This past week I saw this opinion piece making its rounds on social media, with a fine click-baity headline: Sex and the single Christian: Why celibacy isn’t the only option. I found some of the premises interesting, albeit not in the slightest bit convincing, with the argument ultimately logically ending in the reduction of human beings and their sexual relationships to that of bodily pleasure, which has the (not unexpected) irony of contradicting one of the main premises. It also demonstrates how Pharisaism can inflict itself (perhaps especially so) upon premises about sex that eschew the end of sex, as well as provides a stunning example of what I am going to call sexual iconoclasm.
Original in quotes.
It isn’t fair that some folks remain single when they’d rather be partnered.
This is an interesting premise to begin this piece with, especially since this article is attempting to take a purportedly Christian approach to the topic of sex, singleness and celibacy. It effectively betrays a very modern preoccupation with “fairness,” which in this case isn’t actually about fairness as a virtue at all (which is related to justice) but rather about frustrated personal desires, with a little bit of whiny-ness on the side.
There are a number of approaches one could take to respond to this. The first and likely most obvious one is to note that we have a very limited understanding of what is “fair;” we simply are not in a position to be the arbiters of such a thing, especially as it relates to something that is not a question of justice. Being “partnered” is not something one is owed, and thus to desire that and not obtain it is not a matter of justice or fairness, as our desires are not competent to adjudicate these questions.
Secondly, from a Christian perspective it is premised that ultimately “we are not our own;” that is, we are the clay, and God is the potter and can do with us as he wishes. Jesus taught us specifically to pray that God’s will would be done in heaven and on earth, and we are admonished throughout the Scriptures to seek God’s will, no matter what that might bring. Sometimes that brings significant challenges, and oftentimes it means we don’t get what we would want. But the point of seeking God’s will is not to provide cover to chase after what we want, but rather to submit our wills in humility to the one to whom we belong anyway.
Thirdly, the Scriptures further speak about how suffering and trials are not an opportunity to decry the unfairness of life, but rather an opportunity for spiritual growth, and even for joy. In the epistle of James we are told to consider it pure joy (or an opportunity for joy, as some renditions have it) when we face trials of many kinds, for it ultimately produces perseverance in us, which leads us to maturity. St. Paul advises us to rejoice in every situation. And when faced with his own bout with life’s unfairness, St. Paul came to realize that God’s grace was sufficient for him, even when having to live with something that was, as he described it, a thorn in his flesh.
Loneliness and longing can be meaningful, but usually that transformation from suffering to beauty can happen only if we attempt to live into this one wild life we’ve been given, to look for possibility, to open ourselves to God’s creative presence.
There are a number of interesting things here, but this sentence begins with a non sequitur by means of linking the desire to be “partnered” in the previous line with “loneliness and longing” here. That is, the implication is that to desire to be “partnered” and not be is (presumably necessarily, or least potentially likely) to be lonely. The corollary (and equally non sequitur) implication is that being “partnered” is a solution to that loneliness.
The rest of this statement sounds nice as a string of buzzwords and euphemisms, but it doesn’t really convey any sort of substantive meaning. After all, “to live into this wild life we’ve been given” has a sort of mystique about it, but it doesn’t really point to anything beyond the words themselves. Are we talking abut the unpredictability of life? Casting life as an adventure? It might be noted that the author’s starting premise is actually undercut significantly here, in that it is acknowledged that this “wild life” is actually one that “we’ve been given.” After all, if we have truly been given this life, then it is not ours to decide whether or not unfulfilled desires constitute unfairness.
That aside, it is equally unclear what “looking for possibility” and “opening ourselves to God’s creative presence” is meant to entail, aside from stringing together cliches to provide cover for what’s to come.
