The Sexual Revolution and Christianity
One of the most remarkable things about human beings is our ability to think. We can think about ourselves, other people, or our environment. We can ponder abstract concepts like love or justice. We can imagine things that don’t exist and create whole new worlds in our minds. We can investigate the space around us, discover facts, do math. We can think of ways to accomplish tasks more safely and efficiently, and then we can create the machines that help us to achieve those goals. The human brain is the most incredible object in all of creation, and the fact that you’re now thinking about the thing that does your thinking proves the point!
Ideas are powerful things that shape both ourselves and our world. Sometime around 2008 somebody had an idea for a smart phone, and now the world has been changed forever. We could say the same thing about microprocessors, airplanes, automobiles, birth control, guns, toilets, printing presses – this list could go on forever. But ideas that shape the world don’t always take concrete forms. Sometimes an idea stays an idea, like a philosophy or a worldview, shaping the world by spreading from the mind of one person to the next. A culture is transformed by the behavior of people, and people’s actions are influenced by their thoughts. There’s nothing more powerful than an idea. Think about what we find right in the beginning of Scripture: The idea that humans are created in the image of God. This idea has had as profound an impact for good in this world as any other idea ever thought up!
Jesus People are Idea People
In significant ways, followers of Jesus are idea-people. The Gospel isn’t simply an idea, of course, but rather a message about things that happened in a real place at a real time — that Christ was crucified, that he died and was buried, and that he rose again on the third day. This is more than an idea; it’s a fact of history that can reasonably be proven to be true. But there are many ideas that flow from this message: God loves humanity; God is Trinity; We are saved by grace through faith; We don’t have to fear death and can have hope for a resurrection; We should love others just as God has loved us. The ideas that the Gospel reveals form the heart and soul of the Christian faith. We lose those precious ideas if we change or compromise the message of the Gospel. We all know that nature hates a vacuum, so we need to be aware of new ideas that will replace the old ones. If we lose the Gospel, what ideas will we come to believe? And how will those beliefs shape our words, actions, and desires? If we lose the Gospel, will we become more like Jesus, or less like Him?
Christians are idea-people who have been entrusted with a vital message.
The early Church leaders seemed to understand that Christians are idea-people who have been entrusted with a vital message – a message that is good news for all humanity. They knew that if Jesus’s followers lost this message or allowed competing ideas to seep into the faith, then the Church would be compromised, and would itself become just another institution in the world, no different from any other. Paul warned that first generation of Jesus followers, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8) The message of the Gospel and the ideas of Christianity are essential to the nature of our faith. They must remain as they were when they were first handed down, uncorrupted by the many ideas that float through the ether of every culture and age. The way we communicate the message will change from age to age, but the message itself cannot be changed. We have to be faithful to the Gospel.
In every generation there are ideas that are incompatible with, or even outright destructive of, Christian faith. (Sometimes these ideas even come from the Church herself!) As idea-people, followers of Jesus are called to contend against these destructive philosophies. We are supposed to fight against them intellectually. Sadly, however, far too many Christians become captive to these ideas rather than contenders against them. The predictable result is that these hollow philosophies hollow out their faith and cause them to lose the message entrusted to them, the beautiful Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Sexual Revolution
There are many such ideas active in our generation today: American exceptionalism, scientism, market capitalism, socialism, Critical Race Theory. Many of these ideas have elements that are compatible with Christian faith, or perhaps even come from it. But when they are examined in their totality, we find that they cannot be completely integrated into our faith without undermining or corrupting it. There is another idea, however, that has utterly captivated our culture, and has become as prevalent in our minds as air is in our lungs. This idea is the sexual revolution, and it’s especially important for followers of Jesus to understand it, know where it came from and what it is trying to accomplish. We need to be able to discern how it is or is not compatible with Christian faith. The sexual revolution is a massively important idea, and it’s hard to imagine that there is any idea, philosophy, or worldview that has had a greater influence on our culture in the past century.
Many of us have heard the phrase the sexual revolution, but probably don’t have a solid sense for what it is. Perhaps images of the “free love” movement of the 1960s come to your mind. This was part of the sexual revolution, but it’s much older than the 60s. Others may think of the women’s liberation movement as the sexual revolution, but while the sexual revolution influenced the women’s movement to embrace abortion, the two should be thought of separately. Today we might think of the LGBT equality movement as the sexual revolution, but it is really only a small part, and just the latest manifestation, of a much larger idea.
