Towards a Quaker View of Sex

Tom Driver review in Christianity & Crisis


Tom F. Driver, instructor at Union Theological Seminary in New York (later long-time Paul Tillich Professor of Theology & Culture there) published this somewhat whimsical review in the weekly journal Christianity & Crisis.


Christianity & Crisis, October 14, 1963. pp. 175-79.


Christianity & Crisis, October 14, 1963 pp. 175-79

A Look at the Quaker Report: On Taking Sex Seriously
by Tom F. Driver

Headlines were made in England last winter by the publication of a 75-page pamphlet titled "Towards a Quaker View of Sex" (Friends Book Store, 302 Arch St., Philadelphia 4, Pa., $.75) Of all the revolutions through which nowadays we are passing, the revolution in sexual mores is one that receives the least thought. I do not mean that it gets the least attention but that the attention it gets is least informed by objective and radical thinking.

The Quaker pamphlet deserves the critic's praise and the public's reading because it is one of the few recent documents written by Christians that attempts to look at sex dispassionately and at human beings compassionately. The group that prepared the statement proceeded on the honest Quaker assumption that Christian ethics must be founded primarily upon conscience, not primarily upon law sacred or secular, and they have spoken conscientiously. As a result, their conclusions are very liberal with respect to the letter of the law. A society that finds much of its sexual pleasure in breaking the received code cannot help, therefore, giving headlines to a statement by Christians that puts the ultimacy of that code in question.

The pamphlet is not an official statement of the Religious Society of Friends in Great Britain. It is the result of a six-year study carried out by 11 individuals, six of them elders in the Society. Their discussions began in response to problems of homosexuality "brought by young Quaker students...who came to older Friends for help and guidance."

The group discovered that one type of sexual problem could not be clearly seen apart from other types: "a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle could not be identified without the whole picture." Thus the pamphlet includes an "Introduction and Basic Assumptions" and chapters on "Normal Sexual Development," "Homosexuality" (both male and female), a call for a "New Morality" and "A Word of Counsel to Counselors." There are also appendices, a glossary and a book list.

The reader looking for surprises may find them. For instance, we read the following about triangular heterosexual relations:
This is too often thought of as a wholy destructive and irresponsible relationship...Not sufficient recognition can and often does not arise in which all three persons behave responsibly...It is worth noting that in the two-woman/one-man situation, the very happiness of the marriage may attract a young girl or a sensitive and responsible woman...By the same token, it could surely help a nervous youngster to call in love with a happily married woman. (p. 20)

On homosexuality the group supports the recommendation of the 1957 Wolfenden Report that such acts between consenting adults is private should no longer be a criminal offense. It follows the Bishop of Woolwich in his 1962 appeal for reform of "our utterly medieval treatment of homosexuals," which called a peculiarly odious piece of English hypocrisy." The group adds:
Surely it is the nature and quality of a relationship that matters: one must not judge it by its outward appearance but by its inner worth. Homosexual affectation can be as selfless as heterosexual affection, and therefore we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse." (p. 36)

In its section on a needed "new morality," the group writes:
Nothing that has come to light in the course of our studies has altered the conviction that came to us when we began to examine the actual experiences of people--the conviction that love cannot be confined to a pattern. The waywardness of love is part of its nature, and this is both its glory and its tragedy. If love did not tend to leap every barrier, if it could be tamed, it would not be the tremendous creative power we know it so be and want it to be. (p. 39)

The utterances of the group on particular problems, such as those cited, are courageous and debatable. What interests me, however, is the basic assumption that gave rise to them. This assumption is that the cardinal ethical virtue of responsibility can be made the norm for regulating and judging sexual behavior. Sexual acts are thus to be evaluated by whether they express and encourage the responsible behavior of the whole person, negatively by whether they involve exploitation.
Using this as its criterion, the group finds no reason to condemn premarital, extramarital or homosexual relations as such. Sexuality, regarded objectively, is "neither good nor evil." The Christian sees it as "a glorious gift of God," which can indeed be misused; but misuse is not synonymous with infringement of the moral code, not even when that code is called Christian and seems to have biblical sanction. "It seemed to us that morals, like the Sabbath, were made for man, not man for morals..."

I am going to criticize this approach, but I would like first to say that the group's obvious concern for "what is happening to people, what they are seeking to express, what motivations and intentions they are satisfying, what fruits, good or bad, they are harvesting" is of great importance and commends their report to every person who is seeking light on sexual ethics in our time.

