The Thrill of the Chaste… This evening I heard Dawn Eden* speak at the Fellowship Bible Church, which of course is in Dallas where I am, not in the Zeta Reticuli star system where I am not. Eden is on a book tour for The Thrill of the Chaste, but you might otherwise know her by her weblog, The Dawn Patrol.
A few of the synonyms given for chaste are pure, austere, celibate -- words of rather discreet charm. Slightly better are modest and decent, but the only real frisson one can get from these is in imagining them as reactions to an amorous advance (although the t-shirt Eden was wearing had the encouraging slogan "Modest is hottest").
It's quite difficult to say in a few words precisely what one means by "chastity", not least of all because we lack very many modern cultural indicators of it. What recent movie character has embodied chastity? What popular song contemplates chaste love? What politician or pundit has properly used the word "chaste" in a sentence? Going around talking about chastity seems to invite instant ridicule, as if one were mandating iron girdles and uniformed dating chaperones. Chastity is a complicated word that does not suit our uncomplicated zeitgeist.
Part of chastity is the discipline not to allow sex -- including its obsessive, destructive, and dehumanizing varieties -- to crowd everything else out of our relationships. It is not only or primarily a discipline, although this is close to its popular connotation of meaning abstinence or self-denial. Inherent in the chaste life is the understanding that placing undue emphasis on the pursuit of sex endangers our pursuit of happiness.
Eden defines chastity as intrinsically related to the divine. As she puts it,
In a larger sense, chastity is seeing your sexual nature as part of a three-way relationship -- and no, that isn't what it sounds like. The relationship is between you, your husband -- or, if you're not married, your future husband -- and God. That means if you have sex without one corner of that triangle in place -- with a man who isn't your husband, or with your husband but without faith in God -- the act becomes disconnected from its purpose.
I propose that chastity has relevance even or especially for the irreligious, as it is an aspect of virtue, thereby belonging among the universal aspirations (much as kindness, constancy, compassion, and so on are not essentially religious ideals).
To digress a little, I resist the idea that religion gives us our moral sense, though it is fair to say that for the devout it may lend the believer strength to persevere through moments of temptation in a way that mere ethics or conscience do not. The difference lies in the devotee's sense that his actions are considered important by God, and that to knowingly commit an error is necessarily a matter of spiritual consequence; no atheist can experience quite the same comforting pressure from his abstractions.
All the more reason then for the atheist to consider his morality and subject it to strenuous judgement, rather than the easy-going tolerance of all moral choices, of the type which finds that aborting a fetus is as praiseworthy as raising a child or making fun of a Christian. This repulsive carelessness which atheists are especially prone to is better labeled amorality, and is usually more concerned with self-comfort than leading a good life (which for our "tolerant" moralists is quite difficult).
For all that can be said about or against religion, there is something in its philosophy which is comforting. There is an idealism in its expressiveness that is nearly or perhaps wholly absent in the worldview of the atheist. As Eden writes, "The other experience, chastity, relies on faith that God, as you pursue a closer walk with Him, will lead you to a loving husband." One is drawn to this description of a meaningful voyage through life, which requires a mind open to careful examination -- atheists, without this spiritual anchor, must be more wary of tethering their ethics to transient enthusiasms, moreso when considering matters of sexual morality.
The same snares lie on the paths of the religious and the irreligious. We are encouraged to conclude that well-being is merely freedom from unhappiness. We are uncomfortable and impatient with any check on our freedom, especially sexual freedom, which we exercise by behaving as if sex has little meaning or value beyond physical pleasure.
Why take seriously this preposterous, outdated concept of chastity -- symbolized and degraded in the chastity belt as a form of mindless self-denial? Is this not akin to the "abstinence education" pushed upon schoolchildren by fanatics?
How little we know our sexual selves, and how much less we know with each passing day as we are enjoined to accept ever more bizarre permutations of sexual love (or "love") as perfectly normal, perfectly healthy. There is somewhere in our fascination with all these permutations, most of which are useless except as fillips to a jaded appetite, evidence that we have completely lost sense of the place that sex has in a healthy life.
