Last week, I recommended five resources that help us understand how sexuality functions in our social context and why it is important for Christians to build a healthy culture of marriage and sexuality in the days ahead.
Topping my list of suggestions was a book by Jonathan Grant, a pastor in New Zealand. Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age maps the “modern sexual imaginary” and shows how our culture views sexuality within a philosophical framework of consumerism, liberty, and technology. Grant shows how our culture arrived at this point, and why we think and act the way we do.
There’s one section of the book I’d like to quote from extensively. Grant lays out five stages in which sex has been progressively “disembedded” and “liberated” from the social contexts that once gave it its essential meaning.
As you look at these five steps, don’t simply shake your head and wag your finger at the world. Ask yourself, How have our own churches taken these steps?
Step 1 – The Separation of Sex from Procreation
“[This] was enabled by a host of factors, including the invention of contraception, medically assisted conception, and the modern priority given to sex as an expression of companionship rather than as primarily for having children.”
Step 2 – The Separation of Sex from Marriage
“Cohabitation came to be seen by many as a sensible form of premarriage testing or even as an alternative lifestyle. The loosening of sexual relationships is reflected in our use of the term ‘partner,’ which is primarily an economic term. In the name of authenticity and honesty, we declare that we will be partners in this common endeavor for as long as it suits our perceived needs and desires.”
Step 3 – The Separation of Sex from Partnership
“The commodification of sex as a form of recreational pleasure seeking means that many people have come to think of sex as a lone pursuit that just happens to involve another person.”
Step 4 – The Separation of Sex from Another Person
“The attitude [of step 3] has led not only to the disenchantment of sex but also to further fragmentation. As the reasoning goes, why include other people if sex is purely about self-gratification? The rise of online pornography is a natural result of this cultural reasoning.”
Step 5 – The Separation of Sex from Our Own Bodies
“[This is] the final form of fragmentation, which is the inevitable result of this journey of progressive disembedding. Our inherited gender was once seen as normative for determining what form of sex we engaged in and with whom. But it has become a core modern intuition that ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are things we choose, or that our ‘orientation’ is part of a deeper ‘sexual personality’ that transcends our gender. Cut free from the moorings of divine design, we are not splintered and isolated by an infinite array of sexualities…
“This stunning transformation has been accepted as self-evident within the modern moral paradigm, and yet such a perspective has been made possible only by the progressive stages of disembedding outlined above. Today, despite the unambiguous testimony of our bodies, we are faced with an open choice.”
Grant’s point is not that these stages can’t happen simultaneously or out of order. (Pornography is an ancient phenomenon, after all.) It’s that the latter steps cannot be seen as morally neutral, acceptable, or even virtuous without the impact of the previous steps. These steps indicate that our society has lost any coherent vision of sexuality and its meaning.
Our denial of transcendence and teleology leaves us “with no foundation on which to think about how to engage our sexuality, except for open-ended self-expression, which fuels the confusion and destructive dynamics of modern sexual practices. The loss of any coherent cosmic structure that gives sex its real purpose — namely, God’s blessing of sex within marriage for intimacy and childbearing — leads to sexual chaos.”