Law and Gospel

The issue for Christian ethics raised by the pamphlet is a particular case of the relation of Law and Gospel. The Friends group was right to see that in our present cultural situation it is not longer sufficient to reiterate traditional standards, not even if this is combined with a Christian compassion for the offender. For the problem is that the traditional standards are no longer felt by the society to be derived from a genuine authority. This is so not only because of the alienation of the multitudes from the Church but also because within the Church--among pastor and other counselors--there is a widespread feeling that to insist upon "pure" sexual behavior may lead to neglect of "weightier matters," may jeopardize the communications of that profounder thing, man's freedom in Christ.

This feeling may not be based upon the deepest sort of insight, but it is based upon one accurate opinion: namely, that when traditional religious authority is not felt by a man to be binding upon his conscience, then it is not possible to preach to him the Law and the Gospel as the same time. Well aware of the disasters created by preaching the Law only, ministers tends to say more about the Gospel. But in the long run this has the effect of undermining the Law itself, at least in so far as the Law must be spelled out as a specific guide to conduct.
The last 50 years have witnessed most churches steadily liberalizing their views on divorce, softening their condemnation of many sexual practices, particularly homosexuality, and at the same time failing to provide a new formulation of the Law as it pertains to sex. No area of life is so neglected by specialists in Christian ethics as is sex. In no field have we done less to re-examine our basic assumptions, "Bible in one hand and newspaper on the other."

The Quaker group calls for a "new morality" of sex. It affirms that "there must be a morality of some sort to govern sexual relations." It insists very cogently upon the social character of even the most private sexual acts. But it says nothing that might lead directly to the enunciation of the "new morality" for which it calls.

The call had to be made, however, and I want now to add to it a few considerations that ought to be taken into account by Christian ethicists when they consider, as they must, the problem of sexual morality anew.

The aim of the Quaker group is to pass beyond an insistence upon conformity to a code by urging that sexual relations, conformist or not, be brought into line with authentic selfhood. This is of course commendable, especially when so many people treat sex as a commodity. But I am convinced that it is insufficient and even highly misleading. It is at once too idealistic and too somber to fit the facts.

An Impersonal Force

Sex is a force that streams impersonally through nature. If we ask that this force be an expression of love, we must be aware of the several reality that are signified by this one English word. Love is not only responsibility and agape. It is also eros, which means desire. Sexual desire is not only desire of the "other" for the various kinds of beauty and good he, she or it may possess. It is also desire for self-gratification. The great power of sexual desire comes from the fact that it combines desire for the other with desire to gratify the self. If we are not speaking of this Janus-force we are not speaking of sex but of other things that are deemed good in association with it.

No sexual ethic, including a Christian one, can be valid if it does not recognize the sex-force as a power in its own right and in both its other-directed and self-directed aspects. Whatever we say of the Church's time-honored view that marriage is a license for outlet of sexual passion (and the Quakers' report is adamant against it), at least it had the virtue of realism in regarding the sex-force as a given and not fully tamable fact of human nature.

It is a mistake to assume that sex can be entirely personalized or, as a new book by a Protestant tells us, that is "is inseparable from the realization of one's humanity."* Sex is not essentially human, it is not inseparable from the human in us, and it cannot be fully humanized. It can be personified, as Aphrodite or Brigitte Bardot (I prefer Aphrodite), but these personifications have imaginative power because they represent as personal that which overrides personality. Did we not laugh when Thurber and White asked us, "Is sex necessary?"

It is, indeed, from sexual humor that Christians have at present most to learn. We should distrust any pronouncement about sex, including the Quakers' report, that does not allow for the humorous side of the subject. Volumes of ostensibly Christian literature may in this way be swept from the shelves, with good riddance.
Misplaced seriousness has wreaked more havoc on modern sexuality than all the films of Hollywood, most of which are themselves soddenly lugubrious as a "concession" to the pious. A return of ribaldry, now virtually absent from Broadway and Hollywood, would do much to clear the air.

Laughter at sex is about the only way to put sex in its place, to assert one's humanity over against that impersonal, irrational, yet necessary force that turns even the best of men into caricatures of themselves. Not only "sinful" sex does this: lawful sex, safely within the limits of marriage and love, does it too, as everybody knows; and he who does not laugh about it must be humiliated by it.

To be sure, there are various kinds of laughter. I hold no brief for snickering. Quite the opposite. A snicker is the unhappy result of a healthy impulse to laughter being partially suppressed by an unhealthy sense that laughter is forbidden. Also the giggle, which comes from embarrassment.

What I proclaim is the Christian freedom to treat an impersonal aspect of creation lightly. What I deplore that that almost every book and article written on sex by a Christian leaves one with the feeling that sex must be a serious business. What has happened to our common sense?

