The Joy of Presbyterian Sex

Attracting the "male gaze"!!
Probably not a Presbyterian

Camille Paglia is a libertarian feminist and anti-feminist, which is appropriately confusing. She received renewed attention recently thanks to her criticisms of A&E for (temporarily) suspending Phil Robertson, though her own views are expressly “affirmative,” as they say, of homosexuality.

I decided to read her article in The New Republic, “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex,” from December 2, 1991. The article is a review of the Presbyterian Church (USA) report, Keeping Body and Soul Together, which purports to offer an enlightened, contemporary, and relevant understanding of human sexuality. It was widely rejected at the General Assembly of that year, though I doubt we could say the same today.

Paglia’s rousing criticisms of the PCUSA report are a riot! I do not offer this as any “support” for Paglia, with whom I surely disagree on a number of things. Yet, I think she has identified, with marvelous rhetorical skill, the Gnostic frame of mind that dominates liberal Protestantism, which has a parallel on the right to be sure. I am using “Gnostic” in the sense of failing to comprehend or appreciate gender dynamics and power — as capable of being creational goods. The Gnostic ideal was an androgynous, powerless “beyond” our material given reality. The Cathars were especially enthusiastic about this.

(I am aware that feminism predicates itself upon a renewed awareness and affirmation of “embodiedness,” especially of “the other,” so I am obviously rejecting their pretensions to extol the body — or creation in general — much less “the other.” Karl Barth, by contrast, does do this in his exegesis of the imago Dei as “male and female.” Feminism does not.)

The article is not available online, so I had to pull it from our seminary library databases. For those without such access, here are some choice excerpts:

Keeping Body and Soul Together offers itself as a profound, compassionate, and expertly researched statement on contemporary sexuality. But it is a repressive, reactionary document. Its language is banal, its ideas simplistic, its view of human nature naive and sentimental. Above all, its claims of sexual liberalism are false. It reduces the complexities and mysteries of eroticism to a clumsy, outmoded social-welfare ideology. The old-style Protestant suppression of the passions, torments, and untidy physicalities of the body is in fact still abundantly evident in the report, which, in its opening premise of “the basic goodness of sexuality,” projects a happy, bouncy vision of human life that would have made Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds—those ’50s blond divas— proud.

Keeping Body and Soul Together demonstrates the chaos and intellectual ineptitude in the fashionable liberal discourse on sex that now fills the media and the academic and political worlds. All human problems are blamed on an unjust social system, a “patriarchy” of gigantic and demonized dimensions, blanketing history like a river of molasses. The report paints a grotesque picture of America. …”Sexual violence”—bizarrely dubbed the “incarnational heresy”—takes “diverse forms,” including “catcalls, cartoons, snide asides,” rock videos, and Playboy. Humor, irony, satire, and bawdiness are evidently politically incorrect in the eyes of the new sexual commissars.

The report assails the “influential tradition of radical asceticism” in “Western Christianity” that expresses “body-alienation,” “fear of sex and, in particular, of women.” It assumes that eremites and monks were not contemplatives but killjoys, neurotics, and misogynists, scowling while the rest of the world caroused, footloose and fancy free. The report complains of “our cultural captivity to a patriarchal model of sexuality and its ethic of sexual control,” as if sexual rules and taboos were not prevalent in every culture. There is no sense whatever that asceticism exists in other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, where it has the highest spiritual status. There is no reference even to pre-Christian thought in our own tradition: Greco-Roman philosophy regularly addresses moderation, restraint, and abstinence. Socrates, after all, remained chaste through his tempting night with the beautiful Alcibiades.

The committee members seem to have read nothing in their lives but feminist tracts churned out since 1969. …But there is something deeper at work in the report than contemporary platitudes and ignorance of world history and culture. It is the revival of the old Protestant ethic, masquerading in hip new clothes. Like so much current feminist ideology, this supposedly liberal statement on sexuality represents not progressive thinking but a throwback to pre-’60s conventionalism: rigid, narrow, and puritanical. …

“Eros,” says the report’s glossary, is “a zest for life.” Is this a soap commercial? Eros, like Dionysus, is a great and dangerous god. The report gives us vanilla sex, smothered with artificial butterscotch syrup. In its liberal zeal to understand, to accept, to heal, it reduces the grand tragicomedy of love and lust to a Hallmark card. Its unctuous normalizing of dissident sex is imperialistic and oppressive. …

The committee members seem to have a foggy idea that all guilt and shame in human life come from either a lack of “loving full of joyful caring” or from cold patriarchal institutions, those useless, totalitarian structures that we must, as part of a “global struggle,” dismantle as quickly as possible to achieve a blissful “egalitarian” society. To which one must reply: go read King Lear to see the anarchy and wolfishness, the primitive regression that results from a sentimental deconstruction of social institutions. Stormy nature, in our hearts and beyond the gates, is ready to consume us all. …

