July Discussion: “How St. Augustine Invented Sex”

Christianity as we know it, and as it has been for well over a millennium, is not what it used to be. The early church was underground, radical, communist in nature (“easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle . . . .”). It was groups of millenarians meeting in secret and sharing their worldly goods because the end was nigh.

Why instead do we now find a Christianity obsessed with sexuality, that claims we are lost without it, that says God made the world in six days? For that you can thank Augustine, a bishop was in the right place at the right time.

Augustine was smart. He wrote hundreds of thousands of words, argued Biblical interpretation for decades, and was one of the rhetoricians of his day. He also held that Genesis was word-for-word true, that moral goodness is impossible on our own, that the body is fundamentally evil. He was, in other words, a smart man with ridiculous views. And time is no excuse—they were considered ridiculous then, too. No one worth their salt, as this month’s article points out, took Biblical literalism seriously. (As seriously as Aristotle took the Zeus, maybe.) So why did Augustine, perhaps the smartest man of his time, spend fifteen years trying to prove Genesis could be literally true, a task even he found impossible to achieve?

If we think that Augustine was a dumb person sucked in by a delusional worldview, we are simply wrong. Augustine was far from dumb. If we think that he was some sort of cult leader, we ignore his life. Augustine didn’t just repeat claims ex cathedra; he argued.

What the article points out is that Augustine wasn’t idiotic or delusional. He was a human being trying to make sense of a real problem: Why are we not in control of our own bodies, something closer to us than literally anything else? Why do we feel urges to do things that we might not, in our rational minds, want to do? And why do we then do those things? Augustine lingers, in Confessions, on a time when, as a teenager, he pulled the pears off of a pear tree and let them rot. Most would think that trivial. But Augustine, reflecting, saw something more. He saw, in his life, something about himself he needed to understand, and passing it off as just being young was insufficient.

To start to understand why Augustine, and many of history’s smartest people, would think such things, we can’t just assume they were primitives or stupid. As with Augustine, we must ask what drove them, what mattered to them. If we start to ask why someone might feel the need to defend Biblical literalism, how a literal reading of Genesis might make the world make more sense to them, we will begin to better understand them a little more. Next month, we will start a book that tries to achieve this goal.



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