Dear Nephew, my hellborn one,
Ah, how I delight in writing you as my esteemed Uncle, Screwtape, once instructed me, he of diabolical dishonor, now emeritus. He has well earned his current sojourn in a New York City establishment that goes by the pithy name, Sex. I fear, however, that Uncle may be nearly exhausted and well-nigh flummoxed; indeed, he may even be somewhat vexed. For the perverse pleasures of this cavern of delicious iniquity have outstripped even his imagination. (But, then, he is over thirty.) I understand that our own Madonna of Manichean Delectations (oh, what a treasure she is, what a splendid job I have done-for she has been my special assignment, as you know) dictated the decor. And here, I confess, she has gone beyond even my instructions. For the decor is alive: human bodies poised and posed as if on the very brink of entry into the Kingdom Below. The weekly newsmagazines calmly report this as if it were mere reportage of normal everyday life in what the locals call The Big Apple.
Think of it, Beelzebubkin! The glorious free publicity, the "normalizing" (as in-vogue academic jargon of the standard inelegant sort would have it) of what was once extreme. I drooled profusely as I read the report, so much so that my bile count dropped precipitously. Indeed, I am being transfused as I dictate. I am all aquiver as I picture in my mind's fiendish eye the following: "Two guys hung from the ceiling in chains and black leather. A female on all fours held her hindquarters up to the cat-o'-nine-tails. Hard-bodied couples struck the straining poses of simulated sex. On a giant video screen, the evening's star knelt to shave a man's pubic hair. All the while, dance music throbbed. The occasion? A New York book party, naturally."
This Madonna is a wonder, a prime candidate for Demonification, for induction into the cloven-footed Hall of Infamy. Her book, also called Sex, costs nearly $50 and sold 150,000 copies on the first day. All the lonely people-bored and with money to spare. What is most delicious about all this is that it transpires under the word "Freedom." We have succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings in making tens of thousands believe they are engaging in strong and courageous action by buying, viewing, and-best yet-engaging in untrammeled lewd and licentious behavior. They are the prophets of progress. Theirs is the "philosophy of the future," as Uncle Screwtape once wrote. Our devilkin, Madonna, describes her mission as "opening people's minds." (Their pocketbooks, too, but mentioning that would no doubt be supererogatory.) She proclaims to adoring legions that she is a "revolutionary." She fights foes of "free expression." We are working hard not to allow her the merest glimmer of how ludicrous her position is-pushing on a wide- open door as if she were bursting through a ten-foot-thick cement wall en route to the glorious goal of Freedom. For our task has been to perversely (how else?) inculcate the notion that late-twentieth-century moderns in the West live in a world that is constrained and embattled and beset by what we have got people to call "Victorianism." I must constrain myself-I am now braying with such hysterical delight I threaten to dislodge my bile tube.
Can you not see what we have accomplished, dear Nephew? Two citations may help to illustrate my central point, one you seem not quite to have mastered or you would be enjoying somewhat better success with those annoying Smiths in Fremont, Nebraska I mentioned in my last letter. A nineteenth-century writer, whose lightly-worn piety we were never able to dislodge, one Alexis de Tocqueville, proclaimed-I shudder to repeat it-that "the soul has wants which must be satisfied." That pesky word "soul." It was an uphill battle for us until the happy day we dislodged that notion, confining it to the musty dustbin of pious memory or empty incantation. Savor the victory for Our Father Below embodied in the transformation of that wretched soul business into our Old Nickian ally Woody Allen's insistence that "the heart wants what it wants." I scripted this myself, murmuring it over and over as Allen prepared for his press announcement professing love for his (more or less) adopted daughter.
