Puritanism, Hedonism, and Nudity

After writing about the naked body I got a colorful variety of responses, some in absolute and excited agreement with the concept of beauty as a response to pornography, and others who advised readers to stop reading yours truly, as I was clearly preaching heresy. As for myself, the question that arose out of the muddle was, “Why are we so confused?” Why are we so morally conflicted when it comes to nudity?

First of all, it is worth pointing out that the battleground of the Western World is being fought over this stuff. Catholic or non-Catholic, liberal and conservative, we all tend to agree on nonsexual morality. For all practical purposes, we are an anti-slavery, anti-murder, anti-cruelty, anti-bigotry and anti-poverty nation. Rather, it is the issues like abortion, contraception, prostitution, pornography, immodesty, homosexuality – issues that relate directly to human beings as sexual beings – that divide us. So I understand why any discussion of the nude form is, by it’s nature, contentious.

But I hold that this fear of nudity, this utter inability to see nudity as something beautiful except in the instance of marital union, is the result of two opposing heresies, a uniquely disastrous couple that have produced this awkward conflict in America. They are Puritanism and Hedonism.

I don’t suppose I need to prove the existence of Hedonism, that particularly cruel worldview that claims pleasure as the greatest good man can attain. It is wonderfully illustrated by the expanse of pornography available and in use. And as for Puritanism, well, America was founded by Puritans, unfortunately for us all, and their laws influence us today. Thanks to these two’s unlikely relationship, we have delightful contradictions in our society such as:

  • You can have pre-marital sex in your country before you can drink in it.
  • You can get an abortion without parental consent before you can watch an R-rated movie without a parent.
  • You are legally responsible enough to risk the lives of others in a car before you are legally responsible enough to risk your own life by smoking.
  • All employees of all businesses are required by law to was their hands before going to work but in most States, abortion clinics do not have to meet the health standards of hospitals.

So how does this ‘convergence of the twain’ affect our culture’s view of the naked form? Well, in a phrase – by confusing the crap out of it.

Puritanism – the foundation of our democracy – says that all nudity outside of the context of sex is evil. There is no innocent nudity for the Puritan. I hold that it is this puritanical strain that makes certain people cringe when they see a toddler running naked around the yard. It is the heresy that makes people freak out when a mother nurses her child in public. It is of the same stuff that possessed the reformation Popes, when they mutilated an immeasurable wealth of Vatican art by destroying, erasing or pasting over the ‘offensive’ parts of the human body. It sees Aphrodite as evil. It blushes at The David.

Hedonism, on the other hand, says that nudity ain’t worth a blush at all! It seems to be the worldview of one rebelling against Puritanism, as did Hugh Hefner, the creator of Playboy magazine. Why not let everyone wear as little clothing as they like? Why not participate in pornography? Why not seek after lustful pleasure in the naked form? Why not display sexual acts? It is all for our pleasure, and no religious bigotry will hold us back.

The oppressiveness of the one heresy leads to the filth-wallowing of the other. And they are both very clearly wrong.

Enter the American Catholic. Like it or not, both heresies are his environmental influences and affect him as such, even if the effect is positive, like a negative reaction towards porn. But he is an a clearly and remarkably unique situation, in that he is able to easily ignore them in favor of the truth. All he has to do is go to his home in the Vatican, and look up.

There the naked form is displayed as beautiful, neither an evil to be rejected, nor a worthlessness to be abused, but as a good. And thus the Catholic is called to tell, and tell well, the ripples from the rock. If one direction is needlessly suppressive and the other intolerably corruptive, where is the center? Where is the truth that the lies seek to pervert? It is in the proper view of the naked form – the naked form – as part of the human person – is beautiful.

So there you have it. Some people demanded that I erase such images as this, and those in my last post. I respectfully refuse. I understand the reaction, and it is a Puritan one. The beauty of the Church’s position on human nudity is that it meets the crisis of pornography head on. It does not simply scream the extremely ignorable statement that modern Christianity seems to be screaming – “PUT SOME CLOTHES ON!” Rather, she says, “Look. Open your eyes and look. Look at how good, how true and beautiful you are. Look at how fantastically designed humanity is. Do you not know your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit? Of course you don’t! How could you, children, when you spend your time covering them or abusing them? Try again. One more time. Instead of all this fear, look and see the beauty in yourself, in your brothers and sisters, and thus in the Creator.”

Isn’t that more like it? Instead of demanding that we cover ourselves, the Church – with it’s fantastic armory of nude art – reminds us why we cover ourselves at all. It is because we have goodness and beauty worth protecting.

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