I just finished taking a class where the professor warned us about writing about Augustine and sex on blogs. Apparently it tends to attract people who have STRONG OPINIONS! But telling me not to do something is practically encouraging me to do it, so here we go. And since opinions in the modern era regarding bodies and sex are hot-button issues, give this one a sympathetic read, assuming that there’s no secret agenda. It’s just an adventure in one fifth-century theologian’s thought processes.
It’s easy to point out that Augustine has VERY different opinions on sex than the average modern person. And I don’t just mean that he’s a little conservative for modern taste; he’s way out there in uncharted territory. He’s pretty negative about sex, regardless of the context. I mean, one of the subchapters in City of God is literally titled, “the sense of shame in sexual intercourse.” I don’t know that anyone today really thinks, “Yeah, it’s normal to be a little ashamed during sex. Nothing weird there”. But rather than take the opportunity to discuss how his thoughts are bad (which I’m sure has been done a million times before), I want to look at the insights that he can give a modern reader. Augustine’s odd insights can remind us that our bodies are not as purely neutral or good as we moderns often imagine them to be. Bodies are tainted by sin in this life, just like everything else, and they won’t fully align with our saintly ambitions until the end of time.
In the circles I study in, it’s safe to say that bodies are normally thought of as highly positive elements of our being. People emphasize the line in the Apostle’s Creed “the resurrection of the dead,” they talk about the body’s role in our current and future being, and carefully choose language intended to destigmatize bodily aspects of existence like sex and disability. And, of course, none of that is bad. Nobody that I know wants to live in a society where the disabled are stigmatized and sex feels like a sin. But the methodology that’s used tends to make the core assumption that bodies are de-facto good. They’re extensions of our own being, complete with natural and good inclinations that we ought to listen to if we want to be happy. If our body is not as we would like it to be (regarding appearance, food intake, sex, ability, or any other number of factors) we need to accept it as differently good, rather than problematic.
The problems begin when we have Jesus saying things like “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). Lust is one of those bodily emotions that we just sort of… feel. We don’t choose to lust; it just happens. What do we do about that? On one hand, we have groups that have normalized sexual expression whenever a person feels lustful. It’s almost viewed as a form of hunger. If you’re hungry, you eat. If you’re lustful, you have sex. Many of the wellness systems that I’ve seen encouraged in colleges list sexual expression as a basic need for wellness. Lust is portrayed as one more positive emotion that helps us regulate our bodily well being. This, of course, simply assumes that Jesus was wrong. Another common understanding is that there is a big difference between thought and action. To think a lustful thought isn’t ideal, but it’s not as bad as actually acting on it. True though this may be, it’s not the high bar that Jesus presented. He didn’t say that a few lustful thoughts were well within the boundaries of reason. He said to knock it off completely.
This is where we can start to understand Augustine’s perspective. What makes sex so troublesome to him? It’s attached to these bodily emotions that are almost impossible to control. It’s not the only activity capable of arousing these sorts of passions, but it’s certainly one of the most prominent. Despite our most careful attempts to cultivate virtue, we’re always subject to bodily lust. In City of God he writes:
There are lusts for many things, and yet when lust is mentioned without the specification of its object the only thing that normally occurs to the mind is the lust that excites the indecent parts of the body. This lust assumes power not only over the whole body, and not only from the outside, but also internally; it disturbs the whole man, when the mental emotion combines and mingles with the physical craving, resulting in a pleasure surpassing all physical delights. So intense is the pleasure that when it reaches its climax there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness; the intellectual sentries, as it were, are overwhelmed.City of God, Book XIV, 16
Here, we see lust portrayed as this sin that’s rooted in our body, capable of completely drowning out our own free will. It can stop us from being the saints that we want to be and drag us towards sins that our minds would never choose for us. This isn’t a battle that can be corrected either. Until we receive new bodies/restored bodies in the resurrection, we’re stuck fighting our own lust. Our bodies are affected by the fallenness of the world, and lust is a sin that’s etched into them for the duration of our time on Earth. The gift of sexuality that God gave us is always muddied by the unavoidable, uncontrollable presence of lust.
But the fullness of Augustine’s concerns with sex are a little deeper than that. The ancient era was dominated by the thoughts of Plato, who warned people not to focus on things in this world, but to focus on the things beyond this world. For Christian Platonists, the world below was something that should draw our attention to our God above. If we get bogged down in focusing on earthly things because of their own beauty, we’ll miss the greater beauty that they’re pointing to. The Bible has passages that these ancient, Plato-influenced readers would have focused on to a far greater degree than we do, such as Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.” That’s why we have bishops like Augustine creating whole theological systems that encourage people to put their whole heart and mind on God, regardless of what they’re doing. He says that things in this world are here for us to use, while the God beyond this world is there to be enjoyed:
To enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. To use, on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain what one desires, if it is a proper object of desire; for an unlawful use ought rather to be called an abuse.De Doctrina, Ch 4
A good Christian only uses the things in this world. We use our tools. We use our modes of transportation. We use our friends. We use everything to seek God, in whom we rest. And yes, “use” is a word that hasn’t aged well to talk about people, but hopefully you can see what he’s trying to do here. He’s not suggesting we use them in a way that is disrespectful or abusive. He’s suggesting that they’re here to help us seek God and enjoy him. That’s why all of us are here: to point to God.
You can see why all of that would make lust extra concerning. Someone experiencing lust is probably not thinking much about God. Their faculties are overwhelmed with the pleasure of an earthly thing, and they’re not giving much thought to heavenly things. In that light, lust is something that is continually pulling us away from heaven, down into the dust from which we were made. It’s a way to enjoy something for its own sake, rather than to enjoy God through it.
To Augustine, not only is lust something that’s bodily and uncontrollable, but it’s pulling our minds away from God and down towards things that can never fulfill us. That’s why it’s so worthy of concern.
In an era where assumptions about bodies and sex have changed so vastly, what do we have to gain from reading Augustine’s thoughts about sex? A reminder that our bodies are not purely reliable entities. They’re tainted by sin, just like everything else. Rather than always differing to the wants of our bodies (sexual or otherwise), we can remember that there’s something beyond all of this that demands our loyalty. That’s where real enjoyment is.