We should not assume a close friendship is either a repressed or a realized sexual union.
By Victor Lee Austin
To be celibate is, in apparent etymology, to live alone; in more specific definition, a celibate is one who abstains from marriage and sexual relations. (Obviously, despite etymology, such a person need not live as a solitary.) The problem here with both etymology and definition is that the truth is thereby obscured.
If we think of celibacy as the absence of something — marriage, sexual congress — our thought has not pushed through to a positive picture of what this state of celibacy is. It’s as if I asked you who the New York Giants were, and you told me they weren’t the Buffalo Bills, and they weren’t the Arizona Cardinals, and so on, but you never came around to telling me who the Giants are.
Christian moral teaching is clear that sexual relations are essential to the marriage of a man and a woman who also, other things being equal, are open to the conception and rearing of children. (For more on this, see my “Why Have Children?” earlier in this series [TLC, Oct. 17, 2021].) Furthermore, that same teaching holds that sexual relations are wrong when they are not in a marriage; the wrongness is either infidelity or a failure to achieve fidelity.
Therefore I say: Celibacy is for everybody. None of us is married for our entire life. Prior to marriage, we are called to celibacy. Following marriage, should we outlive it, we are called to celibacy. And furthermore, some of us are never called to marriage.
The teaching that celibacy is for everybody is handicapped in its presentation if we have nothing more to say than that celibacy is the lack of marriage and sexual relations. Must something that is a universal call be described in negative terms? To do so seems extremely problematic, and all the more so if we hold to the canonical picture of Jesus. He is held to be both celibate and completely human. But to say that Jesus lacked marriage and never enjoyed sexual union does strike our imaginations as saying that he failed to experience something that is central to being human. However, it is our imaginations that are at fault here. Jesus cannot be said to lack anything that is human.
We need a positive understanding of celibacy in terms of what it is, not in terms of what it isn’t.
We return to the biblical understanding of marriage. But where in the Bible do we have the deepest probing of the mystery of marriage? To my mind it is neither in Genesis nor in the New Testament, but in the Song of Songs. Here we see the love of God for us and us for God depicted as the love between a groom and a bride. It is sensual, bodily, erotic, and located in a garden that reminds us of both Eden and the temple.
In addition, as Ellen Davis and others have noted, the text of the Song of Songs shows cognizance of the rest of the Hebrew canon — from all of which Robert Jenson concludes that the plain, literal sense of the book is allegorical. That is to say, it is no imposition upon this remarkable love poetry to say that it is at once a story of marriage and a story of God’s love.
For more on this, I recommend Jenson’s commentary on the Song (Interpretation series, Westminster John Knox, 2005) and his essay “Male and Female He Created Them” in I Am the Lord Your God, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Christopher R. Seitz, (Eerdmans, 2005). Here I will (only and all-too-briefly) draw out two implications from that latter essay.
(1) God’s love for us is properly described as erotic: God has made the decision to desire us even though there is no reason for God to have any desires and much less any reason for him to desire us in particular. This desire is what we see in marriage — and, if married, is part of the reality of sensuousness, longing, preparing, living, enduring, and so forth.
(2) Celibate people are not removed from this eroticism, nor are they deprived of an essentially human experience. To the contrary: they are pushed to its very heart. Jenson says that celibacy can be “a pressurized form of [sexuality], a reduction [concentration] of eroticism to that eros between God and his people that is the enabling archetype of all eroticism.” This works in reverse also. The tradition of celibates writing about the Song of Songs — and there is a great tradition of this! — has insight for married love; “spousal eroticism is a discipline at least as rigorous as that of the monastery.”
Our age is hyper-sexualized; more so, it seems to me, than at any previous time in my life. It is simply assumed that human beings engage in sex, and it is often further assumed that lack of sex in one’s life is a failure. This is a situation that should grieve our pastoral hearts. But what beyond sympathy can we offer? It is hard to offer the old Christian teaching of celibacy outside of marriage in a way that has even a slight chance of making sense.
What we need is to develop our imaginations so that we do not see celibacy as a lack of something. Before and after marriage, and possibly for long stretches of life, and in some cases possibly for all of life, all of us are celibates, and our periods of celibacy are opportunities to draw close to God’s immediate erotic love for ourselves. How can we imagine and share that truth?
It will obviously take some courage to stand athwart strong cultural assumptions. But the need is even greater for Christian artists, playwrights, novelists, storytellers, and the like to help us all imagine what celibacy positively is. What, for instance, is the felt experience of sexuality pressurized and boiled down to that intense love God has for us, unmediated by sexual union with another body? Only then will we start to grasp the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. And only then will we start to grasp the fullness of our own humanity.
We need, also, to have our imaginations enlarged so that we do not assume a close friendship is either a repressed sexual union or a realized one. Close friendships — with people and with God — are of the essence of human flourishing. To become clear about celibacy is to open the door to more intimate friendships.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.