The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson
The Scholar's Corner
Access to Instructor:
1996 by Jefferis Kent Peterson The Scholar's Corner
Part I ( A Review of Contemporary Trends) -------------
Part II (Philosophical and Political Roots) ----------------
Part III (Sociological Roots) ------------------------------
End Notes -------------------------------------------------
The first half of the 1984 Grammy Award presentations underscored a dramatic shift in cultural consciousness that has taken place in the past twenty years. Transvestite musicians such as Boy George of the Culture Club and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics competed for the best new artist award; while Michael Jackson, an androgynous figure himself, walked away with seven awards. The Awards nominations became a celebration of androgyny and sexual ambiguity.
The then current issues of Time and People and Newsweek all clamored after these up and coming stars. The picture of Michael Jackson alone guaranteed additional millions in sales. The extent of Jackson's success is put into perspective when it is revealed that he sold more albums in three short years, from 1981 to 1984, than the Beatles did in their entire 12 year career. Jackson's commercial success lent the seal of popular approval to this new wave of androgynous idols.
The rejection of past social conventions during the 1960's created a climate where family and cultural norms of prior generations were suspect. The old conventions proved untrustworthy because they masked the endemic racial injustice of the culture, and the previous generation's blind obedience to existing authority had produced an irrational war. So, the generation of the '60's, the "Counter-Culture Generation," began to define itself as much by what it opposed as by anything it stood for. The lack of a norm, except the norm of rejection of the past, created a climate where new ideas and behaviors were valued precisely because they seemed "unconventional." In fact, that generation delighted in challenging and defying social expectations. So, anything that was new and unusual in pop culture served to validate the generation's desire to redefine itself. If the "new" also was an affront to past convention, so much the better.
The commercial value of the unconventional was quickly realized by the music industry and other entertainment media. Ever eager to find and exploit the next wave of consumer interest, the industry recognized the commercial appeal of these new and unusual forays into androgyny. The baby boom generation provided the single biggest consumer block in the nation. According to the ethics of American business, Jackson, especially, proved himself by his commercial popularity and lawful success. Who could argue with the billions of dollars being poured into corporate coffers? Androgyny was "IN."
This cultural affirmation of androgyny would have been inconceivable forty years ago. Indeed, the explosion of traditional cultural expectations and the shattering of traditional cultural norms could only have come upon the heels of the great social upheaval of the 60's. The mass media's current fascination with homosexuality, bisexuality, and androgyny as legitimate alternate lifestyles can also be traced back to that same period. My thesis is that the ideal of androgyny in contemporary culture represents the breakdown of a healthy social structure. Rather than creating a radically new environment where people are loved, accepted, and celebrated for their differences, the lack of social norms is a reflection of a society in which people are valued not for who they are but for what they do. As a result, the social network of relationships is battered to the point of potential extinction. The purpose of the thesis is not to condemn the abnormal, but only to show that it is a reflection of the inhumanity of contemporary culture and a sign of its possible demise.
In order to establish the thesis, this paper will review the current cult of androgyny, especially as exemplified in the music industry, and to explore the sociological and philosophical roots of this cultural phenomenon. The first part of the paper will be a brief review of the contemporary history of androgyny in popular culture. The second part will investigate the philosophical and political roots of our culture to see how our history has influenced the rise of androgyny in the present. The third part of the paper will seek to uncover the sociological roots that provide both the conscious and unconscious motivations for our present behavior.
"The time is right" for the androgynous look, observes cultural historian Marsall Berman, "because American culture is more comfortable at handling sex and playing with gender roles. 1
The evidence of our fascination with sexual ambiguity is everywhere. While the focus of the paper is on music, the ideology of ambiguity pervades the pop media. "Androgyny is in, and it's about time!"2 The fashion industry correctly predicted current trends over thirty years ago with the Unisex style, and continued to capitalize on the popularity of androgynous dress, copying the styles of Boy George, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and the Punk scene.