But let’s take the words at face value. If it is truly believed that this wild life is one we’ve been given, and that we are supposed to be open to God’s creative presence, then that kind of life would be one in which we are seeking God’s will in whatever our life brings, regardless of what we desire; after all, we’ve been given it. God’s “creative presence” is what brought all of creation into being, and everything exists in him only so far as it participates in his being. We are created for God, and thus our true end is God and God alone. The author is correct that loneliness and longing can only be transformed by being open to God’s creative presence, but the fulfillment of the desire to be “partnered” is certainly not the sine qua non of that openness nor of the eradication of loneliness and longing.
I’m pretty sure this is the call on our lives from no less than Jesus, the world’s most famous single person.
I’m compelled by the idea that Jesus was probably celibate, but that it would have been for a purpose, and that it might have been hard to bear sometimes. We get a sense of his frustration, resignation and loneliness on occasion (“remove this cup;” “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head”). We also know the full, abundant life he modeled and preached.
It is important to note here that the “full, abundant life” Jesus lived and modeled and preached was predicated on his total union with the Father and complete submission to his will. Even when his humanity reacted in natural aversion to his coming suffering and death, Jesus nevertheless submitted himself to the will of the Father, irrespective of the ‘unfairness’ of the situation.
In the context of speaking of the full and abundant life that Jesus offers, he uses the metaphor of the sheep and the gate to the sheep pen, noting that entering through him is the way to life; the thief wants to kill and steal, but his coming is to bring life, and that to the full. As he continues the metaphor, it becomes unmistakably clear that to be one of the sheep, one must “know his voice,” which is concomitant with being one who “listens to his voice.”
In other passages Jesus declares that this sort of full and abundant life is about being one with him and the Father, living in a union of love, as the Father and the Son do. This love- and this remaining in his love- is characterized by obeying his commandments; in fact, he explicitly states that obeying his commands is how one remains in his love, which is the foundation of the full and abundant life; as he says, “I have told you this that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
As such, it is important to conceptually clarify that when Jesus is talking about a full and abundant life, he is not describing some sort of self-actualization or getting what one thinks one is due, but is rather describing union with the Father and the Son as exhibited in the moral and ethical dimension of one’s life, which is to be characterized by obeying Jesus’ commandments.
In respect to Jesus being “single” for a purpose, this is no doubt true, but it also has the unfortunate effect of anachronistically applying modern categories to a state of life in a context in which such categories are not necessarily appropriate. It also creates a category based on privation, rather than on fullness (in both contexts).
In Jesus’ teaching, celibacy is not a privation, but in effect is actually a looking forward to the eschaton, a sort of revelation of mankind’s ultimate end. In response to the question-traps of the Sadducees involving seven brothers marrying the same wife in succession, Jesus eschews the notion of marriage in the age to come, noting that humanity will be like the angels neither marrying nor being given in marriage. Thus, while marriage (and its corollary, sex) are an essential part of humanity in the present age, they are not the final end; as such, celibacy carries within itself a sort of transcendence as an icon of that end.
Therefore, Jesus is not simply single, nor even single for a purpose, but is an icon of what humanity will ultimately be. Sex- as necessary as it is- is a transitory thing, and something which will be perfected as it is transformed and transcended in the resurrection.
That does not mean, however, that marriage will cease en toto, and there is a theological shallowness in reducing Jesus’ marital state to singleness. As St. Paul describes (in echoing Jesus here), marriage is itself an icon of something greater than itself; it points to the union of Christ and his Bride, the Church. There is, of course, a natural meaning to marriage, which makes it a sort of primordial sacrament, but the reason St. Paul describes it as a mystery is that in its natural end Christ reveals it to be about something beyond it and greater than it.
Jesus was fully in relationship with many. He had intimate friendships, and he was dedicated to his work. If his celibacy was hard, he was not overly anxious about it; he leaned into the other parts of his life. Jesus was different and his path was likely puzzling to those around him, even as it puzzles us still today. Singles can yet have intimate relationships. No one need be defined by relationship status, or remake themselves to fit into existing social structures and roles. We can be like Jesus.
