The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (4): contemporary attitudes to celibacy


Two strands of teaching on love, sex and the body

STRAND ONE:  a good gift to be enjoyed

In the last few posts we’ve sketched how the Song of Songs does not need to be interpreted allegorically in order to have a rich theology of love, sex and the body (somatology). It is a celebration of an exclusive, monogamous, heterosexual union of husband and wife in a relationship of intimacy, joy, play, and love. We might say that it is a picture of idealised love between an archetypal couple.

This, if you like, is strand one of the Judeo-Christian theology of love, sex and the body.

( I should add that the Song, being about two lovers coming together for the first time, has no mention of children. The book is not really about marriage per se, more about human love. Within wider Jewish and Christian theology, one of the key ‘goods’ of marriage and the central purpose of sex is the making of children who are raised within the security of a covenant relationship between the man and the woman. So this can be added to strand one).

STRAND TWO: an inextricable link to sin and shame

We’ve also jumped forward into the New Testament and early church history to note how the death and resurrection of Jesus was the catalyst for a radical re-thinking of sex, marriage and the body, so much so that celibacy became the highest expression of Christian spirituality for over a millennium.

Strand two is predominantly Augustinian – taking the examples and teaching of Jesus and Paul seriously, but with a deep ambivalence about sex and the body, a somewhat reluctant endorsement of marriage, and with celibacy the idealised state. Sex and body are tied to shame and sin. The less sex the better and the fun, play and delight of the Song of Songs is definitely off limits. This is the strand of sexual asceticism – a hugely influential distortion of the New Testament’s positive teaching on celibacy / singleness.

A more balanced view is that both sex and singleness are good gifts (charisma) of God’s grace (charis). Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor. 7:7

Each man [or woman] has his [or her] own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

There is no hierarchy of status or merit or achievement here – both are gifts of God.


These two strands have in other words, had fluctuating fortunes in church history. To paint with a very broad brush, strand one has made a big comeback since the Reformation, to the point where it re-emerged as the overwhelmingly dominant model of a Christian ethic of love, sex and body. The fusion of marriage, sex and children long ago eclipsed celibacy as the ideal state, particularly within Protestantism with its married clergy and rejection of enforced celibacy. Indeed, it is the nuclear family which has become the Christian ‘ideal’ regarding sex, love, relationships and children and it is that ‘norm’ that churches are often structured around.

However, within both strands, it should be noted that sex is a good gift and belongs within the domain of heterosexual marriage. Sex outside that domain is a misuse of God’s good gift. This is the orthodox and agreed teaching of the Church catholic since the earliest days of Christianity and should not be lightly dismissed.

All this sets the scene for another big jump forward in this post to sex in the 21st Century West.



My suggestion, dear reader, (with which you are welcome to disagree) is that the second strand (the ideal of celibacy) is already completely incomprehensible to the modern mind. When I say modern mind I mean us Westerners – whether Christian or not.

Within the church, in my opinion, the ideal of marriage has been assumed and reinforced in a thousand ways. The strong biblical support for celibacy in Jesus and in Paul, as well as the early church, has been overwhelmed by modern romanticism. Singleness (and therefore celibacy according to Christian teaching) is implicitly viewed as a failure; to be regretted and rarely talked about. Single people in multiple ways are left on the margins.

‘Outside’ the church, attitudes to celibacy are less ambiguous. The 40 year old virgin is a buffoon, an immature idiot, a source of comedy and pity, who must at all costs, get laid belatedly to enter adult life. Sex is the rite of passage into autonomy and self-respect. Sex is an essential part of our identity and self-expression. Sexual identity is who we are – whatever our place on the spectrum of human sexuality. To deny that identity is to deny our core being. Celibacy becomes therefore virtually a form of self-harm; it is evidence of a lack of self-respect. This is why in the movie Steve Carell has to be rescued first and foremost from himself.

If sex is essentially our culture’s idealised form of adult entertainment, a playground of pleasure and enjoyment, then those that refuse to partake in its delights must be victims of a distorted vision of human flourishing. Celibacy, on other words, is not only an idiosyncratic life choice, it is positively harmful.