One of the most prophetic movies of the early 1970's was a film entitled Phantom of the Paradise. It satirized the music industry and criticized the industry's willingness to promote the demonic for a profit. The movie's strange and unbelievable prophecy about blood spurting, violent and androgynous rock groups came to pass with uncanny precision. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also of the same era, became a cult film that celebrated the confusion of sexual identity. Tim Currie, the star, played a female with strangely seductive characteristics. In fact, most of the female temptresses were played by males. Our propensity for gender-blending gained a wider acceptance in the 1980's as many films played with this theme of sex role reversal. Victor-Victoria, Tootsie, and Yentle were three of the current products of popular culture which addressed the inequities of socially imposed gender roles from the perspective of the victims of cultural stereotyping. Movie producers attempted to make "gender blending" humane and less threatening through these artistic comedies. As people became familiar with androgyny they also become de-sensitized to its transgressions of cultural norms. It became an acceptable, if alternate, norm to a large portion of modern culture. And on stage, the 60's fascination with sex in general, with productions like Hair and O Calcutta, became in the 80's a fascination with homosexuality in particular, with La Cage Aux Folles competing for a Tony Award in 1984.
The theological and scientific assumptions which make acceptable the intentional restructuring of gender were established in contemporary culture by the anthropological assumptions of modern psychology and oriental religion. Jungian psychology, itself influenced by eastern religious thought, was very influential in the founding of modern psychological theory. The operative anthropology of Jungianism was a belief in the androgynous nature of all people - that there are female/feminine and male/masculine characteristics latent within everyone:
We all have male and female qualities, why not be able to show both? ...People are being looked at for what's in their eyes--their inner sexuality.3
This view of essential human nature has gained widespread, if uncritical, acceptance within modern culture. Because this view of human nature is pliable, it has proven itself a worthy servant of various ideological and political causes. It justifies the examination and restructuring of sexual and social roles according to more modern ideas of the social good. Everyone, from feminists to proponents of gay rights, uses this anthropological assumption as justification for particular views in support of political policies and social reforms. At the base line of this thought, androgyny is not just acceptable, it is a norm by which we may govern our social expectations. Sexual identity, gender and social roles, are seen to be the products of unthinking socialization, and therefore, are without inherent purpose. To impose then, a traditional morality upon a culture or social group, is to imprison that group in the strictures of an outdated and prejudiced ideology. It is further assumed, that as free beings, people should be able to restructure their socio-sexual identities in any way they so choose without regard to previous patterns of oppressive expectation.
The entrance of this anthropology onto the stage of contemporary culture has been the source of unending conflicts in every area as traditionalists try to cope with the application of such views to the educational, political, and legal systems. While accepted without question by the mass media, the agenda of "equal rights" for sexual orientations has not been received with the same enthusiasm by the culture as a whole. The same people who buy K. D. Lang's CD's in the music store, may also resist with anger and hostility any attempt by school boards to endorse diversity (a.k.a. homosexual) appreciation in their children's public school health courses. The reason for this paradoxical reaction has many factors, but the root of the disagreement arises from conflicting world views.
In contrast to the modern, androgynous ideal, the traditional view of socio-sexual identity in American culture is based in a Judeo-Christian world view which speaks of a teleological purpose for gender. Aside from the changing cultural conventions that dictate gender roles, at root, a God-created difference between male and female is assumed to exist. That difference is expressed in social conventions, but it is not limited to the changing, particular expressions of social roles. That difference of sexual identity is at the core of one's being, and it ought to be respected as a gift from God, not perceived as evidence of inequality and injustice. The androgynous ideal, to the traditionalist, speaks of the rejection of ordination and puts in its place accident as the operative principle. So, the traditionalist rejects not just the application of androgynous assumptions to public policy, but is at war with the theological assumptions which motivate androgyny. The restructuring of sexual identity is not just the manipulation of accidental externals, but represents rebellion against God's created order.
The difficulty most traditionalists face is differentiating social convention from ordained purpose in gender. That difficulty has given rise to injustice and unequal treatment of women, for example, before the law, but it has also raised legitimate questions as to the proper limits of gender homogeny. Should physical standards for firemen be lowered just to assure equal numbers of females on the force, for example, when that means that a woman who cannot carry 180 pounds will not be able to rescue the average male trapped in a fire?
In any case, the question of androgyny in public policy has sparked a clash of world views and has led to a level of intolerance in public discourse, in large part because the mass media, which adopted the androgynous assumptions, has ridiculed and demonized traditionalists - implying that their resistance to social change is equivalent to the racism of previous generations. Not only has the media sparked a political debate, but it has further alienated the traditionalists by indicting their religious motivations as further evidence of intolerance and bigotry, thus depriving both parties of a middle ground for civil discourse. The polarization in the culture over this clash of world views thus becomes entirely predictable as the new social philosophy seeks to repudiate and replace the old.
