Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Celibacy as “Space for God” : Building Blocks for a Theology

2 Epiphany
1 Hilary

In the New Testament, both marriage and celibacy are considered vocations that manifest the love of God in particular ways. I’d like to reference some works by Henri Nouwen and Rowan Williams that bring out the nature of celibacy as both testimony to and manifestation of God’s presence.

I consider celibacy to be a way of “making room” for the presence of God. Remembering that healthy relationships always have some manner of boundaries, I’d like to suggest that in the life of any person, there are public and private “spaces” – areas of the soul that are meant to be shared by friends, areas for a mate, and some parts that are private, where God alone is invited to dwell. (Not that God is always invited!) Whatever those spaces might look like, those parts of our lives are something we owe to one another in love and service. Our friends have a certain claim on us because of our baptism and shared life in the Church. (I write about this often.) Our spouses would have another kind of claim, while there is other space that is for God alone, consecrated to him. Celibacy would mean that a significant part of our “space” is reserved for God alone, to the exclusion of other persons. That is not “holy” as opposed to “unholy” but a particular kind of holiness.

I don’t have it to hand, but I think I was thinking along these lines after reading from J.M. Henri Nouwen’s Clowning in Rome.

In his essay, “Resident Aliens: The Identity of the Early Church” (In Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church, The Sarum Theological Lectures, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005, 32-40)” Rowan Williams describes vocational celibacy as the successor to martyrdom as a channel for God’s presence and power in the community.

Christian identity was understood in terms of both affirmation and negation: Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, and the ekklesia (“public assembly”) of “resident aliens” (a common phrase in the early Christian letters) consists of a people who owed their citizenship and ultimate allegiance to a Kingdom other than Caesar’s Empire. While the roman civic cult was pleased to add some gods and practices, Christian religion was exclusive: the believer belongs to God alone, and so does not participate in many aspects of civic life. Martyrdom bore witness to the power and ownership of God that made the Christian community distinct, and was a channel of that power. This is why the letters of Ignatius and the Martyrdom of Polycarp are pleased to use Eucharistic language to describe their deaths:
The martyr consecrates his body to be a holy place exactly as the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the place where sacred presence and power are to be found. The expulsion of the Christian from the would-be sacred order of the Roman city or the Roman emperor is the very moment in which the holiness of the Christian is perfected: holiness, in the sense not of exceptional goodness but of the active presence of a holy and terrifying power, is indeed identical with marginality in the terms of the empire. The holy place is the suffering body expelled from the body politic, Polycarp uttering his great thanksgiving as the flames are lit (36).
In short, martyrs were considered conduits of God’s power because the manner of their death offered a space (and a sacrifice) that was offered entirely to God in an ultimate denial of both self and the claims of any other persons or entities. It was a testimony of this power because of its public and communal nature.

Williams doesn’t discuss it at length, but he sees the same motifs regarding “virgins” in the community after martyrdom ceased to be a common danger. I think it a worthwhile line of inquiry to suggest that the same concepts apply to a celibate vocation It is an expression of being owned by God and the Community alone; the “family” obligations are different. It is also public, because it defines the boundaries for the individuals relationships with everyone else. It is a can also bring power because of the larger “empty space” for transformation.

Next: Obstacles to a theology of celibacy.

Update: now this is the kind of thing I'm trying to talk about.


naak said...

Hey Kyle,

I like your newest series on celibacy. Now, as you know I am an Evangelical and I do not hold to the thought that all ministers, those called to the ministry of God’s Word, or anyone who is given to the service of God should be sexually abstinent to serve God. But I do agree that the Evangelical community does place some sort of requirement, which is not biblical, that ministers should be married. I find this to be absurd that those who claim to be biblically founded would make such a legalistic statute. But so goes the same with the sects that make it a requirement to remain sexually abstinent. I find that a man or woman, whether an elder, evangelist, deacon/deaconess, layman, or what ever other position there might be should do as the Spirit of God leads them to do. So if a man, wanting to be free from the world and its requirements, chooses to live fully devoted to God and does not to marry, then praise God. If a man, wanting to invest his life in the life of a spouse and wants to have a family, chooses to live his life fully devoted to God and does marry, then praise God. Scripture does not dictate that a person should do one or the other. It does say that if one is able to go without then it is better because of how the world wages war against us, and that service to God is easier without the worries of a spouse. Yet the Scripture teaches that a man, even elder, should be the husband of one wife (not meaning that he has to be a husband, but simply a one woman man). So whether a man chooses to marry or not, let him decide and God be the judge, for it is him that lives his live to the Lord.

+ simonas said...

dude, you need to cut down on the length of posts. that's no oxford for you here! :-)

Robbie said...

So there's an area of our life that is solely God's domain if He's invited, and there is an area that is devoted to relationships. It seems that celibacy is a way to give more area, more of our lives, to God and His calling. What would be the attitude, or reason for abstinence outside of the vowed vocations?

In the "abstinence before marriage" message that is preached today, it appears that the domain for relationships is not open to God anymore than if one were married. It's as if they were married already. That domain is not open to God, but is still reserved for future a spouse.

adam stacey said...

I’ve read with interest what you have posted Kyle and decided to post my some of my thoughts. Well, for those of you who don’t know me (or haven’t read my blog), then here is my background. I’m training to be a Baptist Minister at Regent’s, brought up a Baptist and love the variety and non-conformity. I’m 21 and engaged to Hannah, who I will marry in September. So, there we go.

Sex surrounds us and is an extremely prominent in our cultures, however I think many writers on this issue get caught up thinking this is unique to the 20th Century onwards – PAH! We don’t find ourselves in any different situation to any other set of people throughout history, sexual desire is one thing that drives humans and always has. I reckon prostitution must be the oldest job in the world…..

…however I don’t want to get to far from my point. We live in a time where ‘Sexual Liberation’ is a phrase we hear. People can experiment, have many sexual partners and no longer does society have boundaries regarding sex – society says we are liberated sexually. Or are we? I think that we now find sexual liberation in celibacy. Taking part in sexual acts is a socially imposed expectation, by not conforming to sex outside of marriage then surely we are liberated. Sexual liberation comes in obeying the teaching of our Maker.

This verse has been cropping up for me a great deal in recent weeks, in my opinion it sums up this topic. “But now the Lord declares: Far be it from me; for those who honour me I will honour” 1 Sam 2:28. We are taught that sex is a gift from God for marriage, outside of marriage we must abstain.

Kyle said...

Well, Naak, outside of Paul's comment that he wishes all of us could be celibates like him, that seems a pretty fair summary of the New Testament's comments on the matter. :0)

C'mon, Simonas, was it really that dense? Sometimes these things take some space to work out.

Robbie, I have to say I'm not entirely comfortable with the distinction of "spaces" I wrote about above. Maybe if I read Nouwen again I'll get a better sense, or somebody can help me out.

What I really don't like is any language of celibacy versus marriage as giving "more" or "less" to God, since the entire life is God's, anyway. I think it means a different kind of sanctity, but not more.

I am happier with ++Rowan's assessment of what that "space" meant in the lives of the early Christians: "the active presence of a holy and terrifying power." It brings to mind some other things I've read about the extremely counter-culture witness of Christian sexuality generally (a point we see Adam Stacey making above). And you know, celibacy in itself is a witness against the conservatives' idolatry of the family.

Adam, I think you're quite right about finding liberty in discipline and restraint. What usually passes for sexual liberation is indeed the slavery of our appetites...