After nearly five hundred pages, A Secular Age readers are presented with the ethical dilemma of the modern social imaginary and, surprise, the dilemma of modernity is sexual. The reader might wonder why it took so long to get here, since she is bombarded by this claim, especially right now, in the fuzzy present of this posting, as US Democratic and Republican presidential candidates debate the crisis of modern human sexuality, the Catholic Church stridently combats international efforts to control HIV/AIDS through condoms, and the President of Iran is criticized by the former speaker of the US Congress, Newt Gingrich, for oppressing homosexuals, at the same time he attacks the current speaker of the US Congress, Nancy Pelosi, for opposing the Defense of Marriage Act.
To Charles Taylor’s great credit, the sexual dilemma of modernity does not pivot on the problem of quantity—too much sexuality or too little—but on what sexuality has been called on to mean and to do in modern social life. And to understand this—what, how, and why sexuality has become not merely a problem of modern social life, but the defining problem—Taylor writes a genealogy of the social imaginaries of sexuality in Western Christianity. And it is a genealogy, of sorts, methodologically and rhetorically, that Taylor writes. He attempts to uncover the disparate, often incommensurate, conditions of the emergence of modern sexuality and to understand the ethical consequences of this emergence. The erudition and insight Taylor shows throughout A Secular Age are evident in his discussion of the modern sources of contemporary sexuality, as are the same potential limitations—the collapse of modern sexuality and secularism into Christian histories, the massive telescoping of social history, the writing of the past and the other from the perspective of the present.
Taylor starts with what seems to be an ethical conflict between the ethical principles of the 1960s sexual revolution and Christian (especially Catholic) doctrine in order to slowly unravel the mutual conditions and secret agreements that tie them together behind the scenes. It would seem that the modern subject’s rejection of sexual expression’s spiritual limits and of stable marriage as a necessary condition for social order opposes mainstream Christian doctrine, but this rejection betrays a deeper agreement.
The truncated version of Taylor’s argument is this: At a certain moment in Christian Europe’s past, the variety of mortal sins (aggression, violence, injustice, adultery) was reorganized into a hierarchy of bodily abuses that had direct consequences on a person’s ability to participate in the Catholic community. Sexual purity was made an ideal spiritual condition and then a moral precondition for entry into the Catholic sacrament. “There were mortal sins in the other dimensions as well (for instance, murder), and there were many in the domain of church rules (such as skipping Mass); but you could go quite far in being unjust and hard-hearted in your dealings with subordinates and others without incurring the automatic exclusion you incur by sexual license.”
The consequences of the transformation of the field of sin were multiple. The rowdy male peasant, debarred from practicing his customary debauchery on penalty of exclusion from communion, increasingly abandoned the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation declared sexuality in marriage a mutual comfort rather than a falling away from a spiritual ideal and, more generally, increasingly understood God to have made the world for human flourishing. Thus, even as Enlightenment Europe turned away from Christian doctrine as explanatory framework for human and natural life, it carried with it two central presuppositions about the world and its people’s place in it: (1) Sexuality was the essential component of modern subjectivity—the truth of the modern subject and of society; (2) Some social agency must assume pastoral duties over sexual flourishing. But the human medical sciences—hygiene, psychoanalysis, and biology—did not merely take over the pastoral functions of the Church in the field of sexual being; they also rearticulated the grounds of sexual flourishing itself, from the supernatural to the natural epistemologies.
The ethical consequences of this conservation of Christian doctrine within the very social revolutions that seemed to overthrow it were, for Taylor, fourfold: (1) Sensuality became an ethical good in and of itself; (2) This sensual good could not be defined or constrained by gender roles; (3) The more transgressive the sex the more liberating, and thus ethically good, it was; and (4) Sexual transgression collapsed into sexual identity (thus the emergence of gay liberation and the emancipation of a whole host of previously condemned forms of sexual life).
So what’s the problem? What’s the ethical crisis? For Taylor it is this: sexuality cannot carry the burden of the enormous demands placed on it by those who would see its flourishing or repression as the foundation of all ethical, social, spiritual, and subjective goods. Thus those who condemn carte blanche the possibility of reaching social-spiritual-subjective fulfillment through sexual purity and those who condemn the possibility of reaching social-spiritual-subjective fulfillment through sexual transgression close the possibility that there are “more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either the Vatican rule-makers or the secularist ideologies have yet imagined.”
Viva la multiplicity: This is a rather tame, dare one say, liberal response to a social dilemma, dare one say constitutive contradiction. And it is an especially surprising response given where Taylor began—a history of the rearticulation of a field of sin into a hierarchy of sins in which a specific form of bodily activity (sex) came to dominate morally all other forms of bodily activity (murder, spitting, economic injustice) and over time to collapse all the sources of the self into one: the self-authorizing, self-fulfilling sexual subject. Why is the alternative to this history an attempt to refashion this hierarchy of corporeal being rather than to multiply the ways we can coordinate spirituality and sexuality—to make sex a minor form of spitting, perhaps? Or to make the extractions of capital that cripple life for so many a mortal sin; a capital offense, a central moral dilemma of the ethical self?
Once we ask these kinds of questions we see a problem with addressing the history of sexuality as an ethical rather than a political issue and as having Christian rather than colonial sources (or Christianity as entwined in various modalities of colonialism and empire). On the one hand, I can sit here, at my writing table, and type, “lets imagine sex as a minor form of spitting,” but to enact this as a way of life, or to already be within such a (perhaps non-Christian) way of life, confronts the risk-laden, dense, reflexive organization of social life (Taylor’s markets, publics, and citizen-state) around what I have been calling the autological subject (discourses, practices, and fantasies about self-making, self-sovereignty, and the value of individual freedom associated with the Enlightenment project of contractual constitutional democracies). On the other hand, persons attempting to make sex a minor form of spitting, or for whom sex is disseminated in some other way, are already apprehended by the nightmare of the liberal autological subject—what I have been calling the nightmare of the genealogical society (discourses, practices, and fantasies about various social constraints and psychic assaults on the autological subject by various kinds of inheritances).
The question I am left with is how to create the conditions in which multiple forms of the body and communities thrive, not merely multiple forms of sexuality. This question understands ethics to be already entwined in power and its political formations, and it understands sexuality as no more or less central a corporeal, moral, or ethical position than any other practice of embodied communities.