Monday, April 30, 2012

Contraception , Evangelicals and Sexual Sin

I suppose it was just a matter of time until people within Evangelicalism began to call for unmarried people to start using contraception as the "lesser of two evils," with the other evil being abortion.  This story in Christianity Today by Matthew Lee Anderson, Why Churches Shouldn't Push Contraceptives to their Singles, is at once shocking and unsurprising. 

[See Anderson's two blog posts: The Church and Contraception for its Single Members and A Hill to Die On: Evangelicals, Contraception and the Integrity of Our Witness.]

As Western Evangelicalism continues to become bigger, more worldly and more accommodated to the late modern secular society around it, its resources to resist the depraved immorality of late, modern, Western decadence continue to deteriorate.

Pope John Paul II and a growing host of intelligent Catholic writers such as Mary Eberstadt, Christopher West and Janet Smith have put forward the thesis that contraception and abortion stand or fall together and that the problem we face is not merely an issue of the sanctity of innocent life (though it certainly is that), but also a false understanding of the purpose of sexuality rooted in a false understanding of human nature itself that underlies both the recent rush to embrace both contraception and abortion.  In other words, they argue that we must understand what human beings are and what role our sexuality plays in humans fulfilling their ultimate telos as creatures made in God's image, if we are to be able properly to evaluate the morality of contraception and abortion.

The sea-change in the 1970s that saw formerly apathetic Evangelicals quite suddenly become rightfully concerned about the rise of abortion-on-demand (i.e. abortion as birth control) led to an Evangelical-Catholic coalition in support of the sanctity of human life that is most welcome.  The work of Francis Schaeffer and Harold Brown is especially notable here.  Opposition to abortion, euthanasia and infanticide by this coalition has been key to slowing down the advance of the culture of death legally, socially, theologically and politically.  It has also brought Evangelicals and John Paul II Catholics into an alliance in which each sees in the other side more congenial dialogue partners than either sees in the liberals of their own traditions.  We can be thankful for these developments.

But Evangelical opposition to abortion has been predicated almost completely on the basis of the sixth commandment, whereas their Catholic counterparts have those reasons and also other, deeper, reasons rooted in the seventh commandment, Genesis 1-2 and Jesus' teaching on sexuality for opposing the whole mentality that lies behind the drive toward social approval of contraception, promiscuity and abortion.  A few Evangelicals, notably Al Mohler, have understood that what the Catholics call "the contraceptive mentality" is a serious problem, but most have not probed into what this might mean.

Contemporary, conservative Evangelicals such as Daniel Heimbach, John Piper and Andreas Kostenberger have written good books on sexuality in which they try to hold the line against promiscuity - including both fornication and adultery - but they have seldom probed into the view of sexuality and human nature presupposed by the contraceptive mentality.  They have done good service upholding the rule against extra-marital and pre-marital sex, but seem at a loss to explain the deep theological reasons for the rule, which, of course, inevitably leads some to suppose that the rule is entirely arbitrary and possibly unimportant.

Is it possible that the reason why the left wing of Evangelicalism is weakening in its opposition to homosexuality is that it is very difficult (and perhaps impossible) to specify the moral difference between homosexual behaviour and heterosexual acts in which artificial, contraception is used?  Are not the two kinds of sexual behaviour similar in important ways?

For one thing, both are "unnatural" in that both employ the sexual organs for purposes for which they were not designed.  Our sexual organs are part of the reproductive system and on a strictly biological level they are designed for reproduction.  Marriage is also designed for reproduction; Genesis 1:27 makes it clear that there is a close connection between man being created in the image of God and as male and female.  And Genesis 1:28 makes it clear that the Divine intention in creating man as male and female is procreation.  Just as God is Triune and not unitary, so man is created in two sexes and just as God is in his nature creative with the mutual love of Father and Son issuing forth in the inevitable result of creative love in the Holy Spirit, so man as male and female is able to issue forth in fruit created through love.  So to say that the telos of sexual intercourse is procreation is not to reduce man to his biological substratum; rather it is to raise him to his highest dignity.  Although the animals reproduce sexually, they do not do so through personal love and this marks out mankind alone as being in the image of God.  Non-procreative sex is therefore unnatural for humans and a denial of the dignity of man as the one creature made in God's image.

