At bottom, the “culture war” is a war between subjectivism and realism: does the world we experience get its order and significance from human thoughts, feelings, intentions and actions, so by choosing our thoughts and actions properly we can bring about a new Creation, or is it what it is largely without regard to those things, so we should recognize its nature and adjust ourselves to it? The point pops up everywhere, but I was especially struck by a couple of things I ran into in connection with the current druidical turn in the Episcopal church:
- The comment of a liberal Episcopal priest that liberals have a “nurturing” God while conservatives have a “punishing” one. It seems to me that behind that comment is a view that everything is a matter of relationships among subjective perceptions and desires. From that perspective, the idea that God and the moral order are real, and we can do serious wrong with serious consequences, becomes indistinguishable from the idea that God is punishing rather than nurturing us. It’s as if “hot stove” is just a game mother and child are playing, so when child touches stove it doesn’t hurt unless mother decides to make it hurt as a punishment.
- Excepts from an essay by Rowan Williams, then an academic and now the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he criticizes conservatives who “legalize” a term like “sexual fidelity,” when sexual bonds can lead to spiritual transformation outside of marriage:
“The realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly … more damage is done … by the insistence on a fantasy version of heterosexual marriage as the solitary ideal.”
Morality with regard to sex is thus to be elicited from the individual’s experience in his path of self-transformation, rather than from contemplation of the nature of sexual experience, the personal and social consequences of various possible understandings, or the experience of whole peoples summed up in their traditions. Objectivity is to be radically downplayed in connection with a side of human life notoriously difficult for any of us to get a grip on.
Not surprisingly, I much prefer the right-wing perspective. A world that has truly been created and made real, in which we make real decisions that have real consequences, strikes me as a much more worthwhile place than an eternal kindergarden in which everything can be summed up simply as nurture. Also, the kindergarten theory seems an amazingly bad description of the world we see around us.
As for Williams, he’s right that it’s silly to say every sexually sinful act is sin and nothing else, just as it’s silly to say every murderous act is sin and nothing else. The economy of the human soul is much more complicated than that. A murder can be both a murder and a means of redemption. Still, the least you can say about an intelligent and learned man who asserts, in defiance of the unequivocal judgment of the tradition he claims to interpret, that sexual traditionalism is more damaging than sexual liberation, is that he has very bad judgment and shouldn’t be head of a world-wide religious communion with tens of millions of members.