Thursday, February 17, 2011

conservative Protestants and the gift of celibacy, the non-love that dare not be mentioned?

I have read enough Reformed blogs and bloggers and heard enough Reformed theologians to pretty well know that they all agree there is no gift of singleness, by and large. Singleness is not a gift, marriage is. When Paul says "not all have this gift" he isn't talking about singleness but celibacy. For sake of conversation I can grant this but, now, what I'd like to know is "What is the gift of celibacy?"

More to the point, what do Protestants imagine the gift of celibacy to be? I don't have wonder too much what the Orthodox think the gift of celibacy is because patristics is patristics and the church fathers and monastics were obviously celibate long enough to write a fair amount about it. Catholics, too, have covered that waterfront. The only evangelical Protestant I've ever come across who seemed to even try to gift celibacy/singleness a fair shake was John Piper and in mainstream Protestant and liberal Protestant churches I guess I have to assume everyone is so busy boinking each other and thinking it's all good as long as there is "love" that celibacy is simply a non-starter and a throwback to medieval thought.

Now here is the big E on the eye chart regarding celibacy, nobody talks about the celibate calling with respect to the sex drive. The tacit belief amongst Protestants about celibacy would seem to be that the celibate man or woman just doesn't have much of a struggle with celibacy because he or she is so immersed in the work of the Lord or ministry that they are happy all the time. A person who is called to celibacy must be completely content with that calling and with whatever ministry to which the Lord has called that man or woman, so the reasoning goes. Earth to Christians! Go back and read the Bible and you will that this isn't even remotely true.

Sure, cite Paul saying that he wished everyone was as he was and able to go without being married. Bear in mind a few things, Paul was either a widower or a man whose wife abandoned him after he converted ... or that he was simply an old guy who knew he was likely to die in the service of God. Cite that people with the gift of celibacy or singleness tend to only be people who are called to some dangerous ministry like smuggling Bibles to China (because we all know all the life-threatening and life-draining work is evangelizing non-whites, huh?) Yet Paul also urged Timothy to flee from youthful lusts and there's no evidence Timothy was called to marriage and he was a bishop!

Since we Protestants appreciate the weight and value of the scriptures let me break this one down for my fellow Protestants regarding a famous biblical figure who was called to a celibate lifestyle and apparently hated it. In Jeremiah 16 we read that the Lord told him to not take a wife or have children because of the devastation that was coming upon Judah. Jeremiah is not only to not marry himself but to not even attend weddings or funerals! What do we find in Jeremiah 20, a mere four chapters later? The sentiment "God, you tricked me! This job sucks! All my friends are waiting for me to screw up so they can kill me! I hate my job and I wish I had never been born!" Oh, yes, there's a man of God who was totally at peace and content with his call to celibacy and singleness!

But wait, he wasn't in a dangerous ministry smuggling Bibles to China, was he? He was in a dangerous mission telling his own people who were busy assuming Yahweh was on their side that Yahweh WASN'T on their side because they were worshipping a bunch of other gods while assuming the Lord's favor was still with them. He was declaring that they were guilty of defiling the land with their wickedness and that the land itself would vomit them up. He was considered a traitor to his country and a false prophet. His was left to die in a clay pit and was saved by an Ethiopian eunuch.

Jeremiah goes so far as to curse the day of his birth. He was called to live a celibate life and apparently hated it a great deal, considered a traitor to his nation by friends and probably family alike. He was accused of prophesying lies against God's people and against the Temple. The people of his time might well have supposed that since all these things were nonsense that he was saying Jeremiah should have settled down and gotten married and done something useful to be on mission with what God was doing through Israel. Israel, after all, was Yahweh's chosen people who were going to be a light of hope and be the nation through which the whole world would be blessed. All this punk prophet was saying was junk like that Israel was just a total failure at all of that.

We don't see Jeremiah writing that he had no struggle with any kind of sexual drive. David Plotz, in his blogging the Bible series over on Slate (which is great, by the way) wrote that Jeremiah's problem was not that he was wrong (oh boy was he ever right about pending military destruction) it was that he had major personality and communication handicaps in getting his message across. Now the perspective of a secular Jewish author (if memory serves me) may not meet with the agreement of Christians but we can sometimes be stoked on the scriptures as the word of God we forget that human personalities play a major, major role in that. Plots sums up his complaint about Jeremiah as a person in the following way:

C'mon, Jeremiah! You must be kidding! You show up at capital city, tell everyone they're going to be cannibalizing their kids in a couple years and that there's nothing—nothing­—they can do to prevent it. And then you're surprised that they don't like you!

But this doesn't comfort me! I am not strong enough in my faith to set aside family and country for God. And I don't want to be. Jeremiah is a righteous prophet, but I can't help feeling that he's also a terrible traitor.