In the music industry and in culture, before 1960, ambiguity of gender was not acceptable, and those who waded upon these uncertain shores were treated as cultural oddities. Most kept their propensities secret, while others who only suggested their difference were sometimes tolerated. Liberace was one of the first in recent memory to be questionable in dress and manner. And in the late 60's, Tiny Tim enjoyed a short stay in the limelight. Tim's feminine long hair and high voice were definitely considered marks of oddity, while he always affirmed his heterosexuality, and "proved it" by getting married on television. Even so, Tim was never accepted by the culture except as a joke. So, he could not really be called either a model of or a model for culture,* but was more an aberration all unto himself.
The first serious attempt at sexual ambiguity was made by a man named Alice Cooper who rose to fame in 1971. His physical appearance and violent stage presence added to the titillating qualities of rock showmanship. A contemporary of Cooper's, Little Richard, also blended a high voice and feminine appearance with serious musical appeal. Both of these musicians gained some measure of success, but their appeal was limited within the rock scene. (It is important to note that most of these early musicians, except Tiny Tim of course, gained their acceptance in culture first through the quality of their musicianship and not through the bizarreness of their character.)
The first musician to successfully appeal to all segments of the rock culture was David Bowie. His good music made listeners of people who would not have tolerated him if they had only seen his image beforehand. This man, who is considered the mother/father of the current generation of androgynous stars, blended a physically feminine appearance with an open confession of a bisexual/homosexual nature. His original appeal in England was to the homosexual community, but some recording executive recognized his "cross-over" potential, and he became a bearer of values to the culture as a whole. His openness and forthrightness marked a change in the political climate of England and the United States. Bowie was truly a model of the homosexual community in England, but his courage gave others confidence to express themselves publicly and politically. So, in this sense, he was also the first model for gender transformation in the culture.
As Bowie's fame increased in the early '70's, other rock stars began to open up and confess the androgyny of their character. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, who had been famous since the early '60's, hinted at the bisexual nature of his appetites. And no one knew if Elton John was bisexual, as he indicated, or truly gay, as everyone suspected.
Once the executives of the industry found out that this new wave of androgyny was commercially successful, there was a scramble to find and promote this new talent. Here we begin to see that odd musicians began to reach the popular culture not through their musical talent, which was negligible, but through the strangeness of their stage acts, dress, and special effects. Groups such as Kiss and other heavy metal bands won accolades for their showmanship, and interest was generated in Kiss particularly by their makeup--they refused to reveal their identity or to go without this false front in public. Suddenly, groups that were confessionally bisexual, homosexual, or androgynous, were the "in thing," and many performers now felt that such a stance, whether honest or purely for show, was necessary to success. Common wisdom said, "You had to do something weirder than the next group to get noticed and promoted." Queen was such a group that participated in and flaunted the questions of their gender. Now it seemed everybody was coming out !
There is one important development that paralleled the rise of the androgynous myth; that is the rise of the openly demonic and satanic aspects of rock and punk music. Some of this bizarre musical expression was not confessionally demonic, but had qualities which might be characterized as such. Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols acted out a "deliberate ugliness" that was full of violence and of enticements to destructive behaviors. The Sex Pistols, as the epitome of punk, rejected the hopeful idealism that was part of the cultural revolution of the '60's, and resigned themselves to the cynicism and hopelessness of the '70's. Due in large part to the economic depression in England, their nihilism was certainly a model of the despair of many youth of the time.4 It is hard to live without a future.
But the most extreme development of the androgynous age is the association of the demonic - and outright satanic symbolism and demonic forms of bloody, sacrificial worship on stage - with the purposeful distortion of sexuality visible in many of the groups' members as part of the intended effect. Homosexuality, bisexuality, and androgyny were espoused for shock value. Dead or Alive, Motley Crue (heavy metal), Kiss, Ozzy Osborne, Black Sabbath, and many others exemplified the trend. Whether androgyny had any direct relationship to satanism was unclear, but those groups which dabbled in the dark side of rock seemed to find in androgyny a natural ally in their assault against conventional norms.
