Greenblatt on Augustine

I have wondered if the puritanism that seems to be behind  the cultural, Christian right is necessary.  The Christian right is on to something, I think, in its opposition to abortion on demand and its  suspicion of the isolation of gender from biology. However, their actual advice to people and society in regard to family life and sexuality seems messed up.

By puritanism, I don’t mean a particular branch of English-speaking Protestantism.  I mean an emphasis on purity in the sexual realm that seems to me to conflict with a healthy view of creation.  Did God make us this way or not?  And if God did make us this way, why define purity as a rejection of the way God made us?

It all goes back to Augustine and how he interpreted the Fall as a fall into lust from calm, passionless sex that supposedly mirrored the way Mary conceived Jesus.

There is a thought-provoking (and entertaining) article by Stephen Greenblatt in The New Yorker, that shows how Augustine tried and failed to use the Adam and Eve story to understand his personal, tortured struggle with psycho-sexual development and relationships.  Greenblatt says of Augustine’s idea of what we lost in the Fall:

In Paradise, Augustine argued, Adam and Eve would have had sex without involuntary arousal: “They would not have had the activity of turbulent lust in their flesh, however, but only the movement of peaceful will by which we command the other members of the body.” Without feeling any passion—without sensing that strange goad—“the husband would have relaxed on his wife’s bosom in tranquility of mind.”

It is clear from the article that Augustine had to distort scripture to arrive at this idea of paradise.  It is also clear that he never fully resolved the purity issue for himself.

You could fault the article for trying too much to psychoanalyze Augustine.  But Augustine, of all ancient figures, invited this approach by the way he wrote his Confessions.

Augustine was a brilliant mind and contributed much to Western thought.  But it is worth noting that his idea of the Fall was all tied up with his own hang ups (it was also based on Jerome’s mistranslation of Romans 5:12).

If we do not take Augustine’s issues with the women in his life and his own sexuality as seriously has he did, do we really need his conception of the Fall?


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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