It has been almost two months since I last posted here. I don’t expect to post much over the next couple of months. I wasn’t even intending to post anything today but, after writing the following in the form of a comment yesterday, I first decided not to post it at all, and then thought that it might be worth rewriting it as a blog post, just to reassure you all that I am still alive.
Having a personal interest in the subject, and having ruminated on a Christian ‘purity’ ethic myself in the past, I have read many of the various treatments on the subject that have been written over the last year or two. While I strongly share many of the concerns that have been voiced about the ‘purity culture’, much that has been written against it is profoundly unsatisfying. I have also been troubled by the dearth of close biblical and theological analysis, the fairly uncritical and unreflective appropriation of standard feminist or liberal lines of argument in many quarters, and the absence or weakness of the alternatives to the purity culture that have been advanced.
Over on A Deeper Story, Elizabeth Esther has written a piece on the subject of a purity ethic, which avoids the greatest problems of purity culture. As hers has been one of the prominent voices in this discourse and as she is here attempting to move beyond the work of criticism to the constructive task of framing a Christian ‘purity ethic’, I believe that it is worth engaging with. Her article is only around 800 words long. I recommend that you read it before you read the rest of this post.
Reading this, I don’t disagree with much that is said – I have made similar points in the past. Purity is not just or primarily about avoiding certain things – although it does involve that – but is at heart the pursuit of something. Also, as pointed out, purity isn’t just about adhering to a set of arbitrary and detached rules, but finds its meaning within something akin to what Catholics have termed, in a slightly different, though not unrelated, context, a ‘seamless garment’ – a consistent and integrated moral ethic/ethos.
However, when I finish reading the piece, I am far from certain that much has been said. In fact, I wonder whether its instinctive appeal might reside in its vagueness, which gives the impression that much more has been said than actually has been. So, for instance, it is suggested that ‘purity is similar to integrity in that it means acting in accordance with a set of core values.’ However, what these ‘core values’ actually are is far from clear.
Rather than clearly defining these values, vague concepts relating to ‘wholeness of humanness,’ and ‘living wholly’ are deployed. The problem is that everyone can see what they want in such expressions. Words such as ‘wholeness’, ‘holism’, and ‘integration’, are modern Christian buzzwords, much like ‘story’ or ‘relationship’, but they often sound a lot more profound than they actually are. The positive connotations of such terms also lead to fewer searching questions. What exactly is wholeness and where does it reside? What serves as the principle or locus of integration? Where such questions are not truly addressed, we are left with something that appears deep but is actually quite ambiguous.
What is said about the principle and locus of integration is far from satisfying.
Purity is living wholly–in all areas of my life. It starts with me.
Am I expressing my sexuality in a way that honors the wholeness of who I am?
Purity is knowing myself and honoring the whole of my personhood – because once I know myself, I am living honestly.
All of this may sound great to modern Western ears, but is any of this recognizably Christian? For one, Christian ethics starts with placing our subject position under radical question and presenting a startling decentring of our selfhood as the new principle of redeemed existence: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.’ ‘Integration’ within such an account is about integration into Christ’s body – about living and growing ‘in Christ’. This means living wholly for something greater than ourselves: ‘and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.’ It doesn’t start with me: it starts with Christ.
Christian sexual ethics takes for its principle something much greater than us, and is framed and ordered by realities that transcend us: God, creation, human nature, the body of Christ, the eschatological kingdom. Flesh, in its current state, is presented as compromised throughout by the powers of Sin and Death, misled by evil and deceptive desires, which cannot discern the good of our natures. As this ethic places ourselves in question and presents realities that transcend and overarch us as the ordering principles of true human existence, the true ethic of purity is established extra nos, has an objective force, and comes to us as an external imperative.
This sort of Christian sexual ethic is not privatized and individualized. It doesn’t begin and end with me and my authenticity. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it: ‘In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of “us.”’ Or as Paul says, ‘Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.’ In Scripture, our purity is not about some private ‘authenticity’, but about the worship that we owe to God, and the honour that we owe to each other. Christian sexual ethics are about community, about the way that we are stewards of our bodies for the sake of God and each other, rather than predicated upon the notion of bodily autonomy as contemporary liberal and feminist sexual ethics typically are. I am responsible to people beyond myself in my use of my body and consent and authenticity alone aren’t a sufficient foundation for a Christian sexual ethic.
