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.


The Song of Songs: love, sex and hidden meanings (2): Augustine – ‘the less sex the better’


In the last post we looked at the first reason why allegory has been the overwhelmingly dominant approach to the lyrical love poetry of the Song of Songs.

Here’s a second reason:

A deep rooted theological ambivalence about the body and sex

Take, for example this passage of the man extolling the physical beauty of his beloved in Song of Songs 4. This is a wasf – a love poem focusing on the other’s body starting from the head and working downwards (he gets as far as her breasts and gets distracted 🙂 )

How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!

Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Your hair is like a flock of goats

descending from the hills of Gilead

Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn,
coming up from the washing.
Each has its twin;
not one of them is alone.

Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is lovely.
Your temples behind your veil
are like the halves of a pomegranate.

Your neck is like the tower of David,
built with courses of stone;
on it hang a thousand shields,
all of them shields of warriors.

Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.

Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of incense.

You are altogether beautiful, my darling;
there is no flaw in you. (NIV)

This doesn’t need a lot of clever interpreting. She’s drop dead gorgeous and he’s drinking her beauty in. The mountains of myrrh and hill of incense are obviously metaphors for her breasts – he is dying to spend the night in their contours! She is his darling, perfect in every way to him.

The Songs are about young love. Their bodies are in the full flow of youth. It is marital love – she is his bride. But there is no mention of children. Nor, indeed, of God. The structure is centered around their sexual union at the end of chapter 4 and start of chapter 5.

All of this poses a fairly major problem if you come to the text with certain theological assumptions like:

  • sex and sexual desire are inseparably linked with sin
  • sex and marriage are second best to God’s higher calling of celibacy
  • holiness is to do with sexual renunciation. It is the celibate and virgin who is the ideal Christian

Very quickly you can see how, when it comes to sex, the past is another country.

The person who has had greatest influence on Christian attitudes to sex is Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD). He held all of the assumptions above. But we have to be careful not to caricature. He actually developed a fairly positive theology of marriage in contrast to other more radical early church figures and movements.

Some of his thinking can be summarised like this:

  • Human sexuality is a good gift of God
  • It is within marriage that sexual desires can be rightly ordered
  • Sex itself is made by God as the means of procreation
  • BUT (and it is a very big but) – sex cannot happen without the sinful desire of lust (concupiscence). Lust is a lower order desire that acts against reason and will.
  • It is the result of sin (it did not exist in the copulation of Adam and Eve before the Fall)
  • Sex and procreation are essential but are tainted by sin and shame
  • So it is OK to have sex in order to have children. BUT it is a venial sin to have sex for pleasure since that is unnecessarily engaging in lust.

All in all, Augustine might be summarised as ‘the less sex the better’

You can see why I suggested that the past is another country to day when it comes to sex!

Augustine’s reasoning is shaped by platonism – the duality between the higher will / reason and the lower flesh and desire.

But now the soul is ashamed that the body, which by nature is inferior and subject to it, should resist its authority. (Augustine, CIty of God, Book XIV, para. 23)

He, like pretty well all the church fathers before and afterwards – and right up through the Medieval church, through the Reformation and to Wesley and up to many today, allegorised the Song of Songs.


It is not so much that sex itself is despised (Augustine’s achievement was to counter that thinking), but his was a theology of profound ambivalence towards sex and the body.  He reluctantly saw that this was God’s way of doing things but because of the Fall and original sin it is shameful.

His ideal for sexual intercourse was Adam and Eve copulating in full control of their wills, free from the dangerous passions of lust. He imagines the first human sex scene thus:

without the disease of lust … at the command of the will … without the seductive stimulus of passion; with calmness of mind and with no corrupting of the integrity of the body, the husband would lie upon the bosom of his wife. (City of God, XIV, para. 26)

A bigger contrast to the Song of Songs is hard to imagine!

A couple of questions to ponder:

What are our modern day theological assumptions about sex and the body today?

What place is there for celibacy?

What are the assumptions of the culture we live in?

Contested Love (3) love as the supreme virtue

9780300118308I’m skipping on in Simon May’s Love: A History to an important chapter on the evolution of love within Christianity.

