Friday, November 22, 2013

Origen on Singleness

Did you ever play the game Telephone when you were a child?

Probably, though it goes by many names: I and my friends (at least three for the game to work, but more was better) gathered in a circle. One of us chose a completely random phrase or sentence - the weirder, the better. Something like, Every evening Sally's six dogs howl at a silver moon would fit the bill nicely. Then we proceeded to whisper the word in each other's ears, and when the last person heard the phrase, they announced to the room what they'd heard.

Played right, they'd heard something very, very different than what was originally spoken - for instance, Salad and soup hot on the stove oven instead of a description of Sally's dogs' nocturnal activities. The fun was the astonishing way that words changed, from one person to another.

With Christian theology, much the same thing happens: As we whisper the words of God from one generation to the next, much truth abides, but some is taken, lost in translation as culture and language shift imperceptibly across the years. That's why we need to read and re-read the Bible, and it's also why we need to pay attention to what the early Christians, closest in time and culture to the first speakers, wrote.

Turns out, they wrote some interesting things about singleness, especially about the virgins in the church, women, we would say in today's American Christian lingo, who had the gift of singleness. Origin, describing the pagan religions, writes:

Attached to the other so-called gods are a select number of virgins, who are guarded by men, or it may be not guarded (for that is not the point in question at present), and who are supposed to live in purity for the honour of the god they serve. 
But among Christians, those who maintain a perpetual virginity do so for no human honours, for no fee or reward, from no motive of vainglory; but "as they choose to retain God in their knowledge," they are preserved by God in a spirit well-pleasing to Him, and in the discharge of every duty, being filled with all righteousness and goodness.

What I find most interesting in this passage is the stark difference between the role of virgins in the early church, and their role in the modern evangelical church:

The Role of Singles

Obviously, Origen is not writing about the modern evangelical church at all. Yet the clue to this difference is in the motivation for singleness. At least according to Origen, believing women voluntarily chose virginity: That he uses the word "maintain" suggests this is a deliberate, day-by-day choice on their part, not simply an accident or bad luck or the inability to attract a man.

Notably, this is not the view held towards singleness in the evangelical church. Today, singleness is rarely considered a choice (As a side note, those perpetual reminders to wait on God for a spouse do a great deal to discourage men and women from seeking out life partners.) More troubling, singleness is considered, for every single person living without a spouse, a spiritual gift. Sometimes, it is virginity specifically that is the gift: Josh Harris tells readers that those who 'are single right now' are 'called, right now, to be single'. Leslie Ludy warns her women readers not to have sex before marriage, not to give up their "most precious gift". Even though there's nothing wrong with wanting me to married, she adds, 'singleness is a gift, an opportunity, a blessing and it should be treated as such.'

Don't get me wrong: Obviously, treating singleness as a blessing, looking for ways to be contented, is a guarantee of happier single years than treating singleness as a curse, moaning about missing Mr. Right. Yet the attitude we have towards our single years does not change the fact that the church has radically redefined what it means to have the gift of singleness. Despite the description of the "gift of singleness" as a "blessing" and an "opportunity", this gift is linked inextricably to particular ministry patterns, which means that, often enough, the church prescribes particular ministry patterns to its members based on the accident of their sociological status.

Apparently for Origen (as for Christ), the gift of celibacy was not something that every unmarried person had by default; it was something deliberately elected; the celibate believer, though "preserved by God in a spirit well-pleasing to Him", actually chose to be celibate. Today, this is not the case: the gift of celibacy is a default gift, bestowed upon everyone who has, for whatever reason, failed to make it to the altar.

The Responsibilities of Singles

Among the many problems with treating celibacy like a default gift, instead of a deliberate choice, is that singles, en masse, are put on a kind of spiritual pedestal, or at least shuttled into a different spiritual category. This is, perhaps, as much an effect of American's tendency to group by demographic: Sure, we have special Sunday school classes and work projects for singles, but we also have special Sunday school classes for young moms, young marrieds, old marrieds, college students, unemployed, underemployed, and perhaps one day the Blue Man Group. Yet the fact remains that we do consider singles their own special group in the church, with a very special set of abilities, and the fact that they are all considered, by default not choice, to have the gift of singleness may have something to do with it.

Think about it: Josh Harris suggests that "we find the real beauty [of singleness] in using our freedom to serve God with abandon" - with abandon, meaning, presumably, that we pour more hours, more energy, more effort into the church than our married compatriots. More specifically, Leslie Ludy says that "singleness is an incredible opportunity to be fully consecrated in body and spirit to Jesus Christ alone" - as though married people are somehow off the hook of spiritual commitment, asked to love God with only half their heart since the other half is, of course, reserved for the spouse.

Obviously, most married people would not say they believe married people are excused from deep devotion and service for Jesus Christ. Yet their words betray them: Singles are, at least in the rhetoric of the church, held to a higher spiritual standard by virtue of having the default gift of singleness.

Unfortunately, having the default gift of singleness, being held to a higher standard of devotion to God than married people, does not earn singles the respect of the church. Leslie Ludy, just a page after encouraging singles to live consecrated for Christ, writes this: "Whether we have a  man in our life or not, it is always a challenge to silence the selfish demands of our whims and emotions and become consumed with Him alone. But until we do, we aren't truly ready for an earthly romance". In other words, not only are singles expected to be specially consecrated to Christ, they are also assumed, by virtue of not having an earthly romance, to not yet properly learned to be consumed with Christ alone. Those who have what Ludy calls the "gift of singleness" are somehow simultaneously less spiritually mature and more spiritually responsible than married people, more likely to have difficulty following Christ wholeheartedly but called to do just that, on the basis of their default gift.

