Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Marriage, Sexuality, and Evangelical Purity Culture

Continued from here.

At eleven months married, I am hardly an expert on the subject of marriage in general. I think, moreover, that an assessment of my own married experience as compared with Gregory’s terrifying description would miss the point. On the other hand, for me as much as for Gregory, it would seem that virginity is forever beyond my grasp. I am contentedly attached to a wife, and at this point I am considering no career option that would allow me to withdraw wholly from worldly affairs, as desirable as that sounds.

If On Virginity is to apply to me, I must take into account both the distinctions Gregory draws between marriage and virginity and the continuity between them. Though it would be unjust to water down the force of his hard teaching, the “virginity” metaphor is fluid enough that I am not totally excluded. Gregory’s secondary affirmation of a chaste marriage includes both warnings and implicit praise.

But I will return to the subject of marriage. Having admitted that sexual purity is only a part of “virginity,” it nevertheless seems a natural place to start to apply (or dispute) his teaching. And here it seems fair enough to point out, as many others have, the unfortunate status of virginity in evangelical culture.

This year, a professor at Liberty University published an article in Christianity Today that accused traditional Christian veneration of virginity of being a pagan import. Instead of magnifying virginity’s aura, the author insisted, we should focus on presenting healthy models of Christian sexuality.

This is hardly a bold or unusual claim. Many evangelicals are aware that their churches, more than half a century after the “sexual revolution,” continue to struggle to address sexual issues properly and effectively. Many, such as the author above, perceive excess and reactiveness in the response to a secular culture that endorses extramarital sexuality. Nor is it particularly uncommon nowadays to see articles from within evangelicalism critiquing the methods if not the ideals of the “purity movement,” a figurehead for calls to abstinence.

For good reason. The purity movement is lead by a loosely-organized coalition of conservative writers and speakers who emphasize the importance of teen chastity, especially female chastity. Its leaders spread their message by encouraging the church to host chastity-affirming rituals such as (since 1998) purity balls for adolescent girls. Purity balls, though they bear superficial resemblance to debutante balls, invert the message. Debutantes at a ball announce their sexual maturity and their availability for courting, but young girls at purity balls are engaging in a commitment to remain under certain restrictions (and fatherly authority) despite physical and psychological maturation. Classically, the adolescents and their fathers sign a vow to purity and accountability, and the girls start to wear a ring, which they will keep until they are married.

Despite its widespread influence within the evangelical subculture, the purity movement has numerous problematic currents, even leaving aside its unsavory affinity with the patriarchal movement. It teaches abstinence by a mixture of fear (of God’s judgment or the inevitable earthly horrors of sexual unfaithfulness) and empty promises (sex will be so much better if you wait until you’re married). The interval between puberty and marriage, which on average is growing longer and longer, is expected to be a period of repression of all sexual instinct and maximal dissociation from one’s sexuality. Several recent psychological studies have reported on the intense shame generated in young women who fail to live up to its standards. Some even suggest that the consequent self-loathing, enduring even into marriage, is comparable to that which follows childhood sexual abuse.1 If that burden were not enough, young women are warned by the movement that they are responsible, in the way they dress and act, for male sexual response. Young men, though they are the subjects of less intense evaluation, are told they will be called into account for every sexual thought. It is little wonder that many youth leave the church resentful and persuaded that its teaching on abstinence is absurd.

My exposure to the purity movement has been limited, and though I will continue to reference it as emblematic of troublesome currents in evangelicalism today, I will leave thorough critiques to others. But what I do see lacking even in these critiques is an appreciation of virginity remotely approaching Gregory of Nyssa’s. The author of the Christianity Today article, while she made some points with which I would agree, was eager to link Christian sexual idealism and the pagan “cult of the virgin.” If one adheres to the theory that the Church Fathers were corrupted by Platonism, I suppose this follows. But this is frequently a mere excuse for dismissing what they said, and in this article, it reduces to a kind of association fallacy: “Christians praised virginity, and pagans praised virginity first; therefore praise of virginity is pagan.” Post-evangelicals, even if they affirm traditional teachings on marriage, tend to see the purity movement as merely the latest manifestation of ancient negative attitudes toward female sexuality in Western culture.

But Gregory of Nyssa is not the fourth-century edition of the purity movement, and I think he points us to an understanding of sexuality that is in some respects fuller and richer that that of either the purity movement or many of its critics. Actually, I believe that the purity movement suffers not from idolization of virginity but, with its religious and secular opponents, a devaluation of true virginity.