Finally in 1984, the trend of androgyny exploded onto the scene in more moderate packages. Boy George, Annie Lennox, Grace Jones, and Michael Jackson all profited from the ambiguity of their sexuality. Their ambiguity had certain advantages; it created a cultural phenomenon. Some then began purposely to cultivate this highly desirable image. Annie Lennox admits that her sexual ambiguity is chosen precisely for its effect:
of course we're conscious of our image. . . The image is kind of a disposable wrapper . . . something that will draw people in.
Certainly, the growing acceptance of androgyny by the culture reveals the waning influence of a traditional biblical world view in society. These changes were first and most strongly embraced among groups of disenfranchised youth and urban poor. They adopted the trend of androgyny as a new means of self identification, just their elder brothers and sisters adopted "rebellious" rock as a model for the counter culture of the '60's. The androgynous ideal also strongly appealed to the homosexual communities who felt their lifestyles and values finally being affirmed and supported by the broader culture. As the culture accepted the gender confusion in entertainment, it slowly began to be established as a value norm for the rest of society.
This androgynous model represents a transformation of the religious understanding of humanity for the culture. It is offering an alternate view of "Man's place in the Universe." In the traditional, biblical model, human beings are the focal point of Creation; they bear the image of God, and they were created for the express pleasure of the Creator. They are not accidental, but essential in the grand scheme of things. Androgyny, however, hints at a different world view in which humanity is but an accident of evolutionary processes.
In order to become a model for culture, the symbol of androgyny must attempt to present an alternate form of meaning for the culture. It must offer a plausible alternative to what it is replacing, and it can only do this if current symbols of cultural identity are dying and losing their effectiveness or if the new symbol is more powerful and cohesive than the one that is already entrenched and commonly held. In order to determine the meaning of this new mythic symbol, we must analyze it from three religious perspectives: life and death; order and chaos; and meaning and meaninglessness.
In terms of the continuum of life and death of a civilization, the birth of androgyny, according to a traditional Christian perspective, is part of the death of a culture (cf. Romans 1). The Old Testament forbid cross dressing, which is one of the contemporary manifestations of androgyny. Those who confused sexual and social roles, by wearing the other sex's clothing, were put to death (Deut. 22:5). Not only were social roles well established in the ritual laws that governed the society, but the nature of sexual identity was so wedded to divine purpose, that to deliberately confuse sexual roles and functions was to defy God's order of creation. The prohibitions against homosexuality were part and parcel of this understanding of the telos of sexual differentiation. In Romans, Paul identifies homosexuality as a sign of the "wrath" of God upon a society. Because of the sin of idolatry, God gives over a society to lust (Romans 1:24). And he then seems to indicate that the most extreme manifestation of this punishment is visible in homosexual conduct, which is against nature, i.e., against the created order, and therefore ultimately an act of self punishment:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. (Romans 1:26-28, RSV).
Homosexuality and lesbianism are not seen as sins deserving punishment, according to Paul, but as the punishment for the sin of idolatry. As these practices become widespread, it is a visible mark of the punishment on the society as a whole, and thus becomes a sign of God's wrath on a culture for its idolatry.
These biblical passages and interpretations form the background of the Judeo-Christian heritage as manifested in social consensus in morals that governed the United States until the 1960's. The traditional views regarding homosexuality, held commonly until 40 years ago, are the direct result of an assumed Christian worldview. The rise of the cult of androgyny and homosexuality is contrary to the traditional worldview, and so then represents to the traditionalist the degeneration and decline of a civilization.
But as this commonly held biblical worldview died, the loss of a unified vision and moral consensus in modern culture provided an opportunity to see androgyny not in the traditional terms of a deviation, but as a symbol of a new moral consensus based not upon biblical models, but upon ones created to suit the needs of the day. Lust, traditionally a sin, had already been redefined as a social good through the sexual revolution of the '60's, so as sexual desire in general was liberated from traditional restraints and judgments, so too came the opportunity to redefine as normal desires of every persuasion. What was being witnessed in this transition is the death of a traditional, biblical culture. And if that culture was indeed dying, it needed to be replaced by a new one.
