taboos are:

1. One may not criticize someone else's life choices or behavior.
2. One may not behave in a manner that coerces or causes harm to others.
3. On may not engage in a sexual relationship with someone without his or her consent. (p. 71)

When you lay it out this way it is amazing how thin and weak the sexual morality of modernity actually is (and how it corresponds to the thinness of the modern concept of the self). And it is amazing how many sexual perversions can be seen as morally acceptable under this scheme. For example, there is no real reason to ban incest, homosexuality, polygamy, polyamory, bestiality or swinging. And when it comes to pedophilia, there is a lot of wiggle room with regard to the age of consent and re-definition of "harm," "coercion," and "consent." But this is the morality of modernity. Keuhne is right to trace all this back to the individualism of modernity and to thus show that the problem is much bigger than just sexual morality itself.

2. Sex is Only One Way to Express Love: Another interesting feature of this book that I found very encouraging is the more modest estimate of sexuality that Kuehne exhibits. He does not think that having sexual relations is necessary to human fulfillment. Full stop. Period. Now, that is a radical thought in the modern world and very politically incorrect. He thinks one can have a full and meaningful life with close friendship, emotional intimacy and deep satisfaction without sexual intercourse. He writes:
"The more intimacy we have with God, the more we are able to receive his love and then share that love with others. We receive love spiritually when we are intimately connected with God, and as we grow in the ability to be intimate with him and enjoy his love, we also can grow in our ability to be intimate with and love others. The greater our capacity for intimacy, the greater our capacity to receive love and share love.

Sexuality is not an important part of this equation, not because sex is a bad thing but simply because sex is not an essential aspect of the deepest and most fulfilling relational life that is found in a spiritual connection with God and others. Since we are physical beings, it is not surprising that love and intimacy have a reflection in our physical experience. Neither is it surprising that love and intimacy trigger many drives within us, including our sexual drive. Yet it is important to realize that the thing for which we ultimately yearn is not sexual and sex is not the means to find it . . . Engaging in sexual intercourse but never developing our capacity to love and be truly spiritually intimate with anyone, including our sexual partner, is a danger for all sexual relationships, including marriage." (169-70)
I find this approach to be very compassionate toward those with disordered drives (i.e. what is called a homosexual orientation) because it is saying to such people that the world lies when it says that you are doomed to loneliness and a non-fulfilling life because you cannot marry. Celibacy is not worse than death because sex is not the meaning of life.

Viewing sex as not essential for intimacy means that we do not need to leave marriages in which our needs for intimacy are not being met. For millennia people have found intimacy in friendship, the extended family and in the church. Marriage can be permanent because it does not bear the full responsibility for meeting all our needs. And yet nothing in this book could be taken to imply that marriage is not a wonderful thing that is rooted in creation and affected by redemption as part of God's plan.

3. The Theology of the Body: This is the first (or maybe the second) book written by a Protestant that actually quotes approvingly from John Paul II's wonderful writings on the theology of the body. I taught this material to my marriage class this Fall and it was very well received by Evangelical students who found it biblical, deep and convincing - unlike the shallow and tentative teaching they had received so far in the Evangelical church context. I predict that more and more conservative Protestants will discover this deeply spiritual and authentically biblical teaching in the coming years. Kuehne's emphasis on relationships as the alternative to modern individualism likely derives at least in part from the theology of the body.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in coming to a deeper understanding of human sexuality in a Christian perspective and to anyone interested in understanding the modern world better. It is a fairly accessible work for students, laity and pastors.

1 comment:

Josh said...

I agree that the three "taboos" named here are inadequate for a healthy (much less Christian) sex ethic. At the very least, a taboo against promiscuity (the most common sexual sin in our day) needs to be added. I suspect individualism and its cousin consumerism are the primary causes of promiscuity; sex today is often about nothing more than the pursuit of self-interest, with people shopping for partners as if they were commodities.