It is true that much of how Jesus lived and much of what he said was puzzling; in fact, in relation to his response to questions about marriage, Jesus’ disciples exclaim that if what he is saying is really true, then “it is better not to marry.” As a rejoinder, Jesus essentially agrees with them, stating that not everyone can accept his word, but only those to whom it is given.
Can single Christians find hope in this, courage and sustenance here? As fully human, fully sexual, fully incarnate beings, who just happen not to be with anybody, single Christians can yet do good, saving work in the world.
The obvious answer to this question is yes, and I will agree with the author’s subtext here that too often marriage is held up as a sort of ideal, and that those who for whatever reason are not married often get treated poorly on account of it, or are often at least made to feel that way, whether intentionally or not.
St. Paul’s words are largely unheeded here, in that he notes that marriage can often limit (to use the author’s words here) “the good and saving work in the world” one can do, as one’s priorities and time and effort must be spent on one’s spouse. He advises those who are unmarried to remain as they are, but with the caveat that Jesus employed, that each should accept the word or the gift as God has given it. But there is also the final caveat: if one cannot control oneself , then one should marry, for “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” More on this in a bit.
Maybe celibate, maybe not. It’s really no one’s business but ours and God’s.
It is here that this article begins to really depart from a coherent sexual ethic, but it is important to make a conceptual distinction. Previously I noted how St. Paul commends celibacy as an ideal way of life. And as he later states, each one has a gift from God (in respect to marriage or celibacy), with the implication that one must accept that gift as it is given.
He then notes that if one cannot control one’s passions, then one should marry, since it is better to marry than to burn with passion. He also speaks earlier about how married couples should discharge the duty of their marriage and not avoid sexual relations, partially for the same reason, so that they do not get led astray into other sexual relationships because of the potential for temptation and the reality of sexual immorality.
Understood in this light, marriage becomes a way of bringing virtue to a sexual relationship, and even of directing the otherwise unruly and concupiscence-ridden passions into virtue. I have written about this elsewhere:
It is a great good to be single, and fighting the desires of the concupiscence is meritorious for the one in a state of grace. The virgin has a foretaste of union with God as he or she will be in the resurrection, where one is neither married nor given in marriage. In this manner the celibate life is a higher virtue.
But God does not desire the same vocation for us all, and sometimes the path of virtue lies along a different road. St. Paul fully understands the drive of the passions and how they can incessantly burn. Thus, for those who desperately want to grow in virtue but have difficulty with their concupiscence, he assures them: marriage is not only not sinful, but can be a path to virtue as well. It is better to marry than to burn, because marriage can be not only a tutor for the passions but can also use them to bring about a life of virtue and holiness. (Feel the Burn)
Thus, the ideal of the Christian life (in Jesus’ and St. Paul’s conception) is the celibate life, as it offers a foretaste of union with God and a transfiguration of human nature in that union, but it is not always a gift that has been given, and even if it is, is not something that is always attainable. As such, St. Paul counsels marriage as a way to still progress in virtue even though one’s passions rage.
Seen in this way, one could have the gift and calling of celibacy, yet still marry. That is, of course, something that would be between one and God. However, as we will see, this isn’t exactly what our author is ultimately getting at.
Part of figuring out how to live into the creative life of God is figuring out how to live into being yourself, and choosing the spiritual practices and disciplines that support your own discipleship.
This is another instance of really fuzzy euphemisms that don’t really articulate much in the way of substance. There is some truth in that there is some measure of customization in regards to spiritual practices and the like which can occur, but it is unfortunate that this is ushered in under the guise of self-actualization, which, as noted earlier, is not what Jesus is talking about when describing a life full of joy and abundance. Instead, “living into the creative life of God” is characterized by complete submission to his will and obedience to his commands. Logically, one’s spiritual disciples and discipleship patterns would necessarily remain within those bounds.
One of the most unfair things the Christian tradition has foisted on singles is the expectation that they would remain celibate — that is, refraining from sexual relationships.