"More or less" is important, Nephew, please take note. For this locution speaks to our tremendous victories in dispelling any solidity or gravitas, as The Enemy might have it, to the notion of "family." Our Woody took advantage of it-we have worked hard to nurture his narcissism-and thus he could honestly-honestly!-claim that the teenager he had photographed nude and bedded was not only not his biological child, she was not properly his adopted child either-for he had never married his companion of eleven years although they have a bio-child together. He is merely sleeping with his ex-lover's daughter and, as he stressed in one of his many delicious interviews with the press, "I could have met her at a party or something. . . . I was not a father to [Mia's] adopted kids in any sense of the word. . . . The last thing I was interested in was the whole parcel of Mia's children." A chthonian wonder, is it not? Woody is "in love" and that's that.
That nuisance Miss Manners may pose a problem here, for she was overheard to jest that the incest taboo may be universal everywhere save in New York. This is the sort of humor we can do without-it may set people's minds to thinking. We need to keep them focused on Woody's words: "I don't find any moral dilemmas whatsoever. I didn't feel that just because she was Mia's daughter, there was any great dilemma."
Fortunately, Our Madonna keeps coming through for us because she portrays her exhibitionism as a crusade, and I am genuinely giddy at the way she mouths our platitudes and insistently eviscerates not only Freedom but Truth of any of The Enemy's meanings and designs. Perhaps, my serpentine one, you were too busy trying to disrupt Mother Smith's work at the local hospice (the snide comments from her feckless "friend" that Mrs. Smith had been looking a bit worn and dowdy of late and should take more time "for herself" was a nice touch-good work!) to catch Our Madonna's film, Truth or Dare. I was so deeply touched, indeed moved, by the simulated sex scenes played out against an altar-like backdrop, the writhing in a nun-like habit with a large cross flopping against Our Madonna's bosom, and, oh, splendid shiver of demonic delight, the prayers led by Our Madonna herself before each exhibitionistic frenzy she calls "art." She actually invokes The Enemy, praying for success in trashing all He holds dear and manages, with that dogged stubbornness for which He is well-loathed by Our Father Below, to instill yet-at this late date-into altogether too many puny "souls" not yet transformed into obsessively grasping hearts that "want what they want."
You must watch this film on video, Nephew: it is elixir for the flagging spirit. "Truth," you see, is a confession of all one's "fantasies," and in this confession lies freedom. One dares to be free. One is brave. One is a freedom fighter! Our North Americans love this kind of talk, especially when it taps that residue of anti-Catholicism we have ever striven mightily to promote.
One moment in the film I especially treasure. I "freeze" it whenever I screen it in my properly chilled loft: Our Madonna, her hair demurely covered by a scarf, her body demurely covered by a black dress, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses, reading her Freedom Sermon of an appropriate two minutes length with the cameras clicking, the flashes popping, the videos whirring, the microphones humming. Oh, cursed image, how treasured: she was in Rome and fighting our foe, Pope John Paul II, for it seems the Vatican had issued a statement questioning Our Madonna's entertainment standards. Our Madonna responded earnestly (this is how we must get all to respond, including those not-yet-damned Smiths) that she was the victim of repression, and "as an American," she protested the Vatican's "censorship" in the name of the most fundamental of all freedoms, "freedom of expression." Oh, I could wax so eloquently on this juicy reduction of freedom to "express yourself." It is so cloven- footed! So demonolatric! Although you are not philosophically inclined, Nephew, just think for a moment: Express Yourself. Here, tidily encapsulated, are gnostic moments of the most limpid sort.
Your affectionate uncle,
Of late I have been reading John B. Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. I have enjoyed it, not least because the book is clearly and carefully written, even if the Jesus who emerges from these pages is not exactly the "startling" figure promised by the dust jacket. But I have also been remembering the standard critique leveled at the several different quests for the historical Jesus: that the questers found in Jesus someone who turned out to reflect their own place and time. If Meier's portrait is, as the dust jacket again assures us, "the portrait of Jesus for the end of the twentieth century," what does that tell us about our time and place?
