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Posts Tagged ‘celibacy’

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Over the years I have observed two kinds of singleness. Here’s a quick meditation on either. Feel free to add what you think. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor comprehensive.

Firstly, there is singleness in general, as Cat Stevens sings, “Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody.” Singleness in general is being in the state of singleness with no direction towards a particular person. It can be real chill, freeing, and comfortable, especially if the single has no great desire to make anything romantically happen any time soon. This singleness is perfect for taking a break from any prospect of love. Where singleness in general is directed romantically, the single dwells in possibility. The world is yours, oyster. How long will it last though? With no particular, the single is thrust into the possibility of the boring and everyday. Though the single pines for the transcendent in a human subject, in drifting through the totality of romantic possibilities and having no overwhelming interest in any of them, they are confronted with the banality of love, that is, they desire to go into a relationship yet with a considerable blow to their expectations.

Secondly, there is singleness in particular, the most beautiful and dangerous kind. Centred on a particular person, singleness in particular begins and ends with passion. In passion it seeks to be with someone, but when this seeking fails, in passion it must follow a wholly other path, whether one that redirects the “love” which it took part in to a new, non-romantic subject, or one that inverts its enamouredness to revenge itself on the world. So the English poet, John Donne, when his wife died penned these lines:

Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.

(Holy Sonnet 17)

Since his love has gone to heaven, heaven becomes his love. Later, Kierkegaard was devastated when he broke off his engagement with Regine Olsen, and proceeded to beat a sizable dent into the surface of Western philosophy, largely influenced by his continual dealing with the emotional aftermath. Although there is no obvious sense of a particular here, the famous opening soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III details love’s inversion:

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

He goes on to say how he will set his two brothers against each other, so that he may attain the throne. He makes clear the connection between his ugliness (and therefore inopportunity for romantic love) and ambition for power. Finally, without saying too much in case you’re yet to watch Breaking Bad, at the beginning of Season 3, Jesse Pinkman claims his identity as the “bad guy,” somewhat in connection with his singleness in particular:

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Read ’em and … weep? Just graduated from a year doing a Graduate Diploma in Theology at Laidlaw College in Christchurch. I thought it was a fitting time to share what I had learnt with my readers! I’ve only included the essays which I thought I did a good job at and would be interesting.

Introduction to the Old Testament: This first essay looks at the theme of kingship in the Bible, with special focus on the establishment of the monarchy in 1 Samuel. This second essay attempts to outline “sexuality” in the Pentateuch and then uses Jesus’ interpretation of the law in Matthew to meditate on how best we can appropriate it. I regret not starting with a definition of sexuality and the bibliography is quite thin because the topic is so broad!

Gospel of John: Looking at the theme of divine and human agency in John, i.e. predestination and free will, I argue that each book of the Bible needs to be approached on its own terms regarding the information it gives on this. I had to write an application section as part of the assignment. Ignore that; it’s a let down. For my exegesis I asked if I could do the opening verses, 1:1-5. 3000 words on five verses! That was too much fun.

1 Corinthians: Paul presents the most in-depth discussion of celibacy in the Bible. Naturally, I was drawn to checking out what he was talking about. Our exegetical was on the abuse of the Lord’s Supper in 1:17-34. The application is a bit weak but I think all else went well!

Biblical Interpretation: A short, sharp survey of my favourite book in the New Testament, Philippians.

God and Creation: I will not post this one but if anyone is interested let me know in the comments section. This is a theological examination of the Christchurch earthquake. I definitely think it’s better to say something rather than nothing, and I have tried my best to be sensitive, though I’m still unsure what good reading it will do!

Salvation in History and Beyond: Something which I’m still confused about, Lutheran and Catholic approaches to justification. The essay is a little thin in the bibliography, but hopefully it’s a good enough introduction to the basic concerns. I dialogue with the Finnish school on Luther which sees something like deification being a part of Luther’s thought, the Joint Declaration on Justification, which is the result of many years of ecumenical discussion between Catholics and Lutherans, and a Liberationist critique of Lutheran justification.

