By Phillip Cary
Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield have identified theological grounds for their criticism of the upcoming Revoice conference and the Spiritual Friendship movement, which aim to use samesex desires for good purposes. Burk and Butterfield describe this as a project of sublimating rather than mortifying sinful desires, owing more to Freud than to St. Paul, and they challenge the gay and lesbian Christians in the movement to repent of their desires rather than to try using them for good. It may be, however, that the Augustinian roots of this criticism count more in favor of the Spiritual Friendship movement than against it.
The theological ground of Burk and Butterfield’s criticism is a distinctively Protestant (both Lutheran and Reformed) understanding of an Augustinian theme: the concupiscence or evil desire that belongs to us in our fallen state of original sin. The question in the 16th century was whether this desire, as it remains even in the hearts of good Christians, is in itself sin or merely a tendency toward sin, a kind of tinder which is set alight when we consent to our evil desires and our will embraces sin. The medieval tradition took the latter view, which remains Catholic teaching to this day: the evil desire is not itself sin until we consent to it. Protestant theologians took the former view, in which the concupiscence that remains in us is not inert tinder but, in Calvin’s words, “a glowing furnace continually emitting flame and sparks” (Institutes 4:15.11).
I wonder if Burk and Butterfield actually see what they are getting into when they take this view. In their brief article, at any rate, I do not think they have quite taken the measure of the depth of this Augustinian theme, even in its more moderate, Catholic form. For whether you take the Catholic or Protestant view of it, the common ground is Augustine’s doctrine of the concupiscence that remains in us, which has implications that nearly all modern Christians have done much to forget. Invoking the name of Augustine regularly gets us into deeper waters than we’re ready for.
To begin with a minor historical correction: Burk and Butterfield align Augustine with the Protestant view, but this is a mistake. Augustine explicitly teaches that in the baptized, “concupiscence itself is not sin any longer, whenever they do not consent to it” (On Marriage and Concupiscence 1:23.26). In this passage Augustine accounts for Paul’s talk in the letter to Romans about the sin (singular) that is in us. He explains: “By a certain manner of speech it is called sin, because it arose from sin and, when it has the upper hand, produces sin.” His conclusion is that “As arising from sin it is, I say, called sin, although in the regenerate [i.e. the baptized] it is not actually sin.” This is a point Augustine makes repeatedly in his writings against the Pelagians (e.g., Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 1:14.27).
“Concupiscence,” it is important to know, is a broad term for any kind of disordered desire. When Paul quotes the 10th Commandment (“thou shalt not covet”) to illustrate the sin at work in his life, the Greek is ouk epithumeseis, which comes out in Latin, Augustine’s language, as non concupisces, using the verb for concupiscence. The term means any greedy, covetous, excessive or inordinate desire. Sex isn’t even the half of it–but it is certainly part of the story.
Calvin explicitly recognizes that his insistence on concupiscence being in itself sin differs from Augustine’s teaching (Institutes 3:3.10), but doesn’t think the difference amounts to much. He claims an Augustinian pedigree for his teaching that “all human desires are evil” (Institutes 3:3.12) because they are all disordered and vitiated by the original sin that infects human nature, with the result that “nothing pure or sincere can come forth from a corrupt and polluted nature” (ibid.).
“All human desires are evil”! That gets us into the deep Augustinian waters, especially when applied to sex. Augustine is notorious for teaching that the sexual activity of all the offspring of Adam and Eve is inevitably sinful (City of God 14:18, On Original Sin 37:42, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 1:17.35), good in its natural aim and yet the outgrowth of a corrupted human nature from which stems nothing pure or free from shame. The procreative sexuality of married men and women includes desire for the right object, but it is always excessive or self-seeking or disordered in some way. Hence in Augustine’s teaching every sexual act, even of married Christians, is sin in need of forgiveness, precisely because it involves consenting to our inevitably concupiscent sexual desires rather than mortifying them.
In that regard, the spiritual friendship movement is better off than Christian marriage. With its roots in monastic celibacy (its foundational text authored by the abbot Aelred of Rievaulx), it allows for a flat “no” to be said to sexual desire, understood in the straightforward, non-Freudian sense: the desire for sexual activity. This is mortification, as the Augustinian tradition has always understood Paul’s term: not that the concupiscent desire is simply eliminated–which will not happen in this life–but that it is not consented to, in act, in will, or in fantasy.
Of course forming friendships with the kind of people you also might have sexual desires for does have its dangers, and requires a whole set of carefully-observed moral disciplines designed to prevent consent being given to concupiscent desires. But the dangers faced by the spiritual friendship movement, as it aims to engage in what a Freudian would call “sublimation,” do not seem to be so different from the dangers faced by heterosexuals forming friendships with people of the opposite sex. There is a long tradition of suspicion of such friendships, which continues more strongly today in Orthodox Judaism and Islam than in Christianity. Similar suspicions are perhaps one reason why co-ed universities, mixing teachers and students of the opposite sex, are of such recent vintage.
Yet for those of us who approve of co-ed universities, as well as those who think men and women need to learn how to be friends, the dangers appear worth the risk. It seems to me on similar grounds that the dangers of the spiritual friendship movement ought to be judged worth the risk. The fact that the risk is of consent to desires for unnatural sexual acts does not seem to make it so drastically different from the risk of consent to consupiscent desires for natural sexual acts.
Nor is there any need to be afraid of the Freudian word “sublimation,” so long as we are clear that it involves using the term “desire” in a different sense than the Augustinian tradition does: as if the desire for friendship could be described as being in some sense “the same desire” as the desire for sex. Augustine wouldn’t talk that way, because he differentiate desires by their differing objects (to desire X is not the same desire as to desire Y). But if all “sublimation” means is that the energy of eros is diverted into what, in Augustinian terms, is a different desire–a desire for friendship rather than for sex–then there is no reason not to avail ourselves of this handy term. Precisely the fact that it is the dangerous power of eros that is sublimated and diverted in this way gives us all the more reason to insist on the disciplines that guard our friendships from the wrong desires.
Recognizing the depth of these Augustinian waters and the dangers we all share should help us see that we are all in the same boat, prone to concupiscent desires which we may or may not call sin, but which in any case we must do our best to refuse our consent, to mortify and–if we accept the Protestant view–to repent of. Augustine should help us recognize that outside the garden of Eden there is no innocent sexuality, not even for good Christians in heterosexual marriages. But there is friendship, and none of us can do without it. We need to help each other in the work of mortifying our concupiscent desires–a work to which all of us together are called. This I think is reason enough to support the spiritual friendship movement.
Phillip Cary teaches philosophy at Eastern University, where he is also Scholar-in-Residence at the Templeton Honors College.