Is Abstinence Impossible?

Michael Metzger

A pointless exercise?
The ongoing debate about the efficacy of abstinence-education programs underscores one point: we love sex. Duh. It’s important to remember this intense pleasure as we read yet another study – conducted by the Mathematica Policy Research Institute – reporting that abstinence-education programs do not delay the age when teens first have sex. News like this is cannon fodder for those who view abstinence-education as a pointless exercise. On the other hand, religious folks cite supposed flaws in the study, especially that there was a lack of “follow-up” information for teens. More information is needed?

Teaching adolescents how to get pregnant should take about as much time as teaching them to make a peanut-butter sandwich. Whether you instruct them to refrain from intercourse altogether or use a form of contraception, sex education is not an intellectual problem.1

That’s right – it’s an imagination problem. C. S. Lewis said the pleasure between two lovers at climax was designed to fill our imagination with anticipation of a consummation with God. Food, drink and the intense experiences of sex are “not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”2

If this sounds weird, remember that Lewis was a highly respected Oxford don and scholar of medieval literature. Yet he was unapologetic that “you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”3 Now, nearly seven decades later, the enchantment of worldliness is still seducing skeptics into believing abstinence is pointless. It’s not. The “urge to merge” can point toward something beyond.

Lewis understood that the nineteenth century fostered a “disenchanted” view of life. With nothing beyond to enthrall us, we become “half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.” We’re “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”4

Some kids enjoy playing in the mud and “having sex” – as if that’s all there is. Lewis believed there was more, including real love. “A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.”5 And it would be rather odd if the most intensely exhilarating experience on earth occurred in a world when nothing intensely exhilarating awaits us in the next.

At least that’s how the ancient church saw it. The way a man woos and wins a woman was designed to hint at the ways God woos us. The transcendent moment of sexual climax was designed to help us imagine the transcendent moment of being united with our Creator. This, however, was not how the ancient Romans imagined sex.

In ancient times, abstinence was generally viewed as a pointless exercise. In the Roman Empire for example, life was short and virginity was usually lost before the onset of puberty. Plutarch described it as “the hatred and fear of girls forced contrary to nature.”6 As a consequence, sexual diseases and low fertility rates were common among women.

The early church unashamedly linked the most exhilarating experience on earth to another world. Millions came to embrace the Judeo-Christian faith. They generally abstained from sex until after the wedding celebration. Even the great Greek physician Galen remarked on how Christians had a remarkable “restraint in cohabitation.”7 History says abstinence is not necessarily an exercise in futility.

Without this vision for love and sex, unbridled passions will lead to unwarranted pessimism. Yet the problem with today’s sex education is not intellectual as much as it’s a failure of imagination – on the part of people of faith and those opposed to religion. Perhaps those opposed to faith would be drawn to Christianity if Christians reframed – as C. S. Lewis did so well – “a vision for the life that is best for people to live.”8

1 Naomi Schaefer Riley, “Sex Education: Can’t We Read The Cliff Notes?” Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2007 W13
2 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Address, revised and expanded edition (New York: Macmillan, 1980), p.5
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid. p.1, 2
5 Ibid. p.6
6 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), p.107
7 Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984), p.142
8 Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), p.312


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