One sentence in particular brought me up short. As Meier begins to discuss what we can know of the family of Jesus, he notes that in ancient Palestine the "family" would be a large extended family. "Correspondingly," he writes, "an 'individual' understood himself or herself differently in the ancient world. The individual was not an isolated, completely autonomous person-as some Americans foolishly think they are today-but rather a part of a larger, sprawling social unit." Now, teaching ethics as I do, I am programmed to respond to such sentences. And what a peculiar sentence this is from the pen of one who seeks, as does Meier, to be a careful scholar, never saying more than the historian can honestly say. What makes him suppose he can toss off normative judgments so cavalierly-unless, of course, he has simply taken them in from the surrounding culture, without really thinking them through?
My concern here is not to defend the notion of the autonomous individual-a problematic enough notion, but one for which there is at least something to be said-but, instead, to puzzle over the casual nature of Meier's judgment. Whenever in the course of his investigation of the historical Jesus Meier encounters arguments for which little evidence is offered, he likes to say that "what is gratuitously asserted may be gratuitously denied." Yet when he strays from his own discipline into another, he himself seems to have gratuitous assertion near at hand. Constantly attempting, as he tells us, to bracket from his scientific method of investigation "faith-knowledge" and to "prescind" from the teachings of the church, he nevertheless-in as naive a fashion as one can imagine-fails to bracket the "knowledge" he has imbibed from the political culture around him, knowledge which assures him that our society has been mistaken in its exaltation of the individual. Of one thing we may be confident: the Jesus whom Meier will find and present (in further promised volumes) is not likely to be one who establishes an encounter between the lone individual and God, nor one who thereby is a formative influence in the Western understanding of the individual.
But Meier is far more a child of our political and moral tradition of individualism than he realizes. Indeed, the hypothesis he uses to frame his undertaking is, I think, more a political metaphor than a scientific method. Here is his way of explaining what he is up to in the book:
Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic-all honest historians cognizant of first-century religious movements-were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended in his own time and place.
Meier recognizes that such a document would not tell the whole truth, since it would have to find a way around some differences and would inevitably have a somewhat narrow focus. But it would also, he suggests, give us some sense of what any reasonable person would say about the historical Jesus and thus might provide "a starting point for dialogue between Christians and Jews, between various Christian confessions, and between believers and nonbelievers." Another way in which he describes the resulting document is, however, more revealing, and is essentially a political metaphor (though one taken from the religious disputes of the sixteenth century): the document would be a "formula of concord." It would, that is, be a means for warring factions to get along in some kind of peace and harmony. It would offer something analogous to what political theorists call a "thin theory of the good"-seeking agreement only on what seems necessary for our common life.
The longer we think about this use of a political metaphor, the less appropriate it may seem-and the less certain we may be about what it even means. How exactly does the conclave work when this Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic-scrupulous scientific historians all-get together? How is it that they reach some consensus? Perhaps Meier imagines them as occupying John Rawls' "original position," knowing none of the particularities of their personal histories. But that can hardly be; for then the gathering might be any four people. There would be no significance at all to the fact that this consensus is achieved among four people of different religious commitments. It might just as easily be four Protestants; for whatever the participants are in particular has been checked outside in the lobby. This is, of course, only another way of saying that, on Meier's hypothesis, the four participants-since they could be anyone-would be the isolated, completely autonomous persons whom Meier says it would be foolish even to imagine.
If that is not the right way to picture this conclave, what is? Perhaps we should think of the participants as carrying along with them their sincerely held beliefs about the good and the true but agreeing, for the sake of consensus, not to put forward those beliefs in the course of the conversation. This would mean that they are in effect agreeing to adhere to some other vision of the truth-a vision governed, evidently, by a notion of what scientific history permits or requires. That vision all the participants would share, and to it each could add whatever other beliefs he may acquire from "faith" or from ecclesiastical authority.
As a political method for achieving a certain measure of freedom and security in our common life, such an approach has merit. Even in politics it fails us sometimes, when the stakes are just too high. It fails us, in particular, when crucial issues about the meaning of our humanity and the scope of our community are at stake-as it did when our nation finally confronted the fact of slavery, and as it does in some respects when we argue about abortion today. But most of the time this method serves us well, because in politics-at least, the liberal politics of our tradition from which Meier's metaphor derives-we do not seek the truth. We seek only a framework within which all can pursue their respective visions of the true, the good, and the eternal. As a method aimed at seeking truth, however, this approach is misplaced. If we seek to export it from the realm of the political into the whole of life, it will lead us to suppose that some of our most important beliefs can be simply detached from the rest of our "knowledge" without thereby altering in any way what is left.
