Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Union or the snake

I have been discussing with some friends the Church's teachings on sex, and one of them mentioned St. Augustine's assertion that Adam and Eve, before the Fall, could have had children without "the morbid condition of lust."

The saint wrote in City of God (Book 14, Chapter 26) that "the [first couple's] sexual organs would have been brought into activity by the same bidding of the will as controlled the other organs."

Some people use that passage to prove that St. Augustine thought all sexual pleasure was sinful. But the only way they can do that is to ignore the context that he takes great pains to provide.

If they read the beginning of the passage, they would see that the saint stresses he is speaking of a time when "true joy flowed perpetually from God, and towards God there was a blaze of 'love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a faith that was no pretense' [1 Timothy 1, 5]. Between man and wife there was a faithful partnership based on love and mutual respect; there was a harmony and a liveliness of mind and body, and an effortless observance of the commandment"—that is, God's lone positive commandment to the first couple, to be fruitful and multiply.

Adam and Eve already enjoyed the highest form of communion. To Augustine, sexual pleasure was not necessary to induce the first couple to procreate, because everything was joy for them.

What I find particularly interesting about the idea that sex originally did not have a distinct pleasure attached to it, is that it forces us to think of the marital act outside a linear framework. I wrote in The Thrill of the Chaste (page 165) about how, the more one treats the sexual act as a linear trajectory towards a payoff, the more self-centered one becomes, and the less one is capable of union (both physical and spiritual) with one's partner. Those who immerse their imagination in media commodifications of sex in any form (whether via pornography or "Sex and the City" episodes) experience the dwindling of their ability to experience the act as bringing mutual intimacy.

It is true that we experience pleasure necessarily as linear; we in this life—unlike God—are bounded by time. But when we make our goal to pursue the thrill of buildup, tension, and release, we don't grow. This is true not only of sex, but in every area of life, if we are choosing to live within the framework of the pleasure principle. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes, happiness cannot ultimately be found in pleasure, because anything that merely pleases one's senses cannot ultimately please one's soul.

Joy for the soul is found only in communion with a Person—God. Adam and Eve had that joy before the Fall because, married by and in God, they shared a communion with one another in His love. Any experience of true charity, caritas, by nature has God as its center, and so is a conduit of joy. Sex, then, is not necessary for joy. But there is no joy in sex that lacks communion.