The modesty debate runs sternly through any Christian circle, from the “modesty-means-dressing-fashionably-as-long-as-you-don’t-show-too-much” camp, which I more or less ascribe to, to the “if-it’s-not-a-denim-sack-you’re-going-to-hell” camp, which I find more repugnant and opposed to the human person than its total secular opposite. But in all cases, I think the debate is being argued from the wrong direction, or to be more precise, the opposite direction. Modesty, like chastity, has become a negative virtue, much more full of “thou shalt nots” than “thou shalts.” This is sad, because I feel looking at modesty or chastity from this perspective is a poverty of understanding, which, while it might avoid sin, leads to no great virtue.
As Lewis notes in The Great Divorce, the passion of lust is but a weakly substitute for the true, good and pure sexual passion which may be born when lust is killed. What is wrong with secularism is that it never gets past lust. What is wrong with Christians’ response is that they never get past condemning the lust and moving on to ponder what the virtue actually is. If this is true of chastity, it is doubly true of modesty, which has most faithful Christians, many better than myself, tied in knots over trivialities that don’t begin to approach the real virtue. One hears long debates as to whether a skirt may fall above or below the knee (I don’t know who thinks knees are so alluring anyway), whether pants are quite feminine enough, and I don’t even want to touch the issue of leggings. I even knew one fervent Christian group that forbade its young ladies to show their collar-bones. I don’t know what they expect will happen to their young men when they greet the world at large with vague ideas of sexualized collar-bones. These measures, while they may avoid sin, also avoid any real comprehension of modesty, which I hold to be an internal virtue much more than an external. The same with chastity.
Both virtues have to do with seeing value of the human person; modesty with recognizing your own value, and chastity with recognizing everybody else’s. This recognition is reflected in exterior actions—how we dress, how we interact sexually, etc. But such actions, or lack of action, are merely a reflection of the actual virtue, not the virtue itself. You can exercise abstinence without any appreciation for the multitude of people you aren’t sleeping with. But merely not dressing badly or not being promiscuous has about as much to do with virtue as not shooting your wife has to do with love. The purpose of this blog will be to explore the actual internal form of the virtue of modesty, and also chastity insofar as it relates to modesty. One last note, I don’t ascribe to any hard and fast rules on what is acceptable dress, although certainly some things are right out. Certain things, such as two piece swim-suits I see more as possibly unwise, but not necessarily wrong. I’ve seen bikinis worn with more perfect modesty than the most dour one-pieces. Denim sacks fail to realize the beauty of the human person just as much as thongs, possibly more so, for the one at least acknowledges its beauty even if it mistreats it, while the other would present the body’s beauty as something intrinsically evil, which is in my opinion the greater error.