And one brief follow-up to my last post…
I’ve always been fascinated by the way the apostle Paul describes his understanding of his self-denial near the end of his first letter to the Corinthians:
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied…. Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
I don’t know any other way to interpret this than to recognize that Paul is saying, if he weren’t a Christian—a believer in the coming resurrection of the dead—then he wouldn’t be living his life the way he currently is. All that risk-taking, all that self-sacrifice on behalf of his churches, all that arduous ascesis—none of it would be worth much to him, in and of itself, if there weren’t a future bodily resurrection. Or, at the very least, he wouldn’t be the one pursuing these costly practices. Leave it to other moral heroes.
When I’m asked, at times, how or if I find celibacy to be a beautiful way to live, I usually say that if I weren’t a Christian, I’m almost certain I wouldn’t be celibate. That’s not to say celibacy has no inherent goods. (Heck, if Howard Jacobson can recognize some of those goods, then so can I!) But it is to say that celibacy is difficult and not always obviously linked to flourishing, and I feel quite sure that if I didn’t believe God was asking it of me, I wouldn’t be interested in it.
In an older post for SF, Eve Tushnet wrote:
A couple of years ago I received a poignant email from a man who said, among other things, that he did accept the Church’s teaching and was trying to live up to it. But he still wondered: What happens if I change my mind? What happens if, years from now, I look back on my celibate life—will I regret it? Will it seem like an enormous waste?
I think it depends. If one’s celibacy is purely rule-following, then yeah, once you no longer believe the rules I think probably you’ll regret the sacrifices you made to follow them.
But if you pour out your love for others in friendship and service, if you offer your struggles and your need for surrender as a sacrifice to Christ, if you love God and those around you as deeply as you can in the best way you understand right now—I think even if you change your mind later, that won’t be something to regret. One of the biggest truths about love is that it’s never a waste of time.
I’m very sympathetic to this line of thought, and I want to do exactly what Eve suggests we do, namely, try to make celibacy an experience that is full of love given and received. But sometimes that’s hard to achieve (or to see even if you do achieve it), and in those moments it’s the hope of the resurrection that comforts, not the immediate benefits of being celibate.
Wesley Hill is an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He can be followed on Twitter: @WesleyHill.