Christianity has always been counter-cultural; the daily challenge for
followers of Christ is to be in and not of the culture. At no time is this more challenging than at
the moment of cultural transformation. At no time is it more
important. Now is such a
We live in the wake of a fundamental cultural transformation. For millennia we lived in what I call the tWorld (traditional World), otherwise known as Western civilization. While any label that seeks to explain 3,000 years of history is a simplification, I believe it is useful for the purpose of this essay. The tWorld was the product of Judeo-Christian theology informed by Greek and Roman philosophy. In the tWorld the Ten Commandments came to be seen as normative for individuals and society. Using parts of the Bible as a reference point, cultures came to construct clear boundaries surrounding marriage, family, and sexual relations, even if they were unevenly enforced. Moral hypocrisy could exist because of the existence of a common moral consensus. Christianity informed this world, and its followers were informed by the tWorld. As the numbers of professing Christians grew, the Church struggled with cultural complicity. Paul’s pastoral letters are filled with examples of Christians who look more like the world than followers of Christ.
But the tWorld is passing and is being replaced by what I call the i(ndividualistic)World, or, iWorld. And we are the witnesses of this transformation. Examples illustrating this shift are everywhere because the entire culture is changing. The institutions of marriage and family as we knew them are becoming increasingly counter-cultural institutions. As we will see, the iWorld’s conception of sexual ethics dispenses Christian sexual ethics to the dust-bin. The current cultural transformation is so profound that Christianity as we know it is becoming an endangered species.
The iWorld is based on a completely different set of assumptions than the tWorld. The Ten Commandments is being replaced by three taboos:
- Do what you want so long as you cause no harm to others.
- Do what you want with others so long as it is consensual.
- Don’t you dare question the life-choices or morality of anyone else or the wrath of the entire culture will come down upon you.
Accordingly, the iWorld has a very different understanding of freedom. Whereas the tWorld understood freedom as the freedom to do good in accordance with its Judeo-Christian framework, the iWorld understands freedom in terms of the absence of restraint, within the constraints of the three taboos.
In the tWorld, freedom is understood as an aid to help us live in accordance with our Nature. Freedom encourages us to do that which is good and restricts us from that which harms. An example of this is the tWorld’s understanding of the freedom of the press. In the tWorld we are free to speak truthfully and honestly, but not free to lie or slander. Pornography is outlawed as it harms those who view it and those who are involved in the production of it.
Conversely, the iWorld thinks in terms of “freedom from…” Examples are:
- Freedom from nature
- Freedom from authority
- Freedom from want
The iWorld wishes to give its citizens the maximum amount of freedom to do whatever they wish so long as it doesn’t violate the three taboos. The iWorld will do everything possible to relax or push back boundaries. It is accepted as natural to change our bodies to look the way we want, or give us the gender we desire, or pursue scientific advances to enable us to get the children with the genetic material we want.
While the iWorld does not favor any particular sexual morality consistent with the three taboos, it allows for a greater variety of sexual relations. This extends to the institution of marriage. While the iWorld would have no issue with cohabitation and what used to be called “common law” marriage, same-sex marriage is just one of the new variations on traditional marriage. Marriage or sexual relations with more than one person, so long as it is consensual, is acceptable.The iWorld is fundamentally about helping every one of us get what “I” want as opposed to what “we” want.
However, every world comes with a price tag. Whereas the tWorld constructed boundaries that restricted personal freedom in accordance with an understanding of the common good, the iWorld relaxes those boundaries, and the price to be paid is a greater degree of personal insecurity. This is not a criticism but a reality. In the iWorld, relationships are not seen through the lens of “as long as we both shall live”, but rather, “so long as it is good for each of us.” The bonds of every relationship are relaxed and dissolution of relational bonds is not taboo.
As marriages dissolve, so too are relationships in the extended family. As children go live in different households, their connections with one or both parents are relaxed as new adults enter their lives. As the transition to the iWorld progresses, the connection between grandparents and grandchildren will become more complicated. It’s no criticism to say that when questions are asked about relationships in the iWorld, the answer will be “complicated.” Greater freedom leads to greater choices and greater insecurity. Aldous Huxley saw the coming of the iWorld when he wrote his Brave New World in 1931. French writer Michel Houellebecq observes the following through the character Bruno in his novel, The Elementary Particles:
I’ve always been struck by how accurate Huxley was in Brave New World. […] Everything that’s happened since simply brings Western society closer to the social model he described. Control of reproduction is more precise and will eventually be disassociated from sex altogether, and procreation will take place in tightly guarded laboratories where perfect genetic conditions are ensured. Once that happens any sense of family, of father-son bonds, will disappear. Pharmaceutical companies will break down the distinction between youth and age. In Huxley’s world, a sixty-year old man is as healthy as a man of twenty, looks as young and has the same desires […] The society Huxley describes […] is happy; tragedy and the extremes of human emotion have disappeared. Sexual liberation is total—nothing stands in the way of instant gratification. Oh, there are little moments of depression, of sadness or doubt, but they’re easily dealt with using advances in antidepressants and tranquilizers. ‘One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments.’ This is exactly the sort of world we’re trying to create, the world we want to live in.
So what is a Christian to think? What is a Christian to do in the iWorld?
First there has to be a recognition that we are living in the iWorld. In America, 45% of children are born outside of marriage. For the first time in American history a majority of people over 18 are not married. The marriage rate for people ages 18-29 is just 20%, the lowest in American history. Some believe young people are delaying marriage. If I am correct, young people are losing hope of finding a lifelong relationship that works, so they are focusing on more temporal arrangements, and do not trivialize them.
Second, we have to accept we cannot go back to the tWorld. It is common to look back to the “good old days” with nostalgia. Some not only want to look back but they want to bring those days back. This desire is readily understandable. But until Richard Branson has perfected time travel, there is no going back. Neither can we bring back the past.
The past is history, but it is a gift that can give us perspective in being able to see the present and the shape of the future. The Word of God is a gift that allows us to learn how to live in and not be of the iWorld. Too many churches confused the tWorld with Christianity. Too many Christians lived more like the tWorld commanded than Christ commanded. The opportunity of the present is that we can look at both worlds and see the seductive natures of each. We can see the enormous peer-pressure inherent in any “world” to conform rather than be transformed. Because we can see each in light of the Gospel, we have a unique opportunity to not only be salt and light now, but also give clarifying wisdom to those who are being born into the iWorld and know of no other. There always has been and always will be tensions in walking the narrow road. The Christian has always been a stranger to the world while embracing its inhabitants with Love that comes from another. Engaging the iWorld for Christ is not a burden to be feared but an opportunity to be embraced.
To hear more from Dale Kuehne, visit the Center for City Renewal for video of his recent talk on Making Sense of Human Sexuality.
Rev. Dale S. Kuehne (PhD, Georgetown University) is the Professor of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good at Saint Anselm College. He was the Founding Director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. He also serves as the vice-chair of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission of New Hampshire. Kuehne recently authored Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship Beyond an Age of Individualism. He received a M.A.T.S. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Theory from Georgetown University. He consults with governments across the world on issues of human sexuality.