The Adolescent and the Disturbed

Part of the answer may lie in the negative attitudes St. Paul seems to have had, part in the Church's long-held view that flesh belongs to sin. But I believe there is a simpler explanation closer to hand, especially as regards recent writing. It is that writers on sexual behavior tend to have in mind the needs of adolescents and other persons who are disturbed about their sex life.

Laughter at sex comes naturally to the blessed, by which I mean young children and grown-up people, but not to the adolescent and the disturbed. To children the human body is neither a temple nor a prison; it is just odd, like the frog in the garden.

The girl child's laughter at male physiognomy is no rejection of the body but simply a subordination of it to common sense. And her mother, if she has left adolescence behind her, will find the subject even funnier because she knows the sex act and all its disproportions. (Males usually do not find as much to laugh at; proud man does not like humor to cut him down to size.)

In the whirlwinds of puberty the body becomes a serious matter. Loss of chastity looms up, longed for and feared, and even after that happens there is a long road to travel before those many adjustments are made that allow the sex life both to flower and to be separated from the centers of anxiety. While this is going on, laughter seems too cheap for sex--though by an assumed toughness the adolescent can invert his natural feelings.

A special problem is therefore posed as to how one discusses sex with the adolescent and the disturbed. Telling a homosexual who is a potential suicide that his situation is comic is obviously not going to help him. That doesn't change the fact that this is actually what he most needs to know. Had Oscar Wilde considered his own emotions to be as humorous as he considered other things, he would not have gotten into all that trouble. Of course we wanted trouble; and the law, being as serious as he, obliged him. If Wilde lost his sense of humor at this point, at least one old lady maintained hers. Asked what she thought, she replied: "I don't care what they do, as long as they don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses."

What we say to the adolescent and the disturbed is a pastoral question or, if you like, a question of therapeutic strategy. (Adolescence is a disease: if one is cured of it, he becomes immune.) The strategy will often be decided, as the Army says, "by the situation and the terrain." But this particular question is to be separated sharply from the problem of framing a basic Christian sexual ethic. The psychology of the adolescent and the disturbed cannot be normative.

The adolescent is endemically romantic: he idealizes sex, sometimes inverting this idealism into scorn and fear. But Christianity should no more idealize sex than it should scorn or fear it. It sees sex as a fact of created nature. This natural force can no more be made fully "human" than can mountain goats or ocean currents. Like them it can, if accepted, be used by man for his own good within a life of faithfulness and praise. Only, however, if the mystique of sex, a holdover from paganism, is blanched away. For the idealization of sex is merely once face of the coin that shows on its other side the disparagement of sex.

Among the topics in the Quakers' report that could be improved with the leaven of humor is homosexuality. Society regards homosexuality between consenting adults as a crime. Opposing this, the Quaker group sees it as tragedy or potentially as a serious and responsible sexual relation. Now a crime is certainly should not be. I would not deny that it can be a serious and responsible relation. But the matter cannot be left there, as the report leaves it.

Let us go on to say that homosexuality is odd. All sex is odd, but homo-sex is odder than most. And funnier. The homosexual doesn't know what he's missing. Bigger joke: for emotional reasons, he can't know. The guy is trapped. The question now is: are we to take this trap as fate (bad), or destiny (potentially good) or as a devil of a predicament from which there might be a way out? The minute we opt for fate and/or destiny we play acolyte to the bogus rituals that surround homosexuality. There is a whole literature and psychology built on this, and it's just plain cockeyed. Psychiatry, as it sheds its doctrinaire determinism, is waking up to this fact.

Since we are not to idealize heterosexuality, neither are we to acquiesce in the idealization of homosexuality. The first step to health is to remove from it the aura of forbidden (therefore exalted) mystery. And I submit that homosexuality brought fully into the light of day and stripped of its exotic defenses will appeal to only a fraction of the people now swept along by it.

I do not mean to say that the ethical dilemmas of sex can be overcome by purely social and psychological means. Whatever we do to dispel by laughter and common sense the mystique of sex, whatever we do to make the statutes of the land more wise, there will always remain an area in which one's moral response is decisive and in which codification is necessary. But the area of decision-making will remain obscure as long as the laws and the prevalent attitudes of society are out of touch with human nature.

Let us not try fully to humanize, let alone to sanctify, sex; but let us assert a human transcendence over it. Such a plea does not add up to a Christian ethic of sex. It only asks that specialists in ethics deal with sex at the thing it is and not as the bearer or either our salvation or our damnation. The Quakers did not make that mistake, but they were so serious in their approach that they come close.

Sex is necessary, but it is not a necessity.
*Roger Mehl, reviewing in Le Monde (May 29, 1963) Amour et Sexualite by Robert Grimm (Delachaux et Niestle: Neuchatel and Paris, 1962).