An Aspen in a Forest of Pines
In an interesting piece in The Atlantic last week (“Life Without Sex: The Third Phase of the Asexuality Movement”), Rachel Hill highlighted David Jay and his organization, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network:
But what all asexual people have in common — and what defines asexuality as an orientation — is that, while they may have a desire to connect with other people, asexuals have no desire to connect with them sexually. Asexual people are not the same as celibate people: it’s not that they are purposefully or unintentionally abstaining from sex they would otherwise like to have, but rather that they have no interest in it.
The article is fascinating on several levels: its examination of asexuality as a “sexual orientation,” its exploration of the idea that for some people, sex just isn’t that important (however odd that may seem in our society), and its recognition that a sex-defined culture is perhaps not always beneficial. Hill’s conclusion is a bit breathless in its hope that this small but growing group of people who identify themselves as asexual will serve as correction to the current tendency to reduce personal identity to sexual identity:
In other words, you might want to have sex five times this week, or you might not want to have sex at all. Your experience of desire might be intensely physical, or it might be indistinguishable from emotional attachment. You might experience next to no attraction for years, and then find yourself consumed with another person. At one point in your life, sex might be the ultimate thrill; at another, it might be boring and routine. And all of it is okay, and none of it marks the essence of who you really are.
I’m not convinced: asexuality may be a negative definition, but it’s still an identity in sexual terms, as highlighted by the author’s comment that, “turning [asexuality] into a positive identity was a radical act.” No doubt it was; to reject the prevailing culture narrative is a brave move – but the author misses the forest for the trees. Yes, the asexual movement stands out against the sexual obsession of our age, but as an aspen in a forest of pines. They’re both still trees. Asexuals are still self-identifying in explicitly sexual terms, even if those terms are negative. In a post 1960s world, any negation of sex seems shocking, but the movement offers only antithesis; synthesis remains elusive.
Put bluntly, that is our fault. When David Jay creates an organization to gather and support asexuals, he highlights the church’s failure to present the truth that is most apparent in Jesus himself: sex is not the sum of our existence. Even in his embrace of asexuality as an identity, Jay remains trapped by sexual centrality in our culture.
One of the most important points Matthew Lee Anderson made in Earthen Vessels is how the church has completely bought into our culture’s outstanding narratives about sexuality and identity. Rather than offering up a Christ-centered vision of human flourishing and personal being that includes but is neither grounded in nor circumscribed by sexuality, the church has kowtowed to a cultural vision in which we basically are our sex drives. The Christian sex manuals and sermons and seminars are our way of shouting to the world, “Look, we like sex, too! We have good sex, too! And ours is actually better than yours, because we’re good Christians who got married before we had sex! (Well, maybe.)”
The problem with this, at Matt pointed out in a chapter that ought to be required reading for everyone, is that it simply does not match the picture God paints for us in Scripture. Yes, sex is good; and yes, it is an enormous blessing in marriage. But sex is not essential to human flourishing. This should be obvious, and if we had a more robust Christology and a more thoroughly biblical anthropology, it would. If Jesus is in fact the ultimate man, the living, eating, breathing definition of human flourishing – and he is – then his chaste celibacy matters. It stands as a stunning rebuke to American society’s obsession with sex and our proclivity for self-definition in terms of sexual motivations.
Consider not only the extent of sexual saturation in society, but also the extent to which the entire gay rights movement is predicated on the notion of sexuality as central to identity. The primary thrust of the various queer arguments in the public square is simple: “This is who I am. How dare you criticize that?” If the church often seems unable to mount a coherent response to this argument, it is because the church, in its teaching and its approach to sexuality, basically agrees. No amount of shouting, “Christ is your identity!” will overcome decades of practical push in the other direction. In its attempt to overcome apparent (and sometimes actual) prudishness, and in its rush to defend marriage against a culture assaulting it, the church has centralized sexuality in most Christians’ understanding of their lives. As Matt put it:
We implicitly convey to young people that sex is a need by marginalizing those who are single or cordoning them off in singles groups so that they hopefully will get married. Then we expect them to live some of the most sexually charged years of their lives without yielding to temptation. No wonder young people struggle to stay sexually pure: either sex is essential to their flourishing as humans or it isn’t. And if everyone who is married thinks it is, then young people will too—regardless of whatever else we tell them.
This places an enormous burden on those who remain single, as the church has offered no intellectually or emotionally compelling alternative to the narrative of marital sexuality for personal flourishing. In a culture whose chief idolatry is sex, this is catastrophic. The church has no prophetic answer where it is most desperately needed. Again:
I realize there are deep difficulties here, not the least of which are discerning the call of singleness and establishing structures and systems of support within the church for those called to it. But the absence of visible, lifetime singleness within our communities suggests that our affirmation of marriage and the goodness of sexual pleasure have overstepped their boundaries. We cannot affirm the goodness of the created order as Christians without also seeing how it has been caught up and renewed in Christ—which those who are called to celibacy bear witness to by their lives and their love. A church without singles has lost one of its main ways of warning against a sexual idolatry that has driven the whole world mad.
The tragedy is all the greater because the church has a unique capacity to speak to precisely this issue. Only Christianity both values human sexuality as a genuine societal and personal good and values celibacy as a genuine societal and personal good. Paul can write to the Corinthians both that he wishes all were single as he was for the sake of the kingdom and that marital sex is good and to be given freely and joyfully between spouses. Scripture paints a full picture of human sexuality – from the debased to the beautiful – and at the same time provides striking images of God-glorifying celibate men and women.
The church can offer powerful comfort and encouragement to men and women who do not experience sexual desire: this is not a bad thing, whatever our culture may say. Moreover, we have the resources to offer this encouragement without the sort of sexual equivocation Hill offers in The Atlantic. This “orientation” is not good simply because all orientations are good; it is good because it is a gift, meant to be used for the glory of God (see Matthew 19:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 7:7).
The church has an answer for the sexual maladies of our culture, but we must first jettison the idea that we’re going to win people over to the church by being sexually hip, and we must reject our culture’s toxic equation of identity with sexuality. To reiterate a point I made earlier: we need a more robust anthropology, one that is grounded in a more robust Christology. Christ’s humanity, his incarnate life, is not less significant than his death and resurrection. There is no better picture of human flourishing than in Jesus. Accordingly, there is no better prophetic answer to our culture’s obsession with sex than to get back to Jesus. He made sex, and he lived in chastity. Only in Christ can we see how sex and chastity are both truly good without being ultimate. I’ll let Matt close, as he said it better than me: “Marriage points to Genesis, singleness to Revelation.”