Whaddaya mean by that?

Jenell asked an interesting question over at the Generous Orthodoxy ThinkTank on Saturday. Unfortunately, I didn't discover the post until this morning (when it sort of derailed my lesson prep), and by this afternoon the online discussion had wandered quite far afield of the express topic and she had bowed out before I had a chance to chime in.

Nice thing about having your own blog -- just because you missed out on a conversation doesn't mean you can't have your say. (Doesn't mean anybody has to listen.) So, I'm going to play with Jenell's question here, and invite her (and whoever else cares) over to my place to see what they think.

Here, then, is the question at hand:

Where does the word and concept 'chastity' come from in Christian history? It seems like a post-biblical concept that organizes a broad range of biblical narratives, prescriptions, and prohibitions.
I'm somewhat chagrined that it never occurred to me to ask this question. (Maybe I don't read enough Foucault.) I do find it necessary to define the terms "chastity" and "celibacy" whenever I use them, and I suppose that in so doing I'm taking advantage of the "container concept" nature of the former term. I defined (and redefined) my terms in conversation with the early Christian tradition, but I didn't feel bound by the historical specificity of my conversation partners to interact with the whole spectrum of what they must have meant by the words we were using in common.

So. I don't know the answer to this question, but it seems a very interesting one to ask. So I have some thoughts, if not answers.

1) A VERY cursory word study of the Greek and Latin antecedents of the English term "chastity" suggests that the classical idea was basically that of "purity," including but not limited to sexual purity. (The Latin castitas is used in the Vulgate to translate a number of Greek words with valences of self-control and seriousness.) This further suggests that Jenell is right to suppose that chastity as the virtue that has to do with sex in particular is a post-biblical
development. So the question restated: when, and under what influences, did this term take on the more limited meaning it clearly has in, say, question 151 in the Summa Theologica (or indeed in the writings of Augustine that are quoted authoritatively by Thomas in that question)?

2) I imagine that a person could make as good a start as one could wish on this question by reading Peter Brown's The Body and Society, which studies the practice of sexual renunciation from St. Paul to Augustine. Yes, chastity is a broader concept than the total sexual renunciation that Brown studies, but I expect that Brown's work would offer a good entree into the development of Christian visions of sexual ethics more generally. (Full disclosure: I have read parts of this book, but not the whole thing, hence my tentative description. It is, however, recommended by people I trust.)

3) Contra George Hunsinger's perfectly reasonable suggestion that the early church "quite possibl[y] ... simply took the idea of chastity over from Jewish sources," I hypothesize that the concept of chastity in the early church is a particularly Christian development. Paul's teaching on marriage and singleness is revolutionary in that it presents non-marriage as a live option for faithful men and women. The validation of two different but acceptable life situations with regard to sexuality calls for a more complex articulation of what constitutes virtue with respect to sexuality, and it can be reasonably argued that the church has never quite got the balance right. Perhaps it is the very tension between the ideals of marriage and celibacy that gave rise to the "Christian concept of chastity."


Jenell said...

So you're saying that you love Foucault more than Jesus?

Thanks for the lead to The Body and Society - I'll look there. It seems reasonable that 'chastity', like 'Trinity' is a concept people developed to capture a theme of Scripture that biblical writers did not develop. I suspect that biblical rules, both OT and NT, modify commonly held cultural understandings of sexuality. Biblical sexuality doesn't just come out of nowhere and call people to live _entirely_ differently, sexually speaking.

Thanks for the reflection!

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