A question: what is Christian love? How would you define it? What is distinctive about Christian love as compared say to love in our wider culture today?

I had quite a few quibbles with May in the this chapter. Not surprising I guess, he is venturing into detailed areas of Christian theology and painting with a broad brush. There are half-truths and generalisations, but the overall thesis is intriguing.

He argues that two major shifts in the history of love happen that are intimately linked to how love comes to be understood within Christianity.

  1. Love is elevated to become the supreme virtue. There is no better thing than to love and be loved. The idea of love as eternal and supreme is everywhere in the West.
  1. Love as divine: in love we are united to the divine. And this experience of divinity is radically democratic – open to all ordinary people.

He traces this development, beginning with Jesus. (and this is one place that it is ‘Yes, but’)

Jesus is not linked to the two developments above. He is firmly located within OT categories of love as command and obedience. May says Jesus speaks little of love – I think this is overplayed with significant elements of love within the life and teaching of Jesus passed by.

May pits Jesus against John (love as divine) and Paul (love as supreme). Again, I am not convinced that there is such a wedge between Jesus, John and Paul when it comes to love.

[And there are links here back to our discussion of the New / Old Perspective on Paul – with love in the apostle’s teaching seen in some frameworks as part of Christianity’s love / grace / freedom set over against the law / legalism / slavery of Judaism.]

May argues that the claims made for love by Paul are uniquely extravagant in the history of love – love fulfils the law. [But I would argue that love is deeply rooted within the law – Deuteronomy 6]. May sees a radical disjuncture of OT to NT (Paul) in terms of love. A sort of Old / New Perspective on Love.

“one thing that is obviously happening is the creation of a new morality – based on so great an intensification of Old Testament morality that a genuine revolution in values has occurred.” 87.

What do you think? Is love within Paul a ‘new morality’ and ‘revolution’ compared to love in the OT?

Moving on, it is Augustine, May argues, where love becomes the greatest virtue and from which all actions and morality flow.  But what happens is how love not only answers questions of flourishing and ethics, but deeper questions of existence and meaning.

“love is to be the lodestar of our lives and, if blessed with the capacity to exercise it, we can aspire to imitate God. It was only a matter of time before the outrageous conclusion was drawn that through love we, ordinary men and women, can ourselves become divine.” 87

A bit of a villain in the historical exaltation and divinisation of love is Martin Luther who he quotes as saying “we are gods through love.” He acknowledges that Luther is well aware of potential heresy here – again I think this is overplayed.

But things get really interesting in how May perceptively links Christianity’s elevation of love as the supreme virtue WITH a deep awareness of the need for humility within Christian spirituality.

To fill in what I think he means here: if we are commanded to imitate the love of God, such love is only possible because of grace, the gift of forgiveness, the Spirit and God’s enabling.  Love is always first from God.

If Augustine is the theologian of love, he is also the theologian of grace: we are not self-sufficient. “The Grace of God makes a willing man out of an unwilling one.” 90

We find our fulfilment in God (Augustine’s restless heart).  May sees Augustine as very Platonic – the ladder of ascent to the divine. It is by grace that humans can ascend to caritas (divine love, selfless love, eternal love) rather than cupiditas – lower love, without reference to God.

It is this unique combination within Christianity of an ascent to divine love combined with a deep emphasis on humility, that is so powerful and enduring. Such love is hard – it requires obedience and persistence and discipline.

The implication I think is that he means love only comes slowly, it needs character, it is a virtue that is the fruit of moral integrity and dependence on God.

“This view of love expresses the reality that exaltation and abasement are related to each other in a profound dialectic – a dialectic incomparably revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. ‘Wanting to be gods’ is inseparable from wanting to go the way of the Cross. The crucifixion of the incarnate God is not a gruesome paradox, as Nietzsche was to characterise it, but rather speaks a deep truth: if you want to be ‘Gods and Saviours of the world’ you have to be (and not merely appear) humble.   (92)

How convincing do you find this?

What are the essential requirements for love to flourish?


