Those of us who have suffered from austere Protestantism, either Calvinism or its Anglo-Saxon descendent Puritanism, tend to use Calvinist and Puritan almost as curses for repression and unfriendliness to human appetites. But after effusions of this sort, it is almost positively refreshing to encounter Calvin's own comments on the matter, in his Institutes, Book III, Chapter 10, "How to use this present life and the comforts of it." He writes, "If we are to live, we must use the necessary supports of life, nor can we even shun those things which seem more subservient to delight than to necessity...There have been some good and holy men who, seeing intemperance and luxury perpetually carried to excess, imagined that there was no other method than to allow man to use corporeal goods only in so far as they were necessaries: a counsel pious indeed, but unnecessarily austere…If we consider for what end [God] created food, we shall find that he consulted not only for our necessity, but also for our enjoyment and delight… in clothing the end was, in addition to necessity, comeliness and honor... Have done then with that inhuman philosophy which...not only maliciously deprives us of the lawful fruit of divine beneficence, but cannot be realized without depriving man of all his senses, and reducing him to a block. But on the other hand, let us with no less care guard against the lusts of the flesh..." and so forth, counseling moderation.

     The question for us becomes one of from whence this hostility to the body which has run through Christianity has come. The common answer which most Western intellectuals--in other words, those who would concern themselves with the question at all--would have given over the past two centuries, is that this hostility is inherent in Christianity, a gift from its Jewish roots. In particular, it is St. Paul who is frequently identified as the conduit by which this heritage entered Christianity, often with a nod to his infamous "recommendation" of marriage as the lesser of evils, "better to marry than to burn" (I Cor. 7:9).

     Occasionally there is an implied contrast to the supposedly more liberal Jesus of the Gospels, conveniently forgetting such sayings as "Truly, I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, not a jot or a tittle will pass from the law, until all is accomplished" (Matt. 5:18), "Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt 5:28), and "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out" (Matt. 18:9). Other times, there is an implied or explicit contrast to the Greek heritage, which supposedly was more respectful of the body and its appetites--although of course "Moderation in all things" comes to us from Theogenis and Plutarch.

     That is unfortunately a misapprehension of both the Hebrew tradition, and of the Greek heritage, and it may be worthwhile to spend a few minutes examining both traditions, to better be able to judge from whence the hostility to the body and its appetites really entered Christianity.  Let us begin with the Old Testament tradition.

     Calvin, as a motto for his argument cited above, quotes Psalm 104:15, on how God "brings bread out of the earth, and wine to gladden men's hearts, and oil to make their faces shine"--a verse that the temperance folks have always had problems admitting could be divinely inspired. He could equally have cited passages from the wisdom literature: for instance, Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, where we are told that once one has things in their proper perspective, that is, maintains a proper tension between Simchas Torah, the lust for the Law, and the lust for life, the fulfillment of bodily appetites is godly, and the even stronger words of Ecclesiastes 9:7-9: "Go to it then, eat your food and enjoy it, drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for already God has accepted what you have done...Enjoy life with a woman you love all the days of your allotted span under the sun, vain as they are, for that is your lot while you live and labor here."

     Now, of course, it is possible to say that the wisdom literature is only one strand of the Old Testament, but while there are no passages as forthright as these in the Law and prophets, there are certainly global indicators of the attitude of the Old Testament toward the body and its appetites. It is, for instance, no accident that the central rituals of the Jewish tradition are performed around the dinner table, with bread and wine and meat: none of this Christian thing of living for seven years on blanched barley and water!

     And it must be noted that to the Hebrew, and subsequently the Jewish mind, the very idea of celibacy, the purposeful denial of sexuality, is utterly incomprehensible.  Sexual reproduction--granted, in marriage--is absolutely the requirement for all humans beings, and for being human.  From the story of creation in Genesis, we learn that man and woman are made for each other, they are to be fruitful and multiply.  (The few exceptions to this--for instance, Jeremiah (Jer. 16:1)--are just that, terrible exceptions in the old sense of that word, and all the more awesome for that.)  Granted that both the table and the bed are placed under numerous restrictions in the Law, but there is never, never any suggestion in the Old Testament that there is or could be any virtue in a fundamental denial of them.

     It is not impossible that some of those listening--particularly if they had a background in Methodism--may be questioning whether my assertion that in the Old Testament abstinence from food or sexual activity is nowhere considered as a moral or religious virtue in itself is correct, in that it ignores the regulations in Numbers 6, which provide for individuals to consecrate themselves to God by abstaining from wine and beer. However, this is really the exception which proves the rule: as finally codified here, this abstinence is controlled by very strict regulations, only applies for a limited period, applies exclusively to the fruit of the vine, and is part of a greater devotion of the life of the person involved. In several of these ways, then, it is not even as thoroughgoing a denial as is involved taking the WCTU pledge.

     But even more suggestive is the sin offering that the devotee must bring (Num. 6:13-17) when the period of devotion is brought to a successful conclusion. Rabbi Alan J. Horowitz has pointed out to me that according to Talmudic commentaries, the sin involved, that required this offering, was precisely the otherwise exemplary abstinence, which was seen as being essentially a rejection of the gifts of God. From this is it clear that abstinence, even as a component of religious devotion, was considered as fundamentally sinful. The Rechabites (Jer. 35), who practiced a similar but life-long abstinence from alcohol, are similarly an exception which proves the rule, clearly being a tiny and isolated group far outside the mainstream of Old Testament practice.

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"Eat your food and enjoy it… Enjoy life with a woman you love…"


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