That the prevailing secular culture in the West devalues virginity and indeed sexuality should be obvious at this point. Many would propose that a sexual act is good if and when there is mutual consent, and no other standard can or should frown down on those who engage in free expression of their sexual impulses. This “shame-less” perspective invests not sexuality itself with positive meaning but the mere presence of arbitrary choice. As D. B. Hart pointed out in “Christ and Nothing,” a society which believes there is no value above choice is nihilistic at its core, and must actively seek means to exclude the influence of any constraining Good. Certainly, Christians are obligated to reject this worship of the sovereignty of the will. As Christians, we have chosen, at least in theory, to unite our wills to the perfect will of God, which requires sacrificial obedience.

But if sexual iconoclasts fetishize liberty at the expense of the good, purity culture upholds a tension that erodes the possibility of realizing that good. Implicit in its web of demands and promises is the contradiction between an unrealizable ideal and an overestimation of the forces that militate against it.

For the ideal is total. One pledges to harbor no hint of sexuality prior to marriage; anything less forever tarnishes the gift of oneself one is to give to one’s spouse. Women are thought not to have strong sexual desires, merely emotional inadequacies that require a male leader-figure. Women are encouraged by books popular in the movement to pray that any existing sexual desires may be taken away until marriage. That this clashes with the experience of many women is no surprise. If their erotic energies are channeled at all, it is toward (hopefully) non-sexual bonds with male family members, especially the father. Men, meanwhile, are taught that it is evil to appreciate or desire a woman’s body outside of marriage, and so are given an impossible standard that constantly induces shame.

Yet the purity movement, in its most dramatic forms, can stimulate an obsession with sex, or rather an obsession with avoiding its taint. It is a demon of near omnipotence, if it once gains a foothold. Men in especially conservative evangelical circles are warned that anything can trigger the flood of animal sexual desire. So they are taught to fear the slightest movement within toward sexual thoughts. The environment (that is, women’s bodies) is carefully configured so as to minimize the number of possible triggers. Women are constantly reminded that their bodies are sexual objects and reprimanded when they cross arbitrary lines of modesty.

The result is more or less constant shame for men and women with normal sex drives. They must control their desires, but they cannot control their desires. This is the essential paradox of purity culture: sexuality is a mere desire that ought to be simply “turned off” prior to marriage; but sexuality is also the dominant, even irresistible human drive.

This contradiction is rooted in a noxious married-single dichotomy that, I would posit, festers at the heart of the modern sexual muddle in evangelicalism. For there is really only one ideal in this culture: the married ideal. Singleness is about marriage. Purity culture is about saving yourself for your future husband or wife; in terms of the unfortunate property metaphors common in the movement, it is about not damaging the goods or irrevocably giving away favors to those with no right to them. Virgins “belong” to their future spouses.

There is, in fact, no virgin ideal in purity culture at all. Virginity, or more properly abstinence, is treasured only as a means to an ideal marriage. It is the tension between your body’s needs and the absence of a committed partner that will be released in marriage, when the latter gives way. Singleness is something ultimately to be gotten rid of, preferably before you hit your thirties. Thus purity culture implicitly marks singleness as inferior, singles as incomplete people who (especially if they are female) require the other sex for physical and spiritual fulfillment.

And this narrow perspective negatively affects marriage, too. The psychology of a single person is expected to be radically different from the psychology of a married person. A single person, ideally, is to have no sexual thoughts or feelings whatsoever, or at least to take every opportunity to avoid stirring these things up. When the vows are said, however, the new husband or wife ought to leap into what was formerly feared and avoided, and enjoy it. This is said to be God’s formula, despite the fact that it makes no sense.

Meanwhile, evangelicals hold to the elusive ideal of marriage, if only for the sake of those being encouraged to abstinence. It would seem that God’s plan is for more or less everyone to be happily married when the time is right, so single life is spent in preparation for this new stage of maturity. Married persons are not generally acknowledged to have sexual difficulties.

Nowadays, more and more evangelicals are becoming aware of the ineffectiveness and unintended dangers of purity culture. It must however be admitted that there is some Christian instinct at work in the purity movement. Fornication–that is, sexual activity not grounded in the supernatural commitment of marriage–is regarded by the Christian tradition as inherently destructive, feeding improper lusts and encouraging rebellion against God; conversely, sexual activity within marriage can be a source of joy, communion, and the blessings of procreation. The problem is not the purity movement’s basic teaching on the right conditions for sexual activity.

We must also commend the countermovement that seeks to instill healthier and more realistic expectations about sex while maintaining the boundaries of Christian virtue. No doubt plenty of young men and women have passed through purity culture psychologically unscathed, but that does not mean that we must not make an effort to move past its serious deficiencies. The countermovement corrects a host of misguided notions and promises a healthier form of sexual instruction.

