The John Finnis Line In The Sand
In September 2016, one of the living giants of Christian scholarship, the Oxford emeritus philosopher Richard Swinburne, gave an address to the Midwest Society of Christian Philosophers, in the US. He spoke about Christian sexual ethics. In an aside — meaning this wasn’t the main topic of his talk — he affirmed the orthodox Christian view that homosexuality is morally wrong. For this, he was denounced by some Christian philosophers in the audience, and the head of the group quickly apologized for the keynote speaker, Swinburne, affirming Christian orthodoxy in an address to Christian philosophers. I wrote about it here.
It is scandalous that a leading Christian philosopher cannot state an orthodox Christian position — something that all Christians affirmed until the day before yesterday — at a gathering of Christian philosophers.
Here is something equally scandalous, but far more dangerous. John Finnis is equally a giant in the world of Christian scholarship. He is a philosopher of law who specializes in natural law theory. Though he’s now based at Notre Dame, he is an emeritus professor at Oxford. Among his past students: Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch, and Princeton constitutional law professor Robert George.
Finnis is now the object of a petition at Oxford asking that he be removed from teaching postgraduate students because of his views on homosexuality. From the newspaper article about the petition:
The 1994 essay entitled “Law, Morality and Sexual Orientation” claims that “copulation of humans with animals is repudiated because it treats human sexual activity and satisfaction as something appropriately sought in a manner that, like the coupling of animals, is divorced from the expressing of an intelligible common good – and so treats human bodily life, in one of its most intense activities, as merely animal. The deliberate genital coupling of persons of the same sex is repudiated for a very similar reason.”
Professor Finnis told The Oxford Student that “The petition travesties my position, and my testimony in American constitutional litigation. Anyone who consults the Law Faculty website and follows the links in the petition can see the petition’s many errors. I stand by all these writings. There is not a ‘phobic’ sentence in them. The 1994 essay promotes a classical and strictly philosophical moral critique of all non-marital sex acts and has been republished many times, most recently by Oxford University Press in the third volume of my Collected Essays.”
The petition calls for Finnis to be removed from teaching on the grounds that “university is a place to focus on education, not to be forced to campaign against or to be taught by professors who have promoted hatred towards students that they teach.”
Oxford University’s John Finnis is one of the most brilliant and accomplished Christian scholars in the world. He might be wrong about natural law and homosexuality (N.B., as a Thomist, he believes that all forms of contracepted sex are contrary to natural law), but he is well within the Catholic, and broader Christian, philosophical tradition. Back in 2003, Andrew Sullivan wrote a strong critique of natural law reasoning, citing Finnis, George, and others. Sullivan engaged their arguments. He didn’t call for them to be driven out of the public square.
Now students are calling for Finnis to be driven out of the public square, so to speak. It won’t be long before Princeton student activists do the same to Robert George. If a scholar of the stature of John Finnis is forbidden to teach Oxford students because of his philosophical and theological opposition to homosexuality, then no Christian professor who has ever expressed disapproval, however couched in academic language, of homosexuality will be safe.
The Jewish scholar Yoram Hazony understands what’s at stake:
Hazony nails it. This is not an argument about whether or not John Finnis should be permitted to
corrupt the morals of the young teach students, holding as he does heretical views on gay sex. This is an argument about whether it is permissible to be Christian in public.
A lot is riding on how this is decided, including the question of whether or not any form of religion — traditional Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Islam — will be allowed in the public square if it opposes the sacred doctrine of late liberalism: Sexual Freedom. This is the core of the dispute. This is the one thing liberalism will defend to the death.
I want to share with you some material from the Eros chapter of The Benedict Option, so that you can better understand the classical Christian view of sex, including homosexuality. I offer this so you can understand the philosophical background to the orthodox Christian view. You may still believe that we are wrong, but no honest person can say that this view derives from irrational animus:
I once heard an Evangelical woman, in a group conversation about sexuality, blurt out, “Why do we have to get stuck on sex? Why can’t we just get back to talking about the Gospel?”
Christianity is not a disembodied faith but an incarnational one. God came to us in the form of a man, Jesus Christ, and redeems us body and soul. The way we treat our bodies (and indeed all of Creation) says something about the way we regard the One Who gave it to us and Whose presence fills all things.
As the Benedictines teach, one of our tasks in life is to be a means by which God orders Creation, bringing it into harmony with His purposes. Sexuality is an inextricable part of that work.
Wendell Berry has written, “Sexual love is the heart of community life. Sexual love is the force that in our bodily life connects us most intimately to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.”
This is more important to the survival of Christianity than most of us understand. When people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex, they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether.
This raises a critically important question: Is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?
Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been under way since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.
Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the Sexual Revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s demise. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture and redirecting the erotic instinct was intrinsic to Christian culture. Without Christianity, the West was reverting to its former state.
It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among the People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.
In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.
Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” Chastity—the rightly ordered use of the gift of sexuality—was the greatest distinction setting Christians of the early church apart from the pagan world.
The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what a person does with their sexuality cannot be separated from what a person is. In a sense, moderns believe the same thing, but from a perspective entirely different from the early church’s.
In speaking of how men and women of the early Christian era saw their bodies, historian Peter Brown says
was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. Whether this pulse of energy came from benevolent gods or from malevolent demons (as many radical Christians believed) sex could never be seen as a thing for the isolated human body alone.