Over the past century, the sexual revolution can claim credit for cultural innovations like no-fault divorce, the birth control pill, the trend toward cohabitation rather than marriage, abortion rights, mass commercial pornography, significantly decreased birth rates, hook-up culture, marriage equality, and trans rights. This is an idea with a long list of accomplishments which have, in some cases, been achieved with the help of Christian clergy, churches, and denominations. But do the Christian accomplices of the sexual revolution know what it is, where it came from, and what its goals are? Do any of us understand it well enough to be able to judge whether the sexual revolution is compatible with, or destructive of, Christian faith as Jesus prescribed it?
Marx + Freud = Reich
The sexual revolution was birthed in Europe during the radical period of the early 20th century. Wilhelm Reich is credited by many as the father of the sexual revolution, and his book The Sexual Revolution (a portion of which is available for free online as a pdf) marked the beginning of an idea that would reshape the world. While it is a complex set of ideas and goals, the sexual revolution can best be understood as Marxist philosophy viewed through the filter of Freudian psychoanalysis. (Reich was both a socialist and a student of Freud.) Let’s break this down so we can really grasp it.
The sexual revolution can best be understood as Marxist philosophy viewed through the filter of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Marx believed that humans are caught in a power struggle between the upper and lower classes. For Marx, the “means of production,” or the ways in which we secure our livelihoods, was the object of this struggle. He believed that the lower classes should own the means of production so that they can gain power, wealth, and security. In this way, the lower classes would be elevated while the upper classes might be brought down a peg or two, and the two would meet in the middle. The class war would come to an end because everyone would become part of the same class, and therefore equality would be achieved, ushering in the long-sought human utopia.
Freud taught that human neurosis — what we might call mental illness — stemmed largely from sexual repression. He believed that denying sexual desires could make a person go crazy. However, sanity could be restored and life could become more bearable once the individual learns to release the sexual energy inside of himself. Freud sought to destigmatize certain sexual thoughts, desires, and behaviors, and viewed the sexual development of the individual as essential to their humanity. A person could only flourish when they no longer repress themselves, or more importantly, allow themselves to be repressed by cultural institutions like the Church and the family.
Combining Marx and Freud, we could summarize Reich’s argument like this: The individual will be repressed and oppressed (and therefore powerless and not fully human) until he assumes autonomy over his body, particularly his sexuality, throwing off the authoritarian shackles of family and religion, and especially traditional culture’s oppressive, outdated sexual morality. Human beings will truly live only when they free themselves from the straitjacket of traditional sexual rules and norms, thereby creating a utopia of affirmation and enjoyment in which the sexual happiness of every individual is prioritized over relationships, commitments, family structures, and religious doctrines and practices. This is the basic vision articulated by Reich, and I think his overall philosophy still holds within the sexual revolution as we see it today. Phrases like “My body, my choice” for abortion, or “Love is love” for marriage equality reflect Reich’s thought from nearly a century ago.
In Reich’s own words, cultural sexual morality (something he calls “sexual regulation”) should “avoid absolute rules or norms and…accept the interests of life affirmation and life enjoyment [by this he means sexual gratification and expression] as the regulators of human society.” In other words, sexual morality should be defined as what brings enjoyment to the individual. Nothing else, especially traditional morality passed down from religious institutions, should be allowed to define it. Speaking of morality, Reich continues, “That ‘morality’ which all people affirm to be self-evident (not to rape, not to murder, etc.) can be established only if natural needs are fully gratified. But the other ‘morality’ which we reject (abstinence for children and adolescents, absolute and eternal marital fidelity, compulsory marriage, etc.) is itself pathological and causes the very chaos it feels called upon to master. It is this morality which we inexorably oppose.”
