OK, first up: caveats.
That tweet was in April. It’s now July. What I’m about to write is a mixture of theological thoughts I’ve been mulling on in the interim and talking over my husband – because he’s a fabulous deep-thinker who sometimes sees things I don’t.
When I’ve been talking to him about my ideas about virginity he’s said to me,
“OK but… this idea is like the fur of a cat. You can stroke it one way and it’s fine, but if you stroke it the wrong way, you get the cat’s back up. It’s still the same fur, but it doesn’t work. You’ve got to be careful with this.”
So, I could be on the wrong track, but even if I’m on the right track, you’ve got to look at my direction of travel here. Also, even if I’m on the right track and going in the right direction, this is a curiously complex issue. Again, it’s like cat’s fur: you can stroke a cat anywhere, but you can’t stroke a cat everywhere on its surface at the same time. (This is also called the ‘hairy ball theorem’.) In a similar way, what I’m about to say may not the have logical consistency the way we might expect at first.
But I think there’s something big here.
‘Wait for the Lord’
One of the big, big themes of this blog is hope. Now, hope is anticipation. Hope is a form of waiting.
A few months ago I began to link virginity with waiting. Not in the tired ‘wait until marriage’ sense, I mean in a very broad sense. I began to see virginity itself as a symbol for waiting, and waiting for Jesus in particular. It made sense to me then that you get the virgins at the end of Revelation who have waited for Jesus to come. You have to wait. Not until marriage — until the fullness of time. Until you’re grown. Until you’re ready. Until everything is ready. Mature.
And for me this made sense as an image because it meant that those who were violated the principles of godly waiting and godly hope, were those who tried to short-cut their hope and didn’t wait. They are the ones who are not the ‘true virgins’ in this theological sense.
Not only does that suddenly add a whole load of layers to the parable of the ten virgins, but it also adds a layer to the parable of the prodigal son. Failing to wait is about demanding your inheritance now. It’s about being impatient with God. Yes, the younger son wasted his money on wild living, but he turned his back on this theological principle behind virginity when he refused to wait for the good things that were coming to him and indeed promised to him.
At the moment, people talk about virginity using images like untouched snow, flowers and silk scarves. They then go on to say that a person can be sullied and then irrevocably ruined by sex. But this is completely the wrong way round.
We shouldn’t be using images of silk or snow or flowers to understand virginity; we should be using the image of virginity to understand waiting.
Waiting is not an object, but a continuous action. It is not a commodity, it is a lifestyle. It’s a state of being that we are all called to be in continuously.
And for the first time I feel like I can begin to get a grip in my head as to why this works as an image for purity. Like waiting, purity is a continuous state of being. (By the way, I’m talking about the real kind of purity – not the body-shaming, women-hating social construct.)
Purity goes wrong when it gets crystallised into status. It’s like that attitude of, “My assignment got an A, I’m so smart.” That’s not purity. Real purity is saying, “I was given an A at the start of term, and now I’m working to keep it – and to keep on keeping it.”
But what if you lose your A? Are we back into silk scarf territory – once sullied and irrevocably ruined?
Maybe you missed it, but many of the laws in the Torah / Pentateuch are concerned with restoring purity and relationship with God. However, the silk scarf idea is a fixed image with no concept of restoration. It has no concept of taking wear and tear, taking muck and dirt in the normal course of your day to day living and then dealing with defilement like it’s humdrum and ordinary and something that cannot endure.
Purity is not about being apart from sin.
It’s about waiting for God in the midst of sin.
It’s about dealing with sin, day in, day out; making God’s space in the world.
It’s about a living, breathing, growing state of anticipation.
Silk scarf? Don’t make me laugh.
Meanwhile, when it comes to sex…
OK, first up, this ‘theological virginity’ I’m trying to talk about is way more important than any physical virginity.
Meanwhile if we link virginity with waiting, then there are a whole heap of practical implications for our sexual ethics.
You can’t honour a person’s consent if you don’t wait for it. To put it bluntly, if a person violates a virgin – or a non-virgin for that matter – it is the violator who has not upheld the principle of waiting. They are the one who is not a virgin in this symbolic, theological sense.
Plus you can’t take away someone else’s waiting by violating them. Actually, you can’t take it at all. It’s just not possible.
Now, I don’t mean in any way to downplay the fact that sexual violence has emotional and physical consequences for those who have such violence perpetrated against them. My point here though is that if we think that virginity is meant to symbolise something good, and if that something is godly waiting, then it’s not something can be taken away by anyone else.
And if ‘theological virginity’ isn’t an object that can be ‘lost’ or ‘given away’, but instead is a continual state, then it can’t be turned into a fixed achievement. It’s not something you can tick in a box, as if to say, “I have got this certificate.”
I think that’s one of the horrors of the whole ‘wait until marriage’ philosophy that is fixated on physical virginity, but not on maturity, consent or faithfulness. It means that if you get to the wedding day having never had sex with someone then you get to crystallise your achievement and turn it into something fixed, an inner-trophy you can take pride in. You get to say, “I waited.”
Virginity is not about saying, “I waited.” It’s about saying “I’m waiting.”
It’s future oriented, not past oriented.
The thought I had on 7 April 2017
Now all of this had been pounding round my head by the time it got to April. And my goodness, it wouldn’t let me go. And I found myself looking, looking for a way to describe to people what I meant by virginity being a symbol for waiting.
My first hurdle was explaining what I meant by a symbol.
And then I thought, “Maybe I could explain it using circumcision. I mean, everyone knows that Paul went on and on about how repentance was what really mattered and how that was the ‘circumcision of the heart’, and how the outward act of circumcision was just a symbol. Maybe I could use that as a way of explaining virginity as an image of purity. Because like…”
And then it hit me.
Circumcision was all about becoming pure. Virginity is all about staying pure.
And if you want to understand purity you need both. And even though the historical images were gendered, there is no ‘male and female’ in their underlying theological meanings. Both meanings are equally relevant to everyone.
Becoming pure and staying pure.
Turning to Christ and following Christ.
Entering relationship and abiding in relationship.
Believing in Jesus and waiting for Jesus.
Being grafted into the vine and remaining in the vine.
Entering the kingdom of heaven and building for the kingdom of heaven.
Baptism and communion.
So now I have this ambition: to do for virginity what Paul did for circumcision.
I want the church to fundamentally re-orient how it thinks about virginity and its symbolic significance.
Because if we can, it will change how we think about hope itself.
And if we can, we will be able to examine the other realities of physical virginity in all seriousness, without being trapped by religious symbolism. Like how the hymen does and doesn’t work. Like how sexual inexperience shouldn’t be seen as sexy. Like how child marriage really does need to end. Not only that, we might even be able to tear down the social constructs behind other things such as honour-based violence.
And you know what? I think all this would be good.
If you want to see me ramble at the camera for 10 minutes saying much along these lines, you can watch it on YouTube: