by ProfDave, ©2021
(May 3, 2021) — [Editor’s Note: See Part I here.]
As we have seen, conscience links our sexuality to God, to our species, and to our society. In a sense, we are free to do as we like, but we are not free to choose the consequences. Conscience applies to sexuality on two levels, primary and secondary. The primary application is to our own sexual behavior. The secondary application is the need we feel to protect ourselves, others, and society at large from the collateral damage of the behavior of others. Most of the cultural wars today are about secondary conscience, but they are fueled by what happens to the person who violates his conscience on the primary plane.
The primary application of conscience is directly to our own behavior. Whether we steal a pencil or someone’s wife, somewhere deep inside a red light flashes “guilty.” It doesn’t much matter where the taboo comes from, whether the guilt is just and proportional or not, our conscience is impacted and we feel somehow less. Despite the immediate benefit and the little thrill of getting away with something, Jiminy Cricket chirps like a smoke alarm with a low battery. And sometimes irritates the sparks out of us!
And did I mention that guilty pleasures often become addictive? One indulgence leads to another. The second chocolate is never as good as the first. It takes more and more to achieve the same thrill – the law of diminishing returns. We are led deeper and deeper into a cycle of guilt, shame, and loss of control. Until we are behaving in ways we would never imagine.
We have three possible responses. Denial, defiance, or repentance. In denial, we make excuses, blame someone else, project our guilt onto the victim, isolate it in a dark corner of our psyche, repress it, rationalize it, try to forget it, hide it, and more. Try to hold the closet door shut. In defiance, we own the crime and shake out fist at Jiminy Cricket, whoever he may be. Come out of the closet with guns blazing. Repentance is the special gift of Christianity. We own our guilt in submission rather than defiance, turn around, make amends, and find forgiveness and recovery. Clean the closet with the help of our Higher Power. Because Jesus died to atone for sins, we may be forgiven without any trivialization of the offense or relaxation of justice.
Only the third option heals the conscience. Otherwise it simmers and festers under the surface of denial, getting worse with time, while the defiant must defend their self-respect against all comers at a moment’s notice. Either way, the un-extracted splinter burns like fire.
Most of the trouble is with the secondary application. We feel responsible for our influence on others. We also may feel responsible to shield the victims or potential victims of the actions of others – including society itself. Can we watch a rape or a suicide without obligation to do something about it?
Enabling is helping someone to avoid the natural consequences of their actions, as when we cover for a spouse or a co-worker who has a hangover. We make it possible for the behavior to continue without the individual confronting reality. Should we enable behavior we consider wrong, even though we do not do it ourselves? Encourage, condone, permit? Consume the proceeds of it? Pay for it? Allow, much less celebrate? Can we be silent about something that we believe to be immoral, unhealthy, and dangerous to individuals and to the health of society? To life as we know it? Or is that just being tolerant?
Can we allow the “corruption of the morals” of minors? Can you say that the tobacco (or pot) ad your grandson points out is none of your business? Jiminy Cricket chirps loud and long. But is that discrimination against smoking parents? What are we obligated to teach our children about love, marriage, and life? Do we have a responsibility for the health of society? You tell me.
Being society’s Jiminy Cricket is a thankless and dangerous job. That’s why the Romans took such pleasure in throwing Christians to the lions. But without the gadfly, Socrates pointed out, the horse of society will become fat and lazy.
Besides governing our own behavior, conscience demands that we, at the least, not cooperate with evil (as we see it). In many instances, it calls us to bear witness against it and sometimes to actively intervene to prevent it. But there are consequences to expressing your conscience in the presence of those who have silenced theirs. There are none so sensitive to offense as those who are repressing guilt. They simply cannot afford to have their wounds probed and their rationalizations exposed. Even an abstinent life is a silent reproach, not to mention some self-righteous busybody who goes out of his way “fix” others. So they shoot the messenger. What a powerful incentive to stifle dissent! Conscientious people must be silenced! Or better yet, forced to participate in the violation.
When conscience and sexuality conflict, a certain amount of insanity ensues – both in the individual and in society – as we have seen in the news. The point of ERA, the Equality Act and similar legislation was not just civil rights for minorities, but to compel the consciences of all Americans to become accessories to abortion and homosexuality and so forth. Every man, woman and child must burn incense to Caesar, pay a dollar for abortion, and salute the rainbow flag. How else can we explain the enormous effort to eliminate exceptions, the draconian penalties, the demonization of dissent and the hyperbolic rhetoric?
