Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Hedonism and the Culture Wars: A More Fundamental Issue than Homosexuality

Perhaps an old “gray beard” should not be surprised that his university students are highly interested in sex, but their apparent obsession with being for or against homosexuality as the litmus test of social acceptability strikes me as simply weird.  Those who want to be liberal, progressive, or inclusive tend to follow dominant voices in media and culture in praising all things related to sexual minorities and reducing thoughtful moral and spiritual discourse to simplified debates of “love” versus “hate.”  Those who want to be conservative and traditional often make opposition to the endorsement of same-sex unions or intimacy the watershed moral and political question of our time, not unlike the signers of the Barmen declaration against the Nazified German Christians of the 1930’s. 
Granted, there are profound spiritual, moral, cultural, and political questions at stake in how our society and religious institutions respond to what I understand is now called the LGBT community.  But why matters that concern directly such a small portion of the population seem to be viewed as the defining issue of our time would remain a mystery to me, where it not for the great social upheavals of the 1960’s.  Yes, I mean the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution.  Without belaboring the point, we seem to have in discussions about homosexuality and related matters the “perfect storm” of political activism intertwined with hedonism.
The vast majority of hedonism remains heterosexual, of course, as most men and women find themselves drawn to intimate relations with members of the opposite sex.  But the perspective that the ultimate good is pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction on our own terms, however we as isolated and self-defining individuals want it, is at the heart of our society’s take on sexuality, marriage, and family.  No wonder promiscuity, pornography, and divorce are so popular today in a culture of individuals for whom immediate personal happiness is the highest standard.  And no wonder that, regardless of their sexual inclinations, good American hedonists want to extend the same rights to pursue pleasure to everyone, regardless of their sexual inclinations.  On these terms, it would be unfair not to do so.
Alas, that may be the best our society can do at this point.  We have accepted the fiction that because people find themselves with certain desires—whether married, single, or whatever-- that they must or at least should fulfill them.  We talk about these matters as though being true to oneself in the pursuit of pleasure is the ultimate meaning and purpose of the universe.  In contrast, some vocal advocates of more traditionally Christian views of sexuality tend to give the impression that the problem is with a small minority of the population who maliciously choose to have certain desires. A better question, of course, is how we all choose to respond to whatever set of disordered desires beset us, how we guard our thoughts, and how we respond when immediate pleasure is down one path while faithfulness to Jesus Christ leads us down another.
The most fundamental issue is not straight versus gay or bi-sexual, but whether we are willing to take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and serve Jesus Christ faithfully.  The Orthodox Church has never blessed sexual intimacy apart from the monogamous marriage of one man and one woman.    Whether we find ourselves in such a marriage or not, we are called to reject the lie that everything boils down to our immediate pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction.  We are called to accept the reality that we all want some things are not good for us, paths to holiness, or pleasing to God.  We are not to judge anyone, including ourselves, by our desires, but instead to undertake practices such as prayer, fasting, generosity to the needy, mindfulness, forgiveness, and reconciliation by which we open ourselves more fully to the eternal joy that Jesus Christ has brought to the world.  That joy is not so much immediate gratification as a foretaste of the eternal blessedness to which our struggles and unfulfilled longings may open us in new ways.
As anyone who has reached a certain age will know, the fundamental question here is not sex, but the meaning and purpose of our lives.  It’s not as easy as this group versus that group because we all stand in need of the mercy of a Lord before Whom all our obsessions and divisions are revealed to be less than holy.  The teachings of Orthodox Christianity about sex are clear, unchanging, and true, but it would be a mistake to give the impression that the overriding spiritual and moral issue of our day boils down to our stance on an issue that is not a pressing intimate struggle for most of us. To do so would be to accept a distraction that lets us off the hook of our own calling to fight our passions, deny ourselves, and reorder our desires in ways that bring us more fully into the life of Christ.      
So I will continue to challenge my students to reject the categories of mainstream culture, whether right or left, when discussing sexuality.  The truth is that neither liberation nor traditional values will make us partakers of the divine nature.  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit to Whom we open ourselves by repentance, humility, and selfless love for the Lord and our neighbors.  This deep journey cannot be reduced to political or cultural or even moral slogans, much less to the pursuit of pleasure on our own terms.  

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