When I was previously immersed in research for years about Augustine and his legacy for theological anthropology, I came across an article by John Cavadini entitled, “Feeling Right: Augustine on the Passions and Sexual Desire,” [Augustinian Studies 36.1 (2005): 195-217]. I want to revisit some of the issues raised by this article in order to explore questions about Christian feminist options for decrying violent sexualities and encouraging healthy sexualities.

In this article, Cavadini suggests that Augustine and certain feminist scholars such as Andrea Dworkin may have more in common in their suspicion of common cultural tropes about sex than may be apparent upon first blush. In sum, Cavadini argues that both parties have a surprising amount of agreement about the ways that sexual interchange (and here, I have to take it that he is actually talking about a commonplace construction of heterosexual interchange…) functions as a site of culturally sanctioned violence upon women.

Indeed: How often is this kind of sex talked about as the male conquest of the female, something that is defined necessarily through its being done to her? How often is this kind of sex seen as the tandem exercises of male prowess and female passivity? And how often is this kind of sex understood to be intrinsic to our descriptions of manhood and womanhood as such? (For the record, I have written about this kind of shared concern between feminist and Augustinian camps on the issue of sexual violence against women before.)

For this reason, then, Cavadini suggests that we may not want to be so quick to dismiss Augustine’s portrayal of Edenic sexuality as occurring in peaceful accordance with the movements of the will rather than as a reckless abandon and an asymmetrical, agonistic struggle between bodies at the height of a sensate frenzy. Though we don’t have access to such a state of affairs, my own personal vision of such a scenario includes a man sanguinely commanding his penis, “Engage erection mode now.” (…It was not necessary to say that, but I said it anyway.) Cavadini states, “Perhaps sex in paradise as Augustine describes it may not seem like much to us, but perhaps it would have sounded great to the young [Roman] wife [coerced into marriage and into getting fucked], maybe something in fact beyond the imagination. Augustine seems to have in mind at very least something more gentle, something in fact so completely free of violence that it would not injure the woman in the least, even the first time” (208).

In many ways, I applaud Cavadini’s move here. Augustine is so superbly cranky about our lived experience of sexuality, and the way that it functions as a locus of distorted and harmful power relations and a great way to treat people like shit even sometimes despite our best intentions, that I can see how his crankiness could be appended to a feminist critique of common cultural tropes about sexuality. I especially appreciate Augustine’s pessimism about our ability really to envision on a wide scale truly loving, mutual relations between men and women.

I do not romanticize sexuality, which is one of the many, many reasons I will never be on board with JP II’s harmfully faux-nostalgic portrayal of “the conjugal act” as a sublimely realized instance of untainted, protological sexual serenity (which, by the way, still happens to be rigidly heterosexist in its delineation of the respective “male” and “female” roles). Not only can we as humans often use sexual relations as a realm of darkness, degradation, and objectification; we may actually be deeply conditioned to do so as the default, as from within the cultural matrix we’ve inherited. So there’s a live question here about the feasibility of ever escaping the shackles of this oppressive set-up. I’m appropriately sober.

At the same time, however, I am suspicious of Augustine’s suspicion of sex in a way that Cavadini is not. Cavadini is careful to clarify that Augustine construes ideal sex with emotion, with a will ordered toward true love, with closeness, with intensity. Apparently, in this reading, Augustine does not want a sexuality that has been bleached and domesticated. So Augustine’s problem with sex isn’t emotion as such, Cavadini argues, but rather, lust, which would be considered a passion, a disordered emotion, a pathologized bastardization of the human experience of feeling. Cavadini explains:

