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.

No comments:

Post a Comment