The other night at the bookstore I picked up a copy of the 1942-1951 notebooks of Albert Camus (published by Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2010). I had never read anything by him, but he jumped off the shelf because I remembered a friend’s debate over the correct pronunciation of his name. Camus and I were instant friends. His notebooks are just idea journals—collections of quotes, philosophical snippets, plot sketches, musings, etc. He changes to a new topic or train of thought every few paragraphs, sometimes dwelling longer on an idea that needs time and space to develop. I relate to this style. Pastiche is the way I create, and I keep numerous such journals. I love jumping around, turning diverse ideas around in my mind, riffing on themes and easily shifting directions. I also enjoy obsessing about an idea, absolutely focusing all my creative energy on it until I write it out, which often takes years, lots of research, and lots of reflection.
Not only was Camus’ style floating my boat, but his thoughts were really resonating with my current spiritual experience and were helping me think about my current creative project. I have not read the whole thing yet (nor am I likely to since I read snippets of lots of books at once and rarely finish any of them), but one bit caught my attention and I wanted to put it up for discussion here:
“Unbridled sex leads to a philosophy of the non-significance of the world. Chastity on the other hand gives the world a meaning” (39).
I am really curious about this statement, both from a secular and a religious point of view. The question is, how does sex within certain bounds give the world a meaning and how does sex outside those boundaries deplete that meaning? The LDS answer to this question is easy enough.
Chastity is a core Latter-day Saint belief and practice. Temple covenants include vowing to live a chaste life. Chastity as defined in LDS thought as celibacy before marriage and sex exclusively with your spouse after marriage. Why is chastity important? Well, sex is sacred. Sex is seen as a vehicle of procreation, which was a divine mandate given to Adam and Eve. The ability to create life is one that Latter-day Saints think should be kept within a family structure, and pleasure or gratification seems to be merely a vehicle for sex to serve this primary function.
Sex will always be used to cement human relationships, to place humans under certain obligations to one another, and is thus a significant apparatus for meaning, religiously defined or no. And heterosexual humans having sex will create life whether stipulations are placed on it or not. So, why the stricture and why the religious revivification of chastity in an era that is by many accounts not very interested in reserving sex for marriage?
Chastity emphasizes the meaningfulness of sex and the way it creates the world within a particular set of God-given boundaries. For Latter-day Saints, the theological is inextricably linked to the biological and social. It is the kind of life, the purpose of the life that humans create, that is the important thing. God wants to create a human family that does not simply abide by his rules but that chooses to live in accordance with his laws out of love for and devotion to him. It is about a covenant, which Latter-day Saints reify through their temple ordinances. Thus, in the LDS church being chaste not only signifies the keeping of a covenant once entered into, but it functions on a symbolic level to create a priestly class within the church. Our friend the Oxford English Dictionary online offers as a tertiary definition of chastity: “Ceremonial purity. (for Latin castitas.) Obs. rare.” When Latter-day Saints go to the temple chaste, they are qualified by living a certain way to then offer service to God.
What do you think about Camus’s statement? How do you think chastity or selective sex preserves the meaningfulness of the world? Or does it? What if we take religion out of it entirely? Does chastity still matter?