January 28, 2018 - Celibacy

Brothers and sisters: I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.  I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.

1 Corinthians 7

This is Paul’s argument for celibacy.  The Catholic Church is widely criticized for its continued adherence to it.   

But celibacy is a widely practiced discipline among many faiths and philosophers.  Buddhist monks are generally celibate.  Hindu priests are generally celibate.  The monks of some branches of Taoism are celibate.  Henry David Thoreau was celibate – but maybe not voluntarily. The Dalai Lama is celibate. Mahatma Gandhi was celibate (to a fault). Epicurus and Lucretius were celibate.  Judaism has the tradition of the Nazarite – men who took vows of celibacy and did not cut their hair or drink alcohol for a period of time.  Samson was a Nazarite and John the Baptist may have been one too. And, of course, salacious rumor aside, it appears Jesus was celibate but clearly had not taken the Nazarite vow (he drank alcohol fairly regularly by his own account).  Only Islam (other than Sufism) and some confessions within Protestantism have no tradition of it, placing more emphasis on other disciplines.

Why is celibacy so ubiquitous?

Every tradition, whether religious or not, that seeks to understand the well-lived life concludes that self-discipline and self-denial are important parts of it - including celibacy for the most committed individuals. Self-discipline and self-denial are part of a ‘whole’ life. Of course, ‘whole’ and ‘holy’ come from the same German root. Paul’s argument sounds a little prudish to modern ears, but it is in keeping with the conclusion of many thinkers across a broad spectrum of traditions.

Image: St. Paul at his Desk, Rembrandt (1633).