Purity and Christian Ethics

The Christian Purity movement, for those who are unaware of its existence, is a movement which has been seen as the great Christian advocator of “sexual purity before marriage”. And has been in the most curious circumstance, as any active stance in Christianity, to have been fought from both within and without. From Non-Christians I have heard arguments such as, “The problem with the Purity Movement is that, at the base of it all, there is nothing being given away. A natural White_rose_process, natural emotions, all-wrapped up in the guilt of ‘giving pieces of your heart away'” to, “The purity movement is about telling females what they can’t do while leaving men off the hook.” From Christians I have heard arguments ranging from, “The Purity Movement is the ‘holier than thou’ movement,” to, “You can’t keep your purity because you’ve already lost it – no one is pure.” My aim is to address each in turn.

It has been said in ever age by almost anyone worth their salt that any institution set up by men will be abused by men. Many arguments for some belief such as “the poor are oppressed” or against some belief such as “Christians preach love” argue solely in terms of the abuses they witness. Without really understanding their own views, they lavish a criteria not of “is it good or proper” but “if it can be abused, it is evil.” It is a criteria entirely isolated from the necessity of knowing what some institution proclaims or the enjoyment of reading the rulebook yourself. It is much easier to call an abusive Christian evil, and therefore Christianity; it is much more difficult to call Christianity evil and therefore the Christian.

So I believe that we can dismiss the arguments from the Non-Christian that “The purity movement is about telling females what they can’t do while leaving men off the hook.” and the Christian Argument that, “The Purity Movement is the ‘holier than thou’ movement.” These are, in my opinions, and openly in the opinions of those who preach them, a criticism of the abuses they’ve witnessed, divested of the knowledge which the movement preaches. But there are two arguments which I have particularly found interesting: “there are no hearts to give away” and “you’re already not pure”.

The prior argument appears, to me, to be a slight of hand with a recovery of pure abstraction critiqued with literalism. They find the ingenuity of their claims not only in the idea that the heart is an abstract – a symbol of love and affection- but also it is somehow unimaginable that we can literally chop pieces of our hearts and give them away. They begin with the proof that Davy Jones does not exist, therefore it is not true that we can cut out our hearts. Oddly enough, I don’t buy this bout of poor reasoning for a moment. They began the argument backwards. No one, not even Disney, began with the assumption that Davy Jones existed and somehow cut out his heart along the way; they began with the assumption that there exists hearts worth cutting out and then imagined someone like Davy Jones who, feeling cheated, cut out his heart and locked it away. Perhaps the only provable principle in the purity movement is that pieces of your heart can be ‘given away’ because it is the most human principle.

The latter argument, which I heard recently, I enjoy because I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the conclusion that we shouldn’t have sex before marriage. The argument proposes two things. First, the problem with the purity movement is that we begin our entire thesis upon the assumption that we have something pure to protect. The second principle is merely to take note that if Man is Fallen, then what, exactly, is the purity we’re protecting? The critique is that the entire purity thesis is built upon a faulty assumption. Interestingly enough, he quickly annotated that we shouldn’t interpret this argument whichever way we wish, throw-up our hands, and say ‘release the passions’. His argument seems to be at the cross-roads between ‘we’re bad people’ but we ‘shouldn’t do bad things’.

I’m not sure if this is a conscious admission or an unconscious adoption of popular Christian vernacular to speak not in terms of good and evil but in terms of bad and worse. But this must be a confusion in terms, or derived from an unhealthy pride in humility. Surely we do not give to the poor and say, “That was bad, but at least I didn’t do worse,” or push someone out of the way of a passing car and think, “At least I didn’t manage to push him in front of the oncoming train.” The core of our confusion is that we want to say, “Be a good friend” but we don’t want to encourage people to cash the deed at the bank; We have an unhealthy belief that if Salvation can’t be purchased with good works, then there are no good works to be done.

So I think it would be best to begin reconstructing his argument by first re-framing his argument. If we were merely to be permitted the belief that the question, “Is it bad to have sex before marriage or is it good?”, is a legitimate question, then most of the hard work is already complete. And if we can permit that question to be legitimate and to permit the original conclusion that sex before marriage is wrong, then the argument is finished, adamantine. People are permitted to commit both morally good actions as well as morally evil actions. And so it would naturally follow that if it is wrong to have sex before marriage, then we ought not to do it because it is morally wrong.

However, the point in question still remains: How do we address the purity question? To grant some merit to the first argument I addressed, they have found that the purity movement is, in principle, founded upon the belief that giving your heart away before marriage is bad. And in that light, I think we could argue that sex before marriage is a ‘giving away’ before marriage. But then there comes an emotional response, “What are we to say to those who have had sex before marriage?” Do hearts not heal; do people not change; does God not forgive?

I think an analogy would be best.

I was reading Perelandra by C.S. Lewis and in the confrontation between the UnMan, the man sent to cause the fall of Venus (Perelandra), and Ransom, the Christian who is sent to be God’s Advocate, the question of the ultimate effect of sin arises. The Un-Man tells Ransom (paraphrased, as the exact quote has since been lost in my memory), “What is the most precious belief in your Christianity?” to which Ransom responds, “It is the death and Resurrection of Christ.” The Unman replies, “Then why are you trying to stop me? The Fall of Venus will cause the greatest good in this world.”

During my dinner with Dr. Michael Ward, I had brought up this part and told him, “I didn’t want to hear Ransom’s reply…. What if it wasn’t adequate enough? What if C.S. Lewis responded on the wrong foot and I am forced to go from place to place searching for an answer to this ironic question?” But Ransom’s reply was adequate and simple, he said, “Do not, for a moment, believe that after the Fall nothing was lost. When Adam and Eve fell, God’s original design was altered. Christ’s act was our salvation, it was not God’s original design.”

In the same way, I think this idea could be applied to sex before marriage. We do not mean to say, “It is nonredeemable,” for it surely is. What we mean to say is, “But something precious was lost.” And I think that, for those who have had to go through that experience, will agree: Sin is forgivable, but it does have consequences. It is to say, “Moses struck a rock and was forbidden to enter the Promised Land”; It is not to say, “Moses struck a rock and was sent to hell”.

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