Since the author has narrowed the scope of the discussion to that of celibacy while single (rather than the broader notion of St. Paul where one might have a gift for celibacy yet nevertheless marry so as to avoid sin), we can evaluate the rest on those grounds. We are once again back to the beginning of this piece where the notion of ‘fairness’ is employed, yet without any further elaboration of why such a state of affairs should be characterized in this manner.
It is also interesting that the author chooses to characterize this as a “foisting,” thus in no uncertain terms defining the traditional Christian sexual ethic in respect to sex and marriage in pejorative terms. There is a also a conceptual sleight of hand, in that the bogeyman of the “Christian tradition” serves as a scapegoat for this supposed injustice, as if the “Christian tradition” arose out of some sort of moral and ethical vacuum.
As I have noted earlier, Jesus and St. Paul are the sources of that “tradition,” and so it it is rather ironic (and intellectually dishonest) that the author attempts to pit Jesus against the “Christian tradition” as if there is no relation or connection between them.
After all, Jesus locates the sexual act squarely within the marital state, when in response to his interlocutors declares that God created humanity as male and female in the beginning, noting that in marriage they become one flesh. There is both a spiritual and a physical dimension here, for while there is certainly a spiritual union of sorts, there is also concretely a physical union; otherwise the terminology of “one flesh” would be meaningless. St. Paul clarifies this meaning in noting that our bodies themselves are members of Christ himself; to unite sexually with a person who is not one’s spouse is to become “one with her in body,” and also has the corollary of sacrilege, as one is by that act uniting Christ with that person, since to be united with Christ is to be one in spirit.
There is additionally further clarification in that St. Paul describes the marital union (with its corollary of sex) as being an icon of the relationship between Christ and the church, and does so by echoing the exact same passage Jesus quotes from in respect to marriage and sex.
As such, if anyone has foisted such an expectation, it would have to go all the way back to the Jesus himself. And given St. Paul’s teaching on how marriage is an icon of the relationship of Christ and the Church, to reject this sexual ethic is to engage in a sort of sexual iconoclasm (more on this in a bit).
American Christians sometimes conflate celibacy and chastity, too, which is a problem. Chastity is a virtue, related to temperance — it’s about moderating our indulgences and exercising restraint. We’re all called to exercise chastity in a variety of ways, though the details will vary given our individual situations.
There is a great deal of truth here, in that chastity is something not just for celibacy, but also for marriage. Chastity is certainly related to temperance, in that within the dreaded “Christian tradition” (from which this description of the virtue of temperance ironically derives…) chastity is actually a part of the virtue of temperance, and is primarily associated with the chastisement of the passions related to sexual desire, which is its etymology. And while the details can vary given circumstances, there is yet a circumscribed limit.
In the official teaching of the Catholic Church and some other churches, however, chastity requires restraining oneself from indulging in sexual relationships outside of the bounds (and bonds) of marriage. That is, chastity for singles means celibacy — no sex.
And has been seen already, this is what Jesus and St. Paul teach as well.
There might be other norms for chastity. Maybe our marital state isn’t the primary norm.
It is important to make more conceptual distinctions here. As we have seen, according to Jesus and St. Paul, sex within marriage is a “norm” in the sense that it is the corollary of the marital state; that is, sex is meant to exist within marriage. However, it is also not the “norm” in that the ultimate end of humanity is something that transcends both marriage and sex. However, neither of these “norms” leaves room within either the thought of Jesus, St. Paul or the dread “Christian tradition” for a sexual relationship outside of marriage, as within the sexual ethic sex and marriage are realities that necessarily exist in relation to each other, with the former being necessitated by the latter.
Thus, as should be clear, that marriage isn’t the ultimate “norm” in respect to humanity’s end does not therefore mean that as a norm for sex it is not the sine qua non of sex.
I’d argue that we can be chaste — faithful — in unmarried sexual relationships if we exercise restraint: if we refrain from having sex that isn’t mutually pleasurable and affirming, that doesn’t respect the autonomy and sacred worth of ourselves and our partners.
