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

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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.

FLUCTUATING FORTUNES

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.

THE MARGINALISATION OF BOTH STRANDS WITHIN CONTEMPORARY WESTERN CULTURE

ATTITUDES TO CELIBACY TODAY

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 (3): celibacy better than sex?

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In this post (it’s in the text if you look hard enough) and this post (an ambivalent attitude to sex and the body) we have looked at two reasons why in Church History Christians have defaulted to an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs.

So far we moderns may be feeling rather smug at the naive foolishness of our predecessors.

Of course let the text be the text!

Of course the body and sex are to be celebrated and enjoyed! 

Not so fast. As we come to the third reason we begin to be faced with some uncomfortable truths about the Church’s accommodation to Western romantic individualism and its idolisation of the body and sex.  The third reason is this:

3. In the New Testament, celibacy IS the better option than marriage for a disciple of Jesus.

The first Christians and the early church fathers knew this far far better than we do. They knew the words of Jesus and of Paul. Let’s remind ourselves of them:

JESUS

In Matthew 19:1-12, after an exchange with the Pharisees about divorce (which Jesus seems to prohibit but that is another story) his disciples say

‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

To which Jesus does not disagree. Later in Matthew 22:30 Jesus states that

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven

Which rather drastically relativises the significance of marriage in the future life to come.

PAUL

In answering the Corinthians’ belief that “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) Paul takes a path that, I think, we would be very slow to walk today.

Basically he disagrees with their renunciation of sexual relations. He sees the place for sex within marriage, with a remarkable and counter cultural sense of mutuality between husband and wife it should be said.

The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 1 Cor. 7:3-4.

However – and it is a big however – he sounds quite Augustinian (yes I realise that is a wee bit off chronologically) in saying that sex and marriage is OK for some, but really he wished that they were all like him – single and celibate.

The whole of chapter 7 can be summed up with Paul’s teaching to ‘Stay as you are’. If you are single, stay that way. Don’t pursue marriage and sex and children and all those responsibilities and burdens, leave yourself free to live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord (v. 35)

each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. 1 Cor. 1:17.

Marriage is specifically described as not a sin (v. 28) but that is hardly the most ringing endorsement of marital bliss that you have ever heard. (Don’t hear this bit of 1 Corinthians preached too often at weddings funny enough – that honour goes to chapter 13).

Yes Paul is clearly NOT laying down laws here. He is at pains to emphasise that much of this is his personal preference – he has taken his apostolic ‘hat’ off. But the fact remains that this teaching, like that of Jesus, radically redraws the purpose and importance of marriage, sex and procreation within the kingdom of God.

My point in this post is to suggest that the early church recognised far more clearly than we do, the radical implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus as inaugurating God’s kingdom within the world. Death itself has been overcome in Christ.

The realities for Christian discipleship meant that martyrdom and celibacy were very much live options for serious believers. Marriage and sex and family were ties to ‘this world’. They were not a wrong choice, but the overwhelming consensus of the early church fathers is that celibacy was by far the better option.

If this is so then some questions for us today:

How is celibacy viewed in contemporary Western culture today? (Hint – the picture below).

An Irish related context question – how has the recent religious history of Ireland helped to shape contemporary attitudes to celibacy?

How is celibacy and singleness (whether for heterosexual or homosexual people) thought of within the Church? How do you think of it?

If you are single, what has been your experience ?

What do Christian divorce rates tell us about contemporary Western Christianity – its priorities and real beliefs ‘on the ground’?

In the last post on this mini-series, we’ll turn to think about the revolution in thinking about gender and sex in Western culture and questions it poses for Christian witness and discipleship. Easy answers guaranteed (not) !

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

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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?