As the Reformed world has found itself in the midst of a heated debate about gender and sexuality, many eagerly anticipated Carl Trueman’s new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020), a monograph chronicling the philosophical, psychological, and political precursors to the sexual revolution. I only pre-order the books I’m most excited about, and this one easily made the cut. Now that it has been released, it will no doubt continue to make a splash—and for good reason. While not without its weaknesses, the book is an admirable volume and one that has filled a knowledge gap in the pews regarding how Western Christians understand their cultural context.
After presenting parts one through four, Trueman concludes with an “unscientific prologue” (to use his words) which he hopes will serve as a prolegomenon for future discussion on the arguments laid out in the preceding chapters. As part of his closing remarks, Trueman points out that conceding to our culture’s modern sexual categories opens the door to much confusion in the church. For Trueman, one such example of this confusion is the costliness of celibacy. Based on his analysis, his discussion’s crescendo answers a very thought-provoking question: is celibacy really costly? And, furthermore, if it is costly, is it more costly than maintaining chastity within marriage?
Leading up to this point in the volume, Trueman has argued that internally-determined sexual identities are the current terminus of a long road of philosophical, psychological, and political shifts in Western society from Rousseau to Freud to Marcuse. Through pop culture and the arts, those shifts have trickled down from the ivory tower and nested in our psyches, whether we realize it or not. In light of these shifts, from Trueman’s perspective, celibacy is only costly “in a world in which selves are typically recognized or validated by their sexuality and their sexual fulfillment” (391).
To be sure, Trueman does not seem to be arguing that celibacy in this day and age is not costly. However, at the very least he seems to imply that celibacy was not as costly in eras where sexual identity and sexual fulfillment narratives did not rule the day.
Before examining Trueman’s claim further, we need to take a step back and ask: is the nature of celibacy inherently costly? For Trueman, it would seem like the answer is no, which makes sense given that the idea of cost is fundamentally relational; the cost of something cannot be described without mentioning its relationship to something else. Any economist will tell you that life generally consists of a series of trade-offs governed by resource constraints. Every time you choose one thing, each feasible alternative you forego becomes the cost of your choice.
Moreover, these costs are all externally determined. The cost of a cup of coffee is determined by what the people in the market are willing to trade for it, not by any intrinsic value the cup of coffee may hold. To the question of whether celibacy is inherently costly, Trueman is correct in assuming that it is not. Like anything, the cost of celibacy is externally determined.
That then begs the question, who determines the cost? Like any commodity, the cost of celibacy is determined by the market: in this case, the prevailing cultural narratives, as Trueman explicitly states. In our current Western cultural climate, a primary cost of celibacy is the fulfillment of sexual desire which serves as a manifestation of one’s internally-derived sense of self. In short, living out of who you truly are, as the world defines it, is the cost of celibacy.
Thus far, we are tracking with Trueman’s proposition. However, to take it a step further, we must ask: does the cost of celibacy transcend historical epistemic epochs? For Trueman, the answer would seem to be no, provided other epochs define self in ways different than our current epoch. In order to evaluate Trueman’s claim, we can examine a test-case from another era—one where people did not ascribe to the same autonomous cultural mores of today: Christians living in the ancient Roman world.
So, was the celibacy of Christians living in Ancient Rome costly? Or, more precisely, if the ancient Roman world did not typically recognize people as being “validated by their sexuality and their sexual fulfillment,” did it cost Christians anything by remaining celibate?
If we understand celibacy as merely the absence of sexual pleasure and therefore the absence of any self-derived sexual identity, then we can safely say that celibacy for Christians in Ancient Rome didn’t cost them anything because, as Trueman has argued, a psychologically-defined sexualized self is a new societal phenomenon.
However, celibacy includes more costs than not experiencing sexual pleasure. As one example, celibacy involves giving up marriage and biological children. In Ancient Rome, one’s meaning was primarily derived by his citizenship and commitment to the state. To put it in the language Trueman adopts from Charles Taylor, one’s meaning was mimetically (externally) determined. Part of one’s commitment to the empire and therefore one’s adoption of society’s idea of meaning lay in starting a family and especially producing male heirs, as not being married or having a male heir impacted one’s ability to contribute to and move up in society. Moreover, the Romans even had laws prohibiting celibacy. Reproduction was not only socially encouraged but legally expected. For Christians who remained celibate, not having either a biological family or a male heir meant they were sacrificing allegiance to the very meaning-maker in society. In other words, it cost them their sense of self as determined by society.
By sacrificing the fulfillment of sexual desire, celibate Christians today break ties to what is understood to be the ultimate meaning-maker: their inner selves. Likewise, by sacrificing marriage and a biological family, celibate Christians in Ancient Rome broke ties to what was understood to be the ultimate meaning-maker: the political society.
In the Christian tradition of both the ancient world and today, the cost of celibacy is not adopting the meaning that secular society either determined for you or told you to determine for yourself. We can maybe even go so far as to say that, at least in these two cultures, celibacy necessitates sacrificing what society thinks it means to be human—an expensive undertaking, for sure.
The second question Trueman answers in this brief section of his conclusion is: today, how does the cost of celibacy in singleness compare to the cost of chastity in marriage? He maintains that the cost of celibacy is no different than the cost of chastity. Based on the surrounding cultural values of our day that make Christian marriage seem unnatural (e.g. lax monogamy, regular use of birth control, very limited grounds for divorce, etc.), I tend to agree. At the very least, we can say that the costs of each are immeasurable and therefore unrankable.
To extrapolate a bit, I would argue, and this seems to be most likely what Trueman was hinting at, that the more important issue is not which is more costly but whether single and married people are actually “counting the cost” (Lk 14:25-34). Both celibacy and chastity not only have costs, but those costs are increasingly succumbing to ‘inflation’ as the surrounding culture values a traditional Christian sexual ethic less and less.
It is easy for me, a single person pursuing celibacy in a hyper-sexualized world, to pat myself on the back and feel a rush of moral superiority in my righteousness. However, as we are reminded by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14, we must humble ourselves instead touting our righteousness. As a church, our focus should be on humble repentance when we fail (which we all have and will, Rom 3:23) and corporate rejoicing when others succeed. As we figure out how we can work toward celibacy and chastity together, maybe we can be examples for future generations—generations who will have different derivations of meaning and sexual mores but will still have to count the cost nonetheless.