If we make a god of sexuality, that god will fail in ways that affect the whole person and perhaps the whole society.

While much of the media is buzzing about a new survey on sex in America, I'm still thinking about a book, "Sex and Culture," published in 1934. I discovered it in the windowless warrens of a large university library, and I felt like an archaeologist must feel unearthing an artifact from the catacombs.

Seeking to test the Freudian notion that civilization is a byproduct of repressed sexuality, the scholar J. D. Unwin studied 86 different societies. His findings startled many scholars - above all, Unwin himself - because all 86 demonstrated a direct tie between monogamy and the "expansive energy" of civilization.

Unwin had no Christian convictions and applied no moral judgment: "I offer no opinion about rightness or wrongness." Nevertheless, he had to conclude, "In human records there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on pre-nuptial and post-nuptial continence."

For Roman, Greek, Sumerian, Moorish, Babylonian, and Anglo-Saxon civilizations, Unwin had several hundred years of history to draw on. He found with no exceptions that these societies flourished during eras that valued sexual fidelity. Inevitably, sexual mores would loosen and the societies would subsequently decline, only to rise again when they returned to more rigid sexual standards.

Unwin seemed at a loss to explain the pattern, yet it so impressed him that he proposed a special class of "Alpha" citizens in Great Britain. These individuals of unusual promise would take vows of chastity before marriage and observe strict monogamy after marriage - all for the sake of the Empire, which needed their talents.

Unwin died before fully developing his theory of "the sexual foundations of a new society," but the incomplete results were published in another book, "Hopousia," with an introduction by Aldous Huxley.

A decade before Unwin did his research, followers of Vladimir Lenin were espousing a very different "Glass of Water" theory about sex. Sexual desire is no more mysterious or sacrosanct than desire for food or water, they declared, and rewrote the Soviet lawbook accordingly. That theory soon collapsed, and Soviet society became - on the surface, at least - almost puritanical about sexual morality.

Today, however, we hear new versions of the Glass of Water theory. "Sex can finally, after all these centuries, be separated from the all-too-serious business of reproduction," proclaimed Barbara Ehrenreich in a recent Time essay. "The only ethic that can work in an overcrowded world is one that insists that … sex - preferably among affectionate and consenting adults - belongs squarely in the realm of play."

Ehrenreich's call for the "de-moralization" of sex has about it the incense smell of the 1960s, birth era of the sexual revolution. aids may have temporarily dampened enthusiasm for unrestrained lovemaking, but I hear few social commentators articulating a coherent sexual ethic. In our reductionist society, sex is viewed as a purely biological act, like drinking and eating. Once we perfect the technology of protection, we can go back to coupling.

(Strangely, though, sex resists reductionism. Jealousy still rears its ugly head, and cuckolds still murder their lovers' lovers as if sexuality involved the joining of lives and not merely genitals. And in an age of unprecedented birth-control options and widespread sex education, our society produces more unwanted pregnancies than ever before.)

Frankly, I do not know what to make of J. D. Unwin's theories about sex and culture. His books rest in the catacombs of libraries because he preached a message that few want to hear, and his moral basis for fidelity ("Zip up for the Empire!") easily gets overwhelmed by sheer hormonal force. Moreover, his criterion of "expansive energy" looks different in this time of downsizing and anti-imperialism.

Without realizing it, though, Unwin may have subtly edged toward a Christian view of sexuality, from which modern society has badly strayed. For the Christian, sex is not an end in itself but, rather, a gift from God. Like all such gifts, it must be stewarded according to God's rules, not ours.

If we make a god of progress and destroy the planet God gave us to steward, we will destroy ourselves as well. If we worship power and success and construct the greatest civilization the world has ever seen - it too will fall, as Unwin's Babelic survey of history surely shows. And if we make a god of sexuality, that god will also fail, in ways that affect the whole person and perhaps the whole society.

G. K. Chesterton used to say that a man who knocks on the door of a brothel is knocking for God. That statement reminds me of Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well, in which he used her thirst for love to introduce her to Living Water. He did not deny the thirst, but rather allowed it to point toward transcendence.

We have two conflicting ways to look at sex, and each involves a paradox. The reductionist Glass of Water theory unexpectedly elevates sexuality to a place it does not deserve and cannot sustain; as we give it worship, society disintegrates. On the other hand, the Living Water theory ennobles what at first it seems to dethrone by restoring sex to its rightful place, as a gift of transcendental values.

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