Already thirty years ago, before the sexual revolution, Albert Camus had written: “Chastity alone is connected with personal progress. There is a time when moving beyond it is a victory – when it is released from its moral imperatives. But this quickly turns to defeat afterwards.” (Quoted by P. Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, p. 233.)
Moving beyond chastity initially feels like a victory but eventually it becomes a defeat. Our, post-sexual revolution, generation might want to think about that. What is meant by those words?
Whatever they mean, they are not understood by our generation. It considers the move beyond chastity as anything but a defeat. For it, this is a progress, a sophistication, a liberation from a past ignorance, an eating of the forbidden fruit which is more of an entry into Eden than an expulsion from it. Today, in Western culture, and in more than a few church communities as well, chastity is seen as naivete, timidity, frigidity, lack of nerve, being uptight, a certain innocence to be pitied.
One salient example of this can be seen in the debate surrounding AIDS, teenage pregnancies, and venereal diseases. In this discussion the argument for chastity is generally seen as naive, impractical, narrow, religious (as if chastity was a religious concept), old-fashioned, and even dangerous. Conversely, those who argue on basis of condoms claim all the high ground – intellectual, moral, and practical. The same holds true today essentially in the entire discussion about sexuality and life. Chastity is given little place and even less respect. At best, it is seen as an unimportant and impractical ideal, at worst it is an object of ridicule. We are the poorer for this.
In some sense, and I submit this is not an overstatement, chastity is the key to everything. Joy, community, love, and even full enjoyment in sex depend upon chastity. When a society is chaste, community will happen; when a family is chaste, it will find joy in its everyday life; when lovers are chaste, they will experience the full ecstasy of sex; when a church is chaste, it will experience the Holy Spirit. The reverse is also true. Chaos, joylessness, erotic numbness, and hardness of heart are generally a fault in chastity. To say this, however, implies a certain understanding of chastity. What is chastity?
Too often we identify chastity with a certain sexual purity or with simple celibacy. This, however, is too narrow. To be chaste does not mean that one does not have sex. Nor does it imply that one is in any way a prude. My parents were two of the most chaste persons I have ever met, yet they obviously enjoyed sex – as a large family and a warm vivacious bond between them gave more than enough evidence of.
Chastity is, first and foremost, not even primarily a sexual concept – though, given the power and urgency of sex, faults in chastity often are within the area of sexuality. Chastity has to do with all experiencing. It is about the appropriateness of any experience. Chastity is reverence. Sin, in the end, is irreverence.
To be chaste is to experience people, things, places, sexuality, entertainment, phases of life, and all the opportunities that life offers in a way that does not violate them nor ourselves. Chastity means to experience things reverently, in such a way that the experience of them leaves both them and ourselves more, not less, integrated. I am chaste when I relate to others in a way that does not transgress their moral, psychological, emotional, sexual, and aesthetic contours. I am chaste when I do not let irreverence or impatience ruin what is gift, when I let life, others, sex, be fully what they are. Conversely, I lack chastity when I cross boundaries prematurely or irreverently, when I violate anything so as to somehow reduce the gift that it is.
Chastity is respect and reverence. Its fruits are integration, gratitude, and joy. Lack of chastity is irreverence and violence. Its fruits are disintegration, bitterness, and cynicism (infallible signs of the lack of chastity).
Our generation, since it suffers so much from violence, disrespect, emotional chaos, lack of community, sexual irresponsibility, despondency, cynicism, and lack of delight might want to be slower in denigrating chastity. It might too, should it ever summon the courage, sort out what, in the area of chastity, is victory and what is defeat.