Thursday, October 16, 2008

Science, Sex, and Stars

Just over a week ago, TIME’s David Van Biema wrote about vampirologist Anne Rice’s latest book, which recounts her return to faith: Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession. Like every good evangelical, I love a conversion story.

Van Biema called the book “catnip for devout Christians” and offered this evaluation: “Rice's conversion is disorganized enough to sound real, her eagerness to embrace confession and discipleship is inspiring, and her arguments in a passage on ‘Christmas Christianity’ suggest Rice could rival C. S. Lewis as a popular apologist for the faith.”

One thing Rice said, however, sounded very unlike CSL.

Centuries ago the stars were sacred. A man could be burnt at the stake for declaring that the earth revolved around the sun...Now the Christian world holds the stars to be secular...Is it not possible for us to do with gender, sexuality and reproduction what was long ago done with the stars? To realize sources of information on them may be as valid as the information given us long ago?

Now, unlike much of Rice’s mystery-laden account, that paragraph struck me as very modern—appealing to science to help us desacralize gender, sexuality, and reproduction. Once again, as it has done so often in the drama of modernity, science is called on to play the role of savior from intellectual and spiritual darkness.

It is certainly true that science has taught us some things about sex. If you read Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response, you’ll find careful research that debunks earlier misbegotten understandings of how our bodies work. But how does that sort of thing desacralize sex?

Rice’s comment about the stars reminded me of an essay by Michael Ward in the January/February 2008 issue of Books & Culture. In “C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem,” Ward writes of Lewis’s interest in astrology.

[T]he pre-Copernican model of the cosmos was a Christian model not despite, but because of, its acceptance of astrological influence. Lewis valued its astrological aspect not because he considered astrology to be literally true, but because astrology represented a spiritual reading of materiality.

“A spiritual reading of materiality” is precisely what Anne Rice seems to lack. Sexuality and stars are whatever science can describe them to be. Here’s more of Michael Ward on CSL:

Since the Copernician revolution, the heavenly bodies had been steadily evacuated of spiritual significance until they were regarded as no more than large aggregations of rock or gas. Readers of Narnia will remember an exchange in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" during which Eustace is rebuked by Ramandu for claiming that "In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas": "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of." Because the pre-Copernican model of the cosmos viewed the planets as more than merely material it was a model worth keeping in mind. It was, in this sense, a more Christian model than the Newtonian or Einsteinian versions which have succeeded it.

How ironic it is that Anne Rice seems to be succumbing to modernity even as she returns to Christianity. As an author of vampire novels, Rice is no stranger to mystery and otherness. Nothing archetypal should be alien to her. Maleness and femaleness have long resisted being reduced to reproductive mechanics, no matter how precisely Masters and Johnson could articulate the exquisite engineering of human sexuality. Someone with Rice’s romanticism should not be blind to that fact.

But these days, sexuality has been the victim not only of scientism but of legal reductionism. Just two days after Van Biema posted his comments on Anne Rice, the Connecticut Supreme Court struck down state law that provided gay couples with all the legal privileges and protections of marriage, while preserving that term for heterosexual unions.

In the court’s opinion, the modernist myth of progress trumped old-fashioned sensibilities: “Our conventional understanding of marriage must yield to a more contemporary appreciation of the rights entitled to constitutional protection.” Where Rice called on Science, the Connecticut justices invoked Progress.

Indeed, it was one of the Court’s dissenting voices that offered an appeal to science, or at least “biology”:

Justice Peter T. Zarella … argued that the state marriage laws dealt with procreation, which was not a factor in gay relationships. “The ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has its basis in biology, not bigotry,” he wrote.

That’s not exactly an appeal to transcendence, but it is a kind of common sense. Unfortunately, the law is stuck in modernity and cannot desacralize the Myth of Progress or abandon the Worship of the Goddess Science. More unfortunately, much of the church seems stuck in the service of the same idols.

In Ancient-Future Faith, the late theologian Robert Webber recognized the importance of changing our communication style in the postmodern context--in part to allow us to remystify evangelical religion. This changed communication style includes “the rediscovery of ‘imagination,’ ‘intuition,’ and a sensitivity to ‘spiritual realities’” (p. 24). Webber then worked out how this communications revolution applied to worship and the recovery of the classical sense of mystery.

These same requirements should apply in the church’s approach to sexuality. Sexuality is, in a frequent Webberian phrase, “more than” what science can analyze and describe. It requires an understanding of symbol and a willingness to let the imagination and intuition loose to play.

That will lead some to the Dionysian feast and others to the joys of Christian marriage. Can we judge like Lewis that in sex, as in astronomy, a spiritual vision is superior to scientifically induced blindness?


Fade to Black said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fade to Black said...

You state: "How ironic it is that Anne Rice seems to be succumbing to modernity even as she returns to Christianity."

She seems a keen observer, yet the panorama of her viewpoint is more gnostic than Christian. How unfortunate that Ann Rice's predilection is misguided and will be fodder for post-moderns - many of whom may be led astray.

Joe B said...

Gnostic has to be the most over-mis-used word in all of christendom. Anyone who would desacralize stars is modernist, not gnostic.

John said...

The problem I have with all the current fuss about the Second Coming is that it is irrelevant. Positive proof that Jesus was coming tomorrow or a billion years from tomorrow would not change our obligations as Christians today. We do better to try to love our neighbor as ourselves right here, right now than to write or read a series of books that take Revelation for literal truth.
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