Early Christianity’s sexual teaching does not only come from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul; more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God.
In that order, man has a purpose. He is meant for something, to achieve certain ends. When Paul warned the Christians of Corinth that having sex with a prostitute meant that they were joining Jesus Christ to that prostitute, he was not speaking metaphorically. Because we belong to Christ as a unity of body, mind, and soul, how we use the body and the mind sexually is a very big deal.
Anything we do that falls short of perfect harmony with the will of God is sin. Sin is not merely rule breaking but failing to live in accord with the structure of reality itself.
The Christian who lives in reality will not join his body to another’s outside the order God gives us. That means no sex outside the covenant through which a man and a woman seal their love exclusively through Christ. In orthodox Christian teaching, the two really do become “one flesh” in a way that transcends the symbolic.
If sex is made holy through the marriage covenant, then sex within marriage is an icon of Christ’s relationship with His people, the church. It reveals the miraculous, life-giving power of spiritual communion, which occurs when a man and a woman—and only a man and a woman—give themselves to each other. That marriage could be unsexed is a total novelty in the Christian theological tradition.
“The significance of sexual difference has never before been contingent upon a creature’s preferences, or upon whether or not God gave it episodically to a particular creature to have certain preferences,” writes Catholic theologian Christopher Roberts. He goes on to say that for Christians, the meaning of sexuality has always depended on its relationship to the created order and to eschatology—the ultimate end of man. “As was particularly clear, perhaps for the first time in Luther, the fact of a sexually differentiated creation is reckoned to human beings as a piece of information from God about who and what it meant to be human,” writes Roberts.
Contrary to modern gender theory, the question is not Are we men or women? but How are we to be male and female together? The legitimacy of our sexual desire is limited by the givenness of nature. The facts of our biology are not incidental to our personhood. Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order. “Male and female he made them,” says Genesis, revealing that complementarity is written into the nature of reality.
Easy divorce stretches the sacred bond of matrimony to the breaking point, but it does not deny complementarity. Gay marriage does. Similarly, transgenderism doesn’t merely bend but breaks the biological and metaphysical reality of male and female. Everything in this debate (and many others between traditional Christianity and modernity) turns on how we answer the question: Is the natural world and its limits a given, or are we free to do with it whatever we desire?
To be sure, there never was a golden age in which Christians all lived up to their sexual ideals. The church has been dealing with sexual immorality in its own ranks since the beginning—and let’s be honest, some of the measures it has taken to combat it have been cruel and unjust.
The point, however, is that to the premodern Christian imagination, sex was filled with cosmic meaning in a way it no longer is. Paul admonished the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” because the body was a “temple of the Holy Spirit” and warned them that “you are not your own.” He was telling them that their bodies are sacred vessels that belonged to God, who, in Christ, “all things hold together.” Sexual autonomy, seemingly the most prized possession of the modern person, is not only morally wrong but a metaphysical falsehood.
But our perception of that truth diminished long ago. Now we are on the far side of a Sexual Revolution that has been nothing short of catastrophic for Christianity. It struck near the core of biblical teaching on sex and the human person and has demolished the fundamental Christian conception of society, of families, and of the nature of human beings. There can be no peace between Christianity and the Sexual Revolution, because they are radically opposed. As the Sexual Revolution advances, Christianity must retreat—and it has, faster than most people would have thought possible.
To be modern, as we have seen, is to believe in one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self- definition. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “The entire ethical stance of moderns supposes and follows on from the death of God (and of course, of the meaningful cosmos).”
Gay marriage and gender ideology signify the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because they deny Christian anthropology at its core and shatter the authority of the Bible. Rightly ordered sexuality is not at the core of Christianity, but as Rieff saw, it’s so near to the center that to lose the Bible’s clear teaching on this matter is to risk losing the fundamental integrity of the faith. This is why Christians who begin by rejecting sexual orthodoxy end either by rejecting Christianity themselves or by laying the groundwork for their children to do so.
“The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling,” Rieff writes. By that standard, Christianity in America is in mortal danger.
It is vitally important for Christians to understand that liberalism, as it has evolved, does not intend to tolerate us for one minute more than it has to. For liberals, this is a holy war. When the Spanish Second Republic was declared in 1931, the liberals in charge made dismantling public Christianity the government’s most important job. As the leading US historian of Spain, Stanley Payne, has written in his Spain: A Unique History:
Though the Left republicans frequently gestured toward democracy, they were not as interested in constitutional democracy, free elections, and the rule of law as they were in a new kind of radically reformist regime. It was this regime of radical middle-class reformism that they referred to as “la Republica” and “el republicanismo,” compared with which procedural democracy was secondary. In their concept, republicanism stood for a vigorously anti-Catholic program, separating church and state, eliminating Catholic education, and strictly controlling Catholic interests and activities.
So it has become with our liberals. Fewer and fewer of them are interested in old-fashioned liberalism. They are interested in expanding the Sexual Revolution, and understand well that their greatest opposition (to the extent that any opposition still exists) is in the Christian churches. Therefore, untame Christians must be driven out of the public square as heretics.
Five years after the Left republicans started their campaign against Christianity, Spain was in civil war. I don’t think that can happen here, if only because Christianity is so weak and compromised. But Christians who actually want to defend the faith have to understand the nature of the conflict, and the culture war we are fighting. It’s a religious war, whether we want it to be or not.