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The biblical call to love

Although I wrote an earlier post this year on Christian love, it remains a little clumsy and I’d like to do a lot more thinking on the subject. One thing that seizes me about biblical love is that it is characterised by other-oriented, self-giving. So although Jesus cites the second commandment as “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22:39), suggesting some basis in self-love for neighbour-love, the temptation is to hastily set this up as the standard by which all acts of self-giving are measured. So Jesus also calls us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), rather than “as they do to you.” He states paradoxically that “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39), that life and security are found not in seeking but forsaking. Perhaps this forsaking is what Paul has in mind when he places it in the context of the church: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3; cf. Rom 12:10; 1 Cor 10:24).

These are all based on Jesus’ own example. So, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul also notes, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Similarly, it is only because of God’s love that our love for one another is possible. So “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Trinity and reciprocity

A problem, however, arises. God is God and people are people. How can the latter love as the former? I consider the Trinity. Good theology will have us know that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have dwelt in reciprocated love from all eternity. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father (and all the other combinations), based not on any feature of the beloved Trinitarian person but each of the lover’s free decision to love. So the idea expressed in the last verse above (and throughout the Old Testament), that God loves the sinner regardless of their qualities, would be an oddity if in the Trinity one person’s love of another depended on its being reciprocated. But, is it an either/or? Having only done the rudimentaries, my reading on the Trinity is yet limited; nonetheless, allow me this: God is not a binity. Perhaps it is this not-so-superfluous third that makes all Trinitarian love possible. Is it at all acceptable to suppose that the Father’s love for the Son “enables” the Son to love the Spirit, regardless of that love being reciprocated?

Before shouting “heresy!” consider, it is too easy to make freedom the defining attribute of God. Where Western anthropology has often accorded human libertarian agency an honourable seat in the definition of what it means to be human, it was inevitable that the ideal of freedom would also be applied to God. This was perhaps also a response to hyper-hyper-Calvinist (of course, no longer Calvinist) definitions of God which placed the god of necessity above God himself, i.e. God acts this way and he could do no other as he is under necessity. In this case, freedom is much to be preferred. Yet, there remains the danger that freedom too stands above God in defining him. Rather, nothing, not even God’s freedom, stands above him in defining him as he cannot be defined; he comes to us on his own terms. (Ignore the contradiction(s) in that last line of argument). Additionally, God is one. No person of the Trinity acts as a libertarian individual but all act together. So while we say that that Son loved that Spirit, and distinctions are necessary, and this relationship is unique from say the Son’s love for the Father, the Father is not absent from the love between Son and Spirit. If he is, we very quickly divide the Godhead and plummet into paganism. Thus, in freedom the Trinitarian persons love each other, independent of its being reciprocated, but made possible by the very nature of God.

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This provides context for the call to non-reciprocated love in Christianity. Christians are still called to love their enemies, not based on whether their enemies will reciprocate but on God’s perfection (Matt 5:48). As the love between two persons of the Trinity is non-existent without the third, so also is our call to love our enemies impossible without first being reconciled to God and living in Trinitarian community.¹ So the event of Christ’s death for all and his resurrection which provides the hope for all things finally being worked out, propels the believers to live lives as a part of this story (e.g. Rom 6:3-11). So also, God does not call individual believers but a community to himself: In radically acting as if another believer is better than their self, this believer is part of a whole community which seeks to do this, that, ideally, this believer is not only the giver but receiver of grace from other believers. Finally, the work of the Spirit in the lives of believers means the community actually experiences the Trinitarian love of God. How often have I been enabled to see a forlorn aspect of one of my relationships from a completely different, empowered, loving angle after emerging from prayer!

(Before proceeding, it would be a little ridiculous to set up non-reciprocated love as an ideal. The Bible is testament to the fact that God’s people have always struggled to love God, others, themselves, and their environment. I can only say that notwithstanding the life of Jesus, there are many more beautiful examples out there, and with the help of the body of Christ and the work of the Spirit, I somehow hope to join these!).

The awkward contradiction! (?)