Reich’s words echo throughout our society today. We hear our culture loudly and proudly assert: The Christian Sexual Ethic is immoral and bigoted. The individual is in charge of his or her own body, and has no obligations to family or religion. In fact, true vitality — real human flourishing — can only be found in resisting the authoritarianism of religious teaching and breaking the bonds of the traditional family structure. The idea of the sexual revolution is that the individual is at war with the traditional family and the Church over the sexual expression of the body, and that true happiness can only be found in the victory of the individual. Repression is oppression. Gratification is freedom.
The Church can only be tolerated if it abandons traditional sexual teaching.
So what, then, of the Church and her teaching of traditional sexual morality? One of the sexual revolution’s greatest critics, Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, argues, “Reich writes that the only ideas that should be tolerated are those that do not undermine ‘sexual happiness’ and the process of disintegration of the traditional form of family.” Reich’s language is stern and absolute. The Church can only be tolerated if it abandons traditional sexual teaching. Del Noce continues, “The book’s rigorous consistency shows that no compromise is possible between traditional morality, taken in its entirety and without modification, …and sexual liberation.” According to the sexual revolution, the Church’s teaching of family-centered life, monogamous marriage, and procreative sex are backwards, old-fashioned, and oppressive. It is this authoritarian morality which is responsible for so much evil in the world. The Church must change or be discarded by the enlightened, free, vivacious culture of sexual liberty.
At this point it may seem impossible to find compatibility between the sexual revolution and authentic Christian faith. You might be thinking that there is no way that these two ideas can work together. But we haven’t even reached the heart of the issue. All we have shown so far is that the sexual ethics of Christianity and the sexual revolution are polar opposites. It may be possible to still integrate the two, as long as the Christian rejects the sexual teachings of Church and Scripture. But there is much more beneath the surface. Let’s dive deeper.
Materialism: The Foundation of the Sexual Revolution
The idea of the sexual revolution is based upon another idea, which we might call “materialism” today. This kind of materialism isn’t what you experience when you go to the mall and spend a ton of money; it’s not consumerism. No, materialism is the belief that the physical world is the only real world that exists. The sexual revolution is built on the premise of materialism, the assertion that the only things that exist are material things. Reality is what can be discovered through scientific inquiry. If you can’t see it with your eyes or observe it through a microscope (or a telescope), then it doesn’t exist. Materialism asserts that there is no spiritual realm, no metaphysical reality. There are no supernatural beings. There is no divinely-inspired order to creation. There is no God in whose image humans are made.
Reich reveals his materialist cards when he writes, “The concept of the sexual urge as being in the service of procreation is a method of repression on the part of conservative sexology. …It presupposes a goal which of necessity must be of a supernatural origin. It reintroduces a metaphysical principle and thus betrays a religious or mystical prejudice.” He’s not wrong here. The Christian sexual ethic teaches that procreation is the proper goal of sex (not every sexual act, of course, but of sex in general). This procreation happens within a marital relationship between a man and a woman. This teaching is established in Genesis 2, before the fall of humanity into sin, and later reaffirmed by Jesus. Procreation, in the biblical view, is an act of obedience to God and the continuation, through human action, of His divine act of creation. The teaching that sex should be limited to a committed and, at least potentially, procreative relationship is a fundamentally religious doctrine. It is, as Reich states, a “reintroduction” of spiritual ideas into the conversation about sex — meaning that, for him, the spiritual ideas had been removed from this conversation.
The sexual revolution can only be true if God does not exist.
Reich rejects the supernatural origin of sex because he rejects the supernatural. In fact, the idea of the sexual revolution only makes sense within a materialist, that is, an atheistic understanding of the world. Without the supernatural and the spiritual, without an objective reality outside of, above and beyond himself, man is reduced to, as Del Noce puts it, “a bundle of physical needs.” If there is no spiritual realm and therefore no spiritual element in humans, then we are purely physical beings whose deepest needs are also, therefore, purely physical. Del Noce drives the point of Reich’s thinking home with these words: “Having taken away every order of ends and eliminated every authority of values, all that is left is vital energy, which can be identified with sexuality. …Hence, the core element of life will be sexual happiness.” In a world without God, sexual happiness is the only source of transcendence available to humans, who universally display an instinctive need for, and sense of, the transcendent. But if God does exist, and if humans do have a spiritual aspect to our existence, then sexual happiness is just one among many sources of transcendence, and should rightly by governed by the wisdom and morality of the God who created us.
