Reflections on Original Blessing, Part 1

I have spent the last two weeks working on this post, in which I hope to say something about Rev. Danielle Shroyer's book Original Blessing.  I say "hope," because this post has gone through a series of drafts, none of which I have liked very much.  I know, in a big picture sense, what I think of the book--it is an easy, enjoyable read, well worth your time, that shows all of the promise and problems of a certain kind of progressive Christian theology and the way it avoids (or tries to avoid) the problems of classical theology.  But I never quite could get that into a written form that worked--it either came across as more negative about the book than I actually felt, or never really explained the places where I had problems with the book, or just otherwise never really fit together.

So, I am going to approach this from another direction, and talk about Augustine.  This direction was spurred by an article I was linked to today in Elizabeth Bruenig's twitter timeline.  The article is entitled "How St. Augustine Invented Sex," by Stephen Greenblatt.  In it, Greenblatt sets up at least one portrayal of the primary, if not always explicitly named, antagonist in Shroyer's book, Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine, for all intents and purposes, can be called the inventor of the Western Christian doctrine of Original Sin (which, Shroyer notes, is rejected by the Eastern Church, at least as stated by Augustine).  And Shroyer's book is, distilled to its essence, an argument that Christians should pitch all of Augustine's invention over the side of the boat--in large measure because of the elements of Augustine's theory that Greenblatt identifies in his piece.

Bruenig, bless her heart, is an unreconstructed Augustinian, and so not surprisingly she took great umbrage to several parts of Greenblatt's article.  As is usual, Bruenig makes a number of salient points in criticism of specific parts of the article, some of which I will get to as we go along.  But I think the article is useful, whatever the problems in the specifics, in that it distills Augustine's basic perspective into an accessible form.  Augustine is dealing with a basic problem--why do people do bad things, especially things that they know are bad/know they shouldn't do/don't really want to do but do anyway?  As Greenblatt notes, for Augustine this problem is made manifest in a particularly acute way with regard to sexuality.  Augustine prior to his conversation to Christianity had a rather checkered history with regard to sex.  As Greenblatt recounts it:

“I came to Carthage,” [Augustine] writes, “to the center of a skillet where outrageous love affairs hissed all around me.” His confession that he polluted “the shared channel of friendship with putrid rutting” sounds like an overheated account of masturbation or homosexuality; other, equally intense and equally cryptic phrases evoke a succession of unhappy affairs with women. The feverish promiscuity, if that is what it was, resolved fairly quickly into something quite stable. Within a year or two, Augustine had settled down with a woman with whom he lived and to whom, in his account, he was faithful for the next fourteen years. 

This woman, who is never named by Augustine, bears him a son, and follows him back to his hometown and eventually on to Milan.  In Milan, Augustine slowly finds faith, and as a result abandons this woman--initially in favor of a respectable Christian marriage, but ultimately in favor of the celibate life.  It is out of the crucible of this experience, Greenblatt argues (and I don't think this is seriously disputed), that Augustine lays out his vision of Original Sin.  Again, Greenblatt:

Through a sustained reflection on Adam and Eve, Augustine came to understand that what was crucial in his experience was not the budding of sexual maturity but, rather, its unquiet, involuntary character. More than fifty years later, he was still brooding on this fact. Other parts of the body are in our power, if we are healthy, to move or not to move as we wish. “But when it must come to man’s great function of the procreation of children,” he writes, “the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them.”

How weird it is, Augustine thought, that we cannot simply command this crucial part of the body. We become aroused, and the arousal is within us—it is in this sense fully ours—and yet it is not within the executive power of our will. Obviously, the model here is the male body, but he was certain that women must have some equivalent experience, not visible but essentially identical. That is why, in the wake of their transgression, both the first woman and the first man felt shame and covered themselves.

For Augustine then, the core problem is a lack of control, more specifically a lack of control of our bodies.  It is because the body acts in a manner that is not fully under our control that we are inclined to sinfulness; because it is in the realm of sexuality that this control is at its weakest, then sexuality becomes the preeminent locus of sinfulness.  We were not designed to be out of control this way, but instead it is our burden inherited from our ancestors, who brought this curse upon us.

It is easy to dismiss Augustine's position in a very superficial way--"he's obsessed with sex;" "he thinks involuntary erections are the ultimate sin," etc.  But I think it is helpful to lay out very precisely what the problems are with Augustine's formulation.  Shroyer's book does a good job of talking about some of them (especially with regard to what this vision says about God and our relationship to God, which I will get to in the last post), but reading Greenblatt's essay helped me to focus in on the specific problems with Augustine's approach to human brokenness.

First, Augustine's account is completely incompatible with modern science, specifically human evolution.  Augustine could not have known about homo erectus et al. when he was writing, of course, but the problem nevertheless remains.  Augustine asserts that there was a single pair of recognizably human beings who nevertheless existed in some ontologically distinct state, who then lost that state and became the progenitors of all living human beings.  Human evolution pretty clearly demonstrates that there was no single set of human progenitors, and those progenitors appear to be in a continuity with other members of the animal kingdom.  This fundamental divide is as much of a problem as the Six Days of Creation--I get a kick out of folks, especially Catholics, who congratulate themselves for being intellectuals in rejecting Young Earth Creationism, and then immediately turn to a reading of Genesis 3 that is every bit as literalist as the Ark Encounter's reading of Genesis 1 and 2.  Augustine's reading is especially problematic because it not only requires a single set of progenitors, but it requires them to have a pre-lapsarian physiology that has no possible medical explanation, and no analogues anywhere in the animal kingdom.  If we are serious about Christian Realism, I think this is a deal-breaker.

