Wednesday 14 October 2015

Spirituality hijacked by sexuality - the need for goals as well as rules

I am recurrently struck by the extent to which spiritual movements are so often subverted, hijacked and destroyed by sexuality.

The clearest example is the mid nineteen 'hippie' counter-culture, which was supposed to be about a kind of spiritual revolution, including many Eastern religious elements, a critique of materialism, the desire for meaning and an escape from alienation, the formation of a more organic and ethical society and so on... but which very rapidly became primarily about the sexual revolution and the other stuff just a camouflage... a tool for seduction, as it were.

But this scenario has been played in many times and places over the past couple of hundred years - a socio-political movement starts out as spiritual, but ends up as sexual. (Indeed, nowadays, almost everything ends-up as being 'about' sex and the sexual revolution.)

Sexual takeover does seem to be a highly significant problem - presumably because it s not just a powerful instinct for humans, but something which spontaneously disguises itself, excuses itself, and operates at many levels.

In fact, sex is nearly all 'in the head' - a sexualized atmosphere may dominate in a person, a group even an institution with only a tiny proportion of actual sex, or none at all: it is nearly-all about anticipation, fantasy and memory. And sexuality is also far more strategic than is commonly acknowledged - with seducers engaging in detailed long-term planning and attempted manipulation.

(The secret that sexuality as a goal of life simply does not work, that sex does not ever or even remotely yield what it 'promises', makes the whole thing a bad joke; and humanity a bunch of existentially pitiful fools.)

Altogether, sexuality is a formidable foe - not to be underestimated! And real religions do not underestimate it; but always have in place some kind of explicit goals and rules.

Both goals and rules are needed; although rules get most of the attention. It is as if, when goals are lacking, then sexuality is the next-most-powerful thing, and will expand to take the place of goals.

So celibacy is one goals which many religions have put into place as a way of controlling sexuality - indeed for many religions celibacy is the highest goal, and the religions regard sex as a failure. This would seem extraordinary and paradoxical, except that sexuality is so powerful that even when it is all-but prohibited and at least strongly discouraged, enough still goes-on to perpetuate the group. However, there are obvious problems with holding celibacy as the ideal.

But marriage (in various forms) with an orientation to family is the main way in which the usurping tendency of sexuality is controlled, and indeed beaten, by religion.

Given this fact, it is surprising to me that marriage has so seldom been recognized as the highest spiritual aspiration - higher than celibacy. But when this happens, the advantages seem obvious.

Marriage with family is the goal, and there are also the rules. Religious people are used-to insisting on rules about sex, but without a goal then rules are merely negative: and a life based around a series of  'thou shalt not" statements is grossly incomplete, inorganic, maimed... and this fact has been noticed, exposed and exploited to the hilt by those who oppose religion.

Among the modern middle classes it is usual to put forward 'a career' as the proper goal of life; but we know from experience that this cannot work - the goal of a career is a pitifully feeble thing to pit against human sexuality! For the obvious reason that a career is a grossly inadequate and impoverished life goal - it simply cannot and does not do the job.

We need to have marriage as the goal, for individuals, and sustained by culture. From this perspective; I find it highly significant that in the modern West it is at best regarded as offensive to propose marriage with family as the proper and best goal of life - this is increasingly taboo; and indeed (in the UK, at least) it is illegal in some situations.

But the spiritual goal of marriage and family is what is needed; it is what is absolutely necessary for any effective and resilient spirituality in modern conditions: and nothing less will suffice.


Anonymous said...

Is the goal of marriage and family symmetrical with respect to men and woman? I mean, shouldn't a man in addition have a higher goal or purpose which is more connected with wider society (which may or may not entail a career but in either case is more fundamental than that?)

Please give an example of a situation in which it is *illegal* to suggest that traditional marriage is the best goal in life?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon (please use a pseudonym) - Men and Women are different, therefore goals etc should never be assumed to be symmetrical. SO no - the goal of marriage and family is not symmetrical for men and women.

It is illegal to teach that traditional marriage is the best goal in life in all British state schools.

ted said...

As a single man in his late 40's, I guess my question is what is the telos of a post-procreation relationship? Since it can not be family (unless one is taking on a family from a prior relationship), is there a higher end for such a couple to commit to each other?

ajb said...


From the sounds of it, it's time for Christian parents in the U.K. to seriously consider either a) very strong educational efforts around state schooling, b) homeschooling or other private education, or perhaps even c) emigrating.

Bruce B. said...

“However, there are obvious problems with holding celibacy as the ideal.”

Bruce, could you name the problems?

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Errr... extinction?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ted - One can and should only teach the rules and principles - not the exceptions.

Another exception is creative geniuses - whose priority is, properly, their 'work'.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - School is far less of a problem than the mass media.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"for many religions sexuality is the highest goal"

You meant to write celibacy, right?

Bruce B. said...

Ok, just wanted to see you write it before I disagreed.

Christian history from Jesus’ time to about 1960 (i.e. the time when a Christianity that holds celibacy as the highest state was actually practiced by a significant number of people) demonstrates that you are not correct.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - The point I was trying to make was that advocating celibacy as the highest good is not the best way to control sexuality - because the rules are at odd with the goal. When the rules and goal of celibacy comes together and succeed you get the Shakers - and extinction.

The Reformation was partly about displacing celibacy from its status as highest goal in Christianity - and was partly successful (although at the cost of removing monasticism even as a possibility), but this was not fully achieved until the Mormon Restoration.

Bruce B. said...

Ok. I figured you were referring to Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. It was common after the reformation for Catholics to be accused by Protestants of having too many children - big Catholic families were the norm until the 1960s.

I don’t know whether celibacy was the highest goal in pre-reformation Christianity – it was a higher state that was for some people and not for others as St. Paul indicates. If the goal of Christianity is to make people Holy, then I would argue the pre-reformation understanding is the best way to achieve that goal given the different types of people and how people actually are.

I’m not suggesting this is your argument but I just wanted to say that the collapse in Catholic and EO birth rates is NOT because they still (on paper) place high value on celibacy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - No I agree - Birth rates in all modern societies have collapsed. Celibacy was the highest goal of spirituality (and still is) in all the catholic religions - it came in I think within the first couple of centuries of Christianity. Although the RCC idea of a celibate secular priesthood is a relatively modern, andI believe mistaken, innovation; the celibate religious life is the highest goal in Orthodoxy which is why their Bishops are recruited from monks, or if priests are married they must become celibate to become Bishops.

But this is not what the post is about.

Glengarry said...

If we consider Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it seems modern society is intent on bureaucratically providing the lowest 'physiological' and 'safety' steps, yet is strangely stuck below the next 'love and belonging' step. Indeed, some might even say this step is being frustrated by societal developments. Some might also call that a regression.