After all that, I finally arrive at the reason for writing this post: To offer some scattered thoughts on Christian dating. My main concern is this: If the church is called to self-sacrificial love, and so too the individual in Christian marriage attempts to look to the other ahead of their self, is there a way to go about dating that puts the other before the self? Or is dating based on self-interest? For one individual to say that their interest in dating another is based on concern for that other above the individual’s self is a bold claim! It assumes either that in dating this other they will somehow benefit from the individual’s offer, or at least that the other is interested in the individual without that other having explicitly revealed it or even realised it. Conversely, dating based on self-interest seems to make a lot of sense. People seek intimacy. The silverscreen and the highway billboard both point to its fulfillment in romantic love.² Go, therefore, and make dinner arrangements. However, other- and self-interest is a false dichotomy; any absolute notion of either deserves rejection. I remain unimpressed with this critique of altruism, that nothing is truly altruistic because, although it parades as other-centred, it is sourced in the individual and therefore cannot exist for any reason other than for serving that individual. Every desire is self-interested, etc. But this assumes a perfectly bounded individual. There is no instance and never will be of an individual existing on their own terms. You cannot say individual without saying individual-in-(and-of-)the-world (chur Heidegger), or individual-in-relation-to-others. We are completely contingent on others for our coming-to-be. We live in the same world and share the same atoms. Thus, our other-centred concerns are never a direct result of our libertarian agency and neither are our supposedly self-interested ones; we live on the line between other and self, discovering otherness sometimes even within ourselves.

At least in a limited sense though, dating is based on self-interest. Is it possible to say that the individual does not primarily enter into dating for the sake of the other but their self? Assume so, because my argument depends on this! If so, though, does it not run counter to the call to other-centred Christian love? I can now think of two reasons why this does not matter. Firstly, if something good comes of dating, i.e. marriage, then the other-centred love worked towards in this context will continually overlook the need for the initial stages of the relationship to be attributed to one party. It is not a matter of whether she liked him first, etc, as their current love is independent of any initiation but based in continually putting the other ahead of the self. She is just stoked that he responded to her and he’s just stoked that she liked him in the first place. Secondly, although I hope that Christian love always seeks to acknowledge and minimise any power imbalance between lover and beloved, an other-centred, non-reciprocated romantic love will inevitably result in power imbalance. In a healthy relationship there will be power imbalances due to the strengths and weaknesses of each involved, and sometimes one party will give more and receive less, but in the course of love these are to be worked out. Yet to seek an other in dating where all their needs are put before the individual’s is actually to do a disservice to that other. Imagine basing a relationship solely on the  desire to honour the other’s feelings towards you despite you having no romantic interest in that other. The other is not actually honoured because their love lacks reciprocation. Of course, much dating will start like this, but you would hope that both individuals would at least hold within themselves the possibility for romantic interest in the other, and if transitioning into a relationship you would hope that at least some of that romantic interest had been realised! So “self-interest” becomes very valid in Christian dating: Is there a possibility that my romantic interest will be returned?

In sum, Jesus calls his disciples to radical, other-centred love, based on his own example. This also is the case with the Trinity, and our inclusion into Trinitarian community allows us begin to love others regardless of whether this is reciprocated. A problem, however, emerges with Christian dating, as it is typically founded on self- rather than other-interest. Yet this self-interest is not ultimate and, unwittingly or no, a necessary constituent of other-centered romantic love.

* * *

¹Of course, there are examples of enemy-love outside of Christianity and these need be examined individually.

²To make matters worse/better, there is some biblical support for this! So the story in Genesis 2 presents God making Eve because Adam would be lonely without her. But this is not the only biblical meditation on romantic love. Jesus notes there will be no marriage in heaven (Matt 22:30). The eunuchs, sexual outcasts excluded from marriage, are accorded a special place in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12). As Paul writes to the Corinthians, the future has come into the now through Jesus and the Spirit, making the eschatological reality of celibacy possible, even beneficial (1 Cor 7:25-38). This is not to say that romantic love is this-worldly and it will have no meaning in the new heavens and new earth. I am of the opinion that it’s value will be affirmed, fulfilled, and redefined. However, as a Christian, my life is continually re-oriented around what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. The question of marriage of celibacy is monumentally relative to the reality of Jesus.