There is a lot of conceptual misguidedness here that needs to be unpacked.
Firstly, chastity is a part of temperance, to be sure, but it is also in itself a virtue, having lust as its opposite. Temperance is in part about exercising restraint, but that restraint is not a sliding scale that merely finds the mean between two things. Rather, temperance is ultimately about reason subduing the passions so as to seek and obtain the good.
Secondly, the author equivocates on chastity, clarifying it here as “faithfulness.” To be sure, faithfulness is a virtue as well, but it is related to justice, since it involves something to which one owes to another. Chastity in and of itself is about the chastisement of the sexual desires so as to bring them in conformity with reason, which means into conformity with the end of sex. This is really the sticking point of the entire question.
The author understands sex to be primarily about mutual pleasurability and affirmation. Thus, she implies that if these conditions are met, sex in any relationship can take on the characteristic of chastity.
In some respect there is a notion of reasonability here, at least within the modern conception of sex, but when analyzed more deeply quickly becomes extraordinarily problematic and effectively an unworkable sexual ethic. The difficulty emerges in that the subjective nature of this sexual ethic ends up having the opposite result than intended.
The understanding of a sexual relationship being mutually pleasurable is of course appealing to moderns, but as a delineation of what constitutes chastity is simply unworkable, and creates an internally incoherent ethic.
To begin with, pleasure as a principal object of sex has the result of reducing human sexuality to its passions, as it describes the goodness of sex only insofar as it relates to its ability to confer pleasure. Thus, in the author’s conception chastity is at least partially preconditioned on sex being mutually pleasurable. However, given the fickle nature of one’s passions, emotions and even pleasures, is this actually a reasonable requirement?
After all, if something is to be conceived of as pleasurable, is there a certain threshold that a particular pleasure must attain so as to constitute pleasure? The reality of our animal nature is that things that should be pleasurable aren’t always so, and aren’t always so in the same manner with every indulgence of that pleasure. Often this is subject to things beyond our control, such as being tired, feeling sick and an innumerable host of other reasons. Sometimes this even occurs suddenly and without warning.
This difficulty is further compounded in that it is well nigh impossible to truly know whether someone finds an act or experience pleasurable or not, or if what you think is pleasurable is for them as well or to the same degree. This interesting requirement is- to use our author’s word- foisted onto the sexual relationship, in which one is required to give another pleasure (presumably every time?) or else the sexual act is not chaste. This raises further questions as to how that mutual pleasure is to be produced; to be somewhat crude, is it a performance based metric? Are there certain things one must to to ensure the act is pleasurable, and thus chaste? Does there need to be some sort of post-coital evaluation of the mutual pleasurability of the act?
Further compounding this difficulty is the possibility that the other person might not always be completely forthcoming about the pleasurableness of the act, perhaps stretching the truth for other reasons- not to hurt one’s feelings, to not damage the relationship, etc. Would the act in this case remain chaste, and would one have any way of knowing that?
These sorts of questions may seem somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but if this criterion really is partially indicative of the chastity of any sexual act (and presumably its sinfulness if not), then it behooves one to know the answers to these questions.
A corollary difficulty is found within the guidelines of a sexual act being affirming of the other person’s autonomy and worth. However, the first guideline of mutual pleasurability seems to run directly counter to this as a good.
After all, the sexual drive is very powerful, and it can cause us to do things that we wouldn’t normally do. It can affect our decisions and motivations, often even without us realizing it. By making pleasure a primary end of purportedly chaste sex, and locating it primarily within the subjectivity of the partners, the author again seems to unintentionally create an ethic that is unworkable.
Pleasure as an end is always fraught with peril, for if it is controlling the reason then it will only seek its fulfillment. If sex is being sought for pleasure, even ostensibly “mutual” pleasure, then it runs a very high risk of actually not affirming the other person’s worth and dignity, and in fact reducing them to an object of pleasure, given cover by the notion of “mutual pleasure.”
