by Ben Cremer
I have been mulling over several of Walter Bruggemann’s essays as of late. His exposition on our contemporary culture brings forward several needed elements that are essential for an authentic dialogue over the topic of human sexuality. In our mainstream culture, a cloud of ambiguity surrounds this topic; and the culture as a whole seems bent on keeping it that way.
We live in a culture that endlessly advocates and calls for freedom; specifically in this case, sexual freedom. What causes me to be apprehensive is that, as many people are demanding freedom in our mainstream culture, not many seem to explicitly contemplate over the ‘kind’ of freedom being demanded, or more importantly, in what is our mainstream culture’s understanding of freedom rooted? When I bring up the topic of philosophy in a conversation with acquaintances, it is generally met with a look of fatigue, disregard, or even an eye-roll. This seems to be the norm of how philosophy is perceived in mainstream culture – philosophy just doesn’t bear authority over how we understand reality. I think this general disdain towards philosophy is in defense of a deeply ingrained belief: the belief that we as individuals determine our own reality. Brueggemann helps us by showing how this belief and our culture’s understanding of freedom were shaped through a particular… philosophy!
Brueggemann rightly portrays our mainstream notion of freedom as comprised of several strong philosophical ideas. In summation: Descartes’s establishment of the human doubter as the norm of truth, Locke’s presentation of the human person as a rational, free decider, and Kant’s framing of the human as the autonomous actor and the one who shapes functional reality. He then writes, “This Enlightenment ideology has received its popular form in a Freudian theory of repression in which human maturation is the process of emancipation from communal authority that is extrinsic to the individual person and therefore fundamentally alien to mature humanness. Thus the human goal is movement beyond any restraints that come under the category of repression.”
Naturally, in our culture of freedom, we despise anything that calls for unquestioned and thoughtless allegiance. Yet, as good children of the Enlightenment, we have given our unquestioned allegiance to this fantasy of unfettered freedom – that we should be held accountable to no one. This idea shows itself in how our mainstream culture regards and expresses the nature of human desire. All that seems to be presented in mainstream culture is that humans have desires, individuals have a right to express those desires as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others, and anything that hampers this right of expression should not be tolerated. Consequently, this unquestioned allegiance to the Enlightenment’s fantasy of unfettered freedom presupposes our unquestioned allegiance to the whims of our individual desires.
This talk of human desire is necessary because of how much it plays into our mainstream culture’s understanding of sexuality. Much of how we define sexuality is framed within the context of feeling or desire. Much of what is determined about one’s sexual orientation begins, at least basely, at how a person feels towards the opposite, same, or both sexes. In mainstream culture, no serious questions are being asked on where our desires come from, how they are formed, of what are they comprised, how do they manifest themselves, how are they to be managed or, heaven forbid, can we be deceived by them? No, our conversation begins and ends with the individual’s right to determine and maintain a sexual identity. People will cheer the exercise of this ‘right’ as a sexual freedom not seeing it for what it really is, isolation. Sexuality at its core is an interactive expression – a way of communicating the self to and with the outside world. So, when we leave the deciphering of sexual identity completely up to individual desire through the lens of the individual experience, all that can really be accomplished is eloquent terms of sexual preference. Because the fantasy of the Enlightenment relegates individuals solely to silent experimentation within society by denying ambiguous thoughts and questions and a robust sexuality demands robust and open communication.
This isolationism is one of the reasons we have the puzzling argument in mainstream culture over being “born this way” and the idea that it is by “individual choice” that one’s sexual identity is formed. As if the two can really be separated and set against each other! Everything about who we are regarding how we relate to and identify ourselves within the outside world from the moment of birth is a conglomeration of genetics, brain chemistry, culture, physicality, biology, point in history, and choice. Individual choice has no say over the aforementioned human building blocks. Simultaneously however, one cannot live without making a choice somewhere along the way to participate or not to participate in a particular way of being in the world. Thus, attempting to make a distinction between choice and birth is reductionistic and harmful. The former denies free will while the latter denies the nature of growth. The irony of this fantasy of unfettered individual freedom is that enacting within it causes a legalistic relationship between our true self and our desires. For to make our unique, irreducible, unrepeatable identity known, we force our selves to pigeon-hole, reduce, and endlessly repeat a declaration of self to the outside world to maintain integrity and a place within it that isn’t subjugated to an authority. How often must we relearn Icarus’ lesson? That the freedom given to us through the wax wings of individualism, however intense, powerful, and passionate the flight may be, will always melt away in the heat of reality, leaving us in a shocking freefall alone. Our lives were brought forth through community, and for us to decipherer an authentic identity of self, including our sexuality, must be through an honest engagement within a loving and challenging community.