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Through some USB travels, I’ve further re-found two poems written in 2010. Thistles for you, mind the cheese, written after about a five hour trip (if you know Christchurch) across the hills from Sumner to Halswell Quarry, raising the question of why thistles aren’t considered beautiful. Pieces of heart, after an Ocarina of Time renaissance, in which not just me but my whole being experienced again the best game of all time, exploring the possibility that Link and Saria were really into each other but kind of put that aside to take part in something larger.

* * *

Thistles for you

The generations have disdained
you and counted you
among weeds. Do you stab at us
in anger? But
your bite

is not
without beauty. Perhaps
you protect it fiercely. And still
the beholder pierces your heart,
your every intent.

Is that light-hearted
purple the sound of
your laughter? Have I
all this time missed
the bright celebrations on a hillside

of gorse? No midsummer
lavender or joyous yellow ran down
when the spear entered
your side, but a bleeding scarlet
and colourless

water, both more full, more empty; more
deep, more faint. My soul
descried a
“This is for you.” And this all,
your misery, your slaying,

is the highest image of beauty:
The best of us are lost
and the worst of us are
perfect, as a withering thistle
testifies.

* * *

Pieces of Heart

Saria, the woodland peace is here
only by virtue of us;
each fresh shrub, each aged
oak bears our friendship.

And the mist is the breath of
your prayers, and your tears
for the ashen pine humbly drop like
dewdrops. Hope,

Saria, for though the bloodied
kindle under furious flambeaux, hear,
even now in the distance, our rain
song surges

the skies before dawn. On the tip
of this blade I balance all
that is pure, and pommel
time’s shortcomings for us

and freedom, Saria. The heart
is soft and vulnerable, yet it beats
hardest; I am only the air of
a warm exhale, only

a herald for renewal.
When the wind ensuing
my deathstroke reveals to
the world

salvation, I will have glory
but not your love. Your love
for a moment is more
difficult than the gamut

of pallid swords and chilled skin-bags
that afflict our
reality. Yet, I will strive
against fate, though it shatters
our hearts, though we fight

hell.

Link and Saria

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Here’s another marketing ploy for readers to continue reading while I fervently try to box a little bit more of reality with language. Enjoy five sonnets written over 2008 and 2009. I haven’t read them for ages. Twenty-One, written on becoming twenty-one, also had Milton in mind when writing it, mainly lamenting the amount of life that’s gone to waste so far. Making sure, written out of my own cynicism in my inability to live up to my own ideals. Maranatha, disillusionment with my lack of compassion for people the world over, and that any desire I had to help others was actually more of a desire to find my own purpose in life. Poker for communists, on celibacy. A better tomorrow, a nice one to close on, as you can see from this miserable line up of other poems, expressing one of those rare moments in life when you grasp the reality of real hope.

Twenty-One

These formative years:
They are passing
with rapidity,
like a rabbit you would
see running from a gunshot. I shot

again, and the cuddle-wrought
fugitive contracted into a ball

of fluff. If an instant were a lifetime,
then in that instant of this life

one last elastic bound
cast my prize to his safety. And
I walked on dejectedly
into possibility; and I walked on
an empty stomach.

* * *

Making Sure

We’re not falling away
due to adversity,
but we are falling as we rise
in our prosperity. Hear this
new something we have

to complain about: life–
it’s too easy. Our excess is emptiness;

there’s really nothing there.
So we buy books

to make sure we’re saved.
Our Christian friends tell us
Christian things
to make us better Christians
so that one day we’ll be really good Christians.

* * *

Maranatha

When leaden souls burden
my shoulders, or if the blood
of the condemned swells
in my heart, then consecrate
this entire individual to the God who is

love. But between desert mosque and isolated
rainforest, though I could search for a niche to love

people, in searching I search for myself.
This skin envelops the multipartite and immeasurable

being: Bones, ghost,
psyche, etc. Give me some time away from
myself! Jesus will save the nations,
albeit my motivations are
a precedent for my procrastination!

