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Sin and Safe Religion

January 31, 2013
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Rodin's_'The_Kiss'_in_Buenos_AiresIn college I knew of young men who were apprehensive about kissing their girlfriends because they might have a lustful thought.  One individual of my acquaintance, for this same reason, refused to hold hands while on a casual walk around campus or a lovely stroll through the park.  He avoid all sensuality out of fear for his soul.  Apparently these fellows imagined that marriage would magically focus their sexual appetites into virtue; they made no effort to develop modesty and chastity at this stage of their relationships.  They expected the young women they admired to be virtuous—modest, for example—but mostly, it seemed, so they would not succumb to sin.  Any sensuality was a near occasion for sin, and so all sensuality had to be kept at an unbridgeable chasm’s length.

As you might imagine, these individuals, so focused on avoiding their sexuality, failed time and again to master it.  Of course! They weren’t even trying to master it.  Holiness for them was merely the absence of sinful deeds, not the fruit of self-control that comes from taking the risks of living life as someone with a body. In a real sense, they were trying to escape their bodies.  They were afraid of them, fearful their appetites and passions and sensations would lead them to spiritual ruin.  Their disposition was unhealthy, psychologically and spiritually, unfair to themselves and to others.

From what I could tell, this attitude and behavior was religiously motivated, at least to a degree, and emerged from a religious focus on sin.  As you can really focus on only one object, to focus on sin is to blur all else.  When all you do is focus on sin, and when that is the primary perspective of your religiosity, then you will likely approach religion mostly as a sanctuary from sin and spiritual harm rather than as a tool for physical and spiritual wholeness.  Avoiding sensuality is one result of focusing on sin; there are others.

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  1. John Henry permalink
    January 31, 2013 1:51 pm

    “It is always the novice who exaggerates. The man who has risen in society is over-refined; the young scholar is pedantic.” C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters

    I think what you’re describing is a phase in the natural conversion process. I agree that it is not healthy long term (and unsustainable), but I’m not sure at all that rises from an absence of focus on virtue as much as a lack of prudence about what virtue is – and that takes time to develop. It’s true that some people never get much past this phase: one manifestation of a lack of prudence is prudery. But my experience has been that these same folks either have a much more mature take on this now, or have abandoned Catholicism altogether.

  2. January 31, 2013 2:25 pm

    I love the idea that ‘one can master their sexuality’. In society flaunting sexuality and being open about sexual matters is commonplace and almost expected. Do you really think it’s reasonable to expect this in our overly-sexualised culture ?

  3. January 31, 2013 2:57 pm

    What you are seeing is Calvinism (or it’s heretical Catholic cousin, Jansenism).

    The Calvinist worldview is that the body is bad. Humanity is totally depraved. We are all Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

    In the Protestant world, this manifests itself as a very toxic “Purity culture”, and unfortunately, it has crept into Catholic culture.

    Many Catholics are quite naive about how Purity culture works. Catholics meaning to give helpful advice about lust or temptation may accidentally say things that make people fear for their souls for having a sensual thought.

    Catholics talking about the benefits of self-control in a marriage may lead someone from Purity culture to starve their marriage for intimacy.

  4. Jimmy Mac permalink
    January 31, 2013 5:26 pm

    It used to be called “avoiding the near occasions of sin.” Like …. everything.

  5. Thales permalink
    January 31, 2013 6:01 pm

    Virtue is found in the middle. You can err by going too far one way or another. And the “middle” is different for different people. That’s why I try not to judge what a person thinks he has to do to be virtuous…. maybe for him or her, avoiding that kiss is truly necessary to avoid sin. And even if the person is erring too much one the “avoiding sensuality” side, it seems to me that that’s better than erring on the other side of the scale.

  6. Rob permalink
    January 31, 2013 7:21 pm

    It’s kinda like the faith. The faith is not sum of all the anathemas that will cast you out to the Church, but rather what you should believe in the positive sense.

  7. January 31, 2013 7:46 pm

    This is a great post. I’ve been (re-)thinking a lot about what “virtue” means and how it is achieved. I’m convinced the notion that it’s about “following the rules” is incorrect, and that “ought” statements interpreted as external impositions is unhealthy. Virtue is about integrating desire, but as you say that means taking risks and experimenting and exploring, not simply “avoiding the question” altogether, taking refuge in a spiritual embattlement.

