Monday, April 4, 2016

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 12. Romans 1 (iii) Natural and Unnatural Sex

In the last post in this series, we saw that in the early Church indulging in excess beyond what is necessary was considered unnatural and a fundamental obstacle to holiness. Both the New Testament and the early Church insist that self-control is the foundation of holy living, i.e., communion with God.

So, eating is good. But eating in excess is unnatural and gluttonous. The things of this world are good. But, accumulating more than is necessary is unnatural and greedy. Anger that empowers us to resist and “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God and the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” is good. But, anger toward other people is not.

In each case, self-control is key, both in the sense of controlling our desires and of channeling them to their proper end which is the love of God and love of neighbor. This was also true when it comes to sexual behavior.

Unnatural Sex and Self-control

A general cultural suspicion of material/physical reality and suspicion of the female, plus Paul’s ambivalence about sex and marriage influenced leaders and teachers in the early Church when they reflected on sex and marriage. But, the theme of self-control and its challenges in the area of sexual desire was central to their thinking. As with gluttony, greed, and anger, out of control or “excessive” sexual desire and behavior – lust – was considered unnatural. One early Church theologian observed that most other creatures only mate seasonally or that their females are only occasionally “in heat.” Only humans copulate year round, day and night. In his view, this is surely evidence that human sexual behavior tends toward an unnatural, out of control obsession.

One of the most important theologians of the early Church, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), wrote at length about sexual desire and self-control. For Augustine, the involuntary nature of physical sexual response is evidence of our loss of control due to the Fall. A man should be able to choose whether or not and when he has an erection. But, the body and its desires do not always respond to the will. Augustine sees this as a serious problem. He is also concerned with the way reason is abandoned in the midst of sexual passion. He compares it with being drunk, which is a surrendering of self-control. Unlike most of the theologians before him, Augustine did believe that Adam and Eve were meant to have sex in the Garden of Eden. But it would have been controlled and willful. He argues that sex without the Fall would have been as voluntary, passionate, and pleasurable as a handshake. And the only reason for doing it was for reproduction. Augustine argued that marriage (while inferior to celebate singleness or monastic life) could be a good thing characterized by fidelity, procreation, and the sacramental bond. But, he is also clear that even within marriage, sex is only for procreation. Further, given the population of the earth, Augustine believed the injunction in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply had been fulfilled and thus procreation was no longer necessary.
(see City of God, Book 14, Chapter 26; On the Good of MarriageOn Holy Virginity)

Augustine believed that marriage is about more than procreation (the faithfulness each spouse to the other and the sacredness of the unbreakable, 'sacramental', bond), but he was convinced that procreation is the only natural purpose of sex itself. Sexual desire and pleasure were both inherently rooted in sin – lust. And he was not alone in this.
If a man marries in order to have children, he ought not to have a sexual desire for his wife. He ought to produce children by a reverent, disciplined act of will.
– Saint Clement of Alexandria (150-215)

Do you imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children? He who is too ardent a lover of his own wife is an adulterer.
– Saint Jerome (347-420)

Eve in paradise was a virgin . . . understand that virginity is natural and that marriage comes after the Fall.
– Saint Jerome (347-420)

These are not insignificant theologians and the attitudes expressed are not unusual. They are typical of the early Church and common throughout most of the Church’s history. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) had a slightly more favorable view of sexual pleasure (Summa Theologica II.2.Q153.2, & Milhaven, John Giles, Thomas Aquinas on Sexual Pleasure, The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Fall, 1977), pp. 157-181). But Aquinas was just as emphatic that the only natural end of sex was procreation – thus any artificial birth-control is unnatural and analogous to murder (Contra Gentiles.3.122).

I have argued against completely separating sex from the potential for pregnancy and procreation, but, that it is not the necessary or only natural aim of sex (See here).

I do not share the above to suggest that the early Church theologians were silly or that their teaching is now irrelevant. I write as one who reads, appreciates, and has been shaped by their wisdom. They desired a peace that transcended the agitations and anxieties of this life. And, as we saw in the last post in this series, it was not just sexual agitations and anxieties that concerned them. If if we decide Augustine and others sometimes misdirected or misapplied their concern for a life of self-control and deep peace governed by reason, the concern is still a legitimate one for Christians.

But, their suspicion of physical pleasure – especially sexual pleasure – and their suspicion of the female are sometimes at odds with the creeds and much of scripture and sometimes leads them to flirt with the anti-material heresies of Manicheism and Gnosticism.

It is instructive to note how differently these major figures of the early and medieval Church understood what is ideal and natural vs. unnatural in sexual behavior and its purpose compared to most Christians today. Most of us would – I certainly would – want to affirm a more positive Christian understanding of sex and sexual pleasure. And of marriage more generally. And it is important to note that in their context these theologians were more positive about both than many. And there are others in the Church's tradition who have been more positive about marriage and sex.

Our Christian forebears rightly recognized the power of sexual desire and the potential for it to wreak havoc as well as joy in our lives. And, thus, the concern for self-control as a basic virtue. Self-control is a central New Testament virtue (and a fruit of the Spirit) that we should reclaim. And not just in sexual matters. I’ve written more on this here: Self-Control: Neglected Fruit of the Spirit.

Self-control and homosexual sex

The theme of self-control and its challenges in the area of sexual desire was central to the thinking of the early Church (and much of pagan philosophy of the period). Excessive pursuit of sexual pleasure, along with other pleasures of the senses, was considered sinful. And this is how homosexual relationships were understood. The ancients did not think of homosexuality in terms of orientation. Rather, they saw it as out of control, excessive sexual desire – lust. Here are some examples:

Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek physician in Rome first half of 2nd century AD, asserted:
No one readily believes that effeminate or sexually passive men (whom the Greeks call malthacoi) are actually suffering from a disease. For this behavior does not arise naturally in humans; rather, when modesty has been suppressed, it is lust that coerces to obscene usage body parts that have their own specific function, although there is no limit to desire, no hope of satisfaction when their allotted roles do not suffice for individual parts. (Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, Thomas K. Hubbard, ed. p. 463)

Dio of Prusa (Dio Chrysostom), a Greek orator, philosopher, and historian of the Roman Empire (AD 40-115) wrote:

Is it possible that this intemperate race [men engaging in same-sex sex] would hold off from abuse and corruption of males and impose upon themselves the clear and sufficient limit decreed by nature? Wouldn't they rather seek another greater and more illicit form of outrage once they had become in every way sated and full of their unrestrained pleasure with women? . . .  The man who is boundless in such desires finds nothing rare or resistant in that race, despises what is easy and devalues female Aphrodite, since it is readily available and truly altogether feminine. Instead he will cross over to the male side, desiring to commit shameful acts with those who in the near future will be rulers, judges, and generals, finding here a difficult and rarely acquired pleasure. He experiences the same thing as hard drinkers and winos, who after long and uninterrupted binges of drinking don't want to drink any more, but intentionally create thirst through steam-baths and the serving of salty or spicy foods. (Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, Thomas K. Hubbard, ed. p. 448)

In his commentary on Romans, St. John Chrysostom seems to share this perspective:

You see that the whole of desire comes of an exorbitancy [excess] which endures not to abide within its proper limits.
(The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. XI, p. 356)

The assumption is that these men desire women, but, because their desire is out of control and excessive, they “cross over” for new sexual pleasures with other men. This seems to me to be significant. And I believe it can inform our reading of Romans 1. I will return to that in the next post.


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