Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Augustine on the Protestant Sex Ethic

posted by xscot mcknight

Protestants today may be thoroughly surprised to learn that things weren’t always so permissive and open when it comes to sexuality — that is, between husbands and wives. Gilbert Meilaender, in The Way That Leads Home (chp. 4), puts Augustine to the test. Augustine influenced the Roman Catholic view of sexuality massively, and so it is good to state what Augustine argued.
I ask this question though: In your community of faith is there any discussion about contraception — or is it either simply ignored or assumed as legitimate for the Christian? How realistic is the procreation theory of sexuality? the “unitive” or “communion” theory?
Augustine made a distinction between goods and pleasures — and he was theologically and philosophically nervous about pleasures, deriving as they do from ardent desire, because humans are fallen and prone to let pleasures run amok. Here is an analogy from Augustine:
1. Food is a good because it is provided by God for our health and sustenance — and that is all. Food eaten for the purpose of fullness or pleasure is sinful. (Augustine, you might imagine, was big on fasting, too.)
2. Sex is “a good” because it is provided by God for procreation — and that is (about) all. Augustine actually allowed for Adam and Eve to have had coitus prior to the Fall but that is a condition in which humans no longer find themselves. So, any sexual intercourse outside of the intent of procreation partakes in desire and pleasure and outside its good.
Augustine’s view is the rigor of sex for procreation viewpoint — and it is not officially the Roman Catholic view. RCism believes — and here I’m relying on the way Meilaender describes it — in sexual intercourse not only for procreative but also unitive intents. Wife and husband surrender themselves to one another and come to a fuller knowledge of one another.
Contraception, it follows, is wrong because it divides the procreative from the pleasure principles.
Meilaender disagrees with Augustine. On food, he thinks there is clearly also another “good”: food is also designed by God to draw humans to the table for conversation, for fellowship, and for loving one another. So also sex is more than procreation: it is also has a unitive focus.
All admit — how can they not? — that sexuality is not only procreative but is also pleasurable. If one puts with procreation also the unification good, is there a place for pleasure in a Christian theory of sexuality?
Now we ask a question that most Protestants don’t think about. Hardly ever. But, this is precisely the theological conversation that has shaped the Church’s view of sexuality. Augustine believed that pleasure, since it accompanied the procreative process, is a good if it comes as a result of the procreative intent. Otherwise, it is like eating too much or eating for the sake of pleasure alone. In other words, it is only about pleasure.
Meilaender does something I’ve not seen: he thinks sex, which he calls a “mode of presence to the spouse unlike any other” (140) — should not have either the procreative or unitive intent. Instead, it is the passion of a man and a woman and both the procreative and unitive results are gifts from God. “Love-giving has been life-giving, not because the lovers willed it, but because God has so blessed it” (140). The gift is seen as gift when the wife and husband “set aside our intentions and purposes” (140). Sex then is to be sought for its communion with one another — let God determine the gifts.
Augustine, he suggests, reminds us that sex is not simply about pleasure.
Contraception is permissible as long as the couple doesn’t prolong that “mode of presence” too long — for then it is divorced from the “gift” God gives.



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