When considering the past, especially the ancient past, I sometimes think we imagine the people as one large group—or just a few large groups, divided by region. It definitely feels that way to me when we talk about “the early church” and what they believed. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to know that the earliest Christians disagreed about many things. Indeed, much of the writing we have from the early church involves people working out disagreements and figuring out what the church’s teaching should and would be. It was a complicated process, and that complexity existed even in areas of thought where basic teachings about behavior were, on the surface, fairly similar. That’s definitely the case when it comes to the church’s stance on sexual abstinence, which is the subject of this book by Peter S. Brown, first published in 1988.
The Body and Society focuses on the church of the first through fourth centuries. We meet ascetics who went into the desert, priests living in the cities, and women of wealth and influence, albeit influence limited by their sex. Covering this much ground is a massive undertaking, even when focused on only one aspect of their lives and thought. Brown delves into original texts from the period, all clearly footnoted, to get at what church leaders of the day believed and thought.
I read this book one chapter at a time, over the course of several weeks, and the amount of information was overwhelming. It was illuminating, but there was too much here for me to retain. Even now as I try to write I’m having trouble figuring out what to share with you. Part of my problem is that there were so many fascinating bits of information, but to share that one item would give it undue importance. If I talk about the adoration of Thecla, then you’ll get the idea that virginity was the most important thing for women of that time–and it was in some places and at some times. But widows who had inherited great wealth were also influential as patrons of the church. And even when virginity was seen as the ideal for women, not all virgins were like Thecla, boldly vowing to remain chaste. Some were committed to the church by their families and given little choice in the matter. But some of those same women became powerful forces, sometimes even acting as confidantes and guides to Christian men.
Even though it appears that sexual renunciation as an ideal came about early in the church’s history, the nature of that renunciation was not necessarily what we think of today when we imagine young Roman Catholic men entering the priesthood or young women joining convents. Early on, many of those Christians who committed to sexual abstinence were older, often widows and widowers who decided not to marry again but to commit themselves to the church. So it wasn’t necessarily virginity, but continence that was prized. And the reasons for prizing continence varied. Origen saw the rejection of sex as an assertion of freedom from social bonds. Clement, too, wrote of freedom, but he stressed freedom from passions–and such freedom could also exist between married people who engaged in sex for the begetting of children.
One of the ideas I found particularly fascinating was Gregory of Nyssa’s belief that humanity’s separation into male and female was not part of God’s original design. The division, and the opportunity for sexual reproduction that comes with it, was given by God as a “merciful afterthought” after Adam’s fall to stem the tide of death. I’m not sure what I think of this idea, but I think it does show that the early church was filled with creative thinkers! It’s ideas like this that make early Christian thought endlessly fascinating to me. There’s a feeling that everyone’s still trying to figure things out, and I love that. Even though I don’t believe sexual renunciation is necessary or even particularly beneficial, I could appreciate the way the people Brown writes about were grappling with the question.
This book didn’t really give me new insights into the church’s view of sex and sexuality. There are no great bombshells here. What’s interesting is seeing how views evolved and developed, not always in a straight line. I studied enough church history to have a general familiarity with many of the names and movements Brown discusses, although I was glad to learn more about women like Macrina, Perpetua, and Paula, who were previously no more than names to me, if even that. I’m not sure how well someone entirely new to church history would fare with this. Even with my background, I found the deluge of information to be too much. With books like this, I often feel that I’m reading to get a general idea of what the issues are, so that I’ll know what to look up later when I have a specific question in mind. So I’ll keep this around as a reference, even as I feel specific facts slipping from my mind.