This seems unlikely. Even more important, perhaps, it seems boring. Certainly it does not seem very promising as "a starting point for dialogue between Christians and Jews, between various Christian confessions, and between believers and nonbelievers." For in that dialogue what I need and want to hear from you is not what you can say after you have bracketed the things you believe most deeply. What I need and want to hear is the faith you live by. And, interestingly, when I hear that from you I am hearing not from "an isolated, completely autonomous person" but from one who belongs to a very extended "family" indeed. It turns out, I fear, that Meier's scientific historian is the isolated, autonomous individual-dependent on his own insight to eke out an account that seems rational to him. Whether this is really a method of scientific history-or just the influence of our liberal political tradition creeping in where it has no business, because we have not learned to think hard enough about politics to know when to keep it in its place-is, I think, a question worth pondering.
President Clinton's decision to lift the ban aginst homosexuals in the military has opened a deep cultural divide in American public opinion that extends beyond the immediate issue to questions of morality, convention, and social order. Judging from the vituperation on the editorial pages and the angry outpouring from talk radio to the White House telephone lines, it is one more issue on which elite and popular opinion fiercely diverge. The editors of The New Republic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others would have it that anyone who opposes the acceptance of homosexuals in the military is motivated by bigotry and irrational fear. The common bias against homosexual behavior, however, is neither irrational nor necessarily mean-spirited but reflects a rational desire to establish limits on sexual behavior necessary to maintain the social order and protect the family.
Sex is not merely a private matter. No society recognizes the right of individuals to engage in sexually gratifying acts whenever, wherever, and with whomever they want. Intricate codes of behavior and social sanction apply to this most private of activities, and most of these aim at preserving the basic social unit, the family. Historically, virtually all societies have condemned incest, adultery, and homosexuality because such practices, in distinctive ways, threaten the family. What has varied over time and place has been the punishment imposed for violating these bans. In our modern, generally tolerant society, few sanctions apply to those who engage in these practices so long as they occur, as we are fond of repeating, between consenting adults. Indeed, over the last twenty-five years, we have become increasingly tolerant of sexually permissive behavior. But that tolerance has had consequences. We face epidemics in sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies, abortions, illegitimacy, rape, and sexual abuse. Marriage rates are on the decline, and divorce is on the increase, especially among younger couples. The American family may not yet be an endangered species, but it is far from thriving.
In this atmosphere, it is both understandable and prudent to draw the line at approving homosexual behavior. Many of those who favor lifting the ban against homosexuals in the military claim they are not seeking approval of homosexual behavior. As The New Republic declared in a recent editorial: "No one is urging the approval or promotion of homosexual acts among military personnel; all that is at stake is that homosexuals, if they so wish, should be able to disclose their sexuality without fear of direct retribution. This minimal level of toleration implies no approval of any activity, merely acquiescence in the free existence of the other." But that assurance rings hollow in light of the increasing pressure to accept homosexuality as relatively common, benign, unalterable, and, most important, deserving of equal treatment with heterosexuality. Television in particular, both in entertainment and news programs, virtually indoctrinates the viewing public with the message that homosexual behavior is-or should be-acceptable. Homosexual characters have appeared on "Roseanne," "L.A. Law," "Coach," "Northern Exposure," "Picket Fences," "thirtysomething," and dozens of other shows, almost always in portrayals meant to show that, but for the prejudice of homophobes, homosexuals lead ordinary, even exemplary, lives. However, the empirical evidence we have suggests that a great many homosexuals, perhaps a majority, lead lives far different from their idealized TV portrayal.
