In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant wrote, “For as regards nature, experience presents us with rules and is the source of truth, but in relation to ethical laws experience is the parent of illusion, and it is in the highest degree reprehensible to limit or to deduce the laws which dictate what I ought to do, from what is done.” Kant’s point—essentially that experience is not self-interpreting and must be subject to reason—came to mind as I read Dianna Anderson’s recent piece, “What Losing My Virginity Taught Me About Faith.” In it, she writes about her journey from an Evangelical Christian background that stressed sexual purity (and solemnized it with purity pledges, purity rings, commitment ceremonies and so forth,) through a celibate young-adulthood, and into a new spiritual understanding in which “Sex… can be a sacrament, a movement toward understanding God, a form of holiness experienced in a deep, mystical way. Sex can be holy, whether or not you have a ring on your finger.”
Now, there are many legitimate lessons that one could learn from losing her virginity if one interpreted her experience according to reason and in light of what God has told us about Himself in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, Ms. Anderson allows her experience to interpret itself and ends up creating quite the illusion.
Before we get to Ms. Anderson, however, the subculture in which she was raised is worthy of critique as well. It is worth noting the conflation of Law (morality) and Gospel (good news of forgiveness) that occurs so often in these circles—the idea that one’s salvation depends on one’s sexual purity. According to Christianity, salvation is a free gift granted by God’s grace through faith in Christ’s atoning death specifically because none of us have been sufficiently chaste—or honest, or just, or loving, or pretty much anything else. Ms. Anderson only briefly alludes to this being an issue, but it’s not at all uncommon for the Gospel to be overshadowed by moralism in much of American Evangelicalism.
Nevertheless, even the moralism is faulty in what she calls “Christian purity culture.” Christ and his apostles undoubtedly taught the pursuit of sexual purity. Accordingly, the problem is not with Evangelicals’ condemnation of fornication. And although the Bible does not provide us with customs like purity rings, pledges, ceremonies, and so forth, it is nevertheless the job of culture to provide us with customs that guide us toward virtue. Seeing as how American culture has largely abandoned its own such customs, it is the responsibility of parents to create new ones in their stead. Thus, the problem is not even with Evangelicals’ creation of new rituals and ceremonies per se. The real problem lies in the fact that the customs they have developed are counter-productive because they ignore instructions that God does provide to help us combat temptations to fornication. When we have a fever of this kind, God’s prescription is marriage.
Despite the common impression, the virtue of chastity is not primarily a thou-shalt-not meant to produce shame, but rather a thou-shalt that provides direction and purpose. For the vast majority of people who are not called to singleness, chastity does not consist of the disuse of our sexuality until marriage spontaneously occurs. It consists of actively directing our sexuality towards its fulfillment in marriage. Though the nature of marriage does reserve sex for husband and wife, chastity among the unmarried still involves preparation to become good husbands, wives, fathers, & mothers, and ultimately to seek out someone else who has done the same. Rather than lying dormant in such an endeavor, our sexuality drives us towards marriage. In this light, it is no surprise that the instruction Paul offers Christians in 1 Corinthians 7 is quite clear: those struggling with sexual continence need to find a spouse. Rings and pledges are a poor substitute for a husband or wife. It is entirely possible to be celibate without being chaste, and this is, unfortunately, where pop-Christian efforts at purity often end up.
The error is this: most purity rituals are not designed to facilitate marriage, but to delay it. Their purpose is to encourage celibacy through a person’s teens and twenties until supposedly more important matters like education and career are completely settled and it is “sensible” to finally start settling down and looking for a spouse. They thereby prevent sexuality from guiding us into marriage. Consider, for example, Ms. Anderson’s own story:
I graduated college with only one blind date under my belt. And then graduate school. And then I moved to Japan and started questioning my faith. Lots of little things that I thought were God’s blessing – my job in Japan, my success in academics – were leading me nowhere fast. It wasn’t so much that I was unhappy – it was that I felt totally abandoned and misled by this God I’d been told to believe. I’d done everything right. I’d been told my virginity and modesty and purity would be attractive to Christian men. And yet, nothing was happening, nothing was moving, nothing was clear.
