Public Discourse has posted Michael Hannon’s review of Nathan Harden’s book “God and Sex and God at Yale,” which explores academe’s obsession with the glorification of sex in Ivy League settings. The essay, like the book, is frank, so be forewarned. The descriptions of not only behaviors but also the material culture of a campus life that has been overtaken by bacchanalia is hardly exceptional; unfortunately, there is little that is groundbreaking here other than the documentation of obsessions that continue to roll apace. For parents of older teenagers, it is sobering stuff. Certainly Clark Kerr, the legendary chancellor of the University of California a half century ago, was understated in his observation that “the three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty.”
I took a number of archeology courses in my undergraduate days (Indiana Jones being all the rage at the time), and I was trained to think about culture in terms of its material artifacts. We learn a lot about people by what remains well after they are gone. On the first day of class in the introductory course, our professor showed us a replica of the very ancient Venus of Willendorf. The Venus is a classic archeological piece, a rotund female shape that is all bosom and thighs.
He asked us, “What is this?”
Classmates offered all sorts of ideas, including one cheeky fellow who said, “It’s the earliest piece of pornography known to man. It’s pocket porn!”
The professor finally said, somewhat dismissively, “It’s a goddess. We believe it’s a fertility totem based on the parts of the body that are emphasized. Look at the way the female form has been objectified. Male forms are common too in these cultures, by the way. It was all about reproduction: children meant new workers and a new generation for the culture. Agricultural success meant reproductive success. Totems like this help us to know what was valued by this culture. They worshipped through sex and their culture was sustained by sex.”
Something like that, anyway; we all nodded with “deep” understanding, ignoring, as freshmen, the fact that there was no way to corroborate the professor’s theological claim since the Willendorfian folks are all long-since dead. Perhaps it really was merely a piece of pornography fashioned by a lonely huntsman.
The difference between the theological and the pornographic might be hard to discern in a fertility cult, where the two may merge into a strange sort of blurred reality. After all, such a cult was obsessed with the notion that culture genuinely was extended through the passing on of that culture via childbirth and agricultural success. Even human sacrifice, oddly, was typically viewed as a form of fertility.
When I teach excerpts from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I remind my students that “WWJD” would mean something entirely different if the “J” were “Jove” instead of “Jesus.” When my campus (we’re an evangelical college that takes our mission quite seriously) ponders ways to improve our careful integration of faith and learning, it is quite different than the way that a campus in Ovid’s times might have thought of it. For them, the integration of “sex and learning” might have been quite interchangeable terms for “faith and learning.”
Which brings me back to Hannon’s essay. For the better part of academe, the emphasis is on the integration of sex and learning, from Freud to the various “liberated” viewpoints that detach behaviors from consequences. In fact, higher education seems to have created an infertility cult, something history has not seen previously in large numbers, and for good reason. Cults of infertility, such as the Shakers, ultimately extinguish themselves; it’s a classic failure to understand how the real world works.
The sewers of cultic temples in Roman culture were filled with the bones of infants, usually boys who were flushed because they were less valuable as cultic prostitutes. The early Christian church, in fact, made a name for itself by adopting many of these children who were doomed for death; this was an incredibly powerful counter-cultural act that defied the objectification and commodification of human beings. Now we have technologies for prevention, methodologies for remediation, and moral sensibilities that place us above any sort of reproach. Indeed, we are significantly higher, morally, than either the fertility cults that objectified the female form or repressive cultures that closeted it.
At least that’s what we’d like to think.
Ideas, like actions, have consequences, regardless of what we might think.