What are they saying about sex?

Following up on the Countryman series, I have to wonder: Where is the serious Christian teaching on premarital sex? Or the purpose of sexuality more generally? He sketches out some principles, but I don’t know that our churches (i.e., mainline Protestant one) are really teaching much in the way of a substantive sexual ethic.

It seems to me that it’s unrealistic to expect people to remain virgins until they’re married, particularly when people are frequently delaying marriage till their late 20s or early 30s (or beyond). Nor is it altogether clear how you’d justify such an expectation. Moreover, Christians do more harm than good when they insist that losing your virginity means losing your “purity” or that people who have sex before they’re married are somehow damaged goods.

Mainliners typically don’t adopt the more zealous pro-chastity rhetoric and tactics favored by some evangelicals, but what have they replaced it with, if anything? What are teenagers and young adults in our churches learning about how they should carry out their sexual lives? Since I was not a churchgoer during that particular period of my life, I really have no idea what our churches are saying about this stuff. But it seems to me that we need to say something.

I do get the impression that mainliners almost expect there to be a period during young adulthood when people leave the church and “sow their oats,” only to return once they’re settled down (married, having kids). So we can leave any teaching about pre-marital sex to a kind of benign neglect. Leaving aside whether this pattern will continue to hold (more likely, it seems to me, that fewer and fewer people will bother coming back to church), this hardly strikes me as a responsible approach since the vacuum left by the church will be filled with who-knows-what from the surrounding culture. But what is the alternative?

10 thoughts on “What are they saying about sex?

  1. You would think questions of purpose would not be asked by atheists, but people often seem to think of officially impersonal nature or evolution as being as foresightful and subtle as the most skilled designer.

    We see this in the effort to find an evolutionary explanation for every trait, no matter how bizarre or even harmful to the individual; and in the underlying conviction that even if one hasn’t been thought up, yet, there still is such an explanation to be found.

    That is a secularist version of “everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” even if “best” comes out meaning only something to do with reproductive fitness at the level of “the selfish gene.”

    But it shows up even more blatantly and absurdly when people give pseudo-evolutionary explanations why certain things don’t happen.

    As when it is claimed that super-viruses of the sort that appear in end-of-the-world Hollywood movies don’t actually occur because, if they did, they would wipe out their hosts and thus destroy themselves.

    Having moved from heterodox to liberal religion and thence to atheism, talk of natural purpose seems to me a metaphor without a legitimate mission, too dangerous and misleading for use.

    A watch is an object made for a purpose, as are all human artifacts, even when the purpose is aesthetic or playful.

    Making is itself an inherently purposive activity.

    Hence “blind watchmaker,” as the expression was meant, was actually oxymoronic both as regards the process and the product.

    Talk of the purpose of the eye, or of horns, or of coloration, or of sex is literally nonsense and metaphorically absurd, since there is no literal truth that is aptly expressed by this allegedly metaphoric talk.

    As to the specific question what the churches should teach, they should teach that premarital sex is a good and natural phase through which adolescents pass starting at or shortly after puberty on their way to adulthood, and that the married state (monogamy with the intention of permanence) is the norm and the best thing for most adults.

    Perhaps some Unitarians teach that.

    But I cannot imagine any self-identified Christian church, or any religion in the Abrahamic tradition, teaching that.

    (My understanding is that Unitarians no longer self-identify as Christians.)

    Can you?

  2. Okay – when I say “What is the purpose of sex?” I don’t mean that Christians should try to read moral norms off of biological processes. I take it that Darwin put paid to that kind of crude teleology. I mean something more like “What role does sex play in the context of a good human life?”

    Second point: I wouldn’t want a church to teach that “premarital sex is a good and natural phase” if by that we mean “anything goes” (or even “anything goes” short of force and fraud). I take it that gospel-virtues should shape the sexual lives of Christians even if we can’t offer a categorical prohibition of premarital sex.

  3. Camassia

    It seems to me that these questions can’t be fully addressed without reference to childbearing. I don’t know if Countryman just avoided this topic but it’s been conspicuously absent in your discussion of his book, which leaves some questions in my mind. Like, if the church only blesses sexual relationships that are “mature,” what happens if the girl gets knocked up while it’s immature? Does the church have anything useful to do in that situation? If children aren’t raised within a traditional family structure, whose responsibility are they exactly? I realize that mainline Protestants don’t hew to a simple “sex is for reproduction” line, but I think the unclarity on sexual policy you’re seeing here stems from an unclarity on the purpose of family in general.