But from what I have seen, even this countermovement offers no encouragement whatsoever to those who reject marriage as a path altogether. They maintain the same single-married dichotomy. Marriage and an active sexual life are expected to be universally desirable and chronologically subsequent to virginity. Virginity is a nothingness, a vacuum that can only be filled by “that perfect someone.” Sexuality is the problem; marriage is the cure.

What is left out of all of this? The Pauline ideal of celibacy, or as Gregory of Nyssa would have it, virginity.

Evangelicals simply have difficulty with virginity. This is exemplified by the growing category of “older singles,” who occupy an uncomfortable position in church life; many fiercely desire to get married, whether directly because of their sexual or emotional urges or because they have been culturally conditioned to see it as necessary for personal fulfillment. The married are the Protestant churchly elite. Those who are single would seem to have nothing to say to those who are married; to be married is an automatic leap in spiritual status. Monks and unwedded priests from other forms of Christianity are of course regarded with suspicion for the mere fact of their commitment to celibacy. Virginity is no more than a stage on the road to marriage, and thus bachelors and old maids are stuck in a kind of adolescence.

In On Virginity, Gregory converts the negative value of virginity, literal or metaphorical, into a positive value. He starts by turning the marriage-favoring paradigm on its head. Marriage, not virginity, is the transitory, even inferior state. True, celestial virginity lasts forever.

For Gregory, virginity is about much more than abstinence from sin, let alone abstinence from sex. It is about positive and perpetual dedication to the highest good. We must remember, again, that Gregory does not actually contradict the church’s teaching on the goodness of the marriage sacrament. He is making a rhetorical contrast intended to highlight the goodness of virginity. Marriage and virginity are both (if unequally) signs of the divine life of the redeemed. Though he might seem at first glance to be further impressing the single-married dichotomy, Gregory actually transcends it.

This is because On Virginity is grounded in an understanding of human sexuality in some respects far more sophisticated than that of evangelical “purity culture.” The Christian tradition never presents sexual desires as something that can be simply prayed or wished away, the responsibility of just one sex or the other, or an uncontrollable demonic force. Rather, sexual desire, for both married and unmarried, is something to be tamed and mastered over time with hard work, like all the other desires. On this level, the struggle with sinful passions, distinctions between male and female, married and unmarried, simply do not apply. Purity of spirit is the calling of all Christians.

If this is the case, why single out virgins, both as a metaphor for spiritual purity and as an advocated lifestyle? Why is virginity so privileged, and why harangue marriage so violently?

It is because virginity truly is something special, with deep spiritual significance. Pope St. John Paul II in his Theology of the Body remarks, “the choice of continence [i.e., celibacy] for the kingdom of heaven is a charismatic orientation toward that eschatological state in which men ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage'” (73.4). Virginity is a prefigurement of an eternal good that otherwise might remain obscure. John Paul II points out that marriage was a privileged state under Old Testament Judaism, sought by all. Christ’s favorable words about those who choose to be eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven were therefore revolutionary (74.3-4). Christ made marriage a demanding calling by his teaching on divorce; now he makes celibacy at least equally so. Christ himself, unlike the patriarchs, was a virgin; his mother was a virgin in her maternity. Christianity does teach, following St. Paul, the superiority of celibacy to marriage, which nevertheless implies no disparagement to the latter (77.6). Celibacy and marriage actually compliment one another. Both are, in differing ways, signs of the coming age, and both are affirmed.

Moreover, as Morwenna Ludlow explains in the article cited previously, Gregory’s rhetoric, understood in the context of the times, suggests not that he hates marriage or that he regards marriages as universally disastrous; instead, he praises virginity as a married man because it is good for the community and for mankind. Traditionally, a rhetor would be appointed to praise marriage at a wedding; Gregory is standing in the rhetor’s role of calling people to the praiseworthy mode of life that is virginity.

Here someone might object that Gregory’s (and even John Paul II’s) bias toward virginity is unscriptural. After all, isn’t marriage a divine institution based on the principle that it is not good that man should be alone? Are we not intended as Christians to live in loving, committed relationships?

Yet if Gregory is read in the context of the developing ascetic movement to which he belonged, this ceases to be an issue. In previous centuries, ascetics tended to be individual monks and nuns who would renounce all family ties and seek the solitude of a remote cell. These hermits and anchorites were distinguished by extraordinary devotion and bravery; they were spiritual warriors and conquerors of the desert within and without. But Gregory was involved in the nascent cenobitic movement, which drew not spiritual adventurers but those who wished to take the lessons of asceticism to nurturing Christian communities. In Cappadocia at this time, the monastic movement absorbed whole communities and families such as Gregory’s own. Gregory’s older brother Basil developed a system of monastic discipline and charity that later influenced the more famous Rule of St. Benedict.

