Alastair on Human Sexuality and Western Liberalism

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Alastair Roberts at Theopolis Institute.  This post is entitled “Sexual Difference, Liberal and Christian“.  Alastair’s jumping-off point is an interview with French Catholic philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj on his recent work on human sexuality.  The big idea here is that human sexuality presents us with a basic differentiation into two classes of human beings.  This difference is woven into our very bodies and even our personalities at a very basic level.  Women have a completely and totally different experience of being human than men, which men will never apprehend by direct experience, and vice versa.

But in our present day Western society, it is not enough to just have male and female.  Why stop there when you can have upwards of fifty different gender identities, as are recognized in some quarters?  And why stop with gender?  Bring race, class, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, etc. into the mix and you now have a whole constellation of variables by which people are able to identify themselves and differentiate themselves.  Which has the effect of reducing the very concept of difference to nothing.  All these modes of differentiation pale before the ultimate reality in our society–the sovereign, self-determining individual.

Also consider that none of these modes of differentiation have any force except that which society gives them.  If, for example, black people have a different experience of being human than white people, or rich people have a different experience of being human than poor people, it is only because society is set up in such a way that black and white, rich and poor, etc. can and do have different experiences of being human.  If not for that, these differences would not matter.

Which leads to the notion that deep down, we’re all basically the same.  Thus all these sovereign, self-determining individuals are basically the same.  And therefore, basically interchangeable.  This notion has driven much of the discussion concerning race and other such things in recent decades.  It also drives an awful lot of how we are marketed to in a capitalist economy.

Yet when we come to human sexuality, we come to a fundamental difference which, as noted earlier, is woven into our very bodies, even our very personalities–the very fiber of our being.  Men experience being human in ways that are completely and totally different from women, and vice versa.  Neither can have any understanding of how the opposite sex experiences being human–certainly not by direct experience, at least.  You know this is true, people.  Fellas, do you even have a clue why ladies love to shop, why they have so many shoes, why they always think they’re fat even when they’re not, or why they always go to the bathroom in groups?  Ladies, can you even fathom the idea that when you ask a guy what’s on his mind and he says “Nothing, honey”, he ACTUALLY MEANS IT?

When you enter into a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, you are entering into a relationship with someone who is human just like yourself, yet at the same time completely and totally different from you in how he/she experiences being human.  You are opening yourself up to something which is, on a fundamental level, completely and totally other than you.  (Sorry homosexuals, this does not apply to you.  As such relationships are same-sex, there can be no experience of otherness with respect to sexuality–and thus, Hadjadj would argue, no sexuality, just alternate uses of the human sexual organs.)

This speaks a powerful word in critique of Western liberalism’s view of human difference.  Alastair lists five key ways:  Sexuality threatens Western liberalism’s notion of the autonomous, all-powerful, self-determining individual and the transactional ways in which he/she engages in relationship with others.  Sexuality’s differences exert an unseen yet inescapable impact upon the subjective world of the self.  Sexuality exposes a difference which is largely internal to the human body itself and thus is deeper and more profound than any other bodily difference (i. e. skin color) that only has power over us because of our social constructs.  Sexuality exposes us to a force that lies beyond the human body.  Sexuality opens the self up to the claims of the other–especially when children enter the mix.

While our society talks a good game with respect to celebrating otherness, it does so in such a way as to reduce it to a white noise of disconnected entities in indeterminate and indiscriminate relationship–in short, all differences are interchangeable and therefore do not matter.  But sexuality presents us with a specific mode of otherness which is of great significance.

What if we were to start thinking of difference as positive in its meaning, understanding it as naming the particular manner in which two entities are distinguished from each other within their relation?

If we were to do this I believe that a more ‘musical’ account of otherness would emerge. Sexuality exposes us to a world of musical difference, where, as we open ourselves up to otherness, we are caught up within the beauty and delight of a larger cosmic symphony (difference in relation is also characteristic of symbolism). As with musical notes the power and meaning of difference is located within relations, relations through which we belong to something greater than ourselves and which puncture our autonomy and detachment.

In our cultural flight from the otherness of sexuality we seek to dull ourselves to the reality that we exist in and belong to a world that belongs to an Other above all others. A rediscovery and celebration of the created otherness of sexuality holds great promise. As both the Apostle Paul and Fabrice Hadjadj realize, it may be a means by which human beings are freed from the idolatry of self-sufficiency and are comported towards transcendence.

Read Alastair Roberts “Sexual Difference, Liberal and Christian”