The upshot of the relocation of the principle and locus of integration is the revelation that: a) our being needs to be integrated into something beyond and greater than it; b) we are in a state of radical dis-integration, both on account of sin and on account of immaturity; c) we will never be fully ‘integrated’ prior to the eschaton. As the principle and locus of integration lies outside of us, we do not provide the form of wholeness. Rather, that form is Christ, to whom we must become ‘conformed’. As this form lies outside of us, there is an external measure against which our behaviour can be measured.
Further, as we have not attained to the full level of maturity in Christ, the form of Christian ethic has not yet been internalized, which means that it can still come to us as an external command. While the ethical instruction and direction that we provide to children and teenagers have deeper integrating rationales, they are often not yet able to grasp this. This doesn’t make the ethic any less integrated. It just means that the integration of the ethic hasn’t yet been subjectively apprehended. Of course, we labour towards that end, but in the meantime, the moral imperative of ethical commands as yet not fully subjectively integrated is still present.
This is important when it comes to the question of a purity ethic, which will often have to be addressed to people who do not yet truly grasp its integrating principles. We want teenagers to understand why it is wrong for them to engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage, and why it is important to comport and clothe themselves in a non-sexualized manner, but the fact that many do not yet appreciate why does not negate the ethical coordinates of the situation. In our laudable desire to communicate the integrating rationale of Christian sexual ethics, we should not neglect the objective force of those ethics. This may take the form of telling teenagers that certain actions are wrong and forbidding them to engage in them, even when they do not yet understand why.
On this front, Scripture is quite specific that certain sexual actions or behaviours are objectively wrong: adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexual practice, lasciviousness, the public celebration of lust, the immodest publication of sexuality, debauchery, coarse jesting, licentiousness, obscenity, etc. That some people struggle to grasp a unifying and integrating principle for these norms and thus reject them is akin to the child who disobeys their parents having not received an answer to the ‘why?’ question which satisfies them.
Scripture is not vague on this front. In contrast to the pagan writers of the period, the New Testament places a particular accent upon the condemnation of sexual vices. Scripture doesn’t treat sexual sin as simply parallel to other sins: it is placed in a category of its own. Paul writes: ‘Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.’ When Paul speaks of paradigmatic sin in Romans 1:18-32, he highlights homosexual practice as a dishonouring of the body. Stealing, by contrast, is serious, but it cannot dishonour the body in the same way. This is also one reason why sexual sins and murder are among the only sins against human beings in Scripture that receive the death penalty in the Old Testament – they alone represent a direct assault upon the image of God.
Purity is living wholly–in all areas of my life. It starts with me. I must ask myself: am I taking care of myself? Am I taking drugs? Am I drinking too much? Am I getting enough sleep? Am I over-eating? Am I getting enough exercise? Am I expressing my sexuality in a way that honors the wholeness of who I am?
One can’t help but wonder whether this is a slip towards a modern liberal ethics of the body beautiful and self-expression, which focuses on the health and realization of the ethical consumer’s body, on fitness, eating healthily, buying organic food, avoiding smoking, being environmentally friendly, and having plenty of enjoyable and adventurous consensual sex, rather than upon the integrity of the ‘soul’. A sort of vague bourgeois responsibility to live healthily, to enjoy our bodies to their full potential, and feel good about ourselves as a result, is substituted for Christian purity ethics.
Scriptural ethics raise a very different set of questions, a set of questions within which the healthy treatment of our physical bodies is of relatively marginal concern and the integrity of our ‘souls’ is far more important (let’s not forget the punishment that both Christ and the apostles subjected their bodies to, how prepared they were to forgo sexual relations, and how indifferent the Scriptures are to our cultural fixation upon dieting and exercising). The Scriptures really do not devote much concern to the ‘expressing’ of our sexuality in our bodies, but say a great deal about expressing and glorifying Christ through our suffering and dying in the flesh, on the daily renewing of our ‘inward man’ as our ‘outward man’ decays.
While it is important to criticize the unchristian abuses of the purity culture, we must do so precisely because they are un-Christian, not because they don’t square with the convictions and ideologies of modern liberalism and the feminist movement. We must recognize that sexual ethics in Scripture are not primarily about feeling good about and self-realized in our bodies, but that sexual behaviour has profoundly personal implications, relating to us as selves and divine image-bearers, not merely as those with a duty to nourish and care for our own flesh. The reframing of purity ethics in terms of some self-oriented liberal ethic of the depersonalized and autonomous body, where sexual behaviour ceases to impact upon our very selves, is a development we should firmly resist.