Dating in the Fifties, Sex in the Sixties

Probing thoughts from Kenneth Woodward, long-time religion correspondent for Newsweek (as in 1964–2002!), in his fascinating memoir, Getting Religion:

Most adolescents in the Fifties were raised to observe certain sexual limits—just as lovers did in the movies from which we took our cultural cues. Like them, we kissed and groped in the backseats of cars, or at night on the beach, but hardly anyone I knew had intercourse. The thrill of the erotic, we learned, extended all along a line that still fell short of “going all the way.”

This mix of social taboo and personal inhibition, I want to argue, was enormously freeing for adolescents, as all good social conventions tend to be. It allowed us to date as adults did, two by two, and to explore our sexuality without “having sex.” It also encouraged the serial ritual of “going steady” and breaking up so that by the time we were old enough to marry we had a pretty good idea of the kind of mate we wanted. A generation later, as I watched my own teenagers ripen, adolescents socialized in groups, in large part because by then there were few ritual guidelines, much less social taboos or ingrained sexual inhibitions, that teenage couples dating solo could readily count on. Without them, coping with adolescent sexuality was reduced to a game of all or nothing at all. President Bill Clinton thus spoke a Sixties truth when he said of his White House affair with Monica Lewinsky, “I did not have sex with that woman.” We Fifties kids new better.

To be clear, I don’t think the groping or going steady were good (though I’m far less opposed to the latter), but the very idea of “ritual guidelines,” of community norms that no one and everyone is in charge of—that’s useful. Not all social taboos are bad, because not all of the results of bad sexual choices available to teenagers can be explained to them. Sometimes “good social conventions” are what’s needed to guide and restrain human impulses, even and especially in the Christian community.

Review: Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of MarketsWhat Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I find it incredibly refreshing to find any writer who sees through the tempting veneer secularism has laid not just on our politics but on our lives. It’s a tempting veneer, because it is very hard—impossible, intractable—to find agreement with those whose “vision of the good life,” whose ways of valuing things, are different from one’s own. But those differences must be solved: either we’re going to allow surrogate parenting or we’re not, either we’re going to sanction kidney sales or we’re not, either we’re going to see problems with advertisements on report cards/police cars/foreheads or we’re not.

So we outsource our moral disagreements to supposedly neutral concepts such as “equality” or “fairness” or (negatively speaking) “harm”—or, increasingly, we simply outsource them to the market.

Sandel’s book, following his similar but more wide-ranging book *Justice*, is undeniably brilliant. Sandel, a legendary Harvard professor, points out countless ways in which letting market norms into our lives has pushed out other norms, better ways of valuing things. Sandel makes the point (as he did in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do) that it is impoverishing to our discourse to push metaphysical, yea, religious claims to the margins or further. Without exactly laying out his own vision of a good life, he insists that one’s vision “will out.” And an attentive reader can build up some understanding of Sandel’s vision by noticing what bothers him. He finds it demeaning to have an advertisement tattooed on one’s forehead, destructive of the goods that baseball was designed to foster when market reasoning is applied to the sport (see Moneyball), degrading of education when ads cover lockers in public schools.

I could possibly have wished for Sandel to have said more about his own vision of the good. I was surprised that almost the entire book was filled with analysis rather than evaluation (though the latter was often strongly implied, and sometimes briefly stated). I hoped for a final chapter in which he gave a constructive vision of that good life. But the meta-point of the book is excessively valuable: we will have a vision of the good shaped (I would specify) by our values, and letting the market decide questions of value is a self-harming cheat. I see in Sandel (and in Stanley Fish and in Steven D. Smith) something of a prophet pointing to massive cracks in our society’s foundation.

David Brooks, Harvey Weinstein, and Original Sin

I always like David Brooks, even when I have to disagree—or quibble. Not that he should care what an obscure redheaded conservative Christian blogger thinks… Except that I think he pays attention to religion in a way no other opinion columnist at the New York Times does, aside of course from Ross Douthat.

Brooks’ recent column about the origins of sexual predation among men looked like it was going to be helpful and insightful, as usual, but then it took the turn from helpful description to moral prescription. Or, rather, amoral prescription:

There hasn’t been enough research into what goes on in the minds of harassers, but the studies we do have suggest a few things.

Brooks is not unwilling to preach morals; most of his prescriptions in the piece are not for additional scientific study but for cultural and moral retrieval. He unabashedly uses words from the moral domain in the piece:

Harassment is not just sex and it’s not just power; it’s a wicked mixture of the two.