Androgyny is an attempt to affirm life in the midst of that death by giving direction to this new culture. Boy George has said that his message is not "be like me," but "be yourself." In essence, this is a secular version of the message of God's grace: "Accept me for who I am, not for who you want me to be." In a culture which heavily emphasizes sex and sexuality, it is no wonder that his "non-threatening" sexuality came as a welcome relief to the youth of the day.7 The radical, youth culture of the early '70's, especially in England, was rife with nihilism and despair, due in large part to their economic status. Since nihilism is self-negating and not affirming, it creates a void of identity that is impossible to hold for long. Boy George's message of grace was an affirmation of life in the midst of their cultural decay.
Androgyny also offered a new context of meaning for sexual functions divorced from any concern for reproduction. Contemporary Western culture no longer values procreation, but actually discourages it. Throughout history, the validation of life in progeny has been considered a mark of the health of a culture. Men and women's roles as procreators of life gave a human response to the threat and the fear of death. Sex within the framework of procreation gave it a transcendent meaning and value: it assured not only the survival of the family through the couple, it also assured the continuance of the tribe and community as well. So, men and women's sexual roles as progenitors were assigned honor in the community both as a norm of cultural life and as a valuable pursuit. And in fact, the barren couple in many traditional cultures is shamed and considered cursed.
Since our culture takes the opposite view and curses those who bring forth abundant life, sex roles themselves are devalued. Gender identity in such a culture has no intrinsic value nor worth to the community. Therefore the natural ascription of values to sexual identity is displaced by other considerations. Life and death of the individual become more immediate and more threatening in terms of an ultimate sense of purpose or lack thereof. The family no longer finds meaning or value in its identity as a procreative unit. The devaluation of progeny denies them the sense of continuity beyond death. The couple also loses affirmation from the community as a family unit, and so its relationship is undermined rather than upheld by the culture.
Androgyny tries to fill the gap created by the cultural vacuum with an alternate affirmation of identity and value. Ultimately, however, that affirmation is based in a negation: first, the concept of identity is so pliable, that there is no inherent or ultimate meaning to one's existence as a sexual creature - there is no God who gives that sexual identity ultimacy, but sexual identity is the relative creation of individual desire; second, by its denial of the telos of procreation, androgyny subtly opposes itself against the value of human life as expressed in the desire for a continuing heritage - whether there is a posterity is no longer of a concern, for only the life of the individual matters. Finally, androgyny's affirmation is based upon alienation: for the identity and affirmation couples received in communion with one another is displaced by singularity. Now, only one's individual identity matters: sexual orientation, as an expression of that identity, is purely a personal and private matter. One's relationship to other human beings is derivative and no longer has ultimate purpose nor community significance. It is highly alienating, for the individual becomes the sum of his own attempts to find meaning and value in his life. In his death, he is finally and ultimately unrelated to any other human being. Androgyny, more than any other form of sexual identity, furthers the despair, isolation, and meaninglessness of individual life precisely because it divorces sexual identity from any ultimate meaning or purpose.
On the continuum of order and chaos, the birthplace of androgyny is certainly in the destruction of social and sexual roles for males and females. This particular disintegration of social structures will be examined later. Suffice it to say that the root of androgyny is not in the affirmation of our differences, but is in the denial of them.
But androgyny is also an attempt to reestablish order in society by providing a new mythic symbol system that is affirmed through ritual- the ritual of public adoration at concerts, theater, and awards events. Could it be that the culture's acceptance and promotion of androgyny is a ritual attempt to affirm the ambiguity of our age through the worship of these cult representatives? Where rites of passage used to give social confirmation to our sexual and social roles,** the cult of androgyny attempts to put in a positive light our loss of sexual and social identity. It now exalts this confusion as a new paradigm for the culture. Confusion of sexual identity and standards is now the norm of society. And those who have adopted the androgynous myth as their archetype are now as threatened by social conservatives who challenge that archetype as social conservatives were once threatened by them.
The attempt to find meaning is closely tied to the theme of order and chaos. Clearly, the ritual affirmation of sexual ambiguity is an attempt to substitute a new myth or archetypal symbol for Judeo-Christian understandings. This theme will be addressed more specifically in the second part of the paper.
We have reviewed the contemporary trends and highlighted popular manifestations of androgyny in our culture. The question remains; how did we get to this point? What are the philosophical, political, and sociological roots of our culture that have allowed this current phenomenon to come to pass? In the next sections we will attempt to uncover the roots of our great cultural tree.