We lead adolescents right up to the point of intercourse having taught them nothing more than how to "protect" themselves with a thin layer of rubber and some hormone pills -- anything more would be too judgemental, and we loudly excuse our shameless counsel by asserting that they'd just do it anyway. By even cursory reflection we must realize that we are doing nothing at all to prepare their minds for this experience -- though hardly anyone would suggest that the psyche of an adolescent can easily cope with the vulnerabilities and misjudgements of an early sexual relationship. We are also abdicating our responsibility to take seriously their moral development, and substituting a misleading practicality in its stead. It is considered an act of miraculous forbearance (or an indication of social incompetence) if our children wait until college before having their first sexual encounter.
It is no surprise then that many adults (or quasi-adults) spend their twenties in a series of misguided relationships with the strange belief that what they are doing is perfectly normal, perfectly healthy: spending lots of time pursuing sex (or figuring out what to do after the initial euphoria of sexual exploration has palled) and spending very little time learning about the nature of mature love, which in the popular imagination is a more or less amicable couple who do not egregiously cheat on each other.
For the unfortunate, age brings only greater cynicism, not greater wisdom. Still adhering to gross misconceptions about what their unchaste lives offer them, they become more coldly objectifying, as if they have mastered the rules to some horribly selfish game. Now the excuse becomes that they have advanced beyond the need to wait even a few months for what is the end-all of romance: a few moments in a dark room fucking.
Without realizing it, they have allowed their abandonment of chastity to transform them: into malformed, semi-human hedonists, empty and lonely survivors, and victims in search of quack spiritual remedies.
Eden's book is directed at women, and primarily at Christian women, but there is clearly a male dimension to her subject. As sex has become the starting point and central appeal of modern relationships, transient pleasure has replaced real human connection for men even more than for women. Consequently, many men have become obsessed with their sexual performance and variety of sexual partners without considering how emotionally stunted this has made them. Ignorant of where they are going or what their goal is, they preoccupy themselves with outperforming women's vibrators during their pneumatic lovemaking sessions.
Eden writes something that would be eye-opening for many men who get their sexual education from Maxim articles and their own masturbatory fantasies:
How unsurprising this is. Many relationships, which grow out of little more than infatuation and the fact that both the man and the woman have a gap in their social calendars, begin with generous adoration. So what makes these warm feelings cool to such a degree that they become frigid resentment by the time the inevitable break-up occurs? Most likely there was no respect, no clear-sighted appreciation, only the amusement of novelty and mutual flattery.
The Thrill of the Chaste has much to offer today's single men and women; its message truly is radical, in that it gets at the very root of our modern sexual neuroses. Its message, that in trivializing and commoditizing sex we have made ourselves incapable of experiencing the joy that a union between a man and woman is supposed to bring, is so counter to that of our popular culture that it has earned scorn in predictable corners. One such corner is Radar Magazine, which published an interview with Eden filled with sneering, incurious questions about chastity. They didn't forget to make a crack about chastity belts, and their readers didn't forget to say that chastity is a HATEFUL, FASCIST MESSAGE.
Another is, surprise, Gawker, which chronicles the obsessions of New York media world wannabes. Just search for "Dawn Eden" on their website and you will find one hysterical attack after another, written in the snarky patois that they believe conceals their ugly jealousy and insecurity (they also pretend to be shocked that books are promoted by their authors). The hostile outrage these fools feel over a single person extolling the virtue of chastity is quite telling. They live in a world drenched in frivolity and libertinism (amplified by their own abject stupidity) with all the machinery of modern commerce and entertainment behind it, yet all it takes is one modest, unassuming Christian to throw them into an uproar!** Why is this? We may never know, but it is an infinitely hopeful sign that people like Dawn Eden exist. Sensible men and women will delight in her extraordinary book.
* What a name.
** Naturally they strain for the pose that they can hardly be bothered to notice such people except to amuse themselves -- and amuse themselves they do, repeatedly, compulsively, never missing a single opportunity, teeth clenched together, eyes screaming "HA, HA, HA" in a desperate simulacrum of laughter…
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