However, respecting another person’s worth means that one must approach them sexually in manner that is consistent with the end of sex and the sine qua non of sex (marriage), which cannot be reduced to either pleasure or even mutual affirmation. Sex has as its primary natural end (although this is not exhaustive of its meaning) that of procreation, which in humans presupposes the good of future offspring as an integral part of the act of sex and the justice therein. The good of the offspring presupposes a determinate union of the offspring’s parents, which tends to both their good, the good of the offspring and the good of the human race as whole.
This end, while certainly not exclusive of mutual pleasure in the sexual act nor of affirmation of each person’s worth, is actually necessary for the mutual pleasure of sex (which is not a sine qua non of sex) to be chaste and for the true affirmation of each other’s worth in as sexual relationship. Justice becomes an overriding virtue in the relationship, since it is ordered to the good of the future offspring as implied in the act, the justice owed to each other by virtue of mutual vows, and the good of the human race as a necessary condition for its propagation.
It should be noted that in this understanding of the end of sex there is not the quagmire of the subjective delineation of what makes a sexual relationship chaste or not; in fact, matrimony as the sine qua non of the sexual relationship offers an incredible amount of freedom- much greater than our author’s sexual ethic- and even introduces the possibility for virtue. As I have argued elsewhere, marriage can take the passions of concupiscence (and all the subjective fuzziness therein) and turn it towards virtue so as to be a meritorious act.
One major difficulty with this sort of reworked understanding of a Christian sexual ethic is that it engages in a sort of sexual Pharisaism, where requirements are stacked on top of what constitutes chastity, and is something that is ultimately a load too heavy to bear.
After all, if this sexual ethic is intended to describe chastity, then the acts which are not characterized by this would presumably be sinful. Persons are thus placed into the position of having every sexual act’s goodness and chasteness being at least partially determined by their own subjective state and the subjective state of the other, both of which are subject to innumerable things and unknowable to some degree or another.
An even greater difficulty is that by reworking the end of sex so as to be located in one’s subjectivity, the author engages in a sort of sexual iconoclasm, as briefly introduced above. As St. Paul describes, marriage has a natural end (to unite a man and a woman as one flesh), but that natural end reveals its supernatural nature as an icon of the relationship between Christ and his church. Thus, the end of marriage and of sex ultimately isn’t about pleasure or even affirmation, but is to image that supernatural relationship by means of its concrete reality. To reduce the meaning of sex in the author’s manner to something that can be outside of marriage and which is primarily characterized by subjectivity, this supernatural meaning is eschewed, resulting in a form of iconoclasm. Sex ceases to have this supernatural meaning, and thus marriage is likewise largely emptied of its transcendence.
A corollary of this, ironically, is that the fully sexual nature of singles and the distinctive good that they can do in the world- which the author takes pain to (rightly) highlight- is likewise emptied of its meaning and distinction. Instead of potentially being able to live into a unique gifting (whether for life or for a time in life), chastity outside of marriage loses everything that makes it unique and gifted and potentially full of goodness. “Sacred worth” becomes conflated with pleasure, and is likewise emptied of its reality.
There are those who feel that they are called to seasons of celibacy, or even years of celibacy, and if answering that call is life-giving and purposeful, then they should take it up as a spiritual discipline. But no call can be forced on an unwilling person, especially not if they find themselves single only by virtue of circumstance.
The author is of course right that no one can be forced into a call to life-long celibacy, which is of course why St. Paul counsels his readers that they should marry if they cannot control their passions, as it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Plenty of women and men love sex, and need it — we need bodily pleasure, remember — and the abundant life for them will involve seeking out relationships of mutual pleasure.
There is of course a sense in which we do need sex, as it is the means by which the human race is propagated. It does not follow, however, that this meta-need therefore entails that any particular human needs to have sex at any particular time. After all, we have bodily desires for all kinds of things, but that does not entail that fulfillment of that desire is a good use of that desire, nor a justifiable reason to seek that pleasure outside of the good use of that desire.
