Back to the Past Our Culture Once Warned Us About

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Contemplating the turn of Ireland toward a culture-diluting secularism, as evidenced by its turn toward abortion and the slogan “hoes before embryos,” Rod Dreher quotes from a Peter Brown essay in the New York Review of Books, referring to the Christianization of the Roman Empire:

Seldom has so great a simplification been imposed on a complex society. The unexpected victory of Christian norms in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries was so thorough that any alternative ordering of moral frontiers within a society became unthinkable. The intricacies of a status-based morality still require patient reconstruction by modern historians of Rome, like the bones of some flamboyant creature of the Jurassic age. The Christian victory was one that caused a chasm to open up between ourselves and the ancient world.

Isolated from its (rather thick) context, this paragraph is challenging.  The phrase, “status-based morality,” indicates that the boundaries for one’s behavior, sexually, had much to do with class.  Brown describes ancient lampshades illustrating the libertine frolics of the time and suggests:

If one asks if women in these scenes were free persons (and even how many of the men were free, for some might be slave gigolos), the unexpected answer would be: far fewer than we would wish to think. Many of the women were slaves. The jolly free-for-all, which we like to imagine as forming a timeless human bond between us and the ancients, was based upon the existence of a vast and cruel “zone of free access” provided by the enslaved bodies of boys and girls. Slavery, “an inherently degrading institution,” was “absolutely fundamental to the social and moral order of Roman life.”

“The fact of slavery,” he writes, “tower[s] above us like the trees of an immense forest of unfreedom that covered the Roman world.”  This is why Brown alludes (though the point is opaque from the point of view of a casual reader) to the linkage between freedom and sexual restraint — as an activity restricted to marriage.  Those following the then-new Christian sexual ethic “were bodies freed from the cosmos itself.”

To tie it all together, sex among the ancients was bound up with status, and the Christian ethos gave us an equalizing relationship that made our intimacies profound as a creative act in harmony with God, Himself.  Sex, in this understanding, united a bodily pleasure with the existential bliss of participating in creation, with both participants as equals.  Even in the generation of Jesus, the Son, God did not impose His birth upon Mary or trick her into it, as an ancient god might have done.  She had to consent.

In short, our fundamental freedom and individual worth align with what we now call “traditional” sexual morality, not (as the modern world tries to tell us) our raw liberty to engage in intimate acts.

For a sense of the pitch of this slide, consider a seemingly random bit of news out of Brazil:

Professional Brazilian soccer player Ronaldinho is slotted to marry two women at the same time this summer. And all three parties involved are totally aware of the situation and totally ok with what’s about to go down.

The necessary adjustment is that Ronaldinho has laughed off the suggestion, because he has no intention of actually marrying anybody.  That dismissal, though, only makes the arrangement more egregious.  The women apparently share the athlete’s mansion and receive an allowance from him.

To be sure, from an economic and even emotional standpoint, the arrangement could easily be seen as being in the mutual interests of all involved and, therefore, a matter of each woman’s expression of free will.  But are they really free and equal, in this arrangement?  If one imagines back to Roman slavery, it must have been the case that some of those in the lower classes consciously made the most of their subservient status.

Let’s bring this essay full circle:  What happens if one of these women becomes pregnant and her boyfriend/patron doesn’t want the child?  Who is free to decide what?  Who wins in the balance of “hoes versus embryos”?  The questions should come with the emphasis that this is not a gendered question.  What if the patron is a wealthy woman?  What if the concubines are both male and female?  Our identity politics collapse in the face of actual power.

Christianity overtook the Western world not because it made threats of moral slavery, but because it promised fundamental freedom.  No doubt, the world has changed since the Christian sexual ethic took the Roman Empire by storm, but we should keep the dark sides of the world we left behind in mind as we discard our fading traditional light.
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