I just picked up Peter Brown’s The Body and Society, which is a fascinating study of sex and the body in early Christianity. I first encountered Brown many years ago, through his biography of Augustine.
In the introduction to the most recent, 20th anniversary edition, Brown offers up an insight about the role of sex for people of antiquity, including early Christians, in relation to the vexing problem of death and to anxiety about mortality:
Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. Whether this pulse of radical energy came from benevolent gods or from malevolent demons (as many radical Christians believed) sex could never be seen as a thing for the isolated human body alone. It drew its seriousness and what one might call the “time chart” of its existence as a force among human beings from the time chart of the universe itself.
For this reason, sex was always overshadowed by the most obscene disruption of all in the texture of the universe–the parting of body and soul at death. Death was the real enemy. Death eroded human kind in a manner more inexorable, more universal, and more humiliating than did any sexual titillation. Sexuality merely flickered to and fro. Sex was judged always in its relation to death. In many circles, concern with sexuality acted as the vehicle for displaced pain–thoughts of sexual renunciation gave a manageable face to the diffuse horror of mortality and offered a symbolic mechanism by which its ineluctable approach might be reversed.
For the civic elites of the second century…wholehearted commitment to sex and marriage was a call to arms against death, in a landscape that always appeared to contemporaries (overshadowed by so many tombs of children and young wives) to be trembling on the brink of a demographic collapse. Radical Christians (from the Encratites to Gregory of Nyssa) merely inverted this view of the world: to abandon, through permanent renunciation, the rage for continuity in the face of death that was associated with sex was to install a place in the human heart where the footsteps of death might be muffled.
In other words, the practice of renunciation of sex, even if just for a time, was a way of ameliorating anxiety about mortality by taking it head-on, by refusing to use sex as a buffer against it. Religion itself, or at least the discipline motivated by religion, became the buffer instead.