Philosophical and Political Roots.
Most people do not act of the basis of philosophy, but they use philosophy to explain or to justify unconscious motivations and existing behaviors. Only later, as ideas become familiar and gain acceptance, does philosophy be come a model for subsequent behavior. Twenty years ago, homosexuality, bisexuality, and androgyny were not culturally acceptable. Now they are not only accepted, they are promoted. In order to promote behavior that is contrary to established norms, an ideological foundation must be laid so that an apologetic can disseminate ideas and provide for them a favorable hearing.
If we uncover some of the presuppositions for ideological androgyny, we will discover ancient roots that date back to early Greek culture. The ancient root is philosophical dualism. Many of the early Greeks believed that human nature was of two parts, soul (or reason) and matter, that were in conflict with each other. The body was believed to be an accidental (non-essential) substance that was a corrupt and material residence for a divine spark or logos.8 The body, full of appetites, instincts, and driven by impulse, stood in opposition to the mind of reason, which was inherently good. The body, by its very nature, could have no positive, spiritual purpose or intent; it merely was. Our fall from pure and perfect spirit into this prison of matter was the occasion of our corruption. And our sexual division, as one of the accidents of creation was an intrinsic evil.9 Our return to universal spirit, hopefully at death, led to our return to the androgynous state. Our sexual natures then, as male and female, are accidental limitations that we may transcend through our freedom. In this way, we may return to the essential sexless and abstract humanity that is truly us. 10
From this line of argumentation, with these philosophical presuppositions, homosexuality is just as logical a form of normal behavior as is heterosexuality, since the body has no sexual telos. Many of the proponents of women's liberation and homosexual liberation have unconsciously used this Greek anthropology as the foundation of their argumentation. Coupled with Jungian psychology and oriental philosophies mentioned before, the philosophic dualism creates a fertile field for non-traditional views of sexuality. Even among church theologians, psychology, philosophy, and science are given equal authority in the formation of doctrine and church polity, and traditional biblical passages are often ignored or reinterpreted in the light of current scientific opinion. This new paradigm of authority has led to the acceptance of homosexual orientation by many mainline denominations as a God given norm of behavior and created identity.
Modern secular culture has especially disavowed a spiritual purpose for sexuality and denied an inherent biological purpose for our sexual desires. Secular culture has defined sexuality as pure instinct and appetite, with biochemically and genetically conditioned orientations. All of which have nothing to do with our essential humanity. As our culture adopts this anthropology, it attempts to establish its own mythic understanding of humanity. As our culture abandons a Judeo-Christian heritage and adopts philosophical dualism, the clash of world views and mythic symbols becomes pronounced. Adam and Eve as archetypes must be supplanted to make room for a new androgynous vision of humanity and deity.
A short critique of this androgynous assumption from a traditional, Christian point of view will be given here to contrast it with the assumptions made by modern theologians:
In Genesis, God created humanity as male and female, and the image of God is fulfilled in complementarity. Indeed, for the Jews, a man was not a complete person until he had become one flesh with his wife, not simply by marriage but by the birth of children!11 Secondly, the Judeo-Christian anthropology defined human beings as a psycho-somatic unity, the body being an expression of the soul's reality. The body, as an expression of the soul, is not accidental -- it is essential! And so, the body is as much expressive of purpose as is a spiritual nature.12 Homosexuality defies the purpose of God and is therefore a perversion of the intent of creation expressed in sexual differentiation. Homosexuality and androgyny constitute a denial of the image of God in humanity as male and female.
If one holds a traditional, biblical view of complementary sexual nature as expressive of the creative purposes of God, there is no way to reconcile that view with the assumptions of androgyny and philosophical dualism. The world views are irreconcilable at the root. And so, conflicts in the social and legal sphere are inevitable.
A second strand of an androgynous worldview is an argument of libertinism that has a more complex history. The argument is stated in terms of freedom: "As long as someone wants to do such and such, and is not injuring anyone else in the process, it is his or her right." To unravel this line of argumentation, it is necessary to uncover more of the philosophical and political foundations of our culture.
