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.
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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.
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“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
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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.
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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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