Tuesday, August 3, 2010

History Ain't on Your Side

I found the Blog post below on CCBlogs. It's by Marvin Lindsay whose blog is called Avdat. The URL is: http://marvinlindsay.typepad.com/avdat.
I'm glad someone else has read Peter Brown. I wrote about his treatment of sexual renunciation on my blog in a post called, "The Curse of Virginity." It's at: http://churchofnon-realism.blogspot.com/2007/09/curse-of-virginity.html

27 July 2010
History Ain't On Your Side
by Marvin Lindsay
My next contribution to the peace, unity and purity of the church will be to teach a course on early Christian sexuality. If we're condemned to fight over sex ad infinitum, I want both liberals and conservatives to know that neither has history on its side.

Imagine a time when substantial numbers of Christians regarded procreation as a great evil. Imagine a time when the counter-cultural "left" practiced sexual renunciation. It's not some science fiction future. We've been there and done that.

As part of a directed study on monasticism I read Peter Brown's The Body and Society and Susanna Elm's Virgins of God. Both are excellent historical works. Brown's book could just as easily been titled All the Reasons Why Primitive Christians Quit Having Sex.

There were practical reasons, to be sure. Given the appalling levels of infant and childhood mortality, Roman women needed to give birth to six children just to maintain the population level. The Caesars pressured them to do just that, for the ruling class needed offspring to inherit all that upper crust wealth. Patriotism asks a lot of its soldiers, but Roman patriotism asked even more of its women. Six kids! In fourth world squalor! No wonder many Christian women found celibacy appealing.

But a purely materialist explanation won't suffice. It was the power of an idea that drove many Christians, male and female, to renounce sex.

Origen's ideas, especially. Origen theorized that before we were born, our souls had rebelled, and we fell into material bodies. Origen did not regard the body as evil, as Gnostics did, but as God's tailor-made tool to instruct the soul on how to return to God.

Sexuality then, was not part and parcel of our identity, for sexuality belongs to our material existence in this world. Didn't Jesus say that in heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels? Origenist thought held out the possibility that here and now one could transcend one's embodied and thus sexual nature.

Renouncing sex was one means. Fasting was another. A diet of one loaf of bread a day will, over time, cause your period to dry up and your breasts to shrivel. Women went into the Egyptian desert and passed for male monks. Origen's notorious act of castrating himself did not prevent him from having sex, but it did diminish his secondary sexual characteristics, most notably the philosopher's beard his competitors would have grown in Alexandria.

For other Christians, celibacy was tinged with apocalyptic fever. Tatian's disciples in Syria wondered why anyone would have children, because procreation just fed the death machine. Quit reproducing, and the kingdom will come.

The non-canonical Acts of Thomas, to which we owe the legend that Doubting Thomas preached the gospel in India, contains a similar idea. On the way to India, Thomas ruins a royal wedding when he convinces the bride and groom make a chaste marriage because kids are more trouble than they're worth. The King was not amused when he realized this stranger had cheated him of grandchildren.

In the early fourth century, this stew of ideas had generated bands of mixed sex, wandering prophets whose women cut their hair short, ridiculed marriage in general and married clergy in particular, and showed no interest in settling down and leading orderly lives, much less begetting offspring for the good of the Empire.

Other Christians were appalled, and as the fourth century unfolded, it would prove to be a decisive one not only for doctrine and church-state relations, but for sexual ethics. The misogynist Jerome and monastic architect Basil insisted that the body could not be transcended but only transformed. They developed a two-tired system of clerical celibacy and strictly monogamous lay marriage, with monastics separated into male and female houses--not over against pagan hedonism, but over against celibate Christian "extremists," whom they regarded as the real enemy.

This is why I love history; it scrambles your categories.

If conservative means preserving the past, then today's conservatives are holding on to a rather thin slice of it. Where are the conservatives who dare to proclaim the old time religion of: celibacy good, childlessness better, androgyny best?

Likewise, while critiques of empire are here, there and everywhere on the Christian left, I am unaware of any that make celibacy a core practice of imperial resistance. Today's feminists would liberate women from gender discrimination and for orgasm. But the feminists of old secured the former by turning their backs on the latter.

Neat, huh?

1 comment:

Franklyn said...

Sex, like other natural processes, such as eating, breathing or sleeping, is a basic bodily function. Only when it is singled out for special attention does it means that something is wrong: you are sick in some way, physically or emotionally. Perhaps you have lung disease, or insomnia, or anorexia. Or, in the case of sex, maybe you just have religion. The various western religions having been beating this drum for ever, and all it ever got them is trouble. If they just stopped being preoccupied with sex not only would they be more popular, but many of their problems would go away.