The second problem is that Augustine grounds sinfulness in the physical.  While Augustine would dispute the notion that the lack of bodily control is strictly speaking "natural," Augustine would say our embodiedness is both broken in an endemic way, and that this physical brokenness is the origin point for human sin.  This sets up, I think, an all-but unavoidable mind-body dualism--by definition, your soul is at constant war with your body in Augustine's formulation,  and the only solution is to suppress or denigrate the body in order to achieve a higher spiritual state.

This is especially true in that it makes both the physical act of sexuality and human pleasure to be problematic in itself.  Bruenig, correctly, chastises Greenblatt for his unspoken idolization of pre-Christian sexuality as "a big pastoral with shepherds and shepherdesses cavorting in glades" (as she put it on Twitter).  But you don't have to carry water for Roman and Greek sexual norms to find the "sex negativity" of Augustine to be a problem that has had a very long and destructive tail.  The Augustinian Christian sexual ethic has been very destructive--I have seen the destruction it has caused in the lives of straight, married people, let alone with regard to LGBT folks or other folks who get pushed to the outer darkness by this system.  Again, you don't have to be in love with every aspect of what has come in the wake of Western society moving beyond (in part) this system to recognize that seeing your sexuality as your enemy leads to very rotten fruit.

The third problem, and this is related to the second one, is that it enshrines a very Hellenistic account of the human person as an untouchable theological truth.  Underlying Augustine's system is the idea that moral goodness is to be found in a rationalistic (of a certain sort) application of the will to human behavior.  Lack of self-control, a situation in which the body controls or overrides the mind, or Aristotle's akrasia, becomes in a way the sin-of-sins, whereas the domination of the mind over the body is held up as the ideal.  The mind-body dualism inherent in Augustine's Original Sin has a long pedigree in Greek thought, especially that of Plato and Plato's disdain for the transient nature of matter in favor of the pure an eternal nature of the Forms.  Augustine takes as a given that the basic conceptual framework of the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition that he inherited is Capital T True, and then uses it as a springboard to make his explicitly theological case.

None of this is necessarily wrong, but I also don't think it is, well, necessary to Christianity, either.  But if you accept Augustine's conclusions you are forced by default to accept his premises, and thus making these philosophical presuppositions into de facto divine law.  It seems to me that it must be possible to accept the truth of Christianity while rejecting the Greek philosophical world-view, but the seamless integration of the two in Augustine's system makes that very difficult.  Worse, this seamless integration has created a gravitation pull toward accepting these Greek philosophical presuppositions uncritically in Christian theology, bringing with it all the biases and limitations encoded in the Greek system.

Said another way, Bruenig criticizes Greenblatt for accusing Augustine and his mother Monica of abandoning pagan wisdom.  I think she is right to criticize that, because I think one of Augustine's biggest problems is that he doesn't reject pagan wisdom enough.  

Finally, there are severe interpretive difficulties in Augustine's reading of the Biblical texts.  Shroyer does a good job walking through the problems in the Original Blessing; in a more scholarly vein, Pete Enns has a good post working through some of the problems using the work of David Bentley Hart.  I'm going to get into a close reading of Genesis in future posts, so I won't set out all of those arguments here, but the short version is that it is far, far from obvious that Augustine's system is the most natural or even plausible reading of the Biblical texts in question.

So, with all of these problems, what is the alternative?  Shroyer gives us one alternative, one in which we basically just pitch Augustine's project over the side and reject the notion that there is something in us that is essentially or fundamentally broken.  But I think, in spite of all the manifold problems with Augustine's project, if you scrape away the cruft there is a core insight that is extremely important: (1) there is something that is endemic to the human experience that manifests itself in the lives of people (especially in the way we relate to others) as a deep brokenness; (2) that brokenness is, in fact, fixable--it is not some sort of essential quality of human life; but (3) that brokenness is not something that we can fix purely through our own efforts, but requires divine grace.  In the desire to get rid of the Augustinian cruft, Shroyer also, very intentionally, wants to throw the idea of an existential, and yet capable of cure through divine grace, brokenness over the side as well.  I think that's a mistake, and it represents the primary problem I have with Original Blessing.  

I think there is a way to preserve that core, while also holding on to the vast majority of the good stuff in Shroyer's account.  To do so, I'm going to turn to an old friend--James Alison and his book The Joy of Being Wrong.  Ironically, Alison sets out in that book to show how Rene Girard's anthropology is completely consistent with the dominant, Augustinian theology of the Catholic Church.  I am coming around to the idea that that project is doomed to failure, because it is precisely in the ways that Girard's and Alison's vision differs from Augustine's can we find the way to avoid all of the problems of Augustine will still holding on to the core insight.  In other words, in the course of unsuccessfully trying to show that his theology is entirely orthodox, Alison demonstrates why his theology is better than the orthodox alternative.

To see this, in the next post I'm going to take a look at the engine that drives this whole discussion--Genesis chapter 3.


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