It is important to keep in mind that lust, for Augustine, is precisely not “spontaneous sexual desire” in our modern sense of a free and innocent natural urge, but a desire which cannot be assessed apart from the other commitments of the will with which it is co-terminus, and which for Augustine it seems to represent most fully. It is a desire which is supremely unfree, which, when present, is felt as a kind of “goading” (14.23) and which, when absent, cannot be called up at will (14.16). It gives rise to a pleasure which is “unsurpassed among physical pleasures” and which involves the almost complete obliteration of the mind’s powers of discernment (14.16, acies). Lust is the expectation of and desire for that pleasure (14.15). It is for Augustine the parade example of a “sick” movement of the soul, one so alienated by pride into a seemingly independent agency that it is powerful enough, simply as an emotion, to move the sexual parts of the body without any intervening decision of the will. (203-204)

In one way, I get where this is going. I would agree that it could be considered a type of enslavement to be obsessed in one’s life with the experience of having an orgasm. Though I am just a lowly theologian, I suspect that such a mode of being, depending on the details, could also be classified as one kind of sexual pathology or another by the psychological community.

But it seems to me that a substantive part of the complaint here is with the ecstasy of sexual union as such: it seems to be a problem precisely because it momentarily eclipses a person’s conscious apprehension of herself and of her rational will. This is an issue that is conceptually distinct from the question of whether the person in question has a will that is ordered toward appreciating the sexual partner as dignified or that is disordered toward denigrating the sexual partner as an object, a channel for what might really be classified more accurately as a sophisticated act of masturbation.

So if I am correct about this other layer to the complaint, then it seems that Augustine, and that Cavadini as his interpreter, wants an intensity to sexual intimacy that is present only insofar as it does not encroach, even momentarily, upon a person’s self-relation as rational and ordered. If it encroaches, it is a “disturbance” (Cavadini 199), and that’s bad.

Though I am all for personal integration and knowing why one engages in sexual congress in the manner in which one does, I can’t get on board with the spirit of this complaint. I think Augustine’s discomfort with “lust” as Cavadini has described it is coherent only within the context of a very particular theological anthropology, one that privileges noetic control over the irreducible experiences of being a body in the world. It seems to me that Cavadini accepts Augustine’s premise that a passion is bad precisely because, with it, one is acted upon in a way that disrupts one’s ordered control of oneself.

I could take the tactic here of asking what is wrong with certain experiences of “losing control,” but I’ll go in a slightly different direction and ask why the lived experience of finding oneself “overcome” by an embodied sexual attraction to another person — perhaps before one rationally understands what is going on — is definitionally considered a “loss of control” of ourselves in the first place. And, relatedly, why would such an experience be considered part of the fallen state, part of superbia, rather than part of human nature, of the joy of living?

To put things in classical Augustinian terminology: do we not have any room to suggest that it’s a good thing that our embodied experiences, which may seem to come “from without” sometimes but in fact do not because we are our bodies, can inform the intellect and move the will in the proper direction of ordered charity? And if we really are our bodies, then why would we assume from the start that an embodied sexual reaction is a loss of control wrought upon “us” “from without”?

It seems to me if we take seriously that we are bodies and that bodies outpace the idol of rational mastery that we Christians have tended to construct, then we should be trying to learn from our bodies rather than lament the fact that we are not always (in fact, often not) fully disposed to our “powers of reason.” Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Visible and the Invisible, “Before we were knowers and doers we were all a fragile mass of living jelly” (quoted from memory, book lost, page number forgotten…which is all fitting for the point I am trying to make, I think), and I believe it’s good to keep this idea in mind whenever we try to think about what it means to be human and to be bodies. At the end of the day, I suppose I don’t think it’s an ideal part of “human nature” to argue that the directions of the will must always subsequently determine the embodied emotions associated with being flesh in the world. I think it can — and often does — work in the other direction. And I am not sad about that.

