Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Augustine and Human Sexuality

I taught an intensive course on Augustine’s Confessions in January, so I read a bunch about Augustine. As part of that, I read through Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, which is still (and deservedly so) a standard text in the field. 

I hinted previously that I would post something about Augustine’s views on human sexuality, so here goes. Perhaps I should also add that I'm plunging headlong into what could be a very sensitive topic...

Brown includes an epilogue in the most recent edition of his volume that takes note of more recent research and evidence (his book was originally written in the 1960s!), and wherein he reflects on aspects of Augustine’s life and work from the vantage of his own later studies. He spent a good chunk of his career after this book working on the rise and development of monasticism, which put him in touch with a much broader sample of Christian views on sexuality. This gave him a greater appreciation for Augustine, and compelled him to argue for a view of Augustine as a moderate on sexuality. Critical here is Augustine’s belief that Adam and Eve enjoyed a rightly ordered sexuality in the Garden of Eden, where most of his interlocutors envisioned them living an angelic (i.e., non-sexual) existence. Consequently…
Sex was tragic for Augustine because it could have been so very different. (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 501).
That is, Augustine had enough sexual experience (and he had a fair bit of it!) to recognize that human sexuality is a good thing, and he had enough sexual experience (and he had a fair bit of it!) to recognize that something has gone horribly wrong. 
For Augustine, the present world was always overshadowed by a great sadness. Married couples should walk, regretfully, through the recognizable ruins of a once perfect sexuality devastated by Adam’s pride (502).
While Augustine believed that married couples only rightly exercise their sexuality for procreative purposes, he was somewhat indulgent when they did not maintain this high ideal. Non-procreative marital sexuality was a much lesser sin in his eyes than adultery, and easily dealt with in the course of normal religious activity (giving some alms, participating in the Lord’s Prayer, etc.). It certainly wasn’t something to be crippled by guilt over. His rhetoric on these matters is much softer than that of, say, Jerome (who, coincidentally, seems to have lacked Augustine's close acquaintance with the subject).

I’ll conclude with Brown’s expert judgment:
On the issue of sexuality, we should be very careful not to ‘demonize’ Augustine. To speak of him as the ‘evil genius of Europe’, and to lay at his door alone the ills associated with the handling of sex in Christian circles up to our own time, is to take an easy way out – as if by abandoning Augustine we have freed ourselves, by magic, from a malaise whose tangled roots lie deep in our own history. We have made our own bed over long centuries. Augustine did not make it for us. Denunciations of Augustine usually misrepresent him and, in any case, they get us no further in the serious, slow task of remaking that bed. It is, indeed, an act of egregious cultural narcissism to believe that all our present discontents can be glimpsed in the distant mirror of one man’s thought…Aware of the slow and complex evolution of moral ideas over the centuries, and of the variety which these forms took on being set to work in regions and societies which Augustine could not have dreamed, historians should have no part in so facile a Schuldfrage - so facile an exercise in blame-pinning (ibid).

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2 comments:

Craig L. Adams said...

I shouldn't demonize Augustine? That's going to be really hard...

W. Travis McMaken said...

It isn't so hard; there's a lot there to love.