Shame, lust, and sex in paradise

Now that I have got your attention let me say right up front, I wouldn’t be writing about these topics if they weren’t the main theme of Book 14 of the City of God. But having committed to blog my way through it, these are the topics Augustine addresses and there are some timely lessons, reminders and corrections that we need to heed. It’s probably good for me to write about things I would ordinarily avoid!

Augustine begins by tracing the origins of our first disobedience and the ethical standards within the two Cities – one that lives by the standard of the flesh, the other that live by the standard of the spirit. These two cities are “different and mutually opposed”. Augustine then investigates how our corruption manifests itself and finds faults of both mind and body (ie flesh). Although he notes that:

Man has undoubtedly the will to be happy, even when he pursues happiness by living in a way which makes it impossible of attainment.

XIV.4

Four “disturbances” or “passions” are identified that drive our emotions: desire, fear, joy & sadness. Augustine rightly sees that these passions are not good or bad in themselves but are dependent on how our wills direct them.

A love which strains after the possession of the loved one is desire; and the love which possess and enjoys that object is joy. The love that shuns what opposes it is fear, while the love that feels that opposition when it happens is grief. Consequently, these feelings are bad, if the love is bad, and good if the love is good.

XIV.7

Switching gears to before we had our fallen and corrupt nature, Augustine takes us back to the Garden of Eden – paradise! He asks what kind of emotions they possessed while they were sinless. He says there was “a serene avoidance of sin” and proposes that offspring could have been granted in this sinless bliss until “the number of predestined saints was made up”.

Unfortunately we never got to see what would have happened if Adam had never sinned. All subsequent offspring were conceived after the Fall. This raises a very specific question in Augustine’s mind – how would procreation have been different in paradise? He sees the evils of sexual lust, the sense of shame it creates and wonders how it could ever have been done purely.

For Augustine it boils down to the inability of our wills to control every part of our bodies. Why did our first parents, as soon as they had sinned, feel shame when the knew they were naked, and sought to cover themselves?

It was after the sin that man’s nature felt, noticed, blushed at, and concealed this lust: for man’s nature retained a sense of decency, although it had lost the authority to which the body had been subordinate in every part.

XIV.21

Augustine imagines a paradise where there was no conflict between lust and will, and the act as of procreation was as natural and pure as any other bodily act.

Reading this book I can understand why Augustine has been perceived as “anti-sex”. He is willing to speculate beyond the bounds of scripture, and his piercing intellect wraps his arguments up in a forceful hypothesis. But in areas in this book he is over-reaching scripture’s solid ground.

Unfortunately in the following centuries the church built upon teachings such as these a disapproving tone regarding sex. We know God loves marriage and designed it as an illustration of his love for his bride, the church. We will never know this side of eternity what marriage was like in Eden.

Moreover, shame of their nakedness was quickly followed by shame and guilt from lying about their deception, and shame of murder by their son. Perhaps a better perspective on this discussion is the concept of modesty rather than shame?

Those within the City of God know every act they do has the faint taint of sin, but yet we seek to use our wills and direct our emotions to serve God and others by acts done in love. We know too well that no act we ever do, or relationship we ever have, will ever be wholly free from sin. Those within the City of Man deny their shame, redirect their wills and rejoice in the fulfilment of their selfish desires – preventing them achieving happiness whilst desperately seeking to attain it.

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