It will also be noticed that the theme of subjective entitlement once again inserts itself into this discussion. The very fact that someone loves sex is given as a rationalization for seeking it out for the sake of bodily pleasure, albeit under the guise of seeking out mutual pleasure. One wonders if the author has noticed that the desire for mutual pleasure is itself predicated on the desire for personal bodily pleasure (which, she declares, is something we need), which has the effect of reducing the desire for sexual relationships to a purely animal level.
One might wonder: if we truly need sex for the bodily pleasure, why is the aspect of “mutual pleasure” even necessary for chastity under this reasoning? That is, why would temperance demand mutual pleasure and affirmation of another’s worth if it is something which is truly needed and loved on the level of the bodily pleasures? Temperance, after all, is about reason guiding the passions towards the attainment of the good; if this is a good, would not the fulfillment of sexual desire and need be chaste in and of itself irrespective of anything else?
This point is crucial to grasp, for by reducing the sexual relationship to being primarily about the physical pleasure it produces and fulfills, the author has effectively advocated approaching sexual relationships from a primarily bodily approach. As we see in other species, mutual pleasure and affirmation do not enter into the bodily equation of sexual desire and attainment at all; the seeking of sexual desire is, among other things, built-in instinctually and carried out in varied ways and at varied times. Nothing about the fulfillment of bodily pleasure or the instinctual drive for sex even touches on mutual pleasure or affirmation, nor would it be reasonable to characterize animal behavior vis-à-vis sexual relationships as being not mutually pleasurable nor affirming. The bodies are acting as they are driven to act, and there is no moral dimension to reasonably speak of.
As beings who have an animal nature, similar considerations could be brought to bear upon human sexual relationships, except that we are beings who are not simply characterized by our animal or material nature, but also by our spiritual or immaterial nature. Being endowed with reason, we are not necessarily bound to our instincts or our drives, but rather it is the part of reason to determine the proper end of sex and the proper way to its fulfillment and attainment, which is, of course, what temperance and chastity are all about.
Our author goes wrong here: It is precisely because we are not just bodies that bodily pleasure cannot be one of the primary ends of sex nor of its pursuit and its attainment.
A final note is that it also does not follow that simply because someone desires something, that “abundant life” can only be obtained by means of attaining that. That sort of myopia is entirely contrary to what Jesus describes as the abundant life, which is union with God and following his commandments. Yet instead of submission to God’s will and obedience to his commandments, the author here recommends using one’s bodily desires to give cover to the reduction of sexual relationships to the search for the fulfillment of bodily pleasure, which again falls into the sexual iconoclasm noted earlier.
Chastity, or just sex, requires that whether we are married or unmarried, our sex lives restrain our egos, restrain our desire for physical pleasure when pursuing it would bring harm to self or other.
It is interesting that this statement is actually spot on, which makes it stand out from what has come before rather starkly, as it doesn’t follow from the previous premises. After all, seeking sexual relationships for pleasure- even it is ostensibly mutual- involves the ego, as it is fundamentally oriented towards oneself and the fulfillment of one’s own sexual desires and the search for pleasure.
Further, if the end of sex is not borne in mind, then harm to oneself and the other is built-in to sexual relationships outside of marriage, as it is intended to join a man and a woman together, both toward the natural end of procreation and mutual love and support, but also towards the supernatural end of imaging the relationship of Christ to the Church. Sex outside of marriage would be a privation of these ends, and thus intrinsically involve “harm” to both parties.
Again, given the logic of someone needing bodily pleasure, and the fulfillment of their abundant life being in seeking out that pleasure, it is difficult to see how the Pharisaical conditions of mutual pleasure and affirmation could be anything but ad hoc rationalizations.
I offer the example of Jesus not because I think he was likely celibate, but rather because his life demonstrates what it might mean to be both different and beloved, chaste but never cut off. Jesus was forever referring to those who have eyes to see, and he saw people in ways that others didn’t. He saw them through the eyes of love, whoever they were. He loved them as they were, regardless of what society thought of them.