    I’m going to write a post of my own about this soon, and I’ll probably cite your great description here! I’d also point out that there’s a logic in Paul’s “better to marry than to burn” which would suggest that, for many people, the “problem” of, say, “fornication”…isn’t EVER going to be “solved” by abstinence or quitting. It’s going to, rather, become a non-issue by actually “going forward” and getting married, which simply redefines the terms of the context in such a way that there is no longer a problem!

    I now think that growth in virtue works like this a lot more often than those who would try to artificially impose a vision of perfection on themselves from without merely by “avoiding transgression,” as if we become healthy by “acting healthy,” as if we become healthy or whole by suppressing the external “symptoms” (that’s just spiritual cargo-cultism) rather than actually gaining any internal wisdom or integration by grappling with and negotiating desire.

  8. Jordan permalink
    February 1, 2013 4:26 am

    While I haven’t encountered this frequently (my extended family is nominally religious at best), I’ve long suspected that Kyle’s description not infrequently results in poorly thought-out marriages. Often these marriages aren’t successful. A number of couples often marry not only under the pretext of “marry than burn” but also parental expectations that marriage would provide greater stability to the relationship. A variant on the previous scenario is the notion that pushing a gay or lesbian child in a mixed orientation marriage will automagically “solve” the “problem” of the child’s sexual orientation. Unfortunately, this latter scenario is a non-solution as well, often with disastrous consequences such as either of the spouses committing adultery according to his or her sexual orientation.

    Ancedotal evidence suggests that couples who postpone marriage until age twenty-five or later experience much more successful marital outcomes than those who marry before this age. I have found that in more secular (and even religious circles such as my immediate family) that later marriage is definitely preferred. My parents did not wed until their late 20’s; my brother is twenty-eight, financially successful and still not wed. This is expected. Average age at wedlock in my family: about 30. All of the late marriages have been ostensibly successful and have survived marital strains.

    The Apostle Paul’s “wed than burn” might have been sage advice when 35 was one’s golden years. Today, with life expectancies in post-industrial countries edging 80, later marriage offers a number of benefits such as the birth of children into financial stability and the hands of mature parents. Will late marriage result in fornication? Perhaps in many or even most cases, yes. Which is worse? Pretending that marriage will stay the lusts of twenty-one year olds, or waiting until the prospective parents are level-headed enough to handle the diapers and checkbook? I vote door two, even if the spouses are sexually experienced when heading to the altar.

    • February 1, 2013 9:04 am

      I agree with all that. I think you misread my understanding of Paul. I’m not reading him as saying “rush into marriage to avoid premarital sex.” Not at all. I’m reading his statement as containing a kernel of logic that would imply that often the “goal” of “avoiding sin” through mere abstinence is not very helpful or realistic at all, and that “sin” is to be seen more in the Eastern sense as a “falling short.” But of course, we all fall short of the destination until we get there, but does that mean we should never set out on the journey at all just because “halfway there” falls short of “all the way there”? So my interpretation of Paul here was not to rush at all, but rather to ask of these prudes: if you’ll be married in a few years anyway, why this horror in the present of anything less than “complete” or whole if it is growing organically TOWARDS completion? I’d think an artificially imposed abstinence is just as “incomplete” (truly committed celibacy is just as much an ‘achievement’ as marriage; it is not merely the ‘default’) and often raises the question of just how they plan to grow towards the “final” state. I had to ask a friend this recently: “Is it really more important to find a girl you can abstain with for a few years? Or is it, rather, more important to find someone you can spend the rest of your life AFTER the wedding with?” I think emphasizing the former over the latter is obviously absurd. Desire may be broken or fragmented or less than perfectly whole or complete or integrated in fallen man. But that does not mean that the response to fragmented desire is to refuse to engage it or try to compartmentalize it. Often, it seems, the only way to expand ones horizons in the direction of greater integration or wholeness is to grapple with it (and, yes, “risk” dead-ends to learn from) even in its present brokenness…

    • Jordan permalink
      February 1, 2013 2:30 pm

      A Sinner [February 1, 2013 9:04 am]: So my interpretation of Paul here was not to rush at all, but rather to ask of these prudes: if you’ll be married in a few years anyway, why this horror in the present of anything less than “complete” or whole if it is growing organically TOWARDS completion?

