Someone once said that the church does not understand passion while the world does not understand purity.
That might be rather simplistic and a dangerous generalization but, to my mind, it contains some important truth. Too often the church’s concern for purity blocks it from properly appropriating passion, just as the world’s unbridled romance with passion generally blinds it to the importance of purity.
Let us begin with the church: Clearly there are within the church individual voices and traditions, important ones, which cannot be accused of not understanding passion. However, that is not the general picture.
More commonly, at least in how the church is perceived by the world, there is the image of an institution that is so concerned for purity, especially sexual purity, that it fears passion and positively denigrates it. Many people, in fact, perceive the church as anti-erotic and anti-sexual, as an institution that, regarding passion and sex, is excessively fearful, timid, paranoid and restrictive. In the world, the church is seen as the enemy of passion.
That is a perception and perhaps it is unfair. People perceive things quite subjectively and the church is often times as much scapegoat as it is villain.
Moreover, some of the church’s·cautiousness with passion is not without legitimacy. Passion without proper checks has led to an early grave for more than a few loves and lives. Still, in the end, the church has been, and still is, too fearful here. It doesn’t understand passion.
On the other hand, the world does not understand purity. Purity and any type of chaste hesitancy is, in our world, regarded with a disapproval bordering on disdain. Purity is, for the most part, seen as naivete, as lack of nerve, as lack of drive for life.
To believe in purity, especially sexual purity, is tantamount to believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny. Something for kids!
Not all of this is bad either. An excessive concern for purity can crush life, rob it of its earthiness, its spontaneity and many of its deep pleasures. To love in real life is to stain the purity of our baptismal robes and our childhood dreams.
Living and loving are messy businesses and to be excessively given over to purity is to be a prude. Our world, in fact, does the church a huge favor when it points this out.
Beyond this, however, the world does itself immeasurable harm by not understanding the place of purity and chastity. More emotional chaos, heartbreak, hardness of heart and raging restlessness result from this lack of understanding than our world would ever have the courage to admit.
To lose purity and chastity is to lose innocence. To lose innocence is to lose happiness. Our eyes may be opened, but we are walking steadily out of the garden of paradise.
What’s to be done? The world and the church need to learn from each other. Passion and purity, sex and chastity, must be brought together.
The church must have the courage to let go of some of its fears and inhibitions here. It must celebrate the good ness of sexuality and challenge people to passion, including sexual passion. As long as the church continues to hesitate in this, it will remain, at one level, the enemy of legitimate delight.
Purity makes sense only when linked to passion. Chastity, outside of the goodness of sexuality, is frigidity.
Conversely, the world must relearn purity. It must admit how much of its emotional pain results from trivializing sex, from breaking some of the sacred taboos that surround it, and from denigrating chastity and sexual caution. As long as the world continues to identify purity with naivete, timidity and Victorian morality, it will remain its own enemy. Passion takes its deeper meaning from purity, sex from chastity.
And this marriage should not be a simplistic one, a negotiated 50-50 compromise—”passion needs a little purity, sex needs a little chastity.”
No. What needs to happen is that each of us, in the world and in the church, must bring together these two deep archetypal pressures (the fire of eros and the desire for innocence) inside of us.
What will happen then will not resemble the dynamics of a negotiating table but the raging chaos of a storm. A high pressure system will meet a low pressure one and more than a few tornados and thunderstorms will occur. There will be pain, confusion and settled patterns will be toppled by storm. But through the eye of that storm we will understand life and love as we never have before.