Paul spends a bit of time in this letter to the church in Corinth on sexual immorality. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 are mostly given over to the topic. Remembering that Paul wrote specific letters to specific communities with their particular challenges, questions, and concerns is helpful to counter any inclination to take his words as a rulebook for living for all people in all times and all places.
For a start, we can find several indications that the concerns over sexual practices are bound up in broader concerns for living authentically according to the gospel of Christ: 'do not eat with one who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber'. Then there's the whole section on lawsuits between believers: you've been renewed by baptism into Jesus and the Spirit, so turn from wrongdoing and fraud, no longer deceive one another. 'To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.'
These chapters, this discourse, is not all about sex. Except that he does spend a lot of time talking about sex, and marriage, and whether or not to get married. Paul says that it is well to remain unmarried (as Paul does). But if you can't keep your passion and sexual desire under control, so that it threatens to manifest in unhealthy behaviour that disrespects another and yourself, or that it distracts you from your due attention to God, then marry. Get a partner with whom you can exercise the beast from time to time, and keep it from taking over.
There are some lovely encouragements of a mutuality not encouraged in the broader Roman society in these passages: for it is not only the wife who is tending to her husband's needs, but the husband caring for his wife as well. Unheard of in a heavily patriarchal society in which really only the elite free man was understood to be fully human – everyone else was successive steps removed from that fulness of humanity and dignity.
With other tutors, we debated the extent to which Paul affirms a loving relationship in which sex is a positive expression of that love, or is rather conceding the utility of sex for keeping a lid on the passionate desire that the Stoics and some medical writers also thought base and undesirable. Later romantic notions of marriage are read back onto Paul's words in support of heterosexual, as opposed to homosexual, sex as positive and God-given wonderful gift. (and don't get me started on the further extrapolations that treat the non-Pauline letters as rule books for marriages that subjugate women into subservience and disempowerment).
But what struck me, encountering this discourse this time around, was the reminder of the oneness between humans joined through sexual intercourse. Further, there is the overarching concern of Paul for the believer's oneness with God in Christ, and the attention he encouraged believers to give to God and living according to the way of Christ. I stopped, as the words held up a mirror to me, showing my deepening peace with and commitment to a solitary way of being. I almost shuddered at the thought of becoming one with another human: that's it. I don't want to become one with another person. That, I suppose, is part of the nature of those in religious orders, a lack of interest in becoming one with another human. I think if there was a religious order in my particular tradition, I would now be ready to join it.
Even though I know there are such others in the world also choosing the solitary way, I still feel quite alone in making that choice. No one else with whom I discussed this text last week expressed affirmation for the celibate life Paul advocates here. Most of our society still buys into the dominant narrative of human intimate partnership as the ultimate in human relationships, and the goal to which all humans do and must aspire. It took me well over the first decade of my adult life to recognise that narrative and its impact on me, and to realise that, after all, it's not the story I want or am designed to live.
I think I find a different kind of oneness with my fellow humans more generally: have you read or heard my mantra that we are only fully human together? I have talked before about the nature of my solitude as being a single person needing to be embedded in community. Perhaps my deepening peace in this current season is a reflection of a deepening sense of belonging to my communities here in Edinburgh. I formally became a member of Greyfriars in January. I have returned to the post-grad study rooms at New College, participating much more regularly in the every day life of that community, and the solidarity of working alongside colleagues. I am sought out for storytelling and presiding, for conversation and advice, for friendship. I feel like I belong here (even as the possibility of leaving looms with the PhD drawing to a close).
I finally see what someone I loved once saw in me: I am not the partnering kind.
I finally understand why I ran from a relationship I thought I wanted: I do not want to be a partner, but friend or sister I can do.
I finally want what I have had all along: solitude and community.
And I cannot find the words to describe the peace and the joy of that realisation.