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Moral Wisdom and Sexual Conduct

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 112-115. Used by permission.


She is an attractive woman, dark hair pulled back in a bun (the way my mother used to wear hers), probably in her mid-40s. Well dressed, friendly and a bit exuberant, she reflects a sense of happiness and excitement rarely found in a seatmate on a crowded plane traveling to Chicago. I am hunched over my laptop computer, fighting a deadline with an intensity that usually would discourage conversation in this confined torture chamber high above the Rockies.

She wants to talk. I respond politely and continue to type. But she is persistent. So I listen. She is going to Chicago to meet her fiancé, who is flying in from New York. They will spend the weekend together in Chicago. She is a widow, he a widower. They had met several months ago and were now conducting a whirlwind cross-country courtship which would soon, she said with obvious glee, result in matrimony.

We talked about the things she and her fiancé could see and do in Chicago, but we didn’t refer at all to morality, or chastity before marriage, or safe sex, since such matters should not be discussed between strangers. But the subject was on my mind because on the screen in front of me was the uncertain beginning of an editorial inspired by the discussion prompted by Earvin "Magic" Johnson’s dramatic announcement that he is infected with the HIV virus.

I had initially been saddened by his immediate retirement from basketball—a loss to the sport and a much greater loss to him, as the virus leaves him vulnerable to AIDS, the disease from which no one has yet recovered. Which is why I am staring at the screen, trying for some clarity on the matter of Magic and sex as my seat companion expresses her happiness at finding the right man.

The initial adulation for Magic’s "courage" has subsided somewhat, and a few questions are now being raised about his premarriage promiscuity. They are questions, however, that say as much about the inability of our society to deal with complex moral issues as they do about Magic’s infection. Moreover, when he announced that his exposure to the virus came through heterosexual, not homosexual, contacts, he maintained his status as a sports hero—further indication of the uneasiness our society has with gay people. As his fellow sports star Martina Navratilova has noted, Johnson’s public acceptance was guaranteed once he clarified this little detail about his sexual contacts. Navratilova, an acknowledged lesbian, correctly noted that had she made the same announcement, she would not have received such a positive response. "They’d say I’m gay—I had it coming," she said in an interview. Gay sex between committed partners is still out, while heterosexual promiscuity is in—provided, of course, it is practiced "safely."

Magic promises that he will be a spokesman on the subject of AIDS and the HIV virus. He will tell young people to be aware of the importance of safe sex, and always to use condoms when they participate in sexual activities. But it is what Magic has not said that should be the basis of our current national debate. He has not said to young people that sexuality is at the core of their personal identity and that sexual activity is not to be engaged in casually and without commitment.

It is not surprising that Magic has avoided such counsel and has continued to treat his extensive sexual contacts in such cavalier fashion. He is, after all, a product of a liberal culture with no moral compass with which to guide this debate. Our common life has become so thoroughly secular that faced with a danger as threatening as AIDS, we talk of preventive measures, not moral decision-making.

The attractive woman who sits beside me on the plane as I write is unable to see my screen, so she is unaware that she has changed the focus for a piece that has been troubling me for weeks. I wonder, without asking, what decision she and her fiancé have made for this coming weekend. They surely know about safe sex, for as Magic Johnson and others have pointed out, one of the side benefits of his announcement is the public attention now given to the use of condoms. The need for safe sex is out in the open and condoms may soon be advertised on television, sandwiched between the sex-saturated, titillating programs designed to appeal to the same teenagers who are hearing from Johnson that they should practice safe sex.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is one of those liberal opinion-shapers who is at a loss to offer guidance in what she terms the SM. (Since Magic) era. "Most of us realize that premarital sex is here to stay," she writes—not a very profound observation, since it has been here to stay since Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of knowledge. The difference between our current situation and that abrupt departure from the innocence of Eden is the development of a pill that removed the fear of pregnancy, long a barrier to promiscuity. This medical achievement, coupled with the absence of a moral compass within our secular society, has given us the freedom to wander around outside Eden with little regard for the consequences of our sexual activity.

Now with our freedom under threat from a new fear, the best that liberal secular guides like Goodman can offer is a lament that the discussion is polarized around the "moralists" and the "medicalists"— one pushing monogamy, the other praising Magic as "a heterosexual poster child." In groping for an alternative to those two extreme options, Goodman asks us to "clarify our values" and "approve both condoms and caution." Values and caution based upon what principle to guide us? She does not say.

Even more poignant is columnist Anna Quindlen’s promotion of safe sex with the outlandish assertion that she is less concerned with her child’s lifestyle than with her child’s life. Now there is a text for the end of the 20th century, a reductio ad absurdum of liberal secularity’s elevation of individual freedom to ultimacy.

Quindlen was moved to her defense of survival over behavior by Vice-President Quayle’s moralistic judgment against Magic Johnson, and in this she has a point. It is not Magic’s promiscuity that is at issue here. She feels that the moralists—a category meant, I suspect, to encompass most religionists—are not much help in this debate. But those of us in the liberal religious community are also little help because we have been so fearful of the moralist label that we have no moral base from which to enter the debate.

The liberal religious community has felt helpless before the dramatically changing sexual mores of the final decade of the 20th century because we have allowed ourselves to remain trapped between the inflexible moralists on one side and the freedom-worshiping secularists on the other. We officially make noises like the moralists, knowing that such preachments are not effective in the face of secular calls to absolute freedom.

In one of those interesting accidents of timing only a few months before Magic Johnson put human sexuality on the national agenda, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tried to correct this institutional paralysis over sexuality when it considered a study document designed to confront the inadequacy of both an empty moralism and an arrogant secularity.

The Presbyterian study correctly linked sexuality with commitment and responsibility, and it tried to make clear that there is a distinction between teenage passion (felt by people of all ages) and mature commitment. The inherent ambiguity within such an enterprise is beyond the capacity of the media to comprehend, and as a result the document was pilloried by religious moralists and by secularists, both of whom assume that religion is supposed to condenm and control, not guide and sustain. Confronted with this dual attack, a confused and embarrassed Presbyterian General Assembly retreated from its honest attempt to search for the meaning of a religiously based sexual commitment.

Anna Quindlen is wrong. Lifestyle is life. How we live determines who we are. Mere survival is not sufficient to define a full life. Our religious tradition understands that our sexual conduct is at the heart of who we are. Let’s be honest about this. Moses got the word on the mountain that if the Israelites were going to live in any kind of harmony with themselves and their God, they had to pay attention to the basics.

We are fragile creatures, inherently guilty, because in our self centeredness we can never live fully on behalf of others—which is why we need guidelines surrounding our commitments. Without those guidelines we live only for the moment, giving little thought to possible consequences of our actions.

Which brings me back to the woman sitting beside me on this flight. I have no idea how she will conduct herself on her visit. Her fiancé has children in Chicago, so perhaps they will be well chaperoned. They may have chosen to abstain until they are married, or they may be expressing their love for one another in a more intimate manner. This is a private matter, and certainly not one for me to discuss with my seatmate in these final moments as the plane is landing.

But I do wonder how much longer our society will stay trapped in a futile debate on sexuality limited to the moralists and the medicalists, neither of whom has much sense of the moral wisdom, compassionate understanding and sense of ambiguity available to us from the biblical tradition.

The plane lands and I look again at the rather nervous but excited woman to my left. As I wish her well, I realize that I am also voicing a silent prayer for her future happiness. That is the least I can do. After all, she has helped me meet a deadline.


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