Over at Public Discourse, Jeremy Neill has offered a well-argued, thoughtful, sober but optimistic perspective on the long-range possibilities of success for traditional sexual mores, arguing that a conservative victory is inevitable in the long term. The essence of his case is that the social consequences of the growing sexual chaos will ultimately prove so damaging to human flourishing that opinions will change and move society back to a more traditional moral framework.
I am not so sanguine. Neill seems to assume a certain ultimate rationality to long-term social behavior. While clearly not a Marxist, he finds some support for this in the broad dynamics of Marx’s understanding of human consciousness. That model is predicated on a relatively predictable relationship between the way people think and the larger forces which drive social development. He also seems to assume that society as a whole will ultimately act rationally and in its own best interests, in the direction of ‘flourishing’ as he describes it. Yet there are other students of the human condition—Paul, Augustine, and Pascal, for example—who would doubt that such is the case. For a start, the very concept of ‘human flourishing' is surely not a given, at least not any more.
As Neill acknowledges, technology frees the world for its current sexual chaos and offers solutions to the problems created by such. Of course, those solutions are specious and temporary, but the failure of such does not necessarily cause a return to older, better paths. If wider cultural forces conspire to make such paths implausible, a return will not take place. For a return to traditional, conservative patterns, there needs to be a broader context for thinking about the problems of the sexual revolution than mere technology. Yet the tools for this are being dismantled before our eyes. There is a deep, and deepening, antipathy to anything approaching moral discourse when it comes to sexual behavior, beyond the nebulous cliché of ‘mutual consent.’ Thirty years ago at a Christian—a Christian!—discussion group, I was derided as being unrealistic for suggesting that celibacy and monogamy were the best ways to stop the spread of AIDS. That was in the 1980s and much more demolition of moral discourse has happened since then. Society as a whole is perilously close to lacking even the minimum of tools to imagine any alternative to the current chaos.
I agree with Neill that the sexual revolution is ultimately doomed, simply because it will be impossible to deny the given realities of human nature indefinitely with any degree of impunity. Transgenderism is both a specific example of this and emblematic of the whole. A man who believes he is a woman can have his body mutilated and pumped full of chemicals as much as he wants. Yet he remains only a mutilated, chemically distorted man, however much others might encourage him in his delusion. But it is also true that in his fight against reality, such a man has wreaked irreparable and irreversible damage on himself. Thus, in the grand scheme we cannot ultimately deny human nature; But we can do a whole of lot of damage in the attempt.
The fact that the sexual revolution is doomed does not mean that it will give way to older, more traditional patterns, however many alternative communities, Benedictine and otherwise, might continue to resist. Human beings are doing, and will continue to do, incalculable and quite possibly irreversible harm to themselves in their attempts at pretending to be their own little gods. And I believe that we are just insane enough to destroy ourselves rather than accept the obvious fact, that we are not free to be and do whatever we want.
When Rome was sacked in 410, refugees flooded into Hippo Regius. The collapse of the Roman dream—social, economic, cultural—would, one might have thought, have precipitated some soul searching on the part of such. But as Augustine commented, the refugees headed straight to the theatre rather than to the church. Distracting entertainments rather than critical reflection and repentance for complacent folly were the order of the day. The human ability to indulge in such is strong, very strong. Stronger, I suspect, than the underlying forces of the economic base.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.