Augustine’s largely condemnatory attitude toward sexuality is no secret. Though he does not assign the status of primal sin to sexuality that’s run amuck (that status is reserved for pride), he does aver that in light of Adam and Eve’s first sin of pride and disobedience against God, the mark of sin upon grasping humanity, concupiscence, inevitably always goes hand in hand with sex (even procreative sex). In other words, even though Augustine does reflect upon the goods of marriage and concede that marital sex is morally acceptable (though not ideal) in the fallen state, sex is a primary locus of sin in that it’s almost always inevitably tied up with prideful pretensions to power, and it expresses the tragic discontinuity of the human person because sexual desire is no longer under the control of human reason after “the fall.” Sex = craziness.

The ways that such a stance is problematic from a feminist perspective are easy to guess. For one, such a stance is undeniably linked up with Augustine’s perduring Neo-Platonic commitments, specifically a discomfort with all things bodily and an attendant desire to transcend the body, especially its changeability and inevitable corruptibility. To be saved is to be free from these things, to gain eternality and incorruptibility. (He does manage to work the resurrection of the body in, but it seems like a bit of an awkward fit, given these commitments.) The feminists who make it a specific point to value our embodied reality are legion, so I’m not even going to name names. Even more specifically, the inferiority of the body, in light of the superior intellect of the soul, is closely associated with, and used to allegorize, the story of the supposedly more sensual and animal female sex. When offering an allegorical interpretation of the fall in one of his commentaries on Genesis, Augustine suggests that just as the bodily, animal part of the human person succumbs to the passions and to the sensible things and thereby corrupts reason, Eve first was seduced by the serpent and then convinced Adam, the higher part, to succumb as well. So, that’s a problem. Denigration of the bodily, and denigration of women, tend to go hand in hand for thinkers like Augustine.

However, when I was reading Schlabach’s take on Augustine’s views of the linkage between sexuality and power, I received more to contemplate. Schlabach has no stake in hiding the various problems in Augustine, but with such concessions also comes a desire to understand Augustine in his own context, given his own concerns about sexuality. And in so doing, Schlabach presents an Augustine who might inhabit a space that’s more proximate to certain feminist theological concerns. Of course, without backtracking on or glossing over the problems.

I don’t believe in quoting at length, usually, but I’m going to here, from Schlabach, who’s engaging with The City of God, Book 6.

Schlabach:

Glimpses into actual Roman bedrooms are relatively rare in ancient literature, but the ones that Augustine left in his texts consistently show that the pathos he saw there had less to do with the allure of sexual pleasure per se than with a drive for domineering power that used other people in a way wholly incompatible with Christian love.  He once called his relationship with the mother of his son ‘the bargain of a lustful love,’ even though he had been ‘faithful to her bed’ for some fourteen years.  Such an evaluation may have repressed as much truth about the relationship as it revealed, for his love for this unnamed woman was probably more mutual, respectful, and tender than Augustine would later know how to admit to himself.  What is certain, however, is that power in Augustine’s relationship with the woman was quite unbalanced.  In this sense it was more of a bargain for him, in fact, than it was a pact between the two.  As deep as his love for her might have been…he still could conspire all too easily in her summary dismissal…

[W]omen of all centuries have endured the unfaithfulness of husbands…but danger and degradation were present in marriage chambers too.  In book six, chapter nine of the City of God Augustine inadvertently showed us what might happen on a Roman wedding night.  Just look, jeered Augustine, at how many gods the Romans must invoke for a new husband to complete the business of overcoming and ‘ravishing the virginity’ of his bride.  Though she might be a girl as young as fourteen who ‘feels the weakness of her sex and is terrified by the strangeness of her situation,’ and though he was usually a much older man, the Romans needed three different gods just to get her into the bedroom, and at least five more to undress, subdue, press, and penetrate her.  Most of these gods were minor bureaucrats in the pagan system of divine administration, yet they acted in league with that whole pantheon of idolatry, deception, and lust for domination which, according to Augustine’s larger argument in City of God, founds and upholds the ‘earthly city.’…

If these were the violent associations that sexuality carried for Augustine, we need hardly wonder that he could never bring himself to see even the most faithful and tender sexual pleasure of married Christians as entirely pristine and without taint.

So I quote Schlabach at length on this point, not in any way to exonerate Christians — Lord only knows how many heinous sexual offenses have been committed under the aegis, and within the fold, of the Christian God throughout history (some of it recent). I bring all of this up only to re-contextualize some of Augustine’s concerns in a way that’s perhaps more intelligible within a feminist framework, without then encouraging a wholesale appropriation of his thought. Many of his conclusions need to be jettisoned, but perhaps some of his initial insights may be retained. In short, maybe Schlabach’s take on Augustine adds a new valence to how we think about Augustine’s reflections on sex.

8 thoughts

  1. Elizabeth,

    I like your attempt to make Augustine more intelligible and retrievable for theology today. In a different but related context to book 6 of the City of God, what do you make of Augustine’s take on the rape of Christian women in City of God 1.28? He seems to be trying to give comfort (in addition to addressing the question of theodicy) but precisely by appealing to the inferiority of the body. Does Schlabach engage this text?

    1. Todd,

      Schlabach doesn’t deal with 1.28, but it adds some interesting layers to the issue at hand. To the extent that Augustine attempts to explain possibly why God may have allowed the Roman rape of Christian virgins to occur, specifically by suggesting that certain opportunities of pride on the part of the virgins are now foreclosed, I’m pretty disgusted, as I suppose anybody in our contemporary context would be. However, a lot of feminist theologians, including our very own Julia, also find his statement that chastity and continence do not depend on the actions performed by the body (by the Roman rapists), but rather, the will (to remain pure, by the virgins), to be quite liberating for women, particularly victims of rape, today. Such an idea suggests a kind of intactness and integrity for women that cannot be taken away by the violent actions of men. This is a debated point in feminist circles, but there’s the opportunity of fruitful appropriation here, perhaps slightly different from what Schlabach himself is attempting to do.

  2. thanks very much for this insight. are the Schlabach paragraphs you quote from “for the joy set before us”? if not, could you give a citation? would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Cavadini makes the same point as Schlabach in his essay on Augustine and sex, doesn’t he? (I don’t remember the title, only that he used the words “fucker,” “fucked,” and “fucking” in it.)

  4. I love it when you put something jaw-droppingly horrifying out there and then just say, “So that’s a problem.”

    Also, have you looked at Rebecca Langland’s _Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome_? I ran across it during research for a paper on Chrysostom last year–it’s a fantastic piece of history-writing, and put a lot of the sexual teachings of the early church into perspective for me. I thought of it particularly as regards the question of the will vs. the body as the focus of sexual continence.

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