In other words, the foundational concept of the sexual revolution can only be true if God does not exist. In fact, if God does not exist, then the sexual revolution must be true. If there is no objective reality greater than our own bodies; if there is no supernatural being that gives meaning to our existence; if there is no transcendent deity by whom we will be held accountable; if there is no authoritative set of values and virtues beyond our own experience; if there is no divine end toward which we are moving; if there is no order in creation because there is no Creator who ordered it, then sexual happiness is all we have and all that we should pursue. But these are the only conditions under which the sexual revolution can be true. The idea of the sexual revolution can only be true in a materialistic, atheistic world because these are the assumptions upon which it is built, and as an idea, it utterly fails to satisfy the conditions of a world in which God does exist and is that world’s Creator.
The Christian and The Sexual Revolution
In a world created and inhabited by God the sexual revolution must be false because His very presence falsifies it. If there is a God then this God is the objective reality that is greater than ourselves. He gives meaning to our lives and holds us accountable for our thoughts, words, and deeds. He makes us in His image, and therefore we are more than bodies and physical needs — we are a beautiful combination of the spiritual and the physical whose needs, desires, and ends reflect our dual nature. If there is a God, then this God knows us and all of our needs, and the order which He has established in creation will be for our greatest good and happiness because He has created the world for us and us for the world. If there is a God, then we can find full, flourishing life by living according to His commands, pursuing His ends, and seeking to transform our character into His own.
God knows us and all of our needs, and the order which He has established in creation will be for our greatest good and happiness.
The question for the follower of Jesus, then, is this: Can a Christian faithfully incorporate the ideas of the sexual revolution into his or her Christian faith or practice? Is the sexual revolution compatible with Christianity? Given that the idea of the sexual revolution can only be true if there is no God, then I suppose that one cannot rightly say “Jesus is the Son of God” and “There is no God” at the same time. In fact, Christians who embrace the sexual revolution find themselves in a fundamental contradiction, making a nonsensical mental, if not verbal, confession: “Jesus is the Son of the God who does not exist.” Nothing, of course, could be less Christian. The sexual revolution is destructive of Christian faith and practice, undermining it at the most basic level, and the two ideas cannot rightly and faithfully exist within the same mind.
So what are we to do? Jesus said that you can’t serve two masters at the same time. Eventually, you’re going to have to make a choice. In my experience, this is precisely how the sexual revolution and Christian faith work within the mind of the individual. Over time that person has to make a choice, and they almost always choose the sexual revolution. And why not? It’s fun. It’s sexy. It’s tolerant. It’s the new morality. It’s the opposite of those authoritarian fundies who get Christianity so wrong. It puts you on the right side of history — for now, anyway. But when you stand before the Lord of history, will He deem that you’ve been faithful to Him? And if you think He will, are you willing to consider that your adoption of the ideas of the sexual revolution are influencing your Christianity the same way, and to the same extent, that conservative politics influences the Christianity of the people you so righteously oppose?
It seems to me that you’re going to have to go all-in one way or the other. Either push all your chips in and bet on the sexual revolution, or go for broke with Jesus. No more vacillating between two opinions. No more trying to mix this oil and water. The amount of cognitive dissonance it takes to make this unholy marriage work is staggering, and you’re simply not going to be able to hold the relationship together. These two ideas are moving in opposite directions. Sexual Utopia is not New Creation, and it will never get you to the kingdom of God that Jesus preached. The sexual revolution was created to destroy Christian faith, and that’s what it’s going to do in you if you don’t tear it out by the roots.
The good news is that you can walk this back. You don’t have to be a captive to these hollow and deceptive ideas any more. You don’t have to serve this master anymore. You can reclaim the purity of your faith. Just repent. Renounce the sexual revolution and cut it out of your heart and mind. Let Jesus reign supreme in those places by killing all other claimants to the throne. Of course it’s not easy. I know it’s hard to change your mind about something, especially when you’ve publicly championed it and allowed it to form you in profound ways. I’ve had to change my mind about a lot of things in my life, and it’s never an easy process. But you can do it. And I believe that God wants you to do it, and He will help you along the way. Please feel free to comment or contact me to continue a conversation on this very important subject.