    1. Good point. Countryman does say some things about child-bearing and -rearing, though not a ton. (Though, in fairness, he’s not claiming to offer a comprehensive sexual ethic.)

      He does point out that the NT is not particularly pro-childbearing and that Christians ought to seriously consider whether they should have children considering ecological and other constraints. Which is pretty different from the “the more kids the better” line you get with some traditionalist views. I do think it’s a big lacuna that needs to be addressed, though.

  4. Lee,

    What exactly would you want not to “go” during the phase of premarital sex?

    Yes, of course, force and fraud and abuse of animals and children are out, sure.

    But, really, what?

    And, far from prohibiting premarital sex, I think the churches would better serve our children to embrace it as, just as I said, a good and natural phase of learning to cope during a time so maddened by hormones that release is essential and that just learning to live with sex is quite a task, without having to carry the burdens of adult responsibilities.


    My thought was the church could continue to teach the proper context for childbearing and childrearing would be marriage and the family, though possibly same-sex.

    Voluntary single parenthood is an imprudence that at the same time punches holes in an already neglected extended family network that people too often don’t realize is important until it’s needed and not there.

    I had assumed sex-ed from the onset of puberty or earlier, general use of contraception, safe-sex practices, and some degree of use in case of need of abortion in the early phases of pregnancy.

    And, as I said, I don’t really see this being done by any self-identified Christian churches.

    On the other hand, this is what our practice, if not our theory, in American society is approaching, though much more self-consciously and willingly among the religiously liberal or outright skeptical.

    And what basis can there be for rejecting it by a frank embrace of moral and even theological conservatism regarding personhood at conception and the total confinement of sex to its allegedly natural reproductive and uniative ends within marriage?

    And, really, if you’re going to be that conservative, why not go the whole nine yards, prohibit divorce, and prosecute homosexuality, pornography, and even fornication?

    But, then again, didn’t we just agree there are no natural ends?


    By the way, if you reject reading moral norms off of biological processes, do you reject reading them from sacred texts?

    Whether you intend to, I don’t know.

    And I certainly don’t mean to try to shove the discussion in a direction conflicting with whatever you had intended.

    But your remark about not reading moral norms off biological processes suggests the question of Euthyphro, does it not?

    Christian moral thought has generally oscillated between theological voluntarism and the objectivism of the stoic tradition of natural law, batting back and forth between the two views in conflict in Plato’s dialogue.

    Personally, before my migration from theological unorthodoxy quite got to atheism, I found myself unable any longer to believe in moral realism.

    In fact, that in turn went a long way to undermine my theism as I agreed with the tradition that held God’s goodness and his wisdom to consist in his unfailing choice of what was truly and in fact just, right, and best.

    Absent the objective scale, where exactly is God supposed to get his utility curve, his preferences, his subjective and personal scale of values?

    As for us, there are the unchosen contingencies of our nature.

    But God?

    And so I found the ancient, underlying thought that mind rules all things unraveling.

    1. One quick point on this–by “not anything goes” I would say that promiscuity and exploitative forms of sex (that fall shy of coercion) should be frowned upon by Christians.

  5. By the way, if the processes that have made us what we are, including our needs and desires and the like, are essentially blind and purposeless, why suppose the various aspects and sides of human nature are sufficiently well suited to each other as to enable such a thing as a good life, eudaimonia, or happiness, even transiently and for the most fortunate?

    During the media coverage of the recent Snowmaggedon there were numerous stories about people shut in without power and transport, caring for totally dependent and crippled children, one strapped to a mechanized wheel chair with multiple sclerosis and unable to control his movements and another with brain damage that left him apparently fully conscious but paralyzed and on a respirator.

    Aristotle and Aquinas would have agreed such people cannot live a good human life.

    But both were really optimists, of a kind, with regard to the hale and hearty.

    What justifies us who do not presuppose that benevolent wisdom rules all things in insisting on such a goodness of fit of the bits and pieces of which we are blindly and purposelessly thrown together, even for the luckiest, despite contrary evidence and experience?

    Perhaps the truth is not only that our bodies and our minds fall apart, but that they are at no point in our lives put together very well because they were never actually put together at all.

    And perhaps there is no good life for man, but only more or less bad lives for animate beings we cannot call “shockingly poorly designed’ only because we were not designed at all.

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