Secondly, sexual intercourse between married persons is not recreation or entertainment, but a deep personal knowing of the other person at a level of intimacy and trust that allows the two to become one flesh.  When a man has intercourse with a woman he is saying: "I love you and desire to stay with you forever.  If a child results from this act, I will devote my life to helping you raise the child."  When a woman has intercourse with a man she is saying: "I love you and desire to stay with you.  I trust that you will devote your life to helping me raise the child that may result from this act."  That is what the act of intercourse intrinsically means, whether any individual couple know it or admit it or not.  So any frivolous or casual sexual act is essentially a lie and is detached from the relational context that makes it different from animal sex and brings it into line with God's purpose in creating us male and female. 

So, in these two ways, which can be summarized as mutual, personal, loving commitment, married sex is morally right and in harmony with the will of God for the human creature and the human creature's highest good.  The rule serves the higher good for the man, the woman and the child - all of whom are involved in the act of sexual intercourse.  When the Divine plan for human sexuality is abrogated, the following things happen:

1. Sex becomes a matter of self-focused pleasure and the satisfaction of lust rather than a drive to deep, personal, committed intimacy and oneness.

2. Sex becomes detached from its procreative intent.  Fornication and adultery are recognized as creating inappropriate contexts for bringing new human life into the world.

3. Potential children are fenced out of the act of sexual intercourse through artificial contraception.

4. Women are increasingly regarded as "sex objects" and they even internalize this degraded status. 

5. A great temptation arises to resort to abortion as a "back-up" to failed contraception or sexual behaviour so driven by lust that contraception was not used.

6. Divorce can be contemplated as an option much more easily when sex is understood as the satisfaction of physical desires, rather than as a drive to total oneness because if marriage is understood as a contract for mutually satisfying sexual relations (as for Kant), rather than as a vehicle for total unity of husband and wife into one flesh, then breaking the marriage contract does not necessarily seriously wound and even potentially destroy one's personhood.  

On this analysis, abortion does not appear suddenly out of nowhere as a sudden temptation to break the sixth commandment; rather, it has its context in the desire for non-procreative sex and the severing of the link between between the biological sex drive and the emotional and spiritual drive toward intimacy, commitment and oneness at the psychological and spiritual level with physical oneness as the sign of that greater oneness.

All this calls contraception into question on a moral level.  Is the use of artificial contraception ever compatible with the Biblical understanding of human beings and the role of sex in the make up of our human nature as created in the image of God? 

Why, apart from specific Biblical passages condemning it, is the theological basis for viewing homosexuality as morally deficient?  I suggest that even pagans operating only with general revelation can see that there is a deep and important connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction, which is to say the family, and it is the fact that homosexual behaviour violates this connection that makes it suspect even to pagans.  Of course, in an extreme state of idolatry and rebellion against the Creator, some pagans actually begin to believe that homosexuality is a good, as Paul argues in Romans 1:18-30.  But this, to Paul, is iron-clad evidence of their extreme depravity rather than a respectable argument for the goodness of homosexual acts.

The important question is not: "Can one find a Bible verse specifically condemning artificial contraception?" but rather, "can the Biblical link between sexual intercourse and oneness of the husband and wife on the deepest level of their personality be preserved when sex becomes non-procreative and merely recreational?"

If decadent, late modern Western culture is committed unconditionally to anything, it is to the proposition that sex is just a recreational activity with no significance or meaning beyond the satisfaction of the lusts of the participants.  This view of sexuality makes promiscuity seem good, marriage seem trivial, and contraception and abortion seem "necessary."  What is "the contraceptive mentality" but this attitude toward human sexuality?

It seems to me that Evangelicals do not know what sex is for and so cannot give satisfactory reasons to our single adults why contracepted sex for pleasure before marriage is contrary to human nature as created in the image of God.  The only way forward is serious theological reflection on human sexuality and contraception that goes way beyond the limits of a blog post.

Cross-posted at The Bayview Review.  

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