Monday, August 11, 2003

Augustine: the heart of the church's antisexual tradition

Continuing the discussion of sex and faith...

It's unfortunate the some Christians feel that their sexuality is nature's strongest competitor for their loyalty to Christ: `You cannot love both God and sex.' While they may not make it part of their creed, their feelings tell them that sexuality is not a sweet gift of creation but a bitter fruit of the fall. They are supported in this by a long antisexual tradition within Christianity.

AugustineAugustine, to whom we otherwise owe more than most of us even imagine, interpreted the Christians' calling to struggle against evil as a calling to struggle against their sexuality. Intense desires for sexual fulfillment and intense pleasure from sexual action were for him marks of a fallen man.

Augustine, the leading theologian of the fourth century, embraced the faith on April 25, A.D. 387 along with his "illegitimate" son, leaving behind his wife and his second mistress. He had already split up from his first concubine, the mother of his son, after 17 years of living together. He turned his home in Hippo--an ancient city on the Medditerannian coast in present day Tunisia--into a monastery. As Bishop of Hippo, he proceeded to make many literary contributions to Christianity.

Unfortunately, his sexual views were sadly affected by the monastic temperament of the times, perhaps an over-compensation for the sexuality of his liberal youth. It was Augustine who, according to many, "set the final seal on the anti-sexual bias of the Church" (Nigel Davies, The Rampant God, 1984: p. 180).

Augustine could not imagine an innocent person in Paradise turned on sexually: a sinless Adam could never have been sexually aroused by a pure Eve; Adam and Eve could not have walked with God in the day and made spontaneous love at night. (Augustine grudgingly admitted that Adam and Eve may have had sex in the Garden before their Fall, but theorized that it was a very cold dutiful mechanical act without passion. After daring to suggest that even if they did have sex in the Garden, he assures his readers that they certainly would not have enjoyed it.)

According to Augustine, if we make love now it is only because we have not brought our bodies under the rule of Christ. The less one is driven toward sex and the less pleasure he receives from sexual expression, the more sure he can be of his own sanctification. The Lord, in his grace, tolerates our inconsistency; but we must know that he calls us to better, sexless things.

This is how Augustine felt about sexuality. Some Christians still carry Augustine's feelings in their hearts; they can only hope that God tolerates their sexuality until their liberation from it in heaven.

Our sexuality is the turbulent fountain of so much tension that it has struck many Christians as the clearest example of creation's distortion by sin. Augustine said: "For my soul's freedom I resolved not to desire, nor to seek, nor to marry a wife" (perhaps inspired by Paul's commands in 1 Corinthians 7:25-28). The spontaneous impulses of our sexuality seem to counter the Christian call to self-control. "Away with the thought that there should have been any unregulated excitement [in Paradise]..." (Augustine c. duas epist, Pelag. I 34, 17). Ecstatic experience in sex scarcely harmonizes with the mandate to subdue the earth or the Christians' summons to present his body as a reasonable service to God. Describing the Christians' reservations regarding sexuality, L.B. Smedes says,

It is altogether too much like apoplexy, madness, and wild torrents of dark passion. Would it not then be prudent for the Christian to play it safe and at least treat sexuality, as we experience it on this side of Eden, as sinful lust?

I don't think so.

There's omething you should know about Augustine's background. Before becoming a Christian, Augustine had studied the works of Plotinus, and for eleven years was a member of the Manichaean sect, whose founder taught that Adam and Eve resulted from the Devil's children having sex, and procreation was just another evil part of the Prince of Darkness' creation. Although he eventually disengaged himself intellectually, Augustine never entirely disengaged himself emotionally. And it spills over in his writings.

Satan's tried to steal sex from us. It's about time we steal it back.


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