Our understanding of a human being as one individual among others with certain inherent rights and freedoms has a long and convoluted history. In ancient culture, human beings were thought of as social beings first and as individuals second. People were understood to be born into a social context from which they received their identity. Relationships to family and tribe were the primary sources of identity. This corporate understanding of humanity is evident in the Old and New Testaments, especially visible in the understanding of the Fall as a corporate event: in Adam all share in the corporate nature of sin, as sin and its consequences are passed on from one generation to the next. The concept of individual rights would have been severely limited in these cultures. And even today, in many non-western societies, there is very little predilection for the "benefits" of American individualism. How did our understanding of individualism come about?
In the 2 Century B. C., the Stoic school of philosophy "helped to weave into a common scheme of values, two ideas that were destined to affect all subsequent social thought: 1) the idea of the individual, (as) a distinct item of humanity, defined as his or her own personhood, and 2) the idea of a universality, a world-wide humanity in which all are endowed with a common nature."13 Populist and anti-aristocratic assumptions of contemporary individualism can be traced to this stoic ideal. They come to us through the Renaissance and the Reformation of the 14 - 17 Centuries. Supported by the cultural Christian understanding of the infinite value of the soul to God, these ancient beliefs were revived through Descartes and Hobbes and finally were applied socially in the U. S. Constitution. Now they shape our behavior and political life.
In the early 17 C., Rene Descartes resurrected the ideals of philosophical dualism and stoic individualism. His most famous thesis of epistemology, "Cogito, ergo sum," led to the identification of human beings as distinct, individual, self-conscious beings. With this anthropology, the fabric of our social identity was rent.14 Now that we are defined as individual, subjective consciousness, it would indeed be hard to define ourselves by our relationships to one another.
The second idea of Descartes was perhaps more influential from a sociological point of view. This idea was the resurrection of an incipient dualism. Descartes defined human nature as thinking substance (rational nature) and as extended substance (material nature). "In the corporeal realm, mechanical nature rules, whereas in the realm of the mind there are freedom and purpose."15 By identifying our physical natures with animal and conditioned nature, and our spiritual natures with the mind, Descartes defined the true self as separate from our physical nature. Thus, he further undermined our ability to define ourselves as beings in social relationship, because our social context exists only on the physical plane, as our senses interact with other bodies. Here on this non-essential plane, our "true selves" never really meet! While Descartes never drew this conclusion from his analysis, it is inherent in it, and it was left to succeeding generations to ponder and apply.
In the middle of the 17 C., Thomas Hobbes took the basic principles of Descartes' philosophy and developed a theory of government based upon those ideas. Hobbes reduced Descartes' anthropology to a purely materialistic understanding which posited man as a conditioned and mechanistic being, devoid of spirit and of freedom of the will:
Since acts of will spring from the feelings of pleasure or pain and are, therefore, ultimately the consequences of received impressions, there can be no freedom of the will, and the determinism and mechanism which Hobbes finds in natural philosophy also rule the social and political realm.16
Since we pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and since self-preservation is our distinct and primary pleasure, Hobbes believed that the primary relationship between individuals should be a social contract; the express purpose of which is to secure our survival and to maximize our pleasure, i.e., to leave us "free" to pursue our self-interest.17
We see in Hobbes the blueprint for all subsequent theories of social contract forms of government. The basic function of government in this framework is to secure the "right" of every individual to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (or self-interest). By accepting Descartes' definition of the individual, Hobbes transformed our understanding of society from a communal one, in which the individual is a secondary and derived reality, into one in which the individual is the primary reality. Social relations, therefore, are derived and secondary realities. Through Hobbes, the foundation for "liberal" government is laid. Thus in our society, the chief aim of government is the preservation of the rights and freedoms of individuals; not of social groups. Individual freedom is seen as the source of the greatest good, regardless of the object of our self-interest. The purpose of government is to manage these interests so that they do not conflict and cause chaos in society.18 (Since the pursuit of androgyny or homosexuality falls within this category of the individual pursuit of pleasure and happiness, it conforms to the ideals of liberal government; therefore, it is hard to dispute its value from a purely political point of view.)
