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Not so much philosophy and punditry as...
on October 9, 2003
In a few regards, Oxford University Press has done a fine job in presenting this collection of essays. Yet while the jacket bears Man Ray's amusing "Le Violin d'Ingres," it is the prelude to neither humorous nor symphonic thought but to fiddle-faddle. While the layout and type work are natty, many of Professor Grayling's depictions of others, especially people of traditional faiths, are so shabby to be caricatures.
This is perhaps barest in the book's longest essay "Sex" (upon which I will focus) in which he writes that Christianity was early possessed by Plato's view "that spirit is good and must be cultivated, whereas body is bad and must be disciplined" (p. 50). While Plato exerted significant influence on Christianity, Christianity has from its beginning viewed the body as good. More so than in Protestantism, this is conspicuous in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, both of which share belief in Christ's Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension, the Assumption (body and soul) of the Virgin Mary, the Resurrection of the Body, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist under the appearance of bread and wine and sacramental theology according to which matter can communicate grace. Professor Grayling knows not whereof he whines and may have mistaken Christians for Manichees or Docetists, though Christian heavyweights (St. Augustine (354-430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274) fall into mind) left quite a literary or homiletic corpus documenting the incompatibility of Manichaeism or Docetism with the Christian conception of the goodness of the body. Platonic dualism, ironically, is not among orthodox Christians but among those who speak of "protected sex," "safe sex" or the increasingly popular "safer sex." These are more likely to think of sex only in bodily terms and their icon, the condom, offers scant protection from guilt, depression and the misery of heartache over love lost. "Platonic" in this sense even reverses the sense it has in the more usual use of "Platonic relationship."
Professor Grayling complains of "the moral conservatism which presumes to tell other people what to think and how to behave" in the second paragraph of the same essay:
[quote] Perhaps such conservatism should now take its name from the late Mary Whitehouse or some other more recent champion in the great cause of making people as sexually inactive, ignorant, and powerless as possible. What such warriors wish is to stop people having sex unless thoroughly married (and not much more if they are), and - anyway for orthodox Catholics - to put people completely at the mercy of reproductive chance despite the availability of safe scientific means of controlling fertility. This is what the anti-sex crusade desires: limitation, ignorance, enslavement to biology, and marginalisation of sex to hidden places in just one conventional kind of relationship [unquote] (p. 45).
But "Humanae Vitae" (Of Human Life), the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, informs that "[i]f, then, there are serious motives for spacing births, motives deriving from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances," married couples may limit family size. Yet the Catholic Church also insists that, as with all human behaviors, the ends do not justify just any means: there must be a good means to a good end. The Catholic Church heartily approves of ecological breastfeeding, which suppresses ovulation, and, therefore, the likelihood of pregnancy, and confers many health and other benefits, and, for serious reasons, various sympto-thermal methods (the Billings Ovulation Method and the Creighton Method are two examples) - often called "Natural Family Planning" (NFP) methods - that indicate when a woman is fertile so that intercourse may be timed to avoid or achieve pregnancy. Modern NFP methods, regrettably, are often confused with and dismissed or ridiculed as the obsolete rhythm method.
If contraception is defined to include means that deliberately impair fertility rather than to include things that merely prevent people from sexually joining (overwork, e.g.), then we can differentiate between contraception and Natural Family Planning (NFP), which work within different paradigms: whereas contraception throws monkey wrenches into the gears or slips hormonal poisons into the body to establish the diseased state of infertility, NFP respects the cycle of fertility and indicates when a woman is fertile or infertile so that intercourse may be timed to avoid pregnancy. Because NFP methods rely on fertility awareness, they also may be used to achieve pregnancy. The various NFP methods avoid the harmful intended effect (prolonged infertility) and the rash of unintended effects associated with contraception yet are as effective or more effective in avoiding pregnancy. Spouses practicing NFP remark frequently that it improves communication. Anecdotal and perhaps now also statistical evidence links NFP to extremely low divorce rates in contrast to, say, birth control pills (which are sometimes abortifacient), which cause depression, irritability, weight gain and decreased sex drive - just what every marriage (or, as Professor Grayling might have it, conventional or unconventional relationship) needs. NFP may require two tough wills, one more than as with dieting, but thus promotes self-mastery or at least self-control, unlike the binge-purge sexuality induced by contraceptive sex. NFP popularizers, to morally distinguish NFP from contraception, sometimes remark that NFP is to contraception as dieting is to bulimia. Contrary to Professor Grayling, fertility awareness is hardly "ignorance." Contrary to Professor Grayling, respect for the tides of fertility is part of a good sexual ecology and hardly "enslavement to biology."
Matrimony, in Catholicism, is the only sacrament mutually conferred by spouses: a priest or deacon merely witnesses the wedding though he prepares the couple for the married state. Sex, according to Catholicism, is a healthy part of this sacrament. Spouses even have a (sexual) "marital debt" to each other and experience sex most free and wet when they do not hide their fertility behind barriers or subvert it with contraptions or poisons. Contrary to Professor Grayling, this is hardly a "marginalisation of sex."
In publishing this book, Oxford University Press perhaps unwittingly has fobbed off as serious thinking what is not so much philosophy and punditry as animosity and ignorance.