There is a fair amount of truth involved here; however, it necessarily leaves a lot out to give cover to this:
We’re called to see that way, too: to see and nurture the possibilities for life and love that are constantly unfolding all around us. We’re called to see ourselves this way: beloved, no matter (or perhaps because of) our refusal to conform to society’s expectations about sex, love and relationships.
Straight, gay, bi, trans, intersex: we are beloved, and do God and ourselves a disservice if we are conformed.
If the author is going to invoke Jesus, she needs to deal with the many ways in which Jesus refused to conform to society’s expectations about sex, love and relationships which were foundational for the dread Christian tradition of sexual ethics.
As an example, the “societal expectation” of Jesus’ day was that a husband could put his wife away for quite a few reasons; the ongoing debate was about degrees. In contrast, Jesus harkens back to the beginning, noting that this societal expectation was not the way marriage was intended to be. That his teaching was counter to societal expectations was illustrated in the disciples dumbfounded reaction to this, in that they thought it was crazy and too difficult to follow.
Similarly, in the wider world of St. Paul, the pater familias legally held complete control over his family, including his wife, with the ability to treat her or do with her as he pleased. The wider world also rarely frowned upon sexual infidelity on the part of the man. In contrast to this St. Paul rails against sexual immorality in many of his letters, and advises those who are not single to remain as they are, to feel from sexual immortality and give themselves wholly to God. He commands husbands to treat their wives not as the pater familias, but to serve with humility and lay down their lives for their wives. And for those who want to follow Paul’s advice about celibacy but find the passions difficult to control, he offers marriage as the proper place for them to turn what could be their spiritual downfall into an opportunity for virtue.
In respect to being “conformed,” we are explicitly instructed as Christians to not be conformed to the world, but rather to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God. Jesus describes this act of worship and transformation under the figure of taking up one’s cross and following him. In all of these descriptions of the Christian life, nowhere are the bodily pleasures given prominence, nor employed to justify or rationalize any specific act. Rather, metaphors such as discipline and training and chastisement are used to describe the constant struggle with our pleasures, which are not wrong in and of themselves but which- because of our fallen nature- are so easily conscripted to the service of evil.
There is also a certain irony here, for the author’s rhetoric attempts to claim the prophetic mantle, yet the rationalizations employed for her position end up lining up pretty nicely with much of the wider society’s expectations and understandings about sex, love and relationships, and thus take up the hammer to smash some more icons.
Ultimately, the way we are called to be is not to see ourselves as beloved or to nurture possibilities for life and love as a way to give cover to what we want to do. There is likely some part in which those euphemisms can be brought to bear on our lives, but they are not the sine qua non of our calling. Rather, we are called to sanctification and holiness, which, as St. Paul describes, entails
that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister… For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. (1 Thessalonians 4:4-7)
Our call is ultimately to live a holy life, to follow God’s commandments, which- as Jesus describes- is the definition of the abundant life and one in which one’s joy can be full. The “seeing ourselves as beloved” and the like can actually only exist within such a life, for they are brought into their fulness because they can be united with God and his will. Our bodily pleasures are strong, and the more necessary they are, the more we must master them. Pleasure in and of itself cannot be the ultimate justification for an act; as St. Paul says elsewhere:
The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (1 Corinthians 6:13)
At the end of the day, the sexual ethic prescribed here cannot offer holiness or sanctification, and- as has been shown- cannot even deliver on what it promises. It takes both the natural and supernatural meanings of sex and hollows them out, reducing humans and their sexual relationships in the process, all the while leaving an unworkable and Pharisaical substitute in its place. Instead of opening up and nurturing possibilities for life and love, it narrows them down to an extraordinarily shallow understanding of sex, one that can barely rise above the level of urges and has to cloak itself in euphemisms as cover for its reductionism.