Gregory expects virginity to be a communal endeavor, not an individual program. What he offers in the detachment of virginity is not complete lack of social ties, but a context in which relationships can be based in mutual innocence and spiritual fervor. Virginity, as he makes clear by the end of his treatise, thrives especially in the company of experienced ascetics and holy persons. Virginity, like marriage, is a spiritual good cultivated in community.

Why is it higher? In marriage, we are defined by our roles as husband, wife, father, and mother. The fulfillment of these roles is a very good thing that reflects aspects of the Creator. However, the virgin exists simply as a human being before God, which is a deeper and more primal level than our position within the family. The virgin is not necessarily a solitary, but he or she is free to be a complete soul offered completely and immediately in union with God.

Moreover, as Gregory points out, marriage necessarily entails a commitment to the reality of mortal bodies and procreation, which is passing away. The children of earthly marriage are equally subject in their bodies to the hostile reign of death. Every birth contains within it the seed of death; every newborn must eventually find the grave. But virtue, to which the true virgin is wholly devoted, is generated on another, deathless plane of existence, from the fruitful union of the will of God and the will of man. The spiritual virgin is the opposite of barren.

We should not forget the importance of the archetype of the virgin or the virgin mother in the early church. This concept was treated with great reverence. It was not simply Marian devotion, which is related and became more important later on; the virgin mother was the foremost symbol of Christ’s church, which in its purity becomes the mother of the elect and the body of Christ, giving life to all who believe. This draws obviously on Pauline and Johannine texts (e.g., John 19:26-27; 2 Cor 11:2; 2 John 1-5, 13) as well as the image of the wedding of the Lamb in St. John’s Apocalypse. The church is the archetypal woman brought into fruitful union with the archetypal man, Christ. Again, the associations with Adam, Eve, and the Virgin Mary are important, but probably not necessary for us to discuss here.

Gregory reminds us elsewhere, in On the Making of Man, that our intellectual souls, like the angels and all spiritual beings, are neither male nor female in essence; the distinction exists wholly within our animal natures and one day will disappear. This is not to deny that men and women have differing physiologies and even psychologies, nor is to to undermine the earthly value of gender identity and the church’s teaching on the right relation of the sexes. The physiological and the psychological are not irrelevant, and their health is important; but they are properties of the exterior self which is passing away.

As the male and female by their very division are intended for union, so too are the uncreated and created, the divine spirit and the human spirit. This is necessarily not a union of equality, but as a union of wills in love, it does involve mutual self-emptying for the sake of the other. Marriage itself is, from a certain vantage point, merely a shadow of the spiritual union of God with his creation. The consummation of the beatific vision requires the putting off of our condemned flesh, but to a certain extent, we the betrothed are allowed to enjoy this superior union and its fruits in our earthly lives as we mortify the sinful passions that obscure our awareness of God.

It is with this framework in mind, then, that Gregory of Nyssa advocates virginity. Virgins, male or female, make themselves into living icons of this pure bride of Christ, the church. The virginity of the Kingdom of Heaven is both sexual and moral, for all human marriage will pass away, as will all sin. Married Christians, living purely and chastely, may to some degree foreshadow this blessed state; but it is more perfectly represented by those who live a life wholly devoted to Christ in the present age.

So does Gregory have anything to say to a man or woman whose calling is not this particular sacrifice? I think he does.

The remarks on marriage contained in chapter 8 are important to consider. Gregory confesses that marriage is not only blessed by God but (as one might forget listening to his litany of married woes) genuinely pleasurable. Some monks, unfortunately, hold to the heretical opinion that marriage is inherently evil; he may be thinking of the Manichaeans here, who like Gregory’s family took inspiration from Egyptian Christians to form cenobitic religious communities, but unlike orthodox communities regarded all sensual pleasure, indeed all material life, as sinful. All true virtue, Gregory insists, is found in sobriety and moderation. Neither he who marries as a means to indulge his passions nor he who despises marriage can have achieved perfection.

“In the cases where it is possible at once to be true to the diviner love, and to embrace wedlock,” Gregory states, “there is no reason for setting aside this dispensation of nature and misrepresenting as abominable that which is honourable.” A just marriage exists, and it is that which does not obstruct the spiritual energies in their course to God, but on the contrary eases their passage. Such a marriage is far better than mere sexual continence without Godly discipline.

Finally, Gregory’s treatise should remind married persons that they, too, are called to a life of struggle with the passions, including sexual passions. They too will be partakers of the consummated virginity of the coming age.

Can a married person, or any person for that matter, attain true detachment? I shall address that in my next post.


Footnotes

On Virginity

Introduction
Part I: Marriage and Sexuality
Part II: Detachment
Part III: Beauty

1. Cited here.

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