Being Consumed (3) Libido dominandi

Continuing William Cavanaugh’s discussion of Being Consumed: economics and Christian Desire

If there is no such thing as the free autonomous individual and there is no objective good, in a free-market what we really have is sheer arbitrary power, one will against the other. This is what Augustine called libido dominandi – the lust for power.

Cavanaugh explores what this power struggle looks like in a free-market economy, particularly through the lens of the marketing industry.

On the one hand, advertising communicates information about products to consumers to enable them to make rational choices. Here the consumer is treated as free, autonomous and sovereign.

On the other hand, marketing manipulates the consumer to create desire while simultaneously hiding the fact that it is doing so.

Most advertising has long abandoned the link between mere information and a rational consumer choice. Instead, via memorable images, ideas and themes it links the product with deeper human desires – love, sex, friendship, beauty, self-esteem, success, happiness etc. And this questions the self-acceptability of the consumer.

This is what has been called the ‘organized creation of dissatisfaction.’

Any good examples come to mind?

This all brings to mind what Marva Dawn talked about when in Dublin with us – ‘we technologize our intimacy and itimacize our technology’ (not sure about how to spell those words!)

And this is very deliberate and highly researched. Companies (generally) don’t spend billions on stuff that doesn’t work (unless you are Anglo-Irish Bank). Cavanaugh quotes Marketing News, it is about,

“creating mythologies about their brands by humanizing them and giving them distinct personalities and cultural sensibilities.’

Ah, we may think, “I see through this nonsense. I know a car isn’t going to make me irresistible to the opposite sex. Most of this is, (to link back to a recent post) bullshit.” And so you have a whole genre of anti-advertising advertising that knowingly exposes the game of advertising and invites you, the consumer, to join with the anti-establishment movement connected with the product. For an example see this post on the consumer as freedom fighter.

But back to Cavanaugh’s main point – in our intensely commodified culture is an inbuilt imbalance of power in favour of the marketer. And we are hopelessly naive if we think that we are not deeply shaped and influenced by such power. Here are some examples:

  1. Companies withhold information about products to consumers that may be damaging to consumer confidence. Battles over transparent food labelling come to my mind here – feel welcome to add any examples of your own.
  2. The power of surveillance: companies gather vast amounts of detailed data about individual consumers and target those consumers using that ‘disequilibrium of knowledge’. Cavanaugh references Erik Larson’s famous 1992 book The Naked Consumer: How our Private Lives Become Public Commodities. What he describes – how purchasing patterns, births, deaths, political views, educational levels, credit histories, pet ownership, hobbies, illnesses and so on – are harvested from various sources, can only have increased exponentially in reach and sophistication since the arrival of Google and the Web.
  3. Companies saturate the social space of consumers with a torrent of images and messages. Everyone of us swims in this torrent every day and hardly notice. It represents ‘an almost total takeover of the domestic informational system for the purposes of selling goods and services.’ (Herbert Schiller)
  4. Concentration of power in enormous transnational corporations. In numerous industries, a few huge corporations dominate production and consumption – Cavanaugh lists meat production in the USA (4 companies have 80% of the market).  Smaller producers are put out of business, or are powerless to challenge the power of these corporations. Supermarkets like Tesco come to mind in the UK and Ireland.
  5. Increasing disparity of power between employer and employee: and here we are right into current hot issues of executive pay especially in banks that have helped wreck the economy. In 1980 says Cavanaugh, the average CEO made 42 times more than the average production worker. In 1999 that had risen to 475 to 1 and continued to rise. This represents increasing power of the ‘owners’ of capital.

And (rant alert) how the convenient naivety of the free-market about human-nature led to the wild excesses that led to the current Credit Crunch. Those with power and the access to capital misused that power for their own ends. Christians shouldn’t be surprised at this but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be outraged at the abuse of power either. And outraged at the seeming invincibility of the powerful from prosecution and conviction. Ireland, with her deeply authoritarian, paternalistic and enclosed ruling class  is one of the worst places in the West for such justice to be done in my opinion.

But the vast power of corporations also means deep insecurity and powerlessness for the employee. Ask former Dell factory workers in Limerick or countless other examples. If you know that your company can up-sticks and move to India (or wherever) and pay employees desperate to work for anything there a fraction of what they pay you, you are in a fatally weakened position. This is ‘free trade’. The only ‘end’ is the profit of the company. You are expendable and decidedly ‘unfree’.