Life without guilt or shame would be found only in sociopaths and the lobotomized. In our culture, guilt may automatically accompany the construction and reinforcement of identity in earliest infancy, from which comes our entire ability to function as autonomous adults. As I got into my car recently on the way to work, I was greeted by a two-year-old neighbor boy who had wandered out of the house without his pants on. Waving cheerfully, he stood on the curb nude from the waist down and with his sister’s purse on his arm. Contemplating his enviable happiness, I could not help but reflect that bare-bottomed purse-carrying would be short-lived in his future. But he will gain and not lose identity by his instruction in our particular social codes. Rules governing sex and gender are always relative but are not necessarily authoritarian. …

The primary error of the report is its collapsing of the social sphere of life into the overlapping but quite different sexual, spiritual, and emotional sphere. It assumes that spirituality is linked to or predicated on social reform. Like many feminists, the committee believes that adjusting the social mechanism, whether through re-education or passing more regulations, will eliminate the turbulence between the sexes. But most of the sexual and emotional sphere of life is unreachable by legislation or by verbal formulas of any kind. Christian misogyny cannot be blamed for the suffering of the lovesick Sappho, six centuries before the birth of Christ, or for the humiliation of Catullus, obsessed with the faithless, promiscuous Clodia. Homer’s portraits of the femmes fatales Helen, Circe, and Calypso tell us much more about the magic irrationalism of sex than do the bitterly anti-male tracts of current feminism that underlie the Presbyterian report. …

The Presbyterian report waffles, calling sexuality “always culturally encoded” or “socially constructed” on one page and “God’s gracious gift” elsewhere. It is a critical confusion. …

The Presbyterian report, confronted with conflict, tries to smother it with all-absolving salve. It wants acceptance for its victimized groups without real understanding. It confidently predicts that the ideal future family will be “nonpatriarchal” and will function “on a friendship model.” In wonderful “countercultural zones,” we are told, “such families will exhibit both closeness and spaciousness, and offer its members room and resources for stretching and growing.” Sound familiar? It’s the chipper Chamber of Commerce language of a country club brochure, the authentic voice of 1950s American Protestantism, with its trimmed-lawn view of sex and emotion. Pardon me: I happen to think that Italian opera and African-American rhythm and blues contain the real truth about sex, with its Dionysian energies and ungovernable intensities.

The Presbyterian report is so skittish about the physical facts of our mortal life that it argues, ‘The tendency in our culture to consider birth children more authentically related to their parents than adopted children are to theirs is rooted in a fundamentally patriarchal understanding of family in which children are seen as possessions.” This is Orwellian logic approaching lunacy. Birth children emerge from their mother’s body, a primal, concrete, sensory relatedness unconnected to and prior to patriarchy. In its political scheme, the Presbyterian report exalts love but represses biology, through which love gains material expression. …

That is probably my favorite paragraph. You will enjoy reading the whole thing if you can get a copy. I left-out some of the more obvious things that I would disagree with — related to her libertarian views and exaltation of gay “sedition.”


Image: “Yesterday’s Love” by WinterWolf



    • It is in Church Dogmatics III.1, in his exegesis of the sixth day of creation, especially beginning at p. 181. The excursus begins on p. 191. Importantly, he returns to it in III.4, “Freedom in Fellowship,” beginning at p. 116 and continuing for several pages.

  1. (I am aware that feminism predicates itself upon a renewed awareness and affirmation of “embodiedness,” especially of “the other,” so I am obviously rejecting their pretensions to extol the body — or creation in general — much less “the other.” Karl Barth, by contrast, does do this in his exegesis of the imago Dei as “male and female.” Feminism does not.)

    It’s somewhat fashionable in progressive circles to say that traditional Christian sexual ethics are "gnostic." But it seems more gnostic to me to say that sex is just something that people do and really, bodily uniting yourself with the cutie you met at the bar isn’t a big deal as long as you're honest with each other.

    • We could significantly expand that analysis — but, yes, I agree. The liberal-feminist-queer axis presents itself as “liberating” our embodiment, for the sake of embodiment, but at the cost of revolting against creation and rewriting history along the way. If I wanted to dive into expansive detail, I would argue that the turn to epistemology in modern philosophy has laid the groundwork for this Gnosticism. The self is the bar of certitude — all of the “identity” nonsense today logically follows.

    • Also, while double standards and purity fetishization can be a real problem, chastity is of course at least as challenging for men when practiced and taught evenly.