Our mainstream culture is made up of many separations of our own making. We have scripture separated from history and thus from the Church; the Church separated from Christ; spirituality separated from religion; information technology has helped us separate labor from learning; and we have the identity of the individual separate from community. These separations are neither loving nor challenging but deceitful; for they all detach the object from its context. Freud understood that sexuality is a sphere of endless inscrutability, the arena of our true selves and the place in our life for deepest deception and pathology. If we continue to operate under the assumption that the Enlightenment’s fantasy of unfettered freedom is the best atmosphere for the individual, endlessly praising the burden and isolation of self-determination, then we will continue to not ask hard questions of ourselves and others regarding sexuality. If we continue to deny that human desires can be self-deceptive we will continue choking on the idea that authentic sexuality is based on the ‘theory’ that unfettered human desire manifests pure truth. This illusion will only ever leave us with lifeless sexual ethics. We will continue to have raging disputes between equality and condemnation among individuals who think they are debating over sexual identity but are actually only debating over their differing understanding of how the unfettered human desire should be interpreted and expressed. Our culture is bent on producing autonomous individuals rather than fostering authentic persons.
If this continues, it will not matter how many governmental legislations are passed or not passed. Individuals will still be left secluded and alone left to forge out the ambiguity of sexuality on their own. This recipe will not only suppress an authentic understanding and expression of sexuality based on examined desires but will maintain coercive behavior that crushes and often misdirects true desire and cuts people off from authentic community. Many so-called religious folk have done great work in carrying out this coercive behavior under the banner of their fidelity to God. But Brueggemann tempers this condemning behavior with this corrective of enacting an authentic fidelity to God regarding sexuality. He writes, “such a perspective requires much more than embracing traditional mores, because fidelity means something quite different from “abstaining” or “staying married” or “being straight”. It means rather being in a relation that is genuinely life-giving and life-receiving, where the work of neighbor regard is practiced. And covenantal freedom means finding modes of fidelity congruent with one’s true self and the capacity to be emancipated from “legal” relationships that are in fact destructive and hopelessly demeaning.”
A word to we Christians: Humanity is made in the image of God: three holy persons, not Enlightenment individuals. No person of the Trinity is exploited, reduced, or oppressed by another person of the Trinity. But rather each person of the Trinity pours themselves out for the other—an authentic community. We, as human beings, were hardwired to reflect an image. If we choose our own way apart from God, we won’t stop reflecting an image; we’ll simply begin reflecting something else. Just as Adam and Eve found out in the garden, this type of “freedom from authority” will always lead to oppression and exploitation of others as well as ourselves. Apart from God, we do not know what nature to reflect and grow in to. Thus, ambiguity will then be our nature and ambiguity is what we’ll grow in to. We cannot be free to express or know our true self, including our sexuality, unless we are “dead to Christ” (emphases on WE). The unfettered freedom of the Enlightenment keeps us shackled to the haphazard whims of our human desires, even giving us ‘rights’ to do so, offering only a dismal cycle of perpetual ambiguity leading to oppression for ourselves and from ourselves to others. We must no longer accept these lifeless ethics of sex but make space available through humble service for us all to express our true self, no matter how we understand our self to be at the given point when it engages authentic community. Our mainstream culture’s unfettered freedom does not offer hope because it does not offer authentic change but rather smothers it. We have hope in Christ, because we are changed by Christ. In the midst of the authentic love of Christ in his body the Church, through humble body-to-body service of neighbor, we as both servant and neighbor are able to, as Keirkegaard wrote, “face the facts of being what we are, for that is what changes what we are.”
*Ben Cremer is the College Ministries Pastor at Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene and blogs at Constant Investigations. Ben is a graduate of Northwest Nazarene University where he earned a B.A. in Christian Ministries and a M.A. in Spiritual Formation. He is also a graduate of Nazarene Theological Seminary where he earned a M.A.T.S. with an emphasis on Church History and Christian Thought.