Channeling Desire: A Theological Vision for Celibacy and Sexuality

Celibacy. No sex. At all. Talk to most people today about celibacy and you’ll probably get one of two reactions, possibly both:

  1. It’s impossible. Anyone who claims to be celibate is lying, or will be soon.
  2. It’s unhealthy. Sex is an essential part of being human that you shouldn’t just give up.

And, to support their convictions, many will appeal to the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years. “See,” they’ll say. “Those priests tried to give up sex and they failed because it’s just not possible.” Or they’ll argue, “Look what happens when you try to give up such an essential part of being human. It’s just not healthy.”

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Protestants seem particularly fond of such arguments, pointing at clerical celibacy as one of the more absurd aspects of Catholic dogma.

But, as Sarah Coakley points out in her article, “Taming Desire: Celibacy, Sexuality, and the Church,” a real theology of desire requires much deeper reflection. Coakley argues that if we look at how people respond to both clerical celibacy and homosexuality, we’ll find several, deeply-rooted problems.

1. There is both a widespread pessimism that celibacy is even possible and a shared consensus that certain forms of sexuality should never be expressed. So, we maintain that (clerical) celibacy is impossible, and at the same time we tell “sexual deviants” that they should remain celibate.

2. There is a focus on issues surrounding homosexuality and a corresponding neglect of the problems that plague so many heterosexual relationships. So, we spend considerable time discussing gay clerics, but devote surprisingly little attention to divorced clerics.

3. There is a tendency to view celibacy and marriage as opposites: one involving no sex, and the other as much sex as possible.

Coakely uses these three to demonstrate that popular sexual thought is deeply conflicted.

She then turns to an interesting discussion of Freudian sublimation. Unlike the common notion that Freud viewed all sexual sublimation as repressive and unhealthy, she points out that Freud’s more mature thought saw sublimation as a necessary channeling of energy toward other ends. So, even Freud could be a champion of celibacy, as long as it was a healthy redirection of energy and attention toward worthy goals.

Having dispatched the supposed anti-celibacy champion, Coakley turns her attention to Gregory of Nyssa as an example of a Christian thinker who saw sexuality as something that could be channeled toward a greater purpose. Referring to Gregor’s “On Virginity,” she says:

Indeed, what is truly interesting about Gregory’s treatise is the image that lies at the heart of the argument. It is the metaphor of the “stream” of desire, and of its right direction, use, and even intensification in relation to God. In this task, Gregory says, both celibates and married people are equally involved as a life-long ascetical exercise (“ascetical,” of course, here referring to the practice of disciplining and training one’s body, of learning, in other words, self-control).

It might be thought that Gregory intends this intensification of desire towards God as mutually exclusive with a sexually-active life in marriage. But interestingly, he repeats the same metaphor of the stream precisely to explain how sex in marriage can be a “good irrigation” provided it, too, is ordered in relation to God and so made “moderate” in comparison with the intensified and unified stream that desire for God demands.

It is not, then, to suppress passion that Gregory’s treatise is written, but actually (as stated by Gregory at the very outset) precisely to “create passion” for “the life according to excellence.” And so Gregory lauds virginity, not on account of its sexlessness, but because of its withdrawal from worldly interests.

So, she argues that “Gregory’s vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified through its relations to God…represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of ‘repression’ and ‘libertinism’.” Placing the discussion in a much broader theological framework, we can see that sexual desire is not an end in itself and break free from the constraints of modern sexual discourse.

When it comes to specific ethical issues, I’m sure that Sarah Coakley and I would differ significantly. But, she has done a great job here identifying the weakness of our modern notions of sexuality. We consistently reduce it to particular forms of sexual expression/repression. Instead, we need “to re-invest the debate with a theological and spiritual wisdom too long forgotten.” She is well-aware that this will not make the arguments go away, they are too complex for that, but she’s right to argue that this is a necessary step forward.

If you’d like to read further on some of the issues involved in developing a theological vision of sexuality, here are a couple of other posts on the subject:

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 20, 2011, in Anthropology, Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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