Sex, Sin, and Pleasure

The following has been adapted from a much longer essay in a forthcoming book by Theotokos Press. See Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay.

Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo both agree that sex poses a spiritual risk, but each thinks about the nature of that risk, and thus the best response to it, in terms not easily reconciled, so that what is of secondary importance for Augustine is primary for Nyssen. For Augustine, the problem with sex is not pleasure. It is pride. Pleasure is only a problem because we are fallen. It contributes to the self-delusion of pride and thus weakens the will by dividing its loves between the true love of God and the false love of self. 20130101-060304.jpgThe spiritual danger of sex is thus, in a word, spiritual. But pride does not feature in Gregory of Nyssa’s anthropology, at least not when he thinks about the Fall. He agrees that we are disordered, but this disorder has to do with an imbalance between the internal and external life rather than the internal life with itself. Pleasure caused the Fall by distracting us, and pleasure keeps us fallen by continuing to distract us, siphoning off spiritual energy that could otherwise go toward our beatification. Disciplining the body and bringing it under the rule of the rational mind begins to return us to Eden. This is not anthropological dualism; Gregory does not deny the goodness of the body. This is to misunderstand asceticism. Ascetic discipline does not reject the body because it needs the body to train the soul. Chastity is the foundation of the ascetic life because it refocuses our energies onto the Good, putting us back on the path toward prelapsarian integrity. By withdrawing from the distractions of the flesh, we begin to master it, transforming sarx back into soma.[1]

The difference between Augustine and Gregory is thus between a divided will versus a distracted soul, a difference that sheds light on the way each conceived of the “sinfulness” of sex. It is not uncommon to find criticism of Augustine that echo the sentiment of Uta Ranke-Heinemann, who accused him of fusing “hatred of sex and pleasure in a systematic unity.”[2] The above shows that not to be the case. Augustine did not hate sex (one might say the problem was that he liked it too much). Sex was part of God’s original plan for creation, and therefore it is good. Nor is pleasure a problem. Though Augustine’s modesty obscures what he actually thought about the pleasure of sex in Eden, there is nothing in his thought that would preclude pleasure as sinful (again, absent the Fall). Indeed, Augustine did not believe the Fall changed human nature. The bodies of Adam and Eve did not change when they were expelled from Paradise; they only lost grace that had preserved them from death and pain. Thus it would be inconsistent with Augustine’s anthropology to propose that human genitalia are more sensitive now than in Eden.[3]

Tjaarke Maas via Wikimedia Commons
Joachim and Anna via Wikimedia Commons

Ranke Heinemann and others may be reasoning by analogy when they accuse Augustine of hating sex and pleasure. If even marital sex is a sin, and we are to hate sin, then it follows we must hate sex. But it is not accurate to say that Augustine thought sex was a sin. Rather, he thought there was a moment of sin in sex – irreducible selfishness – that could not be avoided, but only overcome in the greater good of hastening the kingdom by bringing more of God’s elect into the world.[4] But we have seen that even sex for lust ranks low on Augustine’s list of sins. It deserves as much of our hatred as immoderate laughter.

Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of sex has received less critical treatment than Augustine’s, but this may owe to the fact that his genius has only recently received wide recognition from modern scholars. Some have argued that Gregory held a positive view of human sexuality, particularly married intimacy. For instance, Mark D. Hart has argued that Gregory believed sex was good because it continued the species, but this ignores the fact that sex is only necessary because of sin. It was not a part of God’s original plan for creation. Neither is gender. Had Adam and Eve remained firmly rooted in the good – had they not excited the passions of the flesh – then there would have been no sex.[5] Any good we might associate with sex, when it comes to the thought of Gregory of Nyssa, must be judged against the broader context of human sinfulness.

One could argue that Gregory’s theology of sex is more positive than Augustine. Though his asexual vision of Eden (and thus the eschaton) arguably applies a monastic standard to a context where it does not belong, Gregory does not see sex as sinful. It does not transmit the guilt of original sin. Nor is it an act of lust that confirms the self in its own delusions of grandeur. Sex is only a problem for the soul insofar as it is one of many distractions of the flesh. This places it in the same order of food, drink, and entertainment, neither of which is sinful, but all of which are spiritual dangerous in immoderate doses.