And when you connect this wider cultural attitude to images of Catholic Ireland, paedophile priests, abuse, repression, and hypocrisy, you can see how celibacy is now understood to be a very dangerous idea indeed.

It was not that long ago that having a son go into the priesthood was a mark of status and honour for an Irish family. No more … just think of the brilliant scene in Calvary where Brendan Gleeson happens to walk with a young girl on her way to the beach. All is charmingly light-hearted and friendly until her father screeches up in a car and tears her away from the insidious danger of a priest – any priest. Gleeson’s despairing slump of his shoulders as the car drives away spoke volumes of a fatally tarnished ideal. The point of the film’s (very) black humour is various residents’ pathological antipathy towards the Church and its representative – a hatred that leads to the climax of the movie.

This post was going to be the last, but it is already too long so we’ll look at contemporary attitudes to marriage in the (really) final one inspired by the Song of Songs.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Some thoughts (and questions) on pleasure

Ancient Corinth

We’re just back from a family holiday – and very enjoyable it was too. Not only the company, but also doing a bit of following Paul around in Corinth and Athens and other historical stuff – rather a lot of it lying around Greece.

To the words ‘enjoyable’ and ‘holiday’, I guess you could add others like ‘pleasure’ and ‘fun’ and ‘craic’ and ‘play’ etc.

Life is full to bursting with pleasures is it not? Each of us has our particular sources of pleasure. We are embodied creatures, each sense attuned to the physical world and able to connect with the joy and beauty of that world.

What are some pleasures that you enjoy from the physical creation ? Here are some of mine:

– a hug from a loved one

– the smell of the hot earth after long-awaited rainfall

– jumping into a crystal-clear azure sea

– splitting the fairway with a drive when you need a good one [golf obviously being the highest and purest form of enjoyment known to humankind]

– sharing a good red wine with friends over a meal

– tucking into a big plate of Linsen mit Spätzle made to a secret German recipe (it’s a lot nicer than it looks, honest!)

– hiking to the top of a mountain on a clear Irish summer’s day and drinking in the view

– singing along with your daughter trying to remember all the words of Dylan’s Desolation Row

– getting engrossed in a great story whether film, TV or book

– finishing a piece of writing that hangs together

And so the list could go on and on …..

And yet, if asceticism is an intrinsic Christian response to the material world, does not all talk of pleasure for Christians have a double-edged feel? To abandon ourselves to the pursuit of pleasure is to love the world and what it gives me. It is a form of selfish indulgence that also ignores vast inequalities and injustices.

Holidays are for the rich who have the luxury of planning their lives and the funds to travel to places that they are welcomed. Golf, wine, good food, hobbies, sport, books, computers and leisure in general are unimaginable luxuries to much of the world’s population.

So a Christian ascetic will tend to reject the frivolity and self-indulgence of enjoying the pleasures the material world offers. If you, like me, only have a little streak of asceticism, maybe it manifests itself in a vague sense of guilt after taking a holiday? All that time (and money) just to relax and enjoy ourselves? (help me out here if you can!)

But it’s here that other Christians say ‘NO!’ to such guilt. God has created this ‘very good’ world. He has given us senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. To reject pleasure is to reject the goodness of the creator and the life he offers.

Taste and see that the Lord is good! (Ps 34)

Good consumption enjoys the blessings of God’s creation; it is grateful, celebrating the created world around us and the rich diversity of experience it offers. We need to consume to live and God calls us to fruitful and full life. God is the ultimate hedonist who created pleasure.

Is such a tension simply contradictory? How can asceticism and enjoyment of God-given creation co-exist?  Do you feel a pull from one to the other, enjoying a feast at a good restaurant one day yet uneasy at the extravagance looking at the bill the next?  What counts as greedy self-indulgence and what is ‘good consumption’? How the heck can such questions be negotiated without falling into petty legalism on the one hand and thoughtless pursuit of selfish pleasure on the other hand?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[All this btw is to seamlessly set up Laura Hartman’s next chapter of The Christian Consumer on embracing creation.]