Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sex and the Single Baha'i

Christianity Today has an interview with one of the authors of the recently published Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today's Church.

As I've said before, Baha'is have much in common with evangelical Christians and some of the comments made in this interview sound just like what I hear among single Baha'is. Check it out:

What prompted you and Bonnie to write Singled Out?

The two of us have been friends since college. As we went on with our lives and earned degrees, we had long conversations about our frustrations of being single in the evangelical church. So we started to look for good advice for older singles, because much discussion about abstinence [is for] high schoolers and college age people. But once you're out of college, once you are working, there really wasn't much of a discussion.

Much of the discussion around singleness is, "Just have enough faith, and God will provide a spouse." And we started to worry about what that says about God. This idea of, wait a second, God hasn't provided a spouse. What does that mean? Does that mean I'm not a good Christian? Does that mean God is not faithful? When you start going there, that's dangerous. So we started to look for a better discussion.

What are the sociological factors leading to so many Christians, particularly women, remaining single?

One factor is that we just have more singles in the U.S. The most recent statistic is from 2006, which says 46 percent of Americans are single. There's just not the assumption that you will marry, you will marry young, and you will stay in that one marriage for life. But many churches have reacted to this by focusing on the nuclear family, and because of that, a lot of singles are uncomfortable in the church.

There have also been discussions about the feminization of Christianity, and how men don't feel comfortable in the church. So when you have those factors working together, from our experiences and our friends' experiences, single women in churches look around and are not finding anyone. The other dilemma is "marrying down" — what does it mean to marry someone who isn't as spiritually mature? That is a dilemma for many single Christian women.

I don't want it to sound like we are ragging on all the single men in the church. Yes, there's a problem of immaturity in the church, for men and women, but a lot of writers say, "It's the men's fault, and if they would step up and do their job, we wouldn't have this problem." And it's far more complex than that. I feel for men in the church who say, "I also have reasons why I'm single, and it's not because I stay home and play video games all the time."

Might part of the problem be that Christians are being too picky?

I'd phrase it this way: We have learned the importance of thinking before getting married. We've seen a lot of broken marriages. We've seen people jump into marriage and realize "oops," in both the Christian and secular worlds. So a lot of Christian singles are pausing to say, "Maybe I shouldn't just jump into marriage, because I want it to be a lifelong commitment and I recognize how serious that is." (You can read the rest of the interview here. You can read a review of the book here).

There is a lot here worth discussing but I'd like to focus on the celibacy issue first. In the Baha'i Writings, celibacy is the option for those who remain unmarried into adulthood,"...Of course, under normal circumstances, every person should consider it his moral duty to marry. And this is what Bahá'u'lláh has encouraged the believers to do. But marriage is by no means an obligation. In the last resort it is for the individual to decide whether he wishes to lead a family life or live in a state of celibacy." (From letter of the Guardian to an individual believer, May 3, 1936).

My experience is that for many Americans, celibacy (like chastity) is a four letter word. The notion that any sane person would or could live without sex is beyond comprehension. I was recently talking with someone about the nature of divine law and said that such laws are not only statements on what we should do, but what we can do. Any standard set by God implies that a human being can actually meet that standard, otherwise it would be unjust to be held accountable by God for failing to meet it. Thus it is in fact possible for a human being to live without sex. Not only that but a person could actually live a happy celibate life! This sounds very simple but in the context of a society where the importance of physical love is "over-exaggerated" it is a radical notion, "The world today is submerged, amongst other things, in an over- exaggeration of the importance of physical love, and a dearth of spiritual values. In as far as possible the believers should try to realize this and rise above the level of their fellow-men who are, typical of all decadent periods in history, placing so much over-emphasis on the purely physical side of mating" (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 360). What if we looked at Baha'is who are living a celibate life style as heroic, counter-cultural revolutionaries rather than walking tragedies for having "failed" to marry? What if we saw them as living proof of what is possible for humanity?