Why can’t we just get along? How about a two cultures solution? A Christian culture that supports traditional values – life, marriage and patriotism – openly and publicly in the home, in the church, in the school, in the market, in politics and the military. And an alternative culture that celebrates alternative values – abortion, free sex, and whatever – paying for its own abortions and socially transmitted diseases, celebrating its own weddings, using its own co-ed restrooms, giving preference to its own people without censoring anyone else. Why not a level playing field? Hmmh! Why is compromise or pluralism impossible?
I was hoping someone would rise to the bait! My friend Tim wrote, “I think we already have a multi-culture solution (not just two). And unfortunately, the line between these cultures is not so clearly drawn that Christians fall as a whole in one camp or the other! Perhaps that is partly what complicates the issue.”
Tim’s point is well taken. Is there one Christian who has not compromised with rebellious desire – adultery in the heart? Is there one libertine who feels no pang of obligation to the straight life – a Puritan conscience? So why can’t we just get along? Maybe that is just why. As long as there is one libertine, the Christian is tempted. As long as there is one Christian, the libertine is convicted. But it is not the libertine or the Christian who is the problem, but both at war within each of us.
Our “two culture solution” works just about as well as the “two state solution” in Palestine! One must beat the other into submission or extermination. The playing field cannot be leveled because the planet is tilted. No matter how much you enable the alcoholic, he is still in denial. The same applies to the sexually disordered. Because there really is an objective, created order of right and wrong.
Relativism is not real. The planet doesn’t rotate clockwise and counterclockwise. There is only one moral Kingdom but many moral rebellions. One color white and many shades of gray. One angle at which to stand and many angles at which to fall. Tim’s point is well taken: the Kingdom has not fully come and His will is not fully done on earth as it is in heaven. Even those of us who acknowledge the King still struggle with the rubble created by the rebellions of our race – and our own hearts.
Why won’t a two culture solution work? Guilt and nurture. Guilt. In matters of sexual behavior and identity, just being able to do X is not enough. Just making X legal is not enough. One must be able to do X without feeling guilt and condemnation.
One cannot be completely “happy” in a relationship or lifestyle about which one feels guilt, rightly or wrongly. Do you feel guilty because your activity is illegal? Change the law. For divorce, abortion, sodomy, using the wrong bathroom (in some states), adultery and most pornography this has already been achieved.
Do you feel guilty because of social disapproval? Change society. Because of moral disapproval? Change morality. What if, when all else is erased, your own nagging conscience betrays you? Repress it, deny it, stuff it!
Not so fast. What part of society needs to change? Whose morality? Is the Screen Actors’ Guild enough? Are the courts, schools and media enough? Is a Gallup poll majority enough? No, you need everybody. As long as there is one street preacher, one little old nun, who points a bony finger and cries “sin,” you cannot be free. Your conscience finds an echo. You cannot be happy. Your denial is not safe from exposure. There can be no two cultures. Israel must be driven into the sea.
It is becoming obvious that legal changes are not enough to set sexuality free from Christian conscience. A moral transformation of an entire society is required. In Roman times, moral change was made by a dedicated and oppressed minority, living out a higher standard of moral purity and fidelity. It wasn’t that Rome didn’t have family gods and values, but at the highest levels of society they had ceased to live. [Has that happened to us?] The blood of the martyrs, the example of faith and altruism, and the power of the Christian worldview eventually won the conscience of the West. With the ascendance of Christianity, human life and sexuality became sacred, the high ground of conscience. Violators were persecuted and prosecuted. Even scofflaws acknowledged their wrong, for their consciences concurred in the judgment of both religion and civil society.
In our day, sexual liberation seeks to reverse these moral changes, returning the West to a pre-Christian decadence – or raising it to a post-Christian utopia? The process began in the 60’s (if not the Garden of Eden), is continuing, and is not yet complete.
Here is a summary of the features of the sexual revolution. Tell me if I’m wrong.
- The Christian worldview is abandoned. Humanity and sexuality are no longer sacred.
- The foundations of modernism are in question. Nature and nature’s God are no longer a fixed reality, but fluid and subjective. Reason and science are rhetorical tools and weapons of your agenda, not paths to truth. Designer gods preside over designer reality.
- Personal feelings are more real and true than the world of other people and things. You are the only moral imperative.
- The self is the center of the universe. It is a physical organism, a body responsible to itself. The spiritual “person” or soul is reduced to subconscious drives. Any larger framework beyond the physical individual is peripheral.
- We are responsible only to our own feelings and to those of our own interest group in the moment, not to outsiders, to society, to God, to ancestors or to descendants.
- Sexuality is self-expression, recreation and personal fulfillment, disconnected from reproduction (by mentality, birth control and abortion) or any other sort of intimacy.
