Good Christian Sex

by Brian D. Sadie

Blame it on St. Anselm, who converted Augustine. The Augustine, whose interpretations of the Fall and St. Paul have insured the apostle was labeled as suspect and a misogynist. The label sticks, especially since Paul’s epistles are no Sunday drive: they need interpretation, but better in this case to return to the source rather than merely receive someone’s opinion of it.

But is it worth the time? Are the Pauline texts relevant today for more than theological discussion? It might seem difficult to follow Francis Watson’s arguments that they are without sharing his belief. With tacit acknowledgment of this he questions his aim, albeit humorously: ‘A movement towards a Pauline sexual ethic? Away from or beyond, perhaps, but not towards.’ Yet toward it he plows, “…generating original thought” in his reading of the epistles while pursuing a Pauline sexual ethic that is female-inclusive. At times Watson seems dully orthodox in his assumptions, but he generally moves toward his conclusion with a high degree of polish.

Watson attempts to improve Paul’s image with linguistic finesse. His Paul is no closet-bound misogynist but a defender of sexual difference: by its very creation, he argues, it must be seen as normal and holy. In his attempt to fashion a working Pauline sexual ethic from key New Testament and literary texts, Watson, most notably when discussing the language of sex, provides intriguing views that illuminate the principles guiding his perception of the Pauline ethos. He even manages to include in that ethos such non-Paulists as Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, and Luce Irigaray. According to Watson, both Paul and Augustine considered gender and sexuality in the light of agape, a mutual, spiritual togetherness that, attained through prayer and sacrament, is free of erotic urges, and therefore attributes to them a critique of modern sexual norms.

Unconcerned with reconstructing first century history, Watson emphasizes the Biblical texts 1 Corinthians 2, Romans 7, and Ephesians 5 as he searches for the logic governing Paul’s formulations. Yet the question remains: what about the reality of sex? As Paul wrote in Romans 7.21–24:

“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body of death?”

What value are the words of an agitated celibate claiming Christ’s authority? What value, indeed, when, after long, conflicting argument, he gives precedence to custom over fairness by commanding that women obey their husbands without question and keep silent despite acknowledgment as equals? He is at odds with the implications of his order that husbands treat their wives as they would themselves. And what of Paul’s harsh words and restrictions concerning, among others, the unmarried? Watson simply argues that the restrictions are to help people follow the example of Jesus.

One restriction is the veil, held by many to be among the first measures for silencing women. Yet Watson excuses the poor writing and thought of 1 Corinthians 2 on this subject, seeking instead an underlying ethos to show how man and woman belong together in Christ. To attain the koinona (common life) of agape, eros (erotic love) must be subjugated. Hence the veiling of women’s faces: it is a shield against lust, for lust obstructs God’s message. According to Watson, who finds in the Greek no clear indication that Paul intended to silence women, the veil symbolizes woman’s authority to preach. However, even Paul seemed to have realized his failure to clarify things and ultimately called upon his own authority to vindicate patriarchal custom. Despite such acceptance of existent power structures within Paul’s regulatory passages, Watson insists that Pauline literary style indicates that all people are equal before God and should therefore be treated as equals by each other.

Virginia Woolf and Sigmund Freud come into play as Watson attempts to subsume their work into the proposed greater Christian good of Paul’s universal theological truth. Although similarities exist between these writers’ constructs and Paul’s, they have little of substance in common. Passages from Woolf’s Three Guineas, for instance, provide Watson an opportunity to comment on the patriarchal structure and Pauline essence of separatist feminist movements, but they do little more than reflect Paul’s commitment to patriarchy.

Within Watson’s linguistic commentary is an assessment of Freud’s movement away from a Platonic model of the self to a Pauline-Augustinian one in which the super-ego parallels God’s law and the id licentiousness. Freud, just as Paul and Augustine before, had recognized that sexuality presented an irreconcilable, or nearly so, dilemma. But unlike either Paul, who advocated celibacy but allowed that marriage would do, or Augustine, who took the original sin of disobedience and spun it into sex, Freud examined the making of reason and behavior, of conscience and morality, in relation to sexual experience and development. Watson simply claims that the commonality of forbidden, repressed impulses noted by Freud proves that, as “…the pious insist, all are miserable sinners,” and that Paul therefore was right.

Such remarks demonstrate Watson’s faulty reasoning, and his interdisciplinary approach weakens his position further still. Had he examined Paul’s theology through a narrower character and textual study he might have succeeded in demonstrating that Paul tried to be inclusive and realistic in his sexual ethics. Instead, Watson attempts to vindicate not only a Pauline reasoning for the subjugation of sexuality but also to advocate for Augustine’s notion of original sin, sexual shame and the baseness of the human body. Thus, Watson’s work highlights the limits of theology since, without an acceptance of the intrinsic underlying faith, his argument is moot.

Not that theology is to blame. Given that our means of discernment are defined by our experience, all constructs are limited, all systems and models imperfect. Still, no rule of logic or method of argument can hide that a masculine monotheistic theology that subjugates women suffers from, at least, a narrow vision.

So Watson tries to avoid the issue when it suits him. He defines patriarchy as a model of male self-definition, a gendered separateness that includes the female in a universal norm. Notions such as Virginia Woolf’s separatist feminism thus become a precondition of interdependence necessary for the mystical negation of gender in agape. Following that mystical occurrence, the male deity is not male because, so Watson argues, without the presence of the female, there is no male. Gender is non-existent.

