An Augustinian Conception of Sex

The famous theologian, philosopher, and North African bishop St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) has always played an important role in my life as a Christian. As such, I would most certainly consider him one of my top hero’s of the faith and all time favorite philosopher next to several others (Socrates, Aquinas, Aristotle, Adler, etc.). However, I remember when I had first heard about St. Augustine when I began studying historical theology more in depth in the summer of 2011.

I was in Atlanta, Georgia, spending the night at my Grandmother’s house in her computer room. Late in the evening around 2 a.m., I stayed up watching YouTube videos just  trying to find something sufficiently entertaining to do until I went to bed. Thence, later into the night, I came across some autobiographical articles on St. Augustine. For about 2 hours on, I read an exhaustive overview of Augustine’s life and significance in the Church with serious interest. However, one aspect of Augustine that has always stuck with me is his testimony.

The Testimony of St. Augustine

Though I won’t provide an in depth analysis of Augustine’s testimony here, a quick look into his perspective of conversion is always of considerable merit. In Chapter XII of Book VIII, Augustine recollects a moving aspect of his spiritual testimony:

I flung myself down under a fig tree – how I know not – and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

29. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [“tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. [1]

Ashley Rolph accordingly summarizes Augustine’s Confessions as “an autobiographical composition of his early life, from his troubled childhood, to his final induction into the Christian faith. It is a text that delivers the clearest portrait of Augustine the sinner” [2]. More so in respect to this conversion account is the theme of sexuality and lust Augustine so much struggled with. In Gary Wills’ Saint Augustine [3] he accounts this matter of sexuality in the theme of Augustine’s testimony:

People feel [ … ] that they understand intuitively Augustine’s testimony to his own sexual sins. In fact, they are convinced that Augustine was a libertine before his conversion, and was so obsessed with sex after his conversion that they place many unnamed sins to his account – though his actual sexual activity was not shocking by any standards but those of a saint. He lived with one woman for fifteen years “and with her alone, since I kept faith with her bed” (T 4.2). [4]

The confusion that Wills points out as often made by modern psychiatrists is the supposed accusations that Augustine’s father caught him masturbating in the public baths (e.g. Klingerman, W. Niedhart), had homosexual feelings for his friend, or “incestuous feelings towards his mother.” [5] Wills addresses these issues of Augustine’s sexual dilemma’s respectively (Wills 1999: xvii-xviii) in an 8-step response to Klingerman and Niedhart [6].

However, in this post I simply mean to deal with Augustine’s understanding of the effect’s of Adam’s sin and its relationship to our current situation of sexual sin and temptation.  My main motivation for this post is Augustine’s quote in his Dialogues With Myself (1.17) where he says the act of sex “throw’s a man’s mind down from it’s tower.”

The Impotence of Man

The fallen dispositions of mankind incline depraved human beings to take on the respective appropriate mindset in fulfilling some given desire or pleasure. The object desired for this fulfillment can differ in many forms: material substances to even emotional self-satisfying ones (such as love with a women/man, etc.). Thus, when I say “taking on the respective appropriate mindset” for some given desire or pleasure, I simply mean the inherent impotence within our own fallen will to overcome the desires of our flesh. Augustine recognized this impotence.

However, Augustine’s recognition of this issue was more along the lines of the body’s actions independent of the will’s intentions. Namely,

  • (1) “Man can be aroused without intending to be. This is a “symmetrical punishment” for Adam’s sin. As he disobeyed God’s will, his own body disobeys his own will. Adam’s enjoyment of Edenic sex would have been that of an integral person. The chanciness of arousal shows a loss of the integrity, the unison, of body and soul” [7].

From hence, in a fortiori manner of hierarchy (“how much more”), Augustine recognizes the complexion of the flesh’s impotence:

At times, without intention, the body stirs on its own, insistent. At other times, it leaves a straining lover in the lurch, and while desire sizzles in the imagination, it is frozen in the flesh; so that, strange to say, even when procreation is not an issue, just self-indulgence, desire cannot even rally desire’s help – the force that normally wrestles against reason’s control is pitted against itself, and an aroused imagination gets no reciprocal arousal from the flesh (CG 14.17).

Thus, to organize Augustine’s line of thought:

  • (2) If spontaneous arousal is an appropriate punishment, how much more so is impotency, the body’s refusal to be aroused when one wants it to be. Adam would never have been impotent when his will was to have sex.
  • (3) If impotence in legitimate sex is an appropriate punishment, how much more so is the impotence of a lecher. Here not only does the body refuse to respond to the will, but “desire itself deserts desire” (CG 14.17).
  • And how much more dramatic a sign of the disconnect between human body and human will is the alternation of two “malfunctionings,” the body aroused when that is not wanted, and not aroused when it is [8].

 

Finishing Practical Thoughts

In light of the above issue regarding the impotence of man, one thing to walk away with is this: Do not fight with sexual sin. Scripture itself along with other predominant authorities in theological literature recognize the struggle of sexual sin to be one a “different breed”. To think that a mere discipline of flesh (at whatever strict degree) will suppress your will’s intentions to engage in sexual sin seems to be quite an erroneous step of sinful ignorance (to put it lightly).

A pragmatic and serious engagement in the Word of God should hopefully [through prayer] incline your dispositions to new affections different from that of your current lustful desires. Eliminating sexual sin should be more than invoking a diet, or setting strict disciplinary rules to stop cold turkey, but should rather be dependent on the one who cloaks those in righteousness and inclines the heart to find pleasure in holy affections.

_________________________

Notes:

  • [1] Augustine, Confessions (trans. and ed, by Albert C. Outler, Ph.D.: 1994)
  • [2] Ashley Rolph, St. Augustine: Women, Sexuality and Sin (LBRL 417: 2004) p. 2
  • [3] Gary Wills, Saint Augustine (Penguin Group: 1999)
  • [4] Wills, xvii
  • [5] See Charles Klingerman, Psychoanalytic Study of the Confessions of St. Augustine (Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 5, 1957) p. 469
  • [6] Augustine writes: “My childhood past [ … ] [I was] clothed in unstable manhood” (T 2.6). Wills argues against the masturbating thesis by arguing in (5) that Niedhart and Brandle (Ph.D) “neglect the adjective indutum (wearing), though this is clearly the oddest word in the sentence: he is nude in the baths, yet he says that he is clothed” (xviii).
  • [7] Wills, 132-33
  • [8] From Wills, 133
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