- Pregnancy is treated as a disease, the ultimate sexual oppression and discrimination against women.
- Intimacy beyond the purely physical is largely forgotten.
- Everyone, real or imagined, becomes a potential object of sexual arousal and exploitation – excuse me, enjoyment.
- Enforcement of the Christian marriage code has been relaxed or reversed. What was unthinkable (in some cases a capital offense) has or will become permitted, then legal, then a constitutional right.
- And finally (not yet) – so goes the dream – the conscience would embrace a new moral consensus and no one would feel guilty or offended by the new liberties. A new utopia would emerge with free sex, multiple genders, liberated women, village-raised children, world peace and love – all without cost or consequences.
The problem is getting there. Can minds and hearts be won to this program by free and open debate? Is there practical action that can breach age-old taboos without disturbing society to the core? Can political and legal change of such importance come by democratic means? Can we have moral and ethical revolution of species-altering magnitude without pain and suffering, even bloodshed? Hmmh. Not in one generation or three or a hundred years!
Some sort of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” enforcing sexual freedom against the Christian conscience, seems inevitable. What is wrong for some must be institutionalized as right for everyone. The problem is that, while large numbers may be convinced to permit the obscuring and violation of established definitions of right and wrong, we cannot edit the “it is written” of ancient sacred scripts, carved in the stone of the history and traditions of every people.
Then there is the command of the primeval hard-wiring of conscience in homo sapiens that we cannot entirely silence. The worst of us feel a pang when we steal the innocence of a child, betray the trust of a partner, devour what isn’t ours or take advantage of the vulnerable. We know we should not be having sex with just any body or any thing. There are some levels of intimacy reserved for exclusivity and permanence. We respect people who take care of their young. Most of us look with envy upon an intact family. Deep down we yearn for the approval of our fathers and the unconditional love of our mothers – especially if we never had them. These are human qualities – standards of health – that do not change.
The cause of moral change must overcome ancient sacred traditions (including Christian ideals) and the primeval sense of right and wrong.
It gets worse. Not only does our conscience forbid us to, say, corrupt a child, but it forbids us to contribute to such corruption by using, enabling or even tolerating anything connected with it (including child porn).
The trouble is, we can’t agree on what is “corruption.” Kindergarten becomes a battleground in the sexual revolution. One mother’s corruption of the morals of a minor is another mother’s comprehensive sex education. One man’s artistic expression is another’s child pornography. Is it a business opportunity or sex trafficking? The oldest profession or “white slavery?” At some point, anyone who contradicts our rationalization wounds our consciences deeply – in direct proportion to our denial. We protest entirely too much!
Regardless of the merits of the case, your violation of felt taboos violates my conscience as well as yours. Your bruised conscience prevents you from listening respectfully to my ideals. You must silence me. My offended conscience does not allow me to enable you. I object to paying for your sin. You feel compelled to force my participation – I must become a party to your indulgence – lest my objection reinforce your sense of guilt and shame. I object to someone teaching my grandchildren that wrong is right. You must insist, lest the next generation think you – and your children – are wrong or disadvantaged. But none of us want to live in a neighborhood where marriage and childhood are not respected.
We cannot leave this topic without putting the whole business in the context of the reality and power of evil in our species, our society and our selves. To deny it is irrational, but at the same time we sense that evil is not normal. Something is rotten in Denmark – and in ourselves. It takes two forms: hard wickedness and soft wickedness, Pharisees and “sinners.” Hard wickedness, in self-righteous pride, dispenses with God, denies the darkness in itself, while judging and despising it in others. Soft wickedness merely succumbs.
It is imperative for conscience and good citizenship to stand for truth and values, but followers of Jesus pursue humility and compassion. We dare not hate or hold “sinners” in contempt. We are called to express the love of Christ and spread the hope that only He can give to the broken. Sexual brokenness cannot be “fixed” by accusation or self-righteousness. The truth must be spoken in mercy, love and humility.
We are all broken in one way or another. Disordered sex is highly addictive, as powerful as cocaine, with devastating social consequences. “Born this way” does not do it justice (the church calls it “original sin”). There is an element of choice, but succumbing puts the mind and will at the mercy of brain chemistry. It destroys this life and the next. “Coming out of the closet” is just as much denial as pretending there is nothing there. Trying harder does not work. Self-help does not help. There is no recovery without the intervention of The Higher Power. But there is a God! So there is hope for the “sinner,” the sexually addicted and the post-abortive. And there is hope for America, too. Now, that’s what I call freedom!
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.