* * *

Poker for communists

The pursuit of
happiness is all pursuit; the yellow
brick road concedes
infinity. Arise, dying body! Life within
continue! You may envy the resting

stillborn, who faced neither despair
nor desire, but we exchange fists

with eternity. Tell me how
Buddha, apostate of world and wife,

grew plump on nirvana. Tell me how
Jesus’ disciples could discount
godly union for fear of divorce. Tell me
how a couple could love to the utmost of human possibility
then forfeit it all to death.

* * *

A better tomorrow

The majestic king of beasts, through bringing
death, lives on flesh, and glorifies
his Creator. The humble plankton
perishes in a whale’s belly, yet sings
praises to his God. Eternity is now, forever

is today, and this breath finds its meaning
when breathed for you. Each moment

is just a reason to know you, and you
make each momentous. Although now the world

is lard in our blood and heavy
in our lungs, each choke
anticipates the coming perfection; and
though now we but know you
in spirit and faith, we will see your face.

Look Jackson, you’re too old for piggy back rides now; someone’s going to lose an eye.

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Five sonnets here I wrote over the course of 2010, now slowly rotting on my USB drive. If you choose to read one or two, bear in mind they need to be read slowly. They look long but poetry is really short. If you would like to appreciate them then you may even read one over more than once. They are written with some loose chronology in mind.

i.

To see Eden in its first spring
would inspire life
in the wintriest soul, warming
to its Creator from merciless
grey. The freshwater trickle down

an arm’s length of rocks is a torrent
upon the heart; faint starlight through the forest

canopy illuminates each beat.
On some soft buttercups in Paradise,

Adam lay and gave audience to a pair
of sleeping doves. No previous
offshoot of naïve rationality had so much
as inclined him to the hole
in his being, the edge of which he now slept.

ii.

Dawn arrived
earlier. Ample shards of sun
pierced the shade, broke on
the gossamer, heavy
with dew, and flitted about Adam’s eyelids.

He stirred a little. She,
circumspect, withdrew her step and waited,

as one eye, then another, slowly discerned morning
on moss and bark, to discover her feet

and stop.
There! Wildly, over Adam rolled! And ran to outrun
his pounding chest – and beautiful
God he challenged when his gaze
fell about Eve’s face.

iii.

As the jackal grinds her teeth
to twilight, she whets
her muzzle
downwind. Ecru mountains
flank the dimming horizon. If the huntress

had sniffed him in her territory, it was his
raw passion that let on, though Adam

would have her
skin. But soon the sable hour and desert

air will smooth the sand and cool
his lust better
than sweat can. The constant, steady heartbeat
of a distant other will lull this weary spirit to
rest. And El Shaddai’s smile will wrinkle in dust.

iv.

Some figure stumbles across
the dirt, and skips a step over some
misplaced pebble. Another trails
at a distance, in inadvertent pursuit. From the highest
point above them, the sun burns

like a curse. When the throat starts
pulsing, the body needs water, and sleep

when the sultry day relents. Two
stragglers crossed a wasteland

and settled with the sea.
And as the tide pushed inland, Eve pushed
toward the only other she knew. Her tired
eyes remained open. Adam drank no water.
But they sat very close.

v.

With night looming silently
above, the shore inched up
the sandy incline. Up sprang Adam
from the bite that nipped his toes,
and left his companion’s side. In his arms

he carefully gathered her to
the higher ground, then lunged with a fist of sand

at the haughty wave that tried to snatch
his Eve. But in that moment, the first man saw

the first time he, with deadly curiosity, spied
her face and had longed just to meet her
eyes again. And he saw
the embers edging the carcass of the goat he
first slaughtered. He was jealous that the sands

would one day take his Eve. And he held her
as if holding eternity.

Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish mythology

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Depending on how seriously you take the story of Adam and Eve, singleness can legitimately be understood as a form of malnourishment. I appreciate the way we can use the Genesis story as a symbol for the human condition (it’s almost like there’s an invisible gradient in the bible that as you go further towards the end you can take it more literally, with a sudden dip at Revelation), but how far should this symbolism go? Are we to say that it’s just a wee parable for something like human depravity, free will (or quite the opposite), or our need for redemption? Or should we embrace the depth of its meaning so the words, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18 NIV) be taken seriously?