Through the Enlightenment of the 18 C., the enthronement of Reason as the sole source of truth led to the abandonment of revelation and tradition. The moral authorities based in religion, could no longer function as governing norms of society. Liberal government, however, is unencumbered by any need to determine the morality of the object of one's desires, having defined self-interest as a primary virtue of the social contract.19 Liberal government, then, depends upon the moral consensus of the populace to restrain vice and to determine virtue. Once moral norms are challenged, however, if no one suffers directly and clearly from the exercise of freedom, no appeal can be made to the State to make a moral determination. The recourse of culture is to appeal to the individual conscience, to reason, as the source of moral determination and authority. As long as there is cultural consensus as to values and morals, moral standards can be maintained. But once those standards are shattered by a wide divergence of opinion on essential matters, the ability of liberal government to enforce a particular view of right and wrong breaks down. If reason is enthroned, as it was in the Enlightenment, then the source of authority becomes highly individualistic, because only individuals have the capacity for reason. And social norms appear as a limitation to personal liberty.
So we see that in our society, the appeal of Christians to the courts and to the legislative branches of government to uphold social (Christian) norms of behavior is doomed to failure. Religious morality and social traditions cannot function as guideposts for the legislature, because individual thoughts, freedoms, and desires are the foundations of the social contract, not a specific religious or moral view of the world. Therefore, government cannot act as a moral authority to direct "people individually and collectively toward the good,"20 but the function of government must be to mediate and manage the conflicts of self-interested individuals.
As we can see, the stage has been set for 20 C. political conflicts over the philosophical foundations of our social contract. As our cultural consensus decays and as there is disagreement as to the morality of individual ideas and acts, it becomes impossible for our government to distinguish between such things as homosexual and androgynous behavior, on the one hand, and heterosexual behavior on the other. The State has vowed itself to neutrality in matters of religion (individual religious freedom also is guaranteed by the principle of self-interest in the pursuit happiness), so no appeal can be made to religious norms. And as science is inconclusive in demonstrating any harm of one form of behavior over another, the only basis for decision making is the first principle of government: securing the right of individuals to pursue liberty, life, and happiness.
In the '70's, we see that these two ideas of dualism (the arbitrariness of the body and its function) and individualism have resurfaced to open the political climate to androgyny, homosexuality, and bisexuality. Our particular anthropology, whether Christian or dualistic, is outside the realm of government's interest, as has already been stated. But we may critique the political and philosophical foundations of individualism:
The basic critique of political individualism, as expressed in the ideal of "liberal" government, from a Christian point of view would be two fold:
1) From the time of Constantine through the Reformation, the Church viewed the role of secular government as an expression of the governance of God on the earth. From time to time, governments were seen as more or less faithful in their execution of this God given charter. This widespread Christian understanding of the function of government was based upon interpretations of passages in the New Testament, such as Rms. 13 & Eph. 3. And many saw in the theocracy of the Old Testament an example of how the Church and State should cooperate in administrating a society according to the rule of God's laws. While among the various denominations, there were specific disagreements on how exactly Christian doctrine should be applied to government, there was a general consensus on the government's proper function. While government could perform a positive good, it was not expected to create an economic or social utopia. It's chief functions were more narrow in scope, creating the possibility of a more just society. They were:
These functions of government were seen as extensions of God's governance over the fallen Creation. Government had an inherently moral purpose, but its concern was primarily with the restraint of evil and not with the promotion of individual happiness.
2) According to any traditional Christian standard, Liberal government is in error in defining "the good" as the pursuit of self-interest. The calling of Christians is not to pursue happiness, but to do the will of God, "come what may."21 The corresponding value in government would be the pursuit of civic responsibility or public virtue, not individual happiness. The government should function as a check against unbridled self interest, not as its guarantor. Furthermore, without an understanding of human nature as inherently sinful, the biblical view, it becomes impossible for liberal government to distinguish between virtue and vice.22 Hence, contemporary liberal government has no internal counterweight to restrain the pursuit of individualism nor to measure the value of such pursuits. Once the general population has abandoned a corporate consensus of values based upon biblical traditions, liberal government is left with nothing but the relative values of rampant individualism to guide the social whole. We can now see a corresponding loss of a sense of civic obligation in contemporary culture as self interest is pursued as the highest good. The blind pursuit of self interest leads to a loss of civility and respect in discourse and in politics, and to an emphasis on "individual rights" without regard to the welfare of the social whole .
The basic criticism of philosophical individualism is that 1) it is based in a faulty anthropology, and 2) that it fails to understand that we receive much of our identity from our relationships to others. We are not sufficient unto ourselves. But these criticisms will be better explained in the next section of the paper.
Part III (Sociological Roots)