      I’ve long suspected that a certain gnosticism (in the popular sense) exists in some Christian circles. The “sexually pure”, those who have “waited until marriage” in name but perhaps not in deed, are somehow exalted above the hudded masses who sort it out in fear, trembling, and divorce court. Even the most ardent proponent of this new chastity campaign must realize that fornication will likely happen despite every good intention. My issue is with families who believe that young (<25 years old) marriage will solemnize and therefore correct what was previously simply fornication. Blessing fornication under the guise of marriage will continue the dysfunction of a couple "hooking up" without a long term plan. The honourable estate itself cannot instill responsibility. And yet, I am convinced that chastity til marriage proponents would like to believe the latter to be the case, even if empiricism and experience strongly indicate otherwise.

      On a somewhat unrelated note, the rising age of marriage in some socioeconomic groups has in turn engendered new types of friendships. The pressure to not wed early has allowed twenty- and thirtysomethings to have meaningful platonic relationships which might not have been possible when persons wed at an earlier age. Some make light about the gay man/straight woman BFF phenomenon, but in my opinion a greater latency between the teenage years and marriage allows for greater emotional development within often non-sexual relationships. This healthy emotional development before wedlock might also be lost on those who advocate for early marriage.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      February 1, 2013 3:11 pm

      ” Today, with life expectancies in post-industrial countries edging 80, later marriage offers a number of benefits such as the birth of children into financial stability and the hands of mature parents. ”

      However, there does remain the problem that fertility begins to decline after 30 and all manner of birth defects become more common with later births. So what we have is a disparity between the best biological age to have children and the best social/economic age. Robert Heinlein examined this problem in a novel (Podkayne of Mars): in it, people had children when they were young and had them stored in cryogenic suspension until they were old enough and financially settled enough to raise them. He hinted at some of the problems that result from doing this, but did not explore them deeply since it was a juvenile novel.

      • Melody permalink
        February 1, 2013 5:15 pm

        I remember reading that one years ago, David. As I recall the young protagonist had triplet siblings because, due to some type of mishap, all the embryos got thawed out at once. I think they had also figured out how to do the whole thing in vitro, no pregnancy necessary. Yup, it was sci-fi; lots of “fi” and kind of light on the “sci”!

  9. February 2, 2013 11:20 am

    I’m sure it does. And, yet, most of these boys are masturbating, as if keeping sexuality compartmentalized in that sort of adolescent frustration is better than “moving forward” through more mature approximations of integration (even when they still fall short of the “ideal” perfect integration or filfillment they believe in .) I wonder how they’d feel if we told them that, say, Aquinas actually would rank simple fornication as a lesser sin than masturbation (inasmuch as it deviates from the normative vision of sexuality less)?? Of course, we’d hope (I’d hope) that such a couple would be using protection at least if they do something (which Aquinas ranks worse than masturbation). But the point remains: compartmentalization is not a recipe for personal growth.

    I like what Rob says about the Faith being the positive content than about avoiding anathemas. If the latter were the case, we’d be forced to say that the agnostic is closer to the Truth than the Protestant! Which is clearly absurd. Yet I think a similar thing applies in morality. Yes, there may be a bullseye that you can fall short of, an objective standard like that, a mark you can miss (the literal meaning of the Greek word for “sin”)…but it does not follow from this that it is thus better to avoid playing darts at all in order to avoid missing the bullseye. This is not how humans learn. Can you imagine if babies were expected to remain silent until they had internalized all the rules of grammar (for fear of breaking those rules) and only speak once they could do it perfectly?? They’d simply never learn to speak at all!

    I think now that growth in virtue is like this. All “rules” in this regard must be understood not as binding deontologically, but rather as DEscriptive of “the bullseye,” of the normative (but also always eschatological) vision of human fulfillment (Christlikeness). The only imperative in the present being to “calibrate” ones will towards it. The only maxim being: “Grow forward” or “Learn” in a groping process of experiential learning. Stagnation or complacency should be our only fear.

    Basically, I think Paul’s writings imply something along the lines of: “if you don’t play the game at all, for fear of losing, you’ll also never win.”

    • Aric permalink
      February 7, 2013 2:22 pm

      “The game” here being attempting sexual commitment -via marriage or celibacy- yes. I don’t think, however, that Paul would look favorably upon “experimenting” with sexual commitment in a venue that isn’t ultimately conducive to a real, lasting commitment.

      That is to say, there is a difference between aiming at celibacy and periodically “falling short” (sinning), and having a loose idea that celibacy is where you “ought to go” and having a series of intermittent sexual relationships along the way. The latter route is actually more of an “aiming at nothing in particular periodically having bouts of celibacy”.

  10. February 4, 2013 9:08 am

    Reflecting on Kyle’s original article. The person[s] he refers to their difficulty with sensuality and the life of their soul[s].

