One of the biggest challenges of navigating through the murky morass of our generation’s moral revolution is recognizing the ways in which we have become complicit or compromised in matters related to sexuality. In an environment of heated rhetoric and debate over same-sex sexual relationships, it’s easy to form camps and draw battle lines around words or deeds in which cultural capitulation is obvious. Disowning and disparaging the church’s unanimous witness on the gender-specific nature of sexual union within the covenant of marriage is an obvious departure from the tradition.
But what if we feel courageous for “holding the line” against same-sex marriage or homosexual behavior when, in reality, we’ve fallen prey to wrongheaded cultural assumptions that have infected our thinking and practice without us ever realizing it?
During my research for the chapter in Eschatological Discipleship on the sexual revolution, I came to realize that seeds from both Sigmund Freud and his disciple Wilhelm Reich’s understandings of sexuality had burrowed their way into evangelicalism, in popular-level and more scholarly treatments of our sexual ethics. One can find traces of the Reichian idea that sexual desire is some kind of hydraulic force, bursting forth as an expression of the “real me” inside, or his assumption that to deny certain sexual desires is to repress yourself and cause harm to your body and mind.
The most obvious place where these traces show up is in our assumption that sexual expression is a need to be fulfilled, something (close to) indispensable for human flourishing, without which we are doomed to loneliness or self-harm. (Sam Allberry made this point winsomely at T4G in 2016. A couple months ago, Matthew Lee Anderson provided a more thorough treatment of this topic as part of the debates over the Revoice conference. Whether you’re a defender or critic of that conference—or both defender and critic—Anderson’s broader point regarding our evangelical sexual ethic gives us much to consider. I’ve yet to see anyone respond or engage with it.)
When marriage manuals with marital advice or romance boosters treat sex as a need (similar in some respects to food or water), we are more Reichian than we care to admit. Within this framework, sexual intimacy turns inward and loses its potency as a gift. Turning sex into a need makes marriage an exercise in finding self-fulfillment and completion.
In one of his cases, Reich counseled an anxious and depressed woman (whose husband was unfaithful to her) to commit adultery with her friend, as an attempt to cure her various neuroses. As Christians, we rightly recoil from such advice. But is it possible that we have adopted Reich’s underlying assumption that people need to have sex in order to avoid other kinds of problems? Introduce the Reichian vision of sexual “needs” into a culture of widespread contraception, and no matter how much we say that, biologically and theologically, sex is ordered toward procreation, we’ve still succumbed to the framework (that we need sex, in order to be whole and healthy) that makes extramarital sex plausible and our society’s rapid acceptance of same-sex relationships so easily explainable.
The problem is not that we have done away with moral restrictions or changed the moral guidelines we find in the New Testament. We’re right to see them as still binding upon us. We’re right to stress the authority of Scripture. The problem is that we increasingly view our obedience or disobedience to this moral code within a larger framework of assumptions about sexuality that, ironically, line up with sexual-revolution ideology.
So, yes. Christians are right to resist the sexual revolution’s casting off of moral restraint and our society’s redefinition of marriage. But our resistance is futile if the fortress of Christian thought has been hollowed out from the inside—still standing but with thin and fragile walls—as we hold fast to biblical sexual restrictions that seem increasingly arbitrary and will eventually crumble under the new plausibility structures we already share with the world. (This is a point I made several years ago—that evangelicals may already be more revisionist on marriage than we think.)
Christians are also right to appeal to the historic witness of the church for backup when it comes to our views on sex and marriage, but our appeal to history looks self-interested and convenient when we champion ancient voices on the definition of marriage, but remain curiously unchallenged by the same voices that would cause us to take a second look at our entire framework for thinking about sex within marriage (including contraception, which is a point that Anderson’s essay makes forcefully and should lead us to carefully consider our current perspective).
The sexual revolution needed the triangle of Freud, Reich, and Herbert Marcuse in order to develop politically and socially. Marcuse weaponized the Reichian vision and began to wield it politically. Evangelicals, focused on political protections and achievements, have taken a stand against the implementation of Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance,” as we should.
But I fear we have succumbed to rotten roots from Freud and Reich, while congratulating ourselves on our stand against Marcuse. If we’re going to cast a vision of chastity and sex and marriage that is biblically robust and strikingly more beautiful and affirming of human worth and dignity than those who promote the dictates of the sexual revolutionaries, we’re going to have to engage in serious and thoughtful work.
It does us no good to go along with Freud and Reich but then say, “No, thank you Marcuse,” and assume we’re being faithful. Serious work here has to go back before Marcuse and Reich to see where the unraveling came from and then travel the long road back to why our forefathers and mothers in the faith a hundred years ago would be appalled at the way in which we talk about sexual desire, practice, and contraception today. At least we should ask Why? so we can enter their world of thought.
Holding the line on same-sex marriage while succumbing to other aberrant views of sexuality is not Christian faithfulness and is not “courageous.” We must open our ears to the critique of our ancestors in order to reclaim the full inheritance of our counter-cultural vision of humanity and sexuality.