Redrawing the Moral Map

I have found myself in a brisk correspondence in recent weeks with a Calvinist friend from my school days 60 years ago. The topic touched on in our correspondence entails the redrawing of the moral map of the universe, which has been undertaken in the West since the 1960s. That redrawing arrived on the crest of the seismic wave that flooded the West at that time, sweeping away ten thousand years’ worth of universal suppositions concerning authority, manners, the public order, ethics, dress, the nature of the Good, and indeed the nature of human existence itself. One aspect of this Revolution, as it came to be known, touched on the nature of man and woman, and of the relationship that might obtain between these two modalities under which we mortals appear.
This latter question sailed not infrequently under an ensign on which was blazoned, “The Sexual Revolution!” It had a ring about it that seemed exhilarating to youth, the media, academia, the literary establishment, liberal Protestantism, and, presently, almost everyone.

Here was the great chance, at last, to declare our independence from the trammels that had held the human race in such insulting bondage for so many eons. The ancient religious and ethical codes were clearly long since otiose. “Man come of age” (a slogan proposed by a famous Protestant theologian) could no longer credit, much less bow to, such codes. We now declare, so goes the credo, that we have stepped, late in time, into our authentic adulthood as a race. We are our own masters. We need consult nothing other than lately hatched notions on all matters that concern human existence.
Common social codes vanished, superficially, in the matter of dress and manners. The waif look, even that of the slattern, became the thing when it came to garb. The whole ponderous business of the man opening the door for the woman, or walking on the side next to the curb as they went along the sidewalk, or holding the woman’s chair at the table, or of young people standing up when an adult came into the room, seemed now to have been merely a scheme on the part of men to keep “the ladies” safely subordinate. The sheer fury often aroused over such matters tended to dismay those who had somber misgivings about the Revolution.
But, of course, more fundamental issues arose. What is gender? Is it, after all, the theatre of war? With the vanishing of customary codes, no one knew where he (or she?) was. Apparently nothing now stood between a boy and a girl but the freedom to follow impulse. The taboos guarding such matters — at work in every religion, culture, tribe, or society since the day after the Expulsion from Eden — had been revealed to be, it seemed now, insulting to our native autonomy. It was all found to be merely “society’s stereotypes.”
It was this question of gender that occupied my correspondence with my friend. He sees himself as most certainly “on the side of the angels” on all moral issues. But don’t we need to review the whole matter in the name of Christian charity? Surely “compassion” will oblige us to redraw the map for the sake of many who suffer from its stark lines. The holy Sacrament of marriage, for example: Who proposed that it occur only between a man and a woman? Was it Queen Victoria? The Puritans? The Catholic Church? The Republican Party? Moses? Who?
My only recourse so far has been to try to revisit to the vision of things spelled out not only in the Mosaic code, or in historic Christianity, but testified to by every culture from the beginning. Is it, really, “society’s stereotypes”? Is it cruel?
If, in fact, this twofold modality of man and woman (under which all of us appear) belongs not to some power struggle, nor to stereotypes, but rather to our origins in the Creation itself (I could suggest this, since my friend is a Christian), then might we think of it once again as belonging to our true dignity and freedom? Here are the man and the woman, made (apparently) even physically, for each other.
For any Sacramentalist (my friend, I think, would not quite wish to be thus tagged), the physical, in all creation, is the avatar of the Ultimate. (I avoid the word “spiritual” here since it makes us all think “disembodied,” which is the Manichaean and Gnostic heresy. C.S. Lewis speaks of Ultimate Reality — i.e., heaven — as “knobbly”; that is, far more solid than our merely terrestrial bodies, or raspberries, or autumn leaves, or leaf smoke, or new-baked bread. These are the diaphanous hint of the Reality toward which we travel, so long as we are in this mortal coil.)
If that is so, and if the union of the man and the woman is indeed rooted in the Divine Wisdom Who “was with God at the Creation” — and is hence one of the bright fixities or among T. S. Eliot’s “Permanent Things,” like the orbits of the stars — then may we redraw the map of that scheme under the pistol of a few decades’ efforts at countervailing the mystery?
My own argument is that we can’t, much as we would wish to relax the strictures that seem to attend the scheme for the sake of those for whom coming to terms with it seems a Himalayan climb. Is the “pastoral” problem on this point analogous to that of abortion? God knows, the lives of millions of women seem to be eased by the simple “procedure.” But this easing overlooks one small matter: It entails murder. We can’t, in the name of compassion, help these women that way.
So — this moral map. There are all sorts of Himalayan scrabbles for us mortals when we try to stick with the contour lines. Monogamous, heterosexual fidelity would seem to constitute a massif almost insurmountable for many people. But what is the Church to do? Redraw the map? Should there not be at least one voice encouraging us climbers to trust it?
A gigantic pastoral task. But the Church is aware of this, and is also aware of the compassion that has to animate all of her pastoral duties, since She is the Body of the One who Himself took our infirmities.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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