Alright, so I talk a lot about the problems with the ways that the Church’s sexual teachings are often framed in popular debates over sexual ethics. I talk about the kind of Pharisaical and Pelagian approaches that are sadly too common among those who hold to a traditional ethic. And I may well be approaching clanging gong status when it comes to promoting greater compassion towards sexual minorities.
So I want to change the channel a bit today and talk about chastity as a virtue, and why I think the teaching of the Church is basically sound even though I also think that it’s more or less impossible for humans to practice it perfectly.
That latter sentiment may sound really bizarre. I mean, a lot of folks seem to think that there’s not much point in having a moral position if you can’t actually live up to it. Ethical minimalism which is a fairly popular approach, looks something like this: you don’t steal (except for maybe illegally downloading digital content, or fiddling a teensy bit with the figures on your tax return), you don’t lie (except for white lies and insignificant lies and lies that you have to tell because reasons…), you don’t hate people (certain politicians, and that one guy at the office excepted), you don’t…
We all know the picture. Basically, the line for acceptable behaviour is set about one step behind where you fall when you’re making at least some effort to be a reasonably decent person. When you fall behind that line, you feel like crap. The rest of the time, you mostly look down on other people for failing to achieve such simple and obvious moral standards.
In this approach to ethics the moral life is treated as a basic, not very interesting obligation that most people should be able to pass without too much effort. It’s kind of like trying to pass Grade 12 English. So long as you read the basic texts, show up to the classes and do your assignments, probably you’ll be okay. Some people will get a D or a C doing it that way, and will think that’s fine. Others will get a B. Occasionally you get that obnoxious person who pulls A+s by handing in things she wrote on a gum wrapper over the lunch-break. The point, in any case, is that the goal is to coast through at whatever level you’re able to attain without spending too much time and effort on it, and that’s good enough.
Christian ethics are derived from a completely different way of looking at the moral life. It’s a framework in which you’re not trying to get a passing grade (one of the basic tenets of Christianity is that you can’t get a passing grade, no matter how hard you try, so you should forget about it), but rather trying to achieve excellence to the best of your ability. What, precisely, excellence looks like will vary from person to person because we all have different virtues to cultivate and different vices to overcome, and we all have different strengths, weaknesses, graces and liabilities to take into account.
The moral life, however, is not ordered towards a “good enough” standard of decency, but rather an ideal of virtue that vastly exceeds anything that is actually possible for a normal human.
Instead of having the attitude of a student trying to write a passable English essay, you’re supposed to have the attitude of an artist trying to write a masterpiece. In the latter case, you can’t achieve anything unless you have a ridiculously high standard of perfection. In art, if you set the bar too low, you simply can’t produce anything that’s genuinely beautiful. It’s only by trying to perfectly realize profound inspirations that you get anywhere at all. So you end of doing things that look like neurotic perfectionism to outsiders: scrupling over whether you want a comma or a semi-colon; spending half an hour staring at the screen and trying to hunt down the one perfect word that will melt metrically into your sentence and make the merely marvelous into the miraculous.
So, every artist knows that there comes a point where you do have to say “good enough.” There’s the point where you’ve over-edited, you’ve scrupled too much, you’ve made a passage purple rather than poetic. There’s also a point where you’ve hit the limits of your own ability, and you have to learn to love your work for what it is even though you will never be Hemingway or Dostoevsky. But those points come somewhere way down the line: you start with an ideal of excellence, you end with realism and humility before the immensity of the project.
If you start with realism, generally what you’ll end up with is mediocrity. This is basically the attitude of the guy who buries his single talent in the ground because he’s sure he can’t do much with it. Because the truth is most of us have a very poor idea of where our limits lie. A lot of the time we fail by underestimating what we’re capable of: we look at a project, it looks way to hard, so we set low expectations in order to cushion ourselves against the shock of failure. This attitude often presents itself as humility (“I’m just an ordinary guy, not a Saint…”) but actually it’s a means of avoiding genuine humility, which is really only obtainable through the painful experience of real humiliation.
So instead you start with an ideal. And chastity is one of these. Almost nobody actually achieves it, but if you don’t shoot for it in the first place you’re probably going to end up with a sex life that’s a lot more sordid and selfish than it needs to be. It’s kind of like managing any other passion or appetite. Most of us are fine with the idea that you should try to keep anger and greed and gluttony and sloth under control – and we’re still fine with this even though in real life we yell at our loved ones and grub after money, eat too much cheesecake and watch TV when we should be working. We’re able to see that patience, generosity, temperance and diligence are desirable characteristics, and that they’re virtues we should strive for, even though we also know that our striving will be imperfect.
With chastity alone we seem to have this weird attitude that because perfection is impossible, it’s stupid, unrealistic, self-torturing or pointless to make any attempt at all. Yet we don’t have this attitude towards any other virtue. Almost nobody thinks “I don’t think I could forgive someone who raped me…therefore forgiveness is completely pointless and I’ll just be angry at my brother forever because he broke my favourite toy.” Or “Since I lose my temper pretty much every day, even though I’m trying to keep it under control, I think the best and most reasonable thing would be if I just punched people in the face every time I felt like it.” We’re able to both see the ideal, and be realistic at the same time.
Now, obviously, the fact that chastity is often presented legalistically, that many of its proponents are harsh and self-righteous about it, and that there often seems to be more stick than carrot in the Church’s approach, all contribute to this problem.
Tomorrow I’ll write a thing about sexual legalism, but first I want to do a review of season 3 of Fargo.
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