Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 6:18 often strikes me as a mystifying exaltation of sexual sin above other sorts of moral failures [note: I do not find persuasive the suggestions of some scholars that this statement actually reflects a Corinthian slogan rather than Paul’s own viewpoint; we’re not off the hook that easily].  Why should deviance from God’s designs in sexuality be construed differently, or worse, than other flagrant violations of His will?  Didn’t Jesus warmly and without hesitation accept the most notorious usurpers of the accepted sexual norms of his day?  If all sin is ultimately against God, why would He be more offended or put off by what goes on in the bedroom than, say, on Wall Street or in the public school down the street?  Why should sex be singled out?

E. Michael Jones’ (a Catholic moral critic) provocative book, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior, suggests one possible answer to me.  The book itself is a somewhat untidy, yet always memorable mishmash of (on the one hand) bold, unapologetic critique of the moral poverty of the intellectual elite of the modern West, and (on the other hand) of wildly unjustified exaggerations of the centrality of out-of-control sexual lust in the shaping of the social climate of the modern age.  Indeed, there is much to disagree with in what is argued in the book, as well as in the way it is argued.  By no means do I endorse the full sweep of Jones’ ultimately reductionistic ideology here.   Yet the overly shrill and alarmist tone of the author should not become an excuse to brush away the sizeable kernel of truth found within his nonconformist critique of the ethical underpinnings of modern secularization. 

What is Jones’ argument?  Picking up where Paul Johnson left off in his controversial book Intellectuals—that is, with empirical documentation of the numbing regularity with which the most grievous sorts of sexual promiscuity have occurred in the lives of so many influential thinkers[1]—Jones proceeds to contend that behind most of the deep structures of secular unbelief in the West lay a simple, inconvenient explanation.  An astonishing pattern recurs again and again in the lives of the men and women who have contributed the most to the cognitive shape of modernity.  Having first given themselves over to habitual violation of God’s moral law (which is indelibly printed upon both creation and conscience) in their sexual practices, such people inevitably go on to devise philosophical systems of thought which seek to implicitly justify, in hindsight, the moral legitimacy of their preferred lifestyles.  Here is how Jones puts it:

“There are ultimately only two alternatives in the intellectual life: either one conforms desire to the truth or one conforms truth to desire.  These two positions represent opposite poles between which a continuum of almost infinite gradations exists…Sexual sins are corrupting, [but] the most insidious corruption brought about by sexual sin, however, is the corruption of the mind.  One moves all too easily from sexual sins, which are probably the most common to mankind, to intellectual sins, which are the most pernicious…

Put more generally, the idea can be formulated thus: the intellectual life is a function of the moral life of the thinker.  In order to apprehend truth, which is the goal of the intellectual life, one must live a moral life.  One can produce an intellectual product, but to the extent that one prescinds from living the moral life, that product will be more a function of internal desire—wish fulfillment, if you will—than external reality.  This is true of any intellectual field and any deeply held desire.  In the intellectual life, one either conforms desire to truth or truth to desire.  In the first instance, the importance of biography is negligible; in the second instance, it is all-important…

Lust is a common enough vice, especially in this age.  The crucial intellectual event occurs, however, when vices are transmuted into theories, when the ‘intellectual’ sets up shop in rebellion against the moral law and, therefore, in rebellion against the truth.  All the modern ‘isms’ follow as a direct result of this rebellion.  All of them entail rationalization.  All of them can be best understood in light of the moral disorder of their founders, proponents, and adherents.” (E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior, pp. 11-16)

I find it impossible to disregard this idea altogether.  My observation of how other people tend to process the interpretation of their own histories, my appraisal of the self-deceptive dynamics at work in my own experience of sexual selfishness, and my understanding of the Scriptures[2] all combine to testify to the accuracy of Jones’ contention.  I would demur from Jones’ conclusion that sexual sin lay behind all moral stupidity garbed in elaborately constructed philosophical systems, but I am convinced that this happens with surprising frequency in this present evil age.  Consider some strongly collaborating testimony to this unpopular theory from a primary source: 

“I took it for granted that there was no meaning. This was partly due to the fact that I shared the common belief that the scientific picture of an abstraction from reality was a true picture of reality as a whole; partly also to other non-intellectual reasons. I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently, I assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.  Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless… The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning – the Christian meaning, they insisted – of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.” (Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, pp. 312, 316)

So perhaps one sense in which sexual sin is more terrible (ala 1 Corinthians 6) is not that it constitutes a more heinous offense against God than, say, pride or gossip or selfishness do.  Rather, might it not be that sexual sin is singled out because it is more dangerous to those who choose to participate in it?  Jones has put forth a daring piece of argumentation, based on much indisputable evidence, for just such an interpretation.  What if sexual sin was especially liable to blind us from honest self-examination, and to harden us to the point that we are unable any longer to perceive and approve of the most beautiful moral goods in the universe?  What if it is in fact that case that only the pure in heart will see God?  Then it would seem that we can never be too hasty to listen to Paul’s recommendation: “Flee from sexual immorality, for every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.”  The danger in delaying from obedience here is more serious than we can ever possibly imagine.

[1] “Among the diverse vices that characterize the intellectuals studied by Johnson, brazen sexual promiscuity is the one recurring theme.” (James Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief, p. 72)

[2] Compare Romans 1:18-32 and Ephesians 4:17-19, both of which locate intellectual folly in a prior departure from God rooted in unbelief and hardness of heart.  Romans 1:18-32, in particular, gives evidence that sexual sin is often the primary arena in which the sinful rationalizations of fallen humanity take place.  Here the emotional preference for our own autonomously constructed realities, independent of the sovereign sway of God’s rule, is prior to the social construction of what counts for human knowledge.  Moral darkness comes before the inability to discern what is good, true and beautiful in the moral realm.  The main problem with humanity is thus not our lack of intelligence, nor is it the insufficiency of the evidence God provides.  Rather, the most serious dilemma concerns the idolatrous disposition of our hearts.  We stand in grave need chiefly of redemption, not education.  As the renowned Harvard psychologist William James once pointed out, “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” (The Will To Believe, p. 23)  Jonathan Edwards, who James greatly admired for his insight into human emotions, once preached a sermon based on 2 Timothy 4:3 entitled “Men Are Exceedingly Prone to Bring Their Principles to Agree with Their Lusts.”

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