I’ve got no necessary objection to bringing the findings of empirical science into a discussion of sexual predation. We are fearfully and wonderfully made as “psychosomatic unities” (Anthony Hoekema), and brain scans very likely do have something to tell us about the Weinsteins of the world—and ourselves.

My complaint is that the turn to empiricism feels so natural, even obligatory, in our culture. An appeal to “original sin” in the New York Times would feel jarring. At they key moment when such an appeal would have made the most sense, Brooks switches domains and looks to science.

I find science ultimately unhelpful, or rather unhelpful as an ultimate explanation for human behavior. I’m with C.S. Lewis, speaking of the Germans in WWII:

What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair. (Mere Christianity, 5)

So I’m pleasantly surprised that our culture had so much moral dudgeon left in it for Harvey Weinstein’s sexual choices, and I feel like Brooks’ appeal to science was an odd digression given the overall American response to Weinstein. The tone of that response was, thankfully, inconsistent with the atheistic materialism that is supposed to be binding and ruling us all. People weren’t pitying Weinstein because of the cards nature dealt him, the cells that the immutable laws of cause and effect placed in his brain, the instincts he inherited via the process of evolution; no, they were blaming him—morally—and not accepting his excuses.

“I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” he said. “That was the culture then.” And no one replied, “We celebrate your culture but ask you to practice it only in foreign countries where it is accepted.”

As the righteous drumbeat against Weinstein continues—and I’m so glad it is doing so (I got a notification on my phone five seconds ago from the Times saying that New York City police are investigating one particular allegation)—people are forgetting all the deterministic science talk and going for the moral jugular. They are implying that right is a real thing which Weinstein at bottom knew as well as they did and ought to have practiced.

They are, in other words—and I don’t think I’m taking this too far—expressing an implicit belief in original sin—or at least in sin simpliciter.

I’m going to try to use this worship of the unknown god with my non-Christian friends on the bus. Why do they blame any product of evolution for doing what evolution tells it to do, unless there is a level of reality behind and beneath biology? Why do they reject Weinstein’s appeal to the cultural mores of his younger years?

Review: The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-RelianceThe Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Sasse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good-hearted, tough-minded, generous, hopeful, Mr.-Smith-goes-to-Washington who nonetheless knows his Augustine (and, more importantly, his Paul) well enough to take account of human depravity in his politics.

An earnest, Christian, Ivy-league educated, cornfields-to-Congress husband and father and former university president who saw sad deficiencies in his students and worked to remedy them in his children.

I don’t fundamentally share the hope Sasse has for America; I just don’t have it in me. I think we’re too far gone. But his view from the heartland—both of America and, in a way, of the Western tradition—is still one I wanted to set firmly before my vision as my own children exit toddlerhood and start coming under my more direct influence. And I’m very glad I took the time to listen to Sasse. I picked up a conviction first helped along by Vern Poythress that I need to provide what my culture no longer does: structured, coming-of-age rites of passage for my children. I need, too, to take even more seriously my job of passing on what’s valuable in Western culture to their fresh minds and hearts—along with the spiritual truths I have already eagerly taught them (and will continue to teach). I need to teach them not just “the value of hard work,” which is a bit nebulous as far as learning objectives go; I need to teach them (and I loved this idea from Sasse) that far more joy comes out of production than out of consumption.

Memorably, and now famously, Sasse sent his fourteen-year-old daughter off to a ranch to learn the value of dirty work. He recommends travel and reading of great works (he is the product of St John’s Great Books program—and of Harvard and Yale). Above all, he recommends structured and intentional transference of adult responsibilities to children and teenagers. I hear and now adopt his vision.

I have something of a secularometer when I read books nowadays, and very clearly Sasse is not a devotee of the self-help genre. He is an orthodox evangelical Christian. He makes regular and explicit reference to his faith and even gets a little into the weeds of Christian theology, encouraging readers to explore the relationship of Genesis 3 and Romans 5, for example. He did not implicitly privilege empirical modes of knowing, citing study after study like many books in the same Amazon category. I really appreciated that. Instead he relied on biblical insight and classical/traditional arguments. I probably would have increased the Bible citations and been a little more glum about the possibilities of pluralism. But I didn’t write the book.

Sasse is someone I have come to really admire. He’s a leader with a careful and non-partisan vision for America’s future. He may be The One Mark Lilla was looking for when he asked (in
The Once and Future Liberal
) for someone to unite Americans of all kinds around a shared story—even though I’m sure Lilla would not want Sasse in the role. I think someone with a clear belief system—including a belief in the “classical liberal” wisdom of the American founders—is actually best suited to retrieve a system which is supposed to allow for liberty of individual conscience while still pulling Americans together behind a common vision. I pray—I pray—that Sasse’s star will rise. What a mercy to us if it does.