Going beyond this point about bodies and beyond Cavadini’s article, it bothers me when feminist critiques of patriarchy get taken seriously by those who claim the normative center of the Christian intellectual tradition only by way of their pedaling a classical theological anthropology that, by our contemporary standards, tragically comes up short on the question of the theological status of the body. Don’t get me wrong–I will keep reading Augustine, because he is a hot mess, and because I like what a drama queen he is. However, I think that many Christian theologians since him can do, and have done, a much better job affirming the dignity of our embodiment. And I think that it is true more often than not that when feminists and feminist theologians lament patriarchy and its profound mark upon our bodies, it is not because they discount bodies but because they bothered to give a shit about female bodies and their mistreatment in our cultural-linguistic framework. I can’t in good conscience make the exact same point about Augustine.

Overall, I think that feminists and Augustinians can potentially make good bedfellows in and through their radical critique of commonplace cultural constructions of heterosexual expression. However, given that an affirmation of bodies, especially female bodies, remains a cornerstone of much feminist scholarship, I think the love affair between the two camps ends there.

3 thoughts

  1. I am so interested in this post. I found the connection you made between Augustine and sex-negative feminism to be really thought provoking and I like the critique you made about affirming and appreciating our embodiedness prior to all the power structures we put onto them. I’m curious about how individuals and the human community could start to accomplish this. I’m inclined to think it is just impossible to exist as a beings in a human community without coercion and power relations being applied to our bodies. Given how hard it is to try to imagine prelapsarian conditions without accidentally bringing post-fall baggage into our conceptualization (Augustine’s callousness toward women sort of exemplifies his own point) I’m inclined to believe that human sexuality is intrinsically fallen and that it’s impossible to listen to the wisdom of our bodies prior to power relations. This way everyone is equally messed up in their sexuality because none of us can access the primordial wisdom of our bodies. But this mentality definitely creates barriers towards practical problem solving for injustice.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Amy. I really appreciate the difficulty of the issue you’re raising, so I will just offer a couple provisional comments.

      I think I agree that we can’t get back to the primordial wisdom of our bodies “before” or “logically prior to” the systems of power relations in which we always already now find ourselves. I think for me the question might be framed better as whether we can cultivate ideologies and systems of power that prioritize the integrity of women’s bodies or not. In other words, can we cultivate cultural mores that are less violent toward women, and that, to some degree, make space for the discursive inscription of women’s bodies as dignified, as subjects rather than objects? Can we perform a less violent regime? I think somebody like Judith Butler would be pretty cranky about the prognosis here as well, though I think she would also be inclined to say that we can perform less violent ways of being that even just momentarily disrupt the heterosexual norms that enslave us.

      Put in Christian speak, can we become more aware and more affirming of the ways that we can still experience ourselves as graced and dignified by divine love, even though sin has tainted everything all the way down? Can we find power in divine love in a way that helps dismantle the toxic forces of sin that seek to degrade us, even at the level of our subject formation?

      I know I just asked a lot of questions, but perhaps finding the right ways to frame the questions is a substantial part of the task at hand.

  2. Working on cultivating the here and now sounds good to me! My only question about this that Augustine tried to go back and imagine life ‘before the fall’ to imagine what sexuality would have been like, didn’t he? Having personal experience with the CBMW milieu, I’ve seen a lot of arguments about how Genesis describes the proper order for gender and sexuality that we should conform ourselves to because it’s the primordial ideal. I THINK they take themselves to be modeling their arguments on both Genesis and Augustine. I suppose this is also the case with Theology of the Body (ick), and maybe also the case with Richard Hays’ argument against homosexuality. I’ve personally experienced how traumatic it can be for individuals when they are brought up in theological settings that try to conform the reality of sexuality to whatever the theologically approved version of primordial reality is–it’s an ideology. But does the whole Christian framework of creation-fall-redemption mean that we HAVE to try to imagine sexuality before the fall and force ourselves into that box, or is this mitigated if we don’t have to think of the fall as a moment in time but just sort of a description of the perpetual human state of affairs? Part of me believes that the ideological craziness about sex is required by Christian doctrine, but I hope this isn’t the case. Then there’s the Butlerian, eternal-recurrence side of things where there is no hope at all for change for the better, just change, which also disturbs me…

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