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[The Creation of the Chicken]

An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
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Friday, August 20, 2010

Abstinence vs. indulgence

My wife and kids are in Minnesota visiting family and my godson has graciously come to stay on the farm to help with the chores – particularly the morning chores. He has spent a fair amount of time at a variety of monasteries and has/is considering the monastic vocation. He and I were talking last night and he told me about his boss (who I presume is in no way a Christian) who knows about his consideration of the monastic life who claimed that he believed any argument someone could make about homosexual behavior being unnatural, could also be made in regards to those living the monastic life. It's an interesting point and led me to deeper consideration of the matter.

First and foremost, I think one is hard pressed to find many secular reasoning for saying that homosexual behavior is “unnatural.” If for no other reason than the heavily opinion dependent definition of the word “natural.” Now one could argue that the principle sexual activity itself is inherently risky and more prone to damage and disease; that it itself is logically unnatural, but I suspect this is not quite enough.

So, then, what is natural? Well, I suspect many people would suggest that being born a certain way renders that state “natural.” In other words, anything you really have no say over is apparently considered “natural.” Thus whatever sexuality you may feel inclined toward is “natural” for you. Alas, this also means the litany of genetic diseases, malformations, and other decidedly unpleasant inclinations (which may well be just as beyond our personal autonomy as our sexual identity) must also be considered “natural.” But in the end, I think that in order to argue about whether something is “normal” or “natural” requires a great deal of shared foundational beliefs about the world.

For example, I have met or come across many an atheist and evolutionary biologist who will readily tell you that human males are programmed genetically for multiple sex partners – a “natural” inclination to plant his “selfish genes” in as much fertile soil as possible. Therefore it is absolutely “natural” for men to “cheat” on their spouses or to avoid marriage altogether. So then the question is turned back to my godson's boss (who I'm told is a devoted husband): why is it right for him to abstain from his “natural” inclinations and remain faithful to his spouse? Why not indulge himself – especially if he has means of doing so without being caught by his spouse so that he is able to retain that security which may also be a “natural” inclination. The question plays off of the notion that we should never deny ourselves anything and that we should indulge our every desire - throwing off our "hang ups" as they used to say.

So I think that the issue may be distilled down to this: abstinence vs. indulgence. I can think of very little things in life from which we may abstain that would offer up negative consequences, whereas I can think of many many things in which we may indulge that will eventually lead us to a state of brokenness or even ruin. I believe there is an inherent virtue in “curbing” our natural appetites and one needn't be religious to perceive this. Alcohol, food, and sex are but a few examples of things where curbing our appetites – as opposed to throwing all caution to the wind and diving in – are absolutely and incontestably in our “natural” self-interest in the long run, and yet curiously if we did not practice some degree of abstinence we would often "naturally" destroy ourselves with them. Therefore anytime someone abstains from something, it may indeed be perceived as “unnatural” (take for instance abstaining from meat – how insanely unnatural is that?!?!) but the act of self-discipline is something I think is also uniquely natural to humans and is the key to all the virtues and even from a strictly secular standpoint it has given us a profound advantage in this world of genetic competition.

And of course the fact is, no one ever dies or suffers pain from abstaining from sex, but many have died or otherwise suffered for overindulging in it.

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 1:49 PM [+]
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5 comments


5 Comments:

The comments Fr. Schmemmann made in his diaries about someone thinking over monasticism sure make a lot of sense, if you have access to that book. It sounds right about "Natural" feelings. Just about every right thing is also not usually the first thing that comes to mind or "feels" right. Like exercise, eating right, you name it.

By Blogger bob, at 3:57 PM  

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in this sex-crazed age, I am always amused at people who basically, as the person you indicate, find celibacy to be "perverse"; they just can't stand it.

I do think that a person can indulge himself in both a surplus of Natural desires and un-natural ones. Be it drugs, food, sex, entertainments, the un-natural ones seem to be lead to more trouble. - my 2 cents.

- Steve K

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:44 AM  

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Excellent thoughts. Much of the "pushback" I've gotten from gay people about my podcasts on homosexuality have been along the lines of "what is normal = what I feel free to indulge in because, well, I WANT to...". Wanting is not enough to "normalize" a behavior in more arenas of human existence than just sex.

By Blogger s-p, at 9:47 PM  

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Quite true Bob...it speaks to the bankruptcy of the idea: "If it feels good, do it." Hard to imagine people might STILL ascribe to that.

Steve(s), I agree that the perceived unnatural desires tend to spell more trouble in the long run. I also suspect that over indulging in the natural passions can lead directly to a desire for unnatural ones.

By Blogger JamesoftheNorthwest, at 7:59 AM  

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In most of human history the impulse to indulge was constrained by the realities of daily life. So I wonder if the ascetic life was really seen as that extreme way back when? Perhaps it was extreme if the son or daughter of a noble family joined a monastery or cloister, but if you were the son or daughter of a peasant, being fortunate enough to be accepted into that kind of life might have actually been a step up, in some respects (and a step up for your family because one less mouth to feed). Nowadays, when even the less fortunate among us seem to have cell phones and plenty to eat, the idea of turning one's back on our hyper consumer culture...well, that seems pretty radical, though in some sense, the ability to push back against the deluge of media, and consumer opportunities will become an ever more essential survival skill. Where our ancestors grappled with limitations -- food, news, information, educational opportunities, and so on -- we have the opposite problem...too much of everything, except, perhaps, common sense and compassion.

Best regards,
Mike

By Anonymous MikeW, at 4:52 PM  

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