Thursday, April 1, 2010

Contraception and Homosexuality: Mary Eberstadt on "Christianity Lite"

This is a fascinating and challenging article that I encourage you to read in its entirety. "Christianity Lite" by Mary Eberstadt appears in this month's First Things. I just want to cite a couple of the most interesting passages in this fine essay.
"Looking even further out to the horizon from our present moment—at a vista of centuries, rather than mere decades, ahead of us—we may well begin to wonder something else. That is, whether what we are witnessing now is not only the beginning of the end of the Anglican Communion but indeed the end of something even larger: the phenomenon of Christianity Lite itself.

By this I mean the multifaceted institutional experiment, beginning but not ending with the Anglican Communion, of attempting to preserve Christianity while simultaneously jettisoning certain of its traditional teachings—specifically, those regarding sexual morality. Surveying the record to date of what has happened to the churches dedicated to this long-running modern religious experiment, a large historical question now appears: whether the various exercises in this specific kind of dissent from traditional teaching turn out to contain the seeds of their own destruction. The evidence—preliminary but already abundant—suggests that the answer is yes.

If this is so, then the implications for the future of Christianity itself are likely to be profound. If it is Christianity Lite, rather than Christianity proper, that is fatally flawed and ultimately unable to sustain itself, then a rewriting of much of contemporary thought, religious and secular, appears in order. It means that secularization itself may be fundamentally misunderstood. It means that the most unwanted and unfashionable traditional teaching of Christianity, its sexual moral code, demands of the modern mind a new and respectful look. As a strategic matter, it also means that the current battle within the Catholic Church between traditionalists and dissenters must go to the traditionalists, lest the dissenters or cafeteria Catholics take the same path that the churches of Christianity Lite have followed: down, down, down."
Eberstadt is wondering if we are living through the death throes of what she calls "Christianity LIte," which is not Protestantism, but rather liberal Protestantism and liberal Catholicism. She is fascinated by the central role played by sex in contemporary ecumenical divisions:
"Ask any contemporary Mainline Protestant what most distinguishes his or her version of Christianity from that of Roman Catholicism, and you will likely get some version of this response: Catholics are still hung up on sex, and we’re not. They prohibit things like divorce and birth control and abortion and homosexuality, and we don’t. Moreover, this rendition of the facts would be essentially correct. At this particular moment in Christian history, it is sex—not Mary or the saints or predestination or purgatory or papal infallibility or good works—that is the Rubicon no one can really imagine these particular Protestants crossing again.

How did sex, of all subjects, come to occupy such a prominent place in the division of Christendom? In a sense, the potential was always there. From the first believers on up, the stern stuff of the Christian moral code has been cause for commentary—to say nothing of complaint. “Not all men can receive this saying,” the disciples are told when Jesus puts divorce off limits. Observers throughout history, Christian or not, have agreed: that particular moral teaching and its corollaries are hard indeed. From pagan Rome two thousand years ago to secular Western Europe today, the Church’s rules about sex have amounted to saying no, no, and no to things about which non-Christians have gotten to say yes or why not."

Eberstadt traces the link between the Anglican rejection of contraception and the Anglican acceptance of homosexuality here:

"Yet “extraordinarily enough,” as William Murchison puts it in his book Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity (2009), “a question barely at the boundary of general consciousness thirty years ago has assumed central importance to the present life and future of the Episcopal Church.” Why this remarkable transformation? In part, because the reformers at Lambeth and elsewhere did not foresee something else that in retrospect appears obvious: The chain of logic leading from the occasional acceptance of contraception to the open celebration of homosexuality would prove surprisingly sound.

That is precisely why the change in doctrine over contraception has been used repeatedly by Anglican leaders to justify proposed changes in religious attitudes toward homosexuality. Robert Runcie, for example, former archbishop of Canterbury, explained his own personal decision to ordain practicing homosexuals on exactly those grounds. In a BBC radio interview in 1996, he cited the Lambeth Conference of 1930, observing that “once the Church signalled . . . that sexual activity was for human delight and a blessing even if it was divorced from any idea of procreation . . . once you’ve said that sexual activity is . . . pleasing to God in itself, then what about people who are engaged in same-sex expression and who are incapable of heterosexual expression?”

Similarly, archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has also retrospectively connected the dots between approving purposely sterile sex for heterosexuals on the one hand and extending the same theological courtesy to homosexuals on the other. As he observed in a lecture in 1989, three years before he became bishop, “In a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.”
Eberstadt's point is not that sex is the most important issue in ecumenism; in fact, she argues that doctrinal and ethical decline go together. However, she is probing the question of: "Why homosexuality? Why now? Why so drastic a change?"

I was essentially awakened from my dogmatic slumber by the lightning speed with which homosexuality was embraced by liberal Protestantism and then the Evangelical Left. It caused me to ask: "are we Evangelicals just liberal Protestants who are 20 years behind the curve?" The thought is disturbing and calls for re-thinking everything starting with sex.

2 comments:

david said...

It is a strange, but now obvious, path from acceptance of contraception to acceptance of homosexuality.

Craig Carter said...

David,
A passionate debate is now beginning between those who believe contraception is irrelevant to homosexuality and those who, like Eberstadt, think it is a clear line of development. You can see it in the comments on her article.

I agree with her and apparently you do too. Can you elaborate a bit on what convinces you of the link?

Could you respond to this argument: "Abortion, fornication, adultery and all forbidden explicitly in Scripture, but Scripture is silent on contraception. Therefore to forbid contraception is a non-biblical legalism."