by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Vicar of St John’s Waterloo and Member of the Co-Ordinating Group for the “Living in Love and Faith” Project
In the midst of trying to work out in this COVID world what is permitted, when, by whom, and where, I’m getting light relief by reading a book. It’s called ‘A Secular Age,’ – by Charles Taylor. It surveys the path to the current marginalisation of organised religion from the late Middle Ages to the 21st century. Some readers of this blog may know it. It’s a magisterial work.
Taylor is one of the world’s major philosophers, winning the Templeton Prize and the Berggruen Prize, and “A Secular Age” is one of his most important books. He has been criticised for focusing too much on Europe and North America – a criticism he acknowledges – but for me, the resonances are manifold. He offers a detailed and nuanced explanation for why the denial of religious faith was virtually unthinkable at the end of the fifteenth century, whereas now to embrace religious faith is rarely intellectually respectable and often considered irrational. So what has changed, and why?
You’ll need to read the book to find out. Here, I want to try to outline how Taylor argues that the sexual liberation of the 1960’s onwards drove a further nail into the coffin of popular religion.
I obviously can’t precis 750 pages into five hundred words. But in brief, he charts the path towards the sexual liberation movement within both Catholic and Reformed traditions, identifying a disproportionate focus on sexual sin as the means of imposing conformity amongst both Catholics and Protestants.
“In the mediaeval understanding of seven deadly sins, the sins of the spirit (pride, envy, anger) were seen as more grievous than those of the flesh (gluttony, lechery, sloth: avarice could be put in either column).” (p496). There was, in the middle ages, a greater tolerance for diversity of sexual expression (evidenced, for example, in the Canterbury Tales). But, ‘during the Catholic Reformation, emphasis came to be more and more on concupiscence as the crucial obstacle to sanctity.’ In other words, in the early modern age personal purity took on a greater importance as a pre-requisite for salvation – and the most clearly measurable criterion for purity was either celibacy, or sexual continence within the bonds of holy matrimony.
The Reformation process was happening in parallel and led to a similar outcome. The dethroning of monks, nuns and celibate clergy from their status at the top of the religious hierarchy left a vacuum, and a notion of the Christian family, headed by father and mother in monogamous relationship, filled that space. So, again, a particular form of sexual expression became intrinsic to a grace-filled religious life.
I’m not saying that sexual sins were unimportant in the pre-modern age: we know that the act of sodomy bore severe penalties, and the lists of days on which sexual intercourse was forbidden (Feast days, Fridays, Wednesdays, Saint’s Days, Lent, Advent…) meant that days on which congress could virtuously take place were vanishingly few.
But ‘what emerges from all this,’ says Taylor, ‘is what we might call ‘moralism’, that is, the crucial importance given to a certain code in our spiritual lives. We should all come closer to God; but a crucial stage on this road has to be the minimal conformity to the code.’ (p. 497).
Taylor argues that ‘the dominant spiritual fashion of recent centuries is not normative …. The deviation was to make this take on sexuality mandatory for everyone.’ (p504, my italics). The prevalent view within Western Christianity that one size fits all – that the only acceptable form of sexual expression is within a heterosexual marriage – is a relatively recent phenomenon.
So, the sexual liberation movement which began in the 1960’s was not just about the importance of individual self-expression. It was also about challenging a historic religious structure of power and influence which confined women and LGBTI+ people – as well as people who weren’t white, but that’s another subject – to the margins.
That, for me, is the rub. It’s one of the principal sources of our current arguments and it’s what, I hope, the Living in Love and Faith project will begin to unpack. Perhaps with the support of Pope Francis, who recently affirmed that ‘“The pleasure of eating and sexual pleasure come from God.’
Now of course Christianity derives its being from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our faith is rooted in the Gospels. The problem, as we all know, is that the message and the meaning of Christ’s saving act is contested, by good and faithful people of sincerely different convictions.
Understanding our history is important if we are to be able to understand one another. So I welcome Taylor’s analysis, and encourage you, if you have a spare few weeks and want to take your mind off the US Elections and the pandemic, to read A Secular Age.
 Sexual desire or lust