Divine Sex, Part 2: “Expressive Individualism”

Preston Sprinkle

In my last post, I began a multi-blog review of Jonathan Grant’s book, Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age. Grant’s book is “an attempt to describe the significant ways in which our cultural lens is shaping our identity and relationships and how we can refocus the church’s vision through the lens of the gospel” (p. 24). Christian formation must include cultural counterformation—undoing the cultural script that’s kidnapped our desires—since we’re all shaped by our cultural on some level.

 

I ended the post by mentioning one of the values of a secular sexual ethic that offers an empty promise of human flourishing. Grant calls it: expressive individualism (or sometimes called a culture of authenticity).

 

Grant explains: “The strong tradition of individualism in the Western world has led to placing person freedom at the core of personal identity” (p. 32).

 

Within this culture of expressive individualism, each person seeks his or her own unique core of feeling and intuition…Despite the importance of relationships, the focus and priority is always the journey of each individual self…This culture of expressive individualism has become the moral wallpaper of the modern world” (p. 32).

 

Perhaps for the first time in history, people (in the West) no longer looks outside themselves for their identity and authority (God, the gods, holy writings, prophetic teachers, etc.). Now, we simply look within ourselves to find out who we really are, and consequently we become our own determiners of identity and authority.

 

Modern authenticity encourages us to create our own beliefs and morality, the only rule being that they must resonate with who we feel we really are. The worst thing we can do is to conform to some moral code that is imposed on us from outside—by society, our parents, the church, or whoever else. It is deemed to be self-evident that any such imposition would undermine our unique identity (p. 30).

 

The primacy of the individual and the individual’s uniqueness shapes our quest for meaning, authority, and identity. “The authentic self believes that personal meaning must be found within ourselves or must at least resonate with our one-of-a-kind personality. We must, as we often hear, ‘be true to ourselves’” (p. 30).

 

The modern fixation on the individual shapes our sexual ethic in profound ways. “Our society generally believes that ‘being true to ourselves’, especially in our sexual lives, is critical to living full and happy lives. Much of this is taken for granted and goes unquestioned” (p. 37).

 

Our most intimate relationships are looked to by each partner as a primary source of happiness and self-actualization, measured in the narrow terms of personal Gratification. Am I getting what I need from this relationship? Does it make me happy? Do the benefits to me outweigh the costs? (p. 38).

 

Any concept of commitment is intrinsically tied to whether the relationship continues to produce the expected level of happiness and fulfillment. When the happiness fades, so does the relationship. Or if the relationship challenges the “authentic self,” preventing the individual from being “true to themselves,” then the relationship is seen as a roadblock to personal happiness—the sacred cow of the post-modern age. As one twentysomething interviewee said: “Morality is how I feel…You could feel what’s right or wrong in your heart as well as your mind…And if it feels good, then I’m going to do it” (p. 31)

 

Expressive individualism has become an unquestioned truth, the DNA of a secular sexual ethic. Grant argues, however, that even though this secular ethic clashes with the Christian narrative, Christians have largely adopted it. “Christian tradition emphasizes courage and perseverance in the face of suffering, but even within the church, seeking happiness and avoiding emotional pain have become our highest virtues” (p. 49). Or as C. S. Lewis says:

 

Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours… . The highest good of a creature must be creaturely—that is, derivative or reflective—good” (p. 51, citing Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” 6).

 

Part of the problem is that when the church speaks into areas of sexuality, our teaching has been limited to an ethic that’s only a sneeze away from a secular one. Fall in love with the right person—translated: the one who will make you happy—and don’t have sex until you’re married. We haven’t carved out the cancerous cultural ethic that’s deep within our bones. “We in the church have not spoken and ministered effectively into our culture’s prioritization of authenticity above all else in matters of sexuality and relationships. When a marriage ceases to make us happy or the traveling becomes heavy going, we have no other master story to navigate us through the storm” (p. 49).

 

For example, the church’s response to suffering is almost identical to our culture. It’s difficult to know whether Grant is describing the church or secular culture in the following:

 

[W]e are increasingly becoming an anesthetized society that will do anything to avoid pain. We have many ways of self-medicating the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain in our lives—compulsive behavior, consumption of food, sexual encounters, highly dependent relationships, pornography—although, inevitably, we find that these false comforts send us further into hiding, increasing our sense of shame and isolation. Ironically, beneath the assured culture of authenticity we find a generation of people unsure of their right to exist” (pp. 51-52)

 

Among the many pieces of evidence, Grant points to “[t]he epidemic use of prescription and over-the-counter painkillers—especially antidepressants” as “startling testimony to this phenomenon” (p. 52). Anecdotally, I’m not sure if the church looks very different from the world in its quest to avoid pain and suffering, even though suffering is an essential part of the Christian story. 

 

Grant also spends a good deal of time examining the pornography epidemic (pp. 103-113) as another piece of evidence that personal gratification and happiness is seen as the end goal of sexual desire. If you desire it, it’s who you are; and if it’s who you are, you must be true to yourself. Pornography appears to be a free, easy, seemingly harmless way to satisfy your personal sexual urges. And it’s destroying society and human relationships—not to mention, hindering real sexual relationships. The statistics of porn use are staggering:

  • Married men outnumber single men in porn use. (p. 109)
  • 56% of divorce cases involve one party having an obsessive interest in online pornography. (p. 109)
  • Men look at online pornography more than any other subject. (p. 105)
  • 66% of 18-34 year-old-men visit a pornographic site every month. (p. 105)
  • According to one study, 2/3 of men and ½ of women between 18-26 agreed that pornography was “generally acceptable.” (After all, it’s consensual and it doesn’t appear to hurt anyone.) (p. 112)
  • In an insolated survey of a suburb in the U.K., 100% of the 14 year old boys and 50% of 14 year old girls have viewed pornography. (p. 113)

The destruction that porn breeds is equally staggering:

  • Men who are addicted to porn are often no longer aroused by their wives and lose the desire to be intimate with them. (p. 110, 175).
  • Porn use causes erectile dysfunction (i.e. you can’t get it up) and fosters premature ejaculation, leading to a snow-ball of frustrations among both partners.
  • The addictive nature of pornography trains the viewer to desire more explicit and hardcore content; they become dissatisfied in what appears to be mundane sexual expression. One-third of heterosexual Americans experience anal sex by the age of 23, even though only 15% of women say they enjoyed it. (p. 122)

Now, all of this is old news. But Grant’s point is that the modern push for expressive individualism in sexual relationships—be who you are, just don’t hurt anyone else—has fueled the pornification of the Western world. “Those who become addicted to ‘risk free’ sex face the ultimate risk: the loss of love” (p. 110).

 

When consensuality and individual happiness become the primary virtues in sexual expression, human flourishing is stunted. “Indeed, the modern self sees sexual expression as a virtue that lies at the heart of human identity. We can only be fulfilled, happy, and mature when our sexuality is set free” (p. 137). What is needed is an explicit, indeed unashamed, countercultural Christian vision for sexual flourishing—one that doesn’t avoid suffering, but includes it into the narrative; one that takes seriously the Christian eschatological hope of resurrection and new creation; one that sees “the self” as derivative of and dependent upon a Creator in whose image we bear and whose instructions we follow.

 

The life, death, teaching, and eschatological hope of Christ should shape the church’s vision for human flourishing, even—or especially—in our sexual relationships. 

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