One idea I haven’t yet managed to take seriously is that some people look at the tasting of the forbidden fruit as a euphemism for sex, which can be disregarded in light of the fact that the first commandment that appears in the Hebrew bible seems a little impossible without so doing, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28 NIV). This positive affirmation of reproduction has often been overlooked.

Papaya, I learnt when in India, means sin (pap-) came (-aya) in some Indian language (Hindi? Marathi?) so it’s a wee joke that Eve tasted papaya.

If, however, we do take God’s observation of the lonely Adam seriously then the context in which he says it should have even greater bearing on our understanding of singleness. In the early chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve participate in their act of disobedience against God, resulting in the Fall, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Mainline Christian theology supposes that before the Fall mankind had everything; Eden is a metaphor for heaven, for perfection. When sin entered the world through disobedience then with that came suffering, death, etc. Since this time God has been restoring his creation through Israel, the coming of Jesus, and the Church, etc. I’m not at this point going to explore some of the problems with this theology, but I do want to examine what it says about singleness when we hold to it. It was in the Garden of Eden, the perfect world, before sin, suffering and death came that God observed something in his creation he could improve on. Adam’s loneliness was a need that had not yet been met, and for Eden to be perfect, there needed to be an Eve.

This is where singleness becomes a form of malnourishment. If health entails good eating habits, then, according to this reading of the Genesis story, it also entails relationship. It was before the Fall, before everything went wrong with the world that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone”. Celibacy is a fast. Celibacy is a forgoing of something essential to healthy existence.

* * *

A danger with the idea of celibacy is a confusion as to its function. Some adherents¹ of monastic orders wear wedding rings to symbolise the exclusivity of their being as wholly Jesus’. They enter into a marital relationship with their Saviour. I really don’t want to mock the sincerity with which they do this, even the positive function that it may have, but I just don’t think the practice is consistent with the idea of biblical celibacy.

The Carmelite monastery around the corner from where I used to live in Christchurch

The apostle Paul’s vision of celibacy is simple, but it gets confused amid his need to address a specific situation. He writes to the Corinthian church at a time when a few of them have problems controlling themselves sexually: “If they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1Corinthians 7:9 NIV)². The Corinthians had written to Paul in praise of celibacy (v.1), but Paul basically writes to them saying that singleness is not all bunnies and rainbows. Some of you really need to get married before you cause any more trouble.

Paul’s vision for celibacy is purely practical. He himself knows marriage is a good thing but he makes no use of it so that he can better serve the Lord³. He wishes that all those he is writing to could be celibate like him (v.7), and as he begins to conclude he gives some reasoning behind it: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided” (vv.32-34; cf. Jesus’ similar, but more ambiguous, words in Matthew 19:12). In a practical sense, God can use the single person more widely as they are less hindered by external commitments.

When God takes the place of significant other then, it distorts the practical function of celibacy. The celibate are those who can more fully express their relationship with God — they can love God — because they don’t have to give so much of themselves to another person. But really, Adam was alone when he had God in the Garden of Eden. We need each other. The part of yourself that loves God is not the same part of yourself that loves another. This is the sense in which celibacy is a fast: When you fast you go without something you cannot physically live without, which is food. We use our fasting as a way to say that God is all we need, although physically we would die if we went without it. Celibacy can be a way to say that God is all you need, but are you also going without something essential? The call to love God above all is not just for single Christians. The call to love God is a form of universal celibacy, celibacy for everyone, whereas those who are called to singleness are called there for practical reasons.

* * *

“Come be the fire inside of me,
Come be the flame upon my heart.
Come be the fire inside of me
Until You and I are one.”

— Misty Edwards, Jesus Culture, You won’t relent

* * *

The temptation in loneliness is to seek in God what we actually find in people. Note that this is a complete reversal of the warning of seeking in people what we should be seeking in God. I’m not sure if either have the power to fulfil the function we expect of them, unless we move beyond our present condition of humanity. Jesus Culture songs have had a profound effect on me. I have desired to have the same passion for God as I do for ‘worldly’ things such as reading, eating and good company. But my desire for God has been of an altogether different sort. Jesus Culture is made up of people who seem to actually love God (like I’m not mocking them; they probably really do) and they write songs that create the emotional environment for me to  experience feelings of loving God. Jesus Culture is attractive to me because it allows me to bring God into that place where he hasn’t occurred for me naturally.