Cavanaugh doesn’t go into this – but to take an example of a famous US multi-national in Leixlip in Ireland that makes computer chips – it also puts employees in an uncertain and competitive ‘market’ with each other within the company. You are constantly measured against your peers and if you are in the bottom x% of a bell curve of productivity you probably won’t last, even though you are doing your job. This is a ruthless use of power to increase productivity.

But in this ‘free-market’, many companies will say they have no choice but to act this way. If they don’t, their opposition will. They ‘have’ to search for cheap labour because if they don’t the company may not survive. Consumers want and expect the lowest price.

“In a world of consumption without ends, it is assumed that the consumer will want to maximize his or her own power at the expense of the labourer, and the manager does not feel free to resist this logic, lest his or her own corporation fall victim to competition from other corporations that are better positioned to take advantage of cheap labor.” (22)

But underpinning, and more important than, consumer demand for low prices is stockholder expectation of profit. Huge investment funds demand a return from corporations and put seemingly irresistible pressure on executives to deliver. If they don’t they are out – see the recent story of UK Tesco boss being forced to resign after 26 yrs of working there after a shock profit warning wiped £5 billion off the company’s share price . And those executives have added reason to maximize profit – they will gain personally from significant stock options.

6. Political power and the free-market. Cavanaugh unravels here the fascinating, and apparently contradictory, link between authoritarian regimes like China and free-market economics. How can Communism co-exist so comfortably with Capitalism?

The answer lies in a disciplined labour force which is highly attractive to business. The ‘employee’ is a small and powerless cog in the state machine. Political power is used to serve business, the individual is expendable. Lack of employee rights and muffling of free speech sits very well within a free-market economy. Cavanaugh quotes Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano speaking of the military dictatorships in Latin America of the 1970s and 80s,

“People were in prison so that prices could be free.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Being Consumed (2) Augustine and Desire

Augustine is the classic source for Christian reflection on desire. Cavanaugh has him in conversation with the two beliefs underpinning the free market.

How familiar personally and true to life do you find the following sketch about disordered desire and how consumerism works?

  1. Freedom is not just absence of interference from others (like the state) – what matters is what freedom is for.
  2. Rather than freedom being maximized when individuals can choose their own ends based on nothing but their own wants, the question for Augustine is to what end is the will moved?

Taking these in turn:

Freedom is found within the grace of God. It finds purpose within his will. To be left to ourselves, is to be left under the power and control of sin. It is grace that frees us from the sickness and slavery of sin, to be able to choose freely.

In other words, we can only choose freely when we are liberated from sin and are able to desire rightly. Such right desire is to love and please God. This means that free market thinking sketched in the last post is, at best, naive about human nature. There is no such thing as the free autonomous individual. That ‘self’ needs itself to be freed in order to live freely – just like a slave or addict cannot free himself or herself.

“Freedom is something received, not just exercised.”

This means that wants are not just neatly internally generated and then acted upon by the autonomous individual. For Augustine, it is more that the self is a battleground of competing loves, both internal and external.

So the bigger question (unasked by pure free-market thinking) is what kind of desires drive our choices? There are true and false desires and, says Cavanaugh, we need a telos, a bigger narrative purpose, to tell the difference between them.

Freedom depends, not purely on the autonomy of the will, but on the end to which that will is moved. And for Augustine, therefore we need liberated from the tyranny of our own wills. Such change comes from without, from the grace of God.

So to Augustine and the free market: for the latter the only thing that matters is free choice of the individual to pursue his / her own desires. Choice itself is inherently good and all that is necessary whatever the circumstances. For example, Cavanaugh puts it like this,

“when there is a recession we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.” (13)

But for Augustine such desire is cut off from their source and end in God. They become desires for ‘nothing’. We want without any reason for why we want what we want. This is disordered desire.

And it finds expression in (for example) the Western addiction to shopping. Addiction rates, says Cavanaugh,  for shopping outstrip those of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Fuelled by desire for more; leading to a purchase without meaning, leading to a repeated and endless cycle of buying.