According to one of the most extensive studies of the subject, Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women (1978), only about 3 percent of male homosexuals are relatively monogamous, defined in the study as having ten or fewer lifetime partners. Promiscuity among the homosexual population "would boggle the heterosexual mind," says Michael Fumento, author of a book on AIDS, noting studies of early AIDS patients who reported an average of 1,100 sexual partners. The prevalence of sexually transmitted disease among homosexuals far exceeds that in the general population by a factor of as much as twenty, depending on the disease. Disturbing as well are estimates that even though homosexuals make up only 3 to 7 percent of the population (according to most reliable data), about one-third of recorded instances of child molestation involve male sodomy.
Clearly not all homosexuals lead dissolute or criminal lives. As The New Republic notes, homosexuality "ranges the full gamut of human experience, from the most irenic of spiritual bonds to the most compulsive of physical acts." Many of us have known homosexuals, or persons we have assumed to be homosexual, who lead temperate, even staid, lives. By and large, such persons have no interest in divulging the details of their sexual activity any more than most heterosexuals do. While we ought to treat such persons humanely and compassionately and respect their right to privacy-so long as their sexual behavior occurs in private-that should be the limit of our tolerance. To do more, for example to confer spousal or adoption rights to homosexual partners or even to forbid all forms of discrimination against those who engage in homosexual behavior, is to legitimate that behavior.
That is not, however, meant to imply that homosexuals may be mistreated with impunity. They have a right to be safe and secure in their persons and property, to earn a living, to participate in civic life, to express their views-in short, the rights that all other individuals enjoy in a free society. But because homosexuality is-or should properly be-defined by behavior, homosexuals enjoy no special rights to be protected in an area where behavior routinely determines disparate treatment. Landlords or employers, who are free to restrict rentals or jobs to nonsmokers for example, should not be forced to rent rooms to or hire persons whose behavior they find objectionable. (In a free market economy, discrimination of this sort is likely to be somewhat limited, since there will always be some landlords and employers who either do not disapprove of homosexual behavior or who determine that it is less relevant, for their purposes, than paying the rent or showing up for work on time.)
Most homosexual activists are not content simply to be left alone or to be accorded only individual rights. Instead, they crave affirmation, which is why the issue of lifting the ban against homosexuals in the military has aroused such passion. If homosexual behavior, like drug use or criminal activity, can disqualify someone from the right to serve his or her country, then it is a sure sign that such behavior is socially disapproved of. But what if homosexuals do not freely choose their sexual identity? "Are they to be despised and rejected because of what they are-because of a status nature gave them?" pleads Anthony Lewis in the New York Times. The empirical evidence that homosexual orientation is biologically determined is mixed. But even if a biological link were established, that would not justify sanctioning the behavior, any more than it would justify condoning other aspects of anti-social human behavior for which biological links have been established, such as crime. As James Q. Wilson and Richard Hernnstein point out in their book Crime and Human Nature (1985), although there is substantial evidence that those who bear certain biological traits will commit certain crimes, those traits do not cause the criminal behavior: "The existence of biological predispositions means that circumstances that activate criminal behavior in one person will not do so in another." Similarly, persons whose sexual orientation is homosexual still make decisions about their behavior.
Sexual desire in all its forms is a powerful but not after all uncontrollable determinant of human behavior. Most human beings learn to harness and direct their sexual desires in a socially appropriate manner, which finds its ultimate expression in marriage. That often means periods of sexual abstinence or, at the very least, the denial of gratification from each and every object of sexual attraction. Even so, most people learn to live within these limits. And those who choose not to must put up with the onus society attaches to their behavior. Should homosexuals be absolved of the burden others bear? The alternative is to give up on the notion that society has any right to impose rules on sexual behavior. We have already moved dangerously far down that path and are gaining momentum. But marriage and the family will not survive in a society that recognizes no limits to personal sexual gratification. A great many people will decide that fidelity and child-rearing require too much sacrifice and denial and will simply abandon both duties when they have been stripped of the special honor with which our traditional moral code invests them. It is this fear-that ultimately we may be forfeiting our basic social institutions-that makes so many of us indisposed to eliminate yet another sexual taboo.