To confront the state of your heart is, in reality, heartbreaking. I have desire for eternal life as some barely graspable, distant abstract possibility, but the idea that I could live in the Italian countryside, grow my own olives, and make red wine and become old is a lot more appealing. I have desire to know God as a wise life choice and existential experiment, but to woo, spend time with and bear my soul to some idealised form of human perfection is the fantasy that makes my heart beat. You can speak with God but you can hug a human. That these desires come more naturally and intensely to me than spiritual desires creates disillusionment: I signed up for Jesus and I still love the world. Jesus Culture allows me to experience desire for God.

Sigh…

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Contraception and the 20th Century have largely taken the place of celibacy in the West. The monasteries are slowly emptying (not that the monastery is the only place for the monastic). When I lived in Christchurch, the Carmelite monastery round the corner (pictured above, not directly though; that’s Italy) said they were being reduced to about one new sign-up every ten years. If you’re not procreating, then this isn’t a very sustainable alternative. But with reforms (?) in family planning and gender roles, the celibate are all married. You have the benefits of celibacy (practicality because you don’t have babies just yet and both you and your wife are equals), enhanced by the fact that you can have a partner to work together with, as well as the benefits of marriage (companionship, sex, etc — I really don’t know). Marriage is the new celibacy.

And if you think that celibacy is harder than marriage then you missed Jesus’ response to his diciples’ own marital insecurities:

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given”.

(Matthew 19:8-11 NIV).

It’s as if Jesus’ disciples are saying that all that stuff around adultery and divorce is just so much that I’d rather not risk it. And Jesus affirms them! In celibacy you’re accountable to God, who easily forgives and our experience of him is open to a lot of subjectivity. In marriage you’re accountable to the physical reality of another person in your life, someone weak and irritable like yourself, someone whom you can’t just say, “I bought us a new motorbike with our shared income because I know we’ll both get a lot of use out of it and God was leading me; it was on sale”. If you’re only accountable to God and not another person then you can easily say, “Whoops, that Xbox was a mistake, please forgive me; I’ll sort it out”. Marriage requires more of you. Marriage is the new celibacy.

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Before I conclude, maybe there’s something I’ve missed. Notice that throughout the bible the people of God are referred to as in marital relationship with God? One of my favourites is where God asks the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute as a symbol of his love for an unfaithful people. James echoes this sentiment when he refers to his readers as adulterers (James 4:4). Isaiah makes use of the marriage metaphor to speak hope to the post-exilic Jewish community (62:2-5), as does Paul to illustrate Christ’s love for the Church (eg. Ephesians 5:25-33), as Jesus also does when speaking on eschatological events (Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13).

Maybe this is just a loosely balanced observation, but in these examples the marriage is between God and a people, rather than an individual. It is only as part of a community that we experience the marital love of God. God’s love for us in this sense is not love for you, but you all, us. If Jesus is my boyfriend then I don’t experience him as I would experience a boyfriend (girlfriend), because someone does not experience their boyfriend as part of a community. Human relationship holds a private sphere for human desire. If this aspect of human desire enters into the spiritual, it is not between God and I but God and us. The dating-the-deity is unnatural in the same way it is natural between humans because it is always in a communal sense that the marital metaphor is used with God. The words, “It is not good for man to be alone” take on a whole new level of meaning when community is necessity.

I now leave you with Jesus’ words to protect us from getting to attached to the idea of fulfilment in relationship: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

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¹A friend told about this and I have no proof of its veracity. Even so, the anecdote makes a good point I think!

²Interestingly enough, Paul maybe should have gotten married too, according to his rule (see 2Corinthians 11:29).

³”Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1Corinthians 9:5). In this passage Paul lists his rights as an apostle as an example of what he forgoes so that he can better serve the Lord.

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