    I was reminded recently whilst reading a book on prayer about a technique[?] called ‘mindfulness’. I first came across this in the 90s and used it as an aid in secular counselling. I guess it’s something I have incorporated over the years in trying to gain a better understanding of what it means to be human and how this features in my lifewalk by Faith. It seems to be pretty important to gain this insightfulness.

    I think it is fair to say certainly in my own experience has shown up some useful and not so useful tendencies in myself. However they all contribute to make me the person I am. I have to admit somethings are pretty challenging whilst others seem to lead to a desire to imitate Jesus on earth. Putting it simply its about learning to be patient and tolerant with oneself whatever ‘shows up’ internally and externally.

    We certainly need to pray and reflect on Scripture for guidance and we most certainly have to pray for ‘ourselves’. The latter might sound a little self indulgent but how can we grow and give out to others if we don’t first spiritually energise ‘ourselves’. If we are seeking the a more virtuous way of life it will happen…with hicccups, but that a learning process and will always be so.

    Jesus will lead us to where he wants us to be and that doesn’t mean jettisoning the ‘personableness’ that makes us who we are.

    A prayer I use every day…. ‘Lord give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference between the two’……..

  11. Aric permalink
    February 7, 2013 2:24 pm

    On a related note, I think can think of one possible psychological explanation for the kind of behavior written about in the OP, namely, the equivocation of any kind of sensual contact with a scorn for sexual commitment in-and-of-itself. Think about how this works (at least from a male perspective): Most boys start masturbating well before they are emotionally ready for any kind of romantic relationship. By the time they are engaged in some kind of interpersonal romance, they already understand sexual action as one that is primarily selfish – sexual contact is literally masturbatory.

    For a lot of couples, sex continues to be masturbatory well into their relationship (sometimes it never ceases to be masturbatory). Sex is simply a way for each agent to feel varying degrees of satisfaction. Think of that first moment when the boy slips his hand into a girls hand and feels that rush of dopamine: he may feel, after their walk is over and the dopamine rush has subsided, inexplicably, guilty. Why? He already understands sexual contact as intrinsically non-committal. He feels anxious and wants to call her, just to let her know he loves her – because he feels guilty that he has just self-indulged with her.

    I think a lot of these “ultra religious” types (and everyone else in the world) have plenty of experience with masturbation. Not only do they fear sin, they have lived-experiential evidence that sexual contact is selfishly indulgent. Their fear is thus two-fold, conscious and sub-conscious.

  12. February 7, 2013 6:59 pm

    When I was college age I didn’t have the problem of being over-focused on avoiding occasions of sin — and as a result I often fell into sin. Now that I’m older and wiser, if I could go back to myself at that age, I would counsel myself to be much more careful about being alone with women to whom I was sexually attracted.

    Such experiences, I think, are probably the source of the attitudes of the parents who raise their sons to act in the way you describe. They agree with Thales’ suggestion that it’s better to err on the side of caution in these matters. When you push the envelope of sexual tension you eventually learn how far you can go without falling into mortal sin — but you only learn it by falling into mortal sin. I can’t help asking whether that is a lesson worth learning: Is it worth learning how much cocaine you can mainline without overdosing, if in order to do so, you have to overdose a few times? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

    “Holiness for them was merely the absence of sinful deeds, not the fruit of self-control that comes from taking the risks of living life as someone with a body. In a real sense, they were trying to escape their bodies.”

    These statements seem like unwarranted judgments of other people’s spiritual states. It doesn’t strike me as realistic to suppose that they were trying to “escape their bodies” by avoiding what they feared might constitute occasions of sin. Anyone who has fasted or tried to conquer the habit of masturbation, as quite likely these young men had at least attempted, knows full well that his body can’t be escaped. It seems a lot more likely to me that, knowing their own bodies and their inability to master them in private, they were keen to avoid inflicting the consequences of their weakness on others. Knowing that I can’t keep even my hands off myself, why would I subject not only myself, but also the girl I’m in love with, to that kind of temptation? That is if I did in fact love her. If I didn’t, then maybe I wouldn’t care as much.

    This attitude need not indicate that one’s only focus is on sin. It’s unfair to assume that such a person only knows fear in his relationship with God, and knows nothing of charity.

    I might agree that holding hands and an occasional kiss might not have to constitute an occasion of sin. But at the same time I find it very hard to fault someone who is determined to keep his passions under control, and to judge him as “unhealthy” and “unfair”, without more evidence than you have given.

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