I could go into an entirely different post about how many Christians are like this and that many Christians who have a persecution complex about themselves or their Christian communities do this. Jeremiah, however, got words from the Lord and since Israel and Judea were decimated by conquering empires even Plotz grants that the weeping prophet was totally right about what was going to go wrong.

And he's got a point, if you're a prophet of the Lord who in a time of relative prosperity declares that military conquest in your land will get so bad people will be eating their own babies you are not going to be hot stuff on the singles market!

Plotz also points out that Jeremiah never avoids a sexual metaphor or image when it is available. How saturated the book of Jeremiah is with sexual imagery is not something I see any need to catalog stastically but Plotz' observation itself may be telling. Jesus said there are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom and that indicates that this is something people do by choice. Nehemiah was probably a eunuch because of royal court policy and Isaiah spoke to the eunuchs who served in the royal court saying that they should not consider themselves a dry tree and bereft of legacy.

With all due respect to serious-minded and well-meaning Christians in the Reformed blogosphere and outside it in the Protestant world at large, doesn't it seem as though we often have a church culture that tells people that being a dry tree totally sucks? Don't we tell people who aren't married that they are rejecting God's design? God's design for us is marriage so anyone who doesn't go that path and walk that walk is postponing adolescence and not growing up. Really? And the only exceptions are cases of smuggling Bibles to non-whites in some foreign country or doing some dangerous ministry even though the Bible itself attests that the most life-threatening work one can do is calling God's own people on the carpet fo rtheir own stupidity and idolatry?

So here's the thing, if there are Protestants who hold that there is even such a thing as a gift of celibacy what does that look like in the real world? Does it include no struggle with sexual desires at all? That is impossible. Plenty of unmarried men (more so than women) will say that they don't have the gift of singleness or the gift of celibacy because they really, really, really struggle with sexual temptation (should I really add another really?). So in their minds having sexual desire at all automatically means that they are not "gifted" with celibacy.

But what about people with a same-sex attraction? Wouldn't this be a sign that THEY ought to marry, too? Well, uh, no, evangelicals swiftly point out, because that's a disordered sexual desire. Okay then, you have to grant that sexual desire in itself can't be invoked as a reason that a Christian should be married. Just because your sexual desires are hetero doesn't prove that your desire to be married indicates any kind of calling or gifting in itself, does it?

And in both cases does that gift of celibacy indicate a lack of sexual desire? Well, let's revisit Jeremiah 16. Do we suppose Jeremiah saw celibacy/singleness as a gift from the Lord if he hated that everyone hated him and wished he hadn't been born? That doesn't much look like a celibate rejoicing in his celibacy to me.

The essential, goofy, and probable lie in Christian teaching about celibacy in Protestantism, if indeed there is any such teaching at all, is that if you have that gift (and we all secretly suspect you simultaneously don't and/or shouldn't) it's that you will be so busy doing stuff for Jesus you just won't ever have time to have any kind of sexual desire of any kind. Supposing I were called to celibacy this does not for a second mean I won't notice a beautiful woman. It also does not mean that what can often occur as a physiological response to noticing said beautiful women won't happen. None of this would by itself prove that I do not have the gift or calling of celibacy, should I have it. For that matter having exceptionally beautiful friends of the opposite sex (or the same sex if you're in that direction) does not oblige one to think or feel about them "in that way".

If evangelical Protestants tell gays that their sexual desires are not proof that they should consummate those desires that alone compells us to rethink our basis for simultaneously not talking about what a life of celibacy would entail and what connection it has to how the unmarried deal with sexual desires that often show up, as C. S. Lewis put it, unbidden and without warning or even at undesirable times.

So in a Protestant setting how do you "really" establish that someone has the "gift of marriage" or the "gift of celibacy"? If we have a culture that presupposes nobody "really" has the gift of celibacy and that if they did they would have no struggle with sexual desire how can we meaningfully address that the sexual desire someone may struggle with is same-sex attraction. As a Catholic blogger put it, what good is it to tell gays they should deny their sexual desires when all the straight people assume their desire is prima facie evidence they are NOT called to any kind of celibacy?

There is a sense in which despite all our Prostetant evangelical lip service to Augustine and carrying on his legacy none of us want to really explain his most famous, shortest, and amusing prayer--God grant me chastity, but not yet. We're too busy building whole sermon series around how Augustine had a terrible attitude about sex and sexuality. On the other hand, "should" we question his conviction that celibacy was what he believed God ultimately required of him? We can apparently let him write City of God and dispute with Pelagius but in our effort to correct against the perceived mistakes of Church fathers it would appear that we have gotten ourselves stuck.

As evangelical Protestants, especially in the Reformed branch, we often say no one has the "gift" of singleness. We sternly or happily declare that God's "design" for us is marriage and that we should pursue that. We also say that those called to celibacy/singleness are those who must be called to life-threatening work and/or those who must be totally content with their unmarried state. We love to take an apostle like Paul and extrapolate from his life some universal observation that scripture itself precludes. We look at Paul's life and imagine that because of his life any celibate Christian must be so because of a lack of sexual desire or a dangerous life.