Here is where Origen's view of celibacy comes in: So long as virginity is a default gift, the church will continue to paint with a broad brush, make sweeping generalizations about the spiritual maturity and responsibilities of unmarried believers. Yet when celibacy is recognized as a unique spiritual gift, deliberately practiced, the generalizations fall away and singles, as well as married people, are allowed to live out their unique calling in the grace of God.

I find it interesting that Origen, unlike Ludy or Harris, stresses the grace of God as part of walking chastely: Singles, he writes, "are preserved by God in a spirit well-pleasing to him, and in the discharge of every duty, being filled with all righteousness and goodness". When singles are no longer held to a higher spiritual standard, when married people are no longer assumed to be inherently more spiritual, married and single people alike benefit: Freed of expectations, they are allowed to walk in the "righteousness and goodness" of God.

I want to return to Lauren Winner's point, though I've quoted her before: Believers, she writes, "resist strong bodily urges like sexual desires not primarily through willpower, but through grace". True, and we could go a step further: Not only sexual desires but all kinds of desires, physical or otherwise, are resisted not through willpower but through grace. We who believe are humble, generous and temperate instead of proud, avaricious and gluttonous only because of the grace of God. Living chaste is in the end no different from living as a Christian, and everyone - those who are married, those who are single and want to be married, and those who are single and have no desire to be married - is called above all to walk in the grace and goodness of God.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Let's Talk about Singleness

Sometimes, I wonder: Do I talk too much about singleness and the church? My Composition students have particularly gotten an earful. Urged by a professional development seminar this summer to share my own writing with students, I referred them to the Project TGM post I wrote about singleness. I talked about the interview I conducted among my single friends.

I'm sure they heard all of this and secretly wondered whether I was only obsessed with singleness because I am a single woman, wondered whether my greatest fear was becoming the stereotypical "old cat lady" twenty years from now - just me, a tiny bungalow, and seven cats for company. (Full disclosure: I am happy in my singleness, and I do actually want to own a cat someday.)

Yet regardless of whether I sound unhappy or not, regardless of how those of us who talk about singleness are perceived, the issue matters. The problem is not actually whether or not we are happy; the problem is that, far too often, the way Christians talk about singleness denies singles, and especially single women, recognition as whole, growing members in the body of Christ.

Orson Scott Card, in Speaker for the Dead, suggests that "we are not yet fully comfortable with the idea that people from the next village are as human as ourselves". Those who are different than us, we fear, are lacking some essential part of being human. Sometimes church leadership fears the same thing: that we who are single are lacking some essential part of being Christian. They are not yet fully comfortable with the idea that we who are unmarried are in fact as Christian, as beloved by God, as themselves.

Perhaps this description sounds harsh. Don't get me wrong: Most church leaders in my acquaintance would, if ask directly, assure me that of course they believe single people have as much spiritual potential and receive as much love from Christ as married people do. Yet when they talk about the Christian life, what they say shows that within Christianity, marriage is normal; singleness, abnormal.

Let me give an example, the one that inspired this post: Just a few days ago I was sitting in a church service, and the speaker lamented the fact that fewer women were staying home to raise their children. He urged the women the congregation (many young college-aged women) to embrace their feminine roles, to accept with joy their calling to be wives and mothers and homemakers. This, he rhapsodized, was the central, God-ordained responsibility of women.

My main concern here is not actually how women choose to spend their lives, at home or at an office. Many women want nothing more than to marry and raise children, and even nonreligious women often prefer to stay home and raise their children. This is a personal decision, nothing more.

No, my main concern as this: So long as the church defines women's primary role as raising children and being keepers at home, there is no way for me, and other women like me, to be a healthy, growing Christian, at least not in the eyes of the church. Without a husband, without children, I necessarily fall short of the spiritual ideal that the church sets up.

This should not be.

In Christianity, under the New Covenant, the only standard is Christ, and we only walk with Him by His grace. This is the whole point of our faith: that we leave behind all the efforts and accomplishments we think make us holy, and, along with people from far, far different walks of life, turn humbly to Him.

Interestingly, when Christ walked among men, those who walked most closely with Him were often those who did not meet the Judaic standard for holiness: the Roman centurion, for instance, or the Phoenician woman. Yet it was these people, more than the Pharisees who did meet the religious standards for holiness, who were in fact the most like Christ, and the closest to Him.

My point here is this: As long as we insist on tying women's spiritual success to their abilities as wives and mothers, we set the bar for holiness impossibly high for singles. Yet according to Christianity, that bar should not even exist: What we are telling singles is in direct conflict with a gospel of grace.

Don't misunderstand me here: I'm absolutely certain that none of this flurry about standards and holiness and the Gospel occurred at all to the speaker I heard. I'm certain that his wish for women to joyfully embrace a life at home was made in good faith, from a good heart. He meant well.

Yet the fact that he meant well is all the more concerning. What it indicates is that he is entirely unaware of the distress that one comment may cause single people, that he does not realize that his vision of a holy life is impossible for singles. What it indicates is that this problem is widespread among the church, enough so to be (almost) invisible.

It is this invisibility which makes it so urgent that we the church talk about singleness: not so unhappy men and women can at last find life partners, but so that Christians, who also happen to be single, can be welcomed into the church, not only with a handshake and a smile but also with the way we talk about singleness. Let us be more like Christ, not laying extra burdens, impossible to bear on people, but lifting the burdens off and showing each other love.