One blind date by the time college was over does not exactly suggest a rigorous attempt to find a spouse—neither on her own behalf, nor by the community dedicated to teaching her purity. This is in sharp contrast to her education and career, for one does not go through graduate school and move to to the other side of the world for a job without quite a bit of determination and effort. Most ridiculous of all, she thought she was doing everything right even though she relocated to Japan—not exactly the best place to find a Christian husband, demographically speaking. Though it was somehow mysterious to her, it’s not exactly rocket science to say why nothing was happening. While virginity and modesty are indeed attractive to marriage-minded men, they cannot overcome an absentminded approach to matrimony that’s buried beneath career ambitions. Bare celibacy does not lead to marriage.
All that said, however, one cannot exactly contend that Ms. Anderson is merely an innocent victim of the ineptitude of her elders. For even where their cautions were accurate, she still misinterprets her own experiences to create both ethical and theological illusions. She lists a number of “dire warnings” that were drilled into her as part of the point of view she has left behind, but though she implies that they were silly, even by her own accounting, they seem to be fairly accurate.
They told her that “Having sex outside of marriage will take away pleasure from sex within marriage” and “Having sex outside of marriage with make connection with your future spouse harder.” Being unmarried, her own experience cannot really speak to this yet, but in general, it certainly seems to be the case—particularly for women. They told her that “Having sex outside of marriage means disappointing God, disappointing family, and causing unnecessary pain and heartache for yourself.” She did not comment on her family’s take on her epiphany, though given what she has said about how they raised her, some measure of disappointment seems at least plausible. Nevertheless, she describes a fairly severe break with “the culture she came from,” and God has made His views on the matter about as obvious as they can be. They told her that “Having sex outside of marriage will essentially destroy you, ruining your witness, your faith, your relationships.” Again, she did not comment much on her relationships, but given that her public witness now consists of dismissing significant swaths of God’s Word and thereby becoming one of those false teachers that Christ warned us about, it’s hard to consider that witness anything other than ruined.
But what about Ms. Anderson’s faith—at least insofar as she presents it? Far from being ruined, her thesis is that fornication has made her faith stronger than ever before. Unfortunately, this interpretation of her experience is the greatest illusion of all. She explicitly notes that this strengthening did not come through repentance and a stronger grasp on forgiveness in Christ. So of what does this better, faster, stronger faith consist? Well, she claims liberation from ideas of right & wrong (even where such right and wrong are taught by God.) She claims a deeper & fuller love for neighbors, which seems mainly to involve affirming LBGT folks in their own pursuits of fornication. She claims a better understanding of God’s love despite the fact that she rejects so much of what He has actually said about it. I’m not sure what religious significance her claim that sex taught her to “meet people where they are” has. Perhaps she means in their bedrooms. There was a pronounced leftward shift in her politics, which again has nothing to do with anything God taught in Scripture. She has learned to judge people less—with the notable exception of the Evangelicals whom she spends most of her piece judging. And most importantly, in the grand traditions of the pagan temple prostitutes of yore and a Nine Inch Nails song from the 90’s, she announces a new sacrament of holy fornication that mystically brings her closer to God. Nothing in this grab-bag has much to do with the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints.
I do not doubt that Ms. Anderson’s sexual experiences were a breath of fresh air after so many years of unchaste celibacy. Neither do I doubt that this new faith is stronger than the one she was raised with. What I do doubt is that there’s anything Christian about either of these things other than her own inertia. There’s no Christ, no cross, no atonement or forgiveness. In the place of God’s promises to us, there remains only theological liberalism’s tired gospel of trendy politics and a shift in spiritual feelings toward something more pleasant. Such is the way of mysticism. It develops rituals designed to provoke deep spiritual feelings about ourselves and God, and then encourages us to believe that these manufactured feelings are indicative of God’s point of view. It is an engine by which we acquire experiences that birth illusion. So whereas Christianity proclaims God’s promises to be present in the real Sacraments and comforts us with what God has actually proclaimed, Ms. Anderson’s brand of mysticism declares fornication to be holy so that we can feel good about what feels good, making it easier to believe that God feels good about our feelings.
And so her elders’ warnings about becoming a hedonistic atheist proved to be imprecise after all, but I suspect that the danger of becoming a libertine quasi-pagan was within the spirit of their words.