As an Orthodox thinker, I might be tempted to take pride in Gregory over Augustine. Though I cannot say that Gregory’s views on human sexuality were positive, they are perhaps less negative than Augustine’s. He (Gregory) may fail to appreciate fully the way that marriage is its own kind of monastery, where members of the family learn to deny themselves for the sake of each other and, ultimately, God’s kingdom. But at least Gregory does not make couples feel guilty when they cleave to each other in marital concourse.

Look at me! I'm Orthodox! … Look at you! You suck!
Look at me! I’m Orthodox! … Look at you! You suck!

But polemical preening not only makes ecumenism difficult, it can also keep us from seeing the irony inherent in Gregory’s theology. For him, sex is less negative because it is less important. Gregory appears not to have completely escaped the expectations of the aristocracy. Like Julian of Enclanum, he believed sex was just something people did. It lacked the spiritual gravitas Augustine saw in it. Sex is just a bodily function that has no inherent purpose in the divine order of creation. To wit, its purpose in that order is conditioned on the Fall. The same is not true of Augustine, who sees sex as a part of that original order of creation. Though the desire for sex absent the presence of lust is ambiguous (because it is something we fallen creatures just cannot imagine), the original goodness of sex qua sex is never in question. Its capacity to be co-opted by sin speaks to its spiritual significance.

There has been over a thousand years of polemicizing between East and West, and thus a thousand years of misrepresentation and misunderstanding. My intent has not been to reconcile the anthropologies of these two hemispheres in a few thousand words, only to identify issues that need to be clarified if we are going to begin to understand each other. The preceding study thus holds a few implications for Orthodox theology.

First, I think it means we need to read Augustine more carefully. His alleged hatred of sex is a popular myth that has little basis in fact. Cavadini is right; to dismiss Augustine is to beg the question. Sex may be beautiful, but it may also be selfish, and thus not as loving as we think.

Relatedly, we have something to learn from Augustine if we are going to begin to articulate a modern Orthodox theology of marriage and the family. Many of the sources upon which Orthodox theology relies, like Gregory of Nyssa, often hold marriage to a monastic standard that is neither biblical (e.g. Isaac’s chastity) nor helpful to most Orthodox Christians in the modern world. We talk about marriage as a unique path to salvation, but we are hard-pressed to find support for that idea in sources like Gregory.[6] Augustine can augment those sources both because he sees sex in eschatological terms, as an occasion of grace for God to bring the kingdom, and because of the the way that focusing on pride destabilizes any assumptions we might make about the superiority of monks.[7] In this way, Augustine can help us be more Orthodox.

On the other hand, Gregory of Nyssa may be (and already has been) a gift to the West. Though I am inclined to disagree with his interpretation of Eden and his three-souled psychology, the East has long recognized the importance of asceticism in taming the passions. From an Augustinian standpoint, we might say that asceticism helps subdue the rebellious will, and thus open us to receiving divine grace. Though it was not his intent, the role Augustine gave to pride can have the effect of making Christians naval-gazers. Focusing on intent may cause us to forget that there are God-given ways to discipline the will. Fasting, confession, prayer, and temporary abstinence from sexual activity (see 1 Cor. 7:5) are time-tested ways to combat pride and pursue the good. Gregory of Nyssa’s asceticism may starve the concupiscentia carnis, thus better enabling us to pursue the good, true, and beautiful both in the image of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, and in the image of God made flesh in the marriage bed.

[1]    On the Making of Man, XVIII.3-4.

[2] Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church, trans Peter Heinegg (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 75. Karen Jo Torjensen, When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 211-219, 221, 224ff.

[3] The Literal Meaning of Genesis, VI.35-36.

[4] The Literal Meaning of Genesis, IX.5-6.

[5] See “Reconciliation of Body and Soul: Gregory of Nyssa’s Deeper Theology of Marriage,” Theological Studies 51.3 (1990): 450-478. See also Valerie Karras, “A Re-evaluation of Marriage, Celibacy, and Irony in Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity” in Journal of Early Christian Studies 13.1 (March 1, 2005): 111–121.

[6] Perhaps the most important text, at least in terms of popular impact, on this subject is John Meyendorff’s, Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 1975).

[7] In On Virginity, Augustine warned virgins that their status in the visible church made pride a greater temptation than it was for the married. See 31.


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