View all my reviews

How to Think about your Political Opponents

Alan Jacobs is interviewed by his now-unbelieving former Wheaton student, Emma Green, who nonetheless provides insightful journalistic coverage of evangelicals. They discuss his new book How to Think.

And Jacobs says this:

Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.

One category that’s gone away in America is “wrong.” Nobody is just “wrong.” They’re wicked, they’re evil, they’re malicious, they’re the victims of these vast subterranean forces.

But sometimes we get things wrong, because politics is hard. Knowing the right policy in any case is difficult, because you’re having to predict the future and the variables are astronomically complex. But we want to believe that it’s obvious what to do to fix our social problems.

Okay, so there’s a lot of wisdom here, as always with Jacobs. In particular, that last paragraph ought to be memorized by all American schoolchildren and recited daily as accepted wisdom. The variables are so complex that people almost universally take refuge in ideological responses; they are all our brains can handle.

I also like the complaint that people appeal to “vast subterranean forces”—we psychologize our opponents and enlist them in imaginary cabals.

But… knowledge in Scripture is an ethical category, so wicked evil malice is a possible explanation for someone’s inability to see the truth.

You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. (Eph 4:17–18)

Hard hearts have a direct impact on cognitive faculties.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Rom 1:18)

I think I’d want to leave room for people to culpably but sincerely believe a lie. The suppression of the truth happens at a level of one’s knowledge below conscious thought. I don’t think Richard Dawkins consciously thinks to himself, “I know there’s a being of eternal power and divine nature, but I just can’t admit it publicly or I’ll lose all my income.” And even if he does think this way, it isn’t healthy for me to think that he thinks this way! The Bible speaks of God sending wicked people—people who “refuse to love the truth”—a “delusion” so that “they believe a lie” (2 Ths 2:11) They really do believe it, in other words.

There may not be vast subterranean forces affected people’s cognition, but there are vast supernatural ones.

Nonetheless, despite these caveats, views on the wisest, most efficient way to raise the standard of living for working class people are based on such “astronomically complex” factors that our first recourse should not be to spiritual blindness and delusive belief in a lie on the part of our political opponents. Instead of resorting to fallenness, first try finiteness: we can’t even understand the present well enough to make exhaustively accurate descriptions of our economic situation; far less can we predict the future. And I say this no matter what side of the aisle you find yourself on. I recently took the Political Compass test and scored as pretty nearly a centrist, so just about everybody out there is to my right or my left. It is certain that through God’s common grace there are “contemptuously smug liberals” who have valid political insights about how to achieve common goals. There are “wrathful conservatives” out there, too, who see parts of the truth that their opponents don’t.

Policies have to be chosen, and someone’s party is going to be disappointed. I’m not saying all parties have an equal lock on political truths. I’m saying that careful Christian theology provides a basis for humility—because the same fallenness and finiteness that affects the other party affects ours. We must judge others’ policies, but we must be willing to be judged by the same measure we mete out (Matt 7:1). Jumping right to demonization is a sure way to elicit the same from the other side. And as one of the comparatively few educated people who actually believes in demons and their power to influence mankind, I still say that “demonization” of one’s political opponents should not be one’s first—or even fifth—recourse.

UPDATE: I just read this article in the New York Times about Boko Haram’s practice of forcing young girls to be suicide bombers. The article was deeply disturbing and sad. Boko Haram terrorists offer a religious rationalization to the young ladies: you’ll only be killing wicked people, and you’ll go straight to heaven. Whether they sincerely believe what they themselves are saying or not, I don’t know. It seems to me, however, that they are morally obligated—given what the Bible says about conscience in Romans 2 and elsewhere—to know that any appeals to religion to justify murder of innocents are at best cynical and in actuality evil. In other words, Boko Haram is not just wrong to send 13-year-olds to their deaths; they’re malicious and wicked. I have little doubt that learning the fighters’ life stories could increase my sympathy for them; who as a kid aspires to be a sadistic murderer? Surely some are victims of subterranean forces. But “I was only following orders” is not a suitable defense because knowledge is an ethical category: all people have God’s law written on their hearts and ought to know better. I hope my empathy could never extend to absolving murderers of their guilt, or I’d violate my own God-given conscience.

The upshot of this little blog post: I want to accede to Jacobs’ wisdom while preserving my ability to pull out the “wicked” card when needed.