Mere Christianity 12: Sexual Morality

Here Lewis gets into the virtue of chastity, which he calls the most unpopular of all the Christian virtues.  He begins by making the statement that chastity is not to be confused with propriety.  Chastity is always a constant, but social standards of propriety are always subject to change and indeed they do vary depending on place and time.  For example, note that the standards of propriety held in sub-Saharan Africa and Victorian England are wildly different, as are the standards held in Buckhead and Afghanistan.  With that, note that a breach of social standards of propriety is an offense against chastity only if it is deliberately calculated to evoke lust.  Otherwise, it is merely bad manners.

Lewis offers the opinion that strict social standards of propriety are no real help to chastity, and that the relaxing of standards which was happening in his day, and in ours as well, is a good thing.  The problem is that because of this there are two competing standards held by older people and younger people.  Older people denounce younger people who do not accept their standard as lewd and immodest, while younger people denounce older people who do not accept their standard as prudes and Puritans.  A real desire to believe the best about everyone else and to make others as comfortable as possible will go a long way toward solving these problems.

There are two big ideas from this chapter:  Christians are not against sex, but must proclaim that the human appetite for sex has gone wrong.  The other is that perfect Christian chastity is an impossible goal, and those who try and fail at it must be forgiven and restored.

Chastity is unpopular because it runs contrary to our sexual instinct.  This means one of two things:  either Christianity is wrong or our sexual appetite has gone wrong.  Lewis takes the position that it is our sexual appetite which is in error.  He does this by contrasting it with our appetite for food.

First of all, our sexual appetite is ludicrously and preposterously in excess of its biological function, which is to produce children.  Compare this with our appetite for food, and you will see the difference.  Almost everyone has been known to eat too much at one time or another, but people who eat so much that it causes them to weigh over a thousand pounds are very few and far between.  On the other hand, if a person were to indulge his or her sexual appetite whenever he/she felt like it, he/she would produce enough children to populate a small village.  Examples of this are not too hard to come by–Wilt Chamberlain, Evander Holyfield, just to name a few.

Consider another example.  This is one of the most memorable illustrations in the entire book, so I will let Lewis’s original language speak to you with all its force.

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act–that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage.  Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?  And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?

A final point is that perversions of our appetite for food are rare.  You just don’t see pork-chop strip tease acts like what Lewis describes above.  You don’t see people stroking and petting their food, or beating it with whips and chains.  Yet similar perversions of the sexual appetite are not at all hard to imagine, and some of you could probably come up with some that are far more grotesque than anything I have described here.  (Please don’t share them.  There is such a thing as TMI.)

So Lewis has established that there is a problem with our sexual appetite.  Why?  Is it because previous generations have refused to talk about sex?  The answer is no.  We have been talking freely about sex for several decades now, and it is still just as much a problem as ever.  Rather, it was the other way around; people hushed it up in the first place because it had gotten to be a problem.

Yet for all of this, one must not come to the conclusion that Christianity is against sex.  Christianity is the only world religion which affirms the goodness of the physical world, the human body, and pleasures resulting from the human body and the physical world.  God created the physical world.  God became one of us.  In heaven we will have some kind of body and it will be an integral part of our happiness there.  The Bible speaks favorably of love and sex.  Most of the greatest love poetry ever written was written by Christians.  So if anyone says that Christianity is opposed to sex, the whole of Christian belief and experience rushes in to contradict him at once.

So if we acknowledge that our sexual appetite is a problem, what are we to do about it?

First of all, we have to want it to be cured.  But this is a problem for many people in our day and age.  Our warped natures tell us that our sexual desires are normal and legitimate, and we are daily fed with propaganda from advertisers and media which constantly reinforces this.  But this is a lie.  In order to have any sort of happiness in this world, it is necessary to exercise restraint in indulging your desires; to go to the right length and no further.  (See Lewis’s discussion of temperance a couple of chapters back.)  This has nothing to do with Christian morality; everyone living a civilized life in our society has some standard by which he or she rejects some pleasures and permits others.

Many people do not attempt Christian chastity because they believe it is impossible and they do not want to fail.  But it is a requirement for anyone who wishes to continue in the Christian way.  If you attempt a question on an exam and get it wrong, you may get partial credit, but if you leave it blank you will not get any credit at all.  And it is amazing what you can do in situations where there is no other option but to do the thing that you think you can’t do.

Now, perfect chastity cannot be attained without God’s help.  It is there for anyone who asks for it.  But you have to ask for it.

Lewis wraps up the chapter by saying that sexual morality is not the center of Christian morality, despite the attention that many give to it.

If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong.  The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.  All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual:  the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred.  For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become.  They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self.  The Diabolical self is the worse of the two.  That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.  But, of course, it is better to be neither.