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Augustine’s Sexual Ethic, Part 1

While our culture continues to adopt increasingly secular sexual mores, many of our churches and Christian colleges and universities shirk the responsibility for Christian instruction on sexual ethics. As a result, many people see Christianity as the purveyor of antiquated, arbitrary, and even antihuman prohibitions on sexual freedom. In contrast, our culture claims to offer us freedom by proclaiming virtually all forms of sexual expression to be beneficial to human beings. Indeed, the culture sees itself as the great liberator of sexuality from the shackling mores of Christianity.

Well-known religious studies scholar Elaine Pagels, for example, embraces the thought that the traditional Christian view on human nature and the attitudes regarding sexuality and gender are arbitrary in that they come from historical circumstance and political expediency and, thus, should be rejected.1 Pagels mainly places the blame for such deleterious Christian sexual attitudes on Augustine, the fourth and fifth century church father. She claims that under his influence intolerance, the denial of moral freedom, the hopeless depravity of humanity, and many other teachings connected to sexuality, turned into dogmas.2 Ever since Augustine, Christianity has embraced these beliefs, much to the detriment of all.3

Is our culture the great liberator it proclaims to be? Has Christianity adopted an arbitrary and adverse view of human sexuality? Or are Christian sexual mores and Augustine’s understanding of them true to human nature and salubrious to the human being?

In this short two-part blog, I explain and defend the orthodox Christian view of sexuality as explained by Augustine. In the first part, I present Augustine’s understanding of the purpose of sex as promoting nuptial love through offspring, fidelity, and the sacramental bond. Expressed outside of its purpose, sexual expression results in inner disorder or fragmentation. In the second part, I explain how neurochemical research, at certain points, supports Augustine’s view of sexuality. My hope is that these blogs will help Christians better understand sexual ethics and be equipped to counter prevalent ideas of sexuality in our culture. 

We Are Created to Glorify God

Humans are sometimes defined as “rational beings,” for rationality is the most salient feature of humanity; it is the differentia, that which differentiates human beings from other species within the animal genus—as understood in Aristotelian terms. Nonetheless, Augustine sagely recognizes that the affective (emotional) dimension of our humanity plays a key role in human acts. As such, he gives this dimension primacy in his discussion of the sexual libido and the meaning of sex.

God created human beings with a natural desire for happiness.4 This desire is a universal deep-seated human yearning. We possess affective attachments, temperamental attitudes, or emotional dispositions— what Augustine calls loves— toward objects we think will help satisfy our yearning for happiness.

Ordering Our Loves

According to Augustine, to embark on the path of happiness, we must properly order our loves. God has made us for himself, to have intimacy with him.5 This means that we are to love God, first and foremost and above all things.6 We do this by aligning our affections and acting in conformity with love for him as a primary driver in our lives. Moreover, we are not only to love God but also our neighbor, for, as Augustine explains, God desires for us to bond with one another in harmony and peace.7

If God made us for himself then he constructed, structured, or ordered human nature so that love for him is the ordering principle of his design plan for our humanity, for our human nature. Though only God will ultimately satisfy all our needs, he created the world to satisfy—at least partially—different needs. For example, God created beauty to meet our aesthetic needs and water to satisfy thirst. God created us with loves or affective attitudes for these and other needs. To comply with God’s plan, we are to love our neighbor (and all things) in a manner congruent with their nature, with the type of objects they are and relative to our love for God. To properly order our loves in this manner is to align them according to the order of love, the ordo amoris.8 

Each affective attitude or love that God created possesses a function or purpose, a human good. As such, the loves connected to the sexual libido possess their own function and their own good. Thus, as in the case with other desires, God created the sexual libido for our good, so that it may help us realize our human nature and bring about much joy. How so? Ultimately, the purpose of human sexuality is for love of God and neighbor.9 More proximately, though, the bonum or good of marriage are the objects of love between the spouses: offspring, fidelity, and the sacrament bond.10 For Augustine, the sacramental bond refers to permanence in marriage, which is a symbol of Christ’s eternal love for his Church.11  

Augustine claims we possess many lustful desires, such as those for vengeance, avarice, boasting, ruling, and sex.12 Just as in the case with other disordered loves, swapping the God-ordained order of the sexual libido with self-ordained ones causes great loss or privation, for one lives a lie by doing this.13 That is, the swap destroys the harmonious order between the sexual libido and the other loves, as well as the rest of one’s being. This privation results in the sexual libido undermining marriage and the self. Augustine, having experienced this privation, puts it this way, “But, in this was my sin, that not in him but in his creatures, in myself and others, did I seek pleasure, honors, and truths. So it was that I rushed into sorrow, conflict, and error.” 14

Unity with God over Self-Expression

In this summary of Augustine’s theory of loves and the ordo amoris, we begin to see that God has carefully and marvelously crafted our human nature so that its fulfillment or realization comes through unity with him. Yet, Augustine’s implications are lofty. How is it that expressing oneself in the way one chooses leads to the privation of a disordered human nature? What exactly does this mean and what, if any, are the practical ramifications of this disordered state? Could one not still claim, along with Pagels, that one benefits more by decoupling one’s sexual libido? In part 2 of this blog, I argue that one way we may confirm that Augustine’s biblically grounded claims are correct is through research in the neurochemistry of attachment.

Endnotes

  1. Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988). See especially chapter V, “The Politics of Paradise.”
  2. Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, chapter V.
  3. For more examples of those who blame Augustine for many such things see Kenneth Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019), chapter 3.
  4. Saint Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Random House, 1991), book X, section 1.
  5. Saint Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960), book 1, section 1.
  6. Saint Augustine, City of God, book XV, section 22.
  7. Saint Augustine, City of God, book XIV, section 1.
  8. Saint Augustine, City of God, book XV, section 22.
  9. For Augustine, those who correctly align their loves are citizens of the “City of God,” while those who do not are citizens of the “Earthly City.” See City of God, book XIV, sections 1 and 28.
  10. Saint Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, trans. Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis, rev. Benjamin B. Warfield from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, vol. 5, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing, 1887). Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/15071.htm, book 1,chapter 19. For Augustine, the third good only pertains to the people of God.
  11. Saint Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, book 1, chapter 11 [X.].
  12. Saint Augustine, City of God, book XI, section 15.
  13. Saint Augustine, City of God, book XIV, section 4.
  14. Saint Augustine, Confessions, book 1, section 20.