      • Yes. I think there has been too much of an over-reaction against the “purity culture,” so-called, among evangelicals and conservative Catholics — reactions fostered by enlightened dissidents within those communions (or former members). Nobody has the whole “sex and gender” thing completely understood — certainly not the baby boomers within the mainline churches — but I’ll take the purity culture over the delusional vision of liberals and feminists. At least the former group still likes having babies. But, yes, I agree about the “purity fetishization” that can happen.

  2. I’ve seen Ms. Paglia’s name come up a lot recently, and have been appreciating her non-PC acerbic wit.

    As a side note, I recall watching a program, something on Dan Brown’s fiction, that mentioned the gnostic gospel of Thomas as egalitarian and feminist. Then you read the text for yourself, and the references of Jesus praising Mary are in the context of her not really being a woman. No, she may seem like the frail, empty-minded type of her race, gnostic jesus says, but she is really a man like one of us. That is her spirit was that of a man’s.

    I find that a lot of feminism, of the variety in this Pres. report, is the same way. Women learning how to be like men. That is, all the worst in fallen man: domineering, controlling, assertive etc.


    • Yes, the gnostic Thomas is truly misogynist, an inconvenient fact for “scholars” like Pagels — especially inconvenient for the wider popularity of non-orthodox (i.e, non-patriarchal, non-bishop) alternatives within early Christianity.

      There are innumerable contradictions within feminism, especially the Christian attempt to appropriate feminism. Everything is reduced to power, which is generally derided for its intrinsically oppressive qualities, yet this power is precisely what they advocate for women to acquire for themselves. Serene Jones — a mainstream representative of Christian feminism — is a good example of someone dancing around these contradictions.

      The secular representatives of critical theory are, however, a bit more honest about the contradictions. Foucault himself recognized that his own theory undermined all gay activism. Critical theory deconstructs the very “game” it wishes to manipulate.

      • Oh don’t get me started on Pagels and her cohort. I lament when I see so-called History channel programs on the Bible and the only scholars they have talking are Pagels, Ehrman, Aslan, Crossan et al.. The poor souls who are watching this garbage think they’re seeing some something intellectually stimulating or fair to the evidence.

        I appreciate what a lot of post-modern deconstruction has done. It can unveil the need for a transcendent locus to be the cornerstone of thinking. If one stands upon the crucified and risen Christ, then it changes everything, including how one understands ‘power’. Of course that hasn’t stopped christendom: in both continuing oppression, and making 2nd rate carbon copies like the christo-feminism seen above.

      • I have personal anecdotes from “regular people” (not me!) — church members, co-workers, etc. — who have been troubled and upset by what they’ve seen on History, Discovery, and so forth. On the upside, this provides me a very easy opening to advocate for educated Christians — not pampered and coddled Christians. In the affluent West, we do not have the luxury of being ignorant about these things. Given our resources, we have no excuse either.

        I am more ambivalent about the benefits of postmodern deconstruction. I ate it up when I was an undergraduate (almost 10 years ago now), but I have matured since then! But, yes, you are right that it can positively unveil the pitfalls of the Enlightenment — unfortunately it creates even worse pitfalls.

  3. Whatever your feelings about feminism, though (mine are very conflicted), the “manosphere”/”men’s rights” subculture online is much worse, including the Christianized versions. Some truly scary stuff there.

    • Yes, I am aware of the manosphere culture online. While I would hardly identify myself with their mission, they are reacting (partly) to some of the genuinely nefarious features of feminist activism. Unfortunately, the manosphere often plays into the caricatures that feminists have been propagating for decades. These guys are quite proud of that fact, so they exaggerate for good effect.

      • It’s often accompanied by other bizarre and odious views including conspiracy theories and racism, so I’m not so sure they’re just exaggerrating to be provocative.

        I have some problems with feminism, both in concrete action (such as abortion) and in theory (such as their love for deconstruction). But haven’t there also been good effects, such as laws regarding equal pay and sexual harassment?

      • Yes, I could qualify all of these statements. I have current academic feminism in my mind, and its popular expressions in liberal media, not the legitimate gains of the past. After all, I have supported women’s ordination on this blog.

        And the “manosphere” is enormous and diverse. I ignore the more crazy elements which you are thinking about. I have had several co-workers in the past (when I worked retail) who could qualify as “manosphere” types, and they were simply (to my mind) reacting against feminism. Regardless, my criticisms of feminism have nothing to do with the manosphere, or influenced thereby.

        From what you’ve written, Joel, we are probably on the same page. I know that this blog is read by theology students who are attracted to mainline Prot feminism, so I am trying to influence (in my own small way) a different direction — that you can be intellectually rigorous and sensitive without being a feminist. I have first-hand experience of watching feminism dilute or poison theological minds, churches, and denominations.

      • Yes, we probably are. I think my feelings on feminism are complicated and confused enough that it comes out as messy and confusing when I comment on it!

        I’m not a theology student, just an over-educated layman working in software. But I enjoy your blog!

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