Concerning the unnaturalness, or, at least, the peculiarity, of the sexless Jesus that many have and continue to insist is presented in the gospels, Luce Irigaray mused, “Was he like that? Or has tradition made him like that?” Must the most basic reality of human existence be outside his realm? Irigaray promotes an ethic in which sex, the natural result of our gendered beings, is enjoyed by partners as equals respectful of each other’s individuality. Watson feels that a sexless Jesus proves that a life free of eros is not a defective life and that sex is not what humans are all about. He argues that Irigaray’s beliefs place sex at the center of human existence, since she insisted that our gendered difference leads us to gravitate toward the fulfillment of sexual encounters. Thus, as Watson remarks of Irigaray’s ethical notions, they fail to reconcile the sexless Christ.

Following Paul’s example, Watson asserts that, “The original and normative context for sexual union is marriage, just as the original and normative context for eros is agape: this is not a self-evident truth but a distinctively Christian insight.” He also states that any postmodern account of sexuality will acknowledge several sexualities and consider them cultural products rather than biological or natural imperatives. On those two counts he is wrong. Fetuses receive two gender chromosome baths during term. Either both baths will be of the same sex or not. The results are predispositions affecting the sexuality of the individual. As for eros, if sexuality is not the key to our humanity, it surely plays a prominent role.

Throughout the Biblical texts Paul appears as flesh and blood. Bred of an implicitly misogynistic, patriarchal culture that assumed an hysterical, transgressive nature of women, he was attracted to Jesus, who, as portrayed in the gospels, appears in important ways to have transcended his Jewish roots and certain predominant notions of his day. Paul took it upon himself to keep Jesus’ work and spirit alive, but he suffered both in his efforts to break from unenlightened traditions and for his ascetic interpretation of Jesus’ lessons, which impelled him to control his physical passions. The result is a body of work that implicates women in the fall of man and suppresses their equal rights on earth.

Yet, ever Roman, Paul was pragmatic, as his reaction to Lydia, Phoebe, and Priscilla, three rich converts and benefactors of the Christian movement, testifies. There is no difficulty in accepting that wealthy, religious women would be drawn to Jesus’ movement, for his appears to have been an open table largely free of imposed, or customary, hierarchy. Thus, following the women’s conversions and tremendous offers of assistance, Paul could hardly refuse to follow Jesus’ model. So the earliest church included men and prominent women, women articulate, energetic, and some rich of their own accord. They were patrons of the first order and Paul had no choice but to acknowledge them as such. Yet he might have done more.

Palestine in the first century AD was a densely layered, diverse center of human thought and activity. Aramaic was a regional vernacular, Hebrew the language of Judaism, Greek reflected classical education and lingering Hellenistic influence, and Latin represented the ascendance of the Roman Empire and its bureaucracy. But speaking is more than saying words: it is a cultural act, since every word has meaning and every implication is cultural. And language, like those using it, occurs within a specific place and time. As we attempt, through language and history, to understand the past — the formulations and verbalizations of its perceptions, ideas, and reality — an historical context emerges. That understanding is what translation and the study of history are about, and it is why faithful interpretation is complicated.

Paul, too, is complicated, but he is historical, and therefore not merely a figure but also a person. As represented in the New Testament, he was a Hellenistic, Syrian Jew who quit his job with the Roman Empire but kept his Roman citizenship. He wrote in Greek, so likely thought in it, too. Despite his knowledge of Greek and its historical context, Watson relies too much on conceptual analyses that dehumanize Paul and miss the point.

Paul believed Jesus was the answer to the question of whether life in the flesh is ordered and imbued with spiritual meaning. Not that Jesus had created that meaning, but had made its previous appearance in Jewish Law a viable way of life for Paul. He saw the key to that viability as celibacy and therefore strove for a behavior that did not come naturally, and so not easily, to himself. It was not a state Paul arrived at simply through argumentation but through a difficult, sacrificial struggle and, even more than his misogyny, that sacrifice — in many ways particular to Paul — makes him a hard read for our age.

Paul’s expressed agony, especially with celibacy, is testament of a passionate, questing spirit who was, despite those timeless qualities, a man of his time, and, despite the social and legal equality typical of established Roman society, and for all the complex cultural and linguistic layering of the Levant in the first century AD, that time was undeniably patriarchal. Only by a narrow internal reading without regard to history and the corpus of the writers Watson draws upon could he argue that Paul’s sexual ethos of agape transcends patriarchy and attests to philosophical preeminence and modernity. Watson cannot use Paul both ways: Paul’s notion of agape does not make him a precursor to current gender theory, social liberation, and ethical sex in the highly selective feminist mode that Watson cites, nor, as he suggests, is the thinking he attributes to Paul proof that current sexual ethics are evil and illicit because their arguments accept eroticism and natural tendencies. Modern readers should not be too harsh with Paul for failing to be more like their notions of Jesus, but neither should theologians condemn modern sexual discourse for failing to be more like the writer Paul’s, for all are products of their times.

Agape, Eros, Gender: Towards a Pauline Sexual Ethic
by Francis Watson
Cambridge University
268 pp, $59.95
ISBN: 052166263X