Talking to Fish

I have sleep apnea. When I fall asleep, I stop breathing at certain points. According to the sleep study I endured, it happens over 90 times an hour. Sleep apnea can kill you. And so, I sleep with a “sleep machine,” a device with a mask through which a positive air pressure is maintained so that you don’t stop breathing. It was a godsend. When I visited Mt. Athos last year, one of the more difficult practicalities was the need for my machine wherever I went. I bought a portable one, capable of being hauled around in a backpack. It was only an issue one night when the monastery of St. Panteleimon shut down the electricity when it was time for “lights out.” Go to bed. Don’t breathe. My wife has the same problem. I laugh because at night we strap on our sleep masks and lie there like pilot and co-pilot.

This little vignette of my medical life is my way of illustrating a certain scenario. What happens when we can only live our lives through the wonders of a medical intervention? For some, it might be as difficult as kidney dialysis, or as inconvenient as insulin shots. Life is altered, but it continues. I am deeply grateful for medical intervention, both for my night’s sleep, my lack of a gall bladder, and the stent that keeps my heart functioning (getting old!). But what happens when an entire society and culture is predicated on medical intervention, when what becomes “natural,” is, in fact, artificial? I would never want to suggest to anyone that my apnea should become normative.

I can imagine this same scenario if human life were spread to other planets. Mars, that likeliest of candidates, is bathed in deadly radiation. It would become a cancer camp in short order. So, human beings would rarely go outside, other than with extreme protection. It seems glamorous in a movie. But movies only last for a couple of hours. Day after day, lifetime after lifetime, in an environment that makes our polar regions seem like paradise is not a true strategy for colonization. It ain’t happening.

Modern culture, with its economic and family arrangements is increasingly an example of artificiality. The so-called sexual revolution, touted as a change in choices, lifestyles and personal freedom, is, in reality, a massive intervention into human life by technologies that change the very nature of sex and distort how we see it and use it. For almost all human history, sex between men and women within a certain age range, generally led to the conception of a child. It’s what our bodies were built for. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, such that the right actions between two persons result in the creation of another life.

The philosophies and arguments that we now call the sexual revolution are largely the result of new forms of birth control, particularly the use of artificial hormones, and their popularization. Oddly, as recently as 1928, almost all Protestant denominations in America shared the condemnation of birth control with the traditional Churches such as Catholics and Orthodox. The arguments surrounding family planning were initially the work of ardent eugenicists who saw science as an important tool for breeding a better, healthier race.

With the implementation and popularization of medical intervention, human sexual practices became estranged from human biology. We were no longer “slaves” to our bodies. As such, children became lifestyle choices for people who wanted that sort of thing. The family slowly became reconfigured, not by necessity or nature, but simply by the whims of human desire. The legalization of abortion in the Western world in the latter half of the 20th century added an element of violence to the equation. The failure of birth control had a sure and certain remedy.

And so, when we now discuss “sexuality” in our culture, we have in mind a new thing (not the thing that human beings have lived with throughout all previous history). What might have once been an anomaly and an exception (childless sexuality) is now the only form that we consider normative – children being little more than accessories after the fact. And with the normalization of this technologically invented childless sexuality, all forms of childless sexual behavior appear normative. If sexual activity is abstracted from the procreation of children, then how does it differ from any other form of sexual activity, including those that under any conceivable set of circumstances could never produce a child – or even fail to produce a child. A same-sex couple cannot be described as suffering the tragedy of infertility, for fertility has nothing to do with their relationship.

I mean no attacks on anyone, least of all those whose desires point them in infertile directions. Rather, I mean to include us all as a culture that has willingly made one of its most fundamental human practices into an artificial abstraction. Everything about our sexual lives, other than the most obvious, becomes the point of our relationships. Magazine covers blatantly advertise articles on improved orgasms (and such). It is, oddly, a topic that is never once addressed in all of Christian tradition or the Scriptures – because it’s not the point.

If we lived at the bottom of the ocean, life would be defined by aqualungs and their use and upkeep. It is hard for people to live as fish. We are in danger of re-imagining the normal world to be a place in which such odd interventions are normal, where the procreative life becomes a disease to be controlled.

I write all of this during a time in which sexuality discussions have burst afresh in the Orthodox world (thankfully, only in a tiny corner). My point is that no one writing after about 1960 is competent to suggest changes within the configuration of human sexual understanding. It is like fish trying to discuss life on the land. We haven’t been living on the land now for nearly sixty years. Little wonder that the older stories from our land-dwelling ancestors seem so strange to so many.


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