We conveniently ignore that one of the most famous celibates in scripture seemed to be miserable and did not actually die as a martyr but probably died in Egypt after the exile, having never married, having been denounced and reviled by his people for prophesying against them in the name of the Lord, and who was told by the Lord, "never take a wife." Jeremiah does not seem to have ever been "happy" that he was told he could never marry. "The weeping prophet" is not someone who backs up the idea that those the Lord calls to celibacy are those at peace with that aspect of their walk with the Lord. Just because Paul was content in his station with respect to that does not mean all the other saints led into a celibate lifestyle had the same experience.

It is not as though the subject of celibacy as an alternative to married life has never been discussed by Christians. It does seem over the last ten years that not too many evangelical Protestants have discussed it, save maybe a few people like John Piper but most discussions of celibacy seem to come these days from conspicuously, almost ostentatiously married people. Some of the pastors most eager to tell people to be chaste before marriage were fornicators. They have no on the ground observations or experiences from which to exhort the unmarried to flee youthful lusts because while they were on the ground they were guided by them. For those of us in the mid-thirties hearing yet another sermon or reading yet another blog post about how God's design for us is marriage or about adultescence is useless. I know all that.

What I don't know is something evangelicals don't seem to broach, which is whether or not it can be reasoned from anything, let alone scripture, that if a person is called to celibacy that one will not ever struggle with any sexual desire. We know that gays would be told they have to live a celibate life and if their orientation never changes it must ever be so but if that's the case then isn't there a rather massive double standard involved? Doesn't that mean that straights are basically told something like, "If you ever tingle down there at all you don't have the gift of celibacy"? We live in a culture in which, unlike ancient societies, your coupling is on you. You're simultaneously a loser if you don't and probably an idolator if you do.

There's been a weird, weird double bind in the conservative Protestant circles I've been in over the last ten years where if you don't want to be married or don't have thoughts or anxieties about it then you're probably disobeying God but if you do want that and are worried about it then you are probably disobeying God, too, by not trusting Him. It would appear to go by the sermons and tacit assumptions of some of the preachers I've heard that the only people who aren't in this bind are, I guess, the people who are already married and don't have anything going wrong. I'm tired of getting this vibe of you're damned if you don't want it and damned if you do want it but just fine if you got it approach that I've picked up over the years.

The idea that you're not even really an adult or someone who cares about the welfare of others or knows anything about sacrifice unless you've married alternately puzzles, saddens, and angers me. To borrow Lutheran dialectical terms it frequently ends up seeming like a Law in which there is no Gospel. Since more and more people are not marrying what if an evangelical response to this was not merely to bemoan the "epidemic of singleness" could we try discussing not merely how the large number of unmarried people is some kind of disease that must be cured so all those people can become "real" adults and get married, but also attempt to seriously address what a life of celibacy would actually?

And don't just say "Oh, it's hard." Tell us something we don't already know. I already know what it feels like to hear the Emerson String Quartet in concert by myself and wonder if maybe I could share that experience not just with a friend but maybe a "special" friend, a spouse. Much of the blather about the difficulty is about as useless as Phil Hartman's character in the sex-ed video from an early season of The Simpsons where he says greasily, "There kids, and now that we've shown you how it's done, don't do it."

Is it so surprising that abstinence programs frequently fail to do more than delay sexual activity? Is it so surprising that out of wedlock births tend to happen in red states even more than blue states? Is it so surprising that so many people settle for whatever outlets they can find rather than rein in their desires? As Lewis put it, in our age it may well be that eros is the love that most needs to be taken down several pegs and today's conservative Protestants not only seem least qualified to tackle this project they may be the worst offenders in promoting the value and necessity of it to forming resposnible adulthood. It may even establish a church culture in which a guy who is on his second marriage may be considered to have found "redemption" more so than someone who has never actually been in a "relationship".

I have absolutely no answers whatsoever and while I'll be the first to admit I'd like to say the folks in my branch of Christianity have them I don't see much evidence for it.


John Morgan said...

Marriage and family are worshipped as idols in Protestant churches. That's why you don't hear much about it. The word "calling" may be more appropriate than "gift" in today's language. Even though there may be few of us, we do exist. So, how do you know us when you see us? Good question. We don't wear monks' robes. It's not something we put on T-shirts. One thing you can do is encourage pastors to talk about it and 1 Cor 7 and Matt 19 more often. I think most of us are more comfortable saying something when the subject comes us, rather than standing up in the middle of a congregaton and saying "hey! when are you going to talk about celibacy?"

John Morgan said...

Encourage pastors to talk about 1 Cor 7 and Matt 19 more often. We don't wear monks' robes. It would be easier for me to talk about it if someone brought up the subject first. We don't put it on T-shirts. "Calling" may be a better word today than "gift."