Hedonism, asceticism, and the transformation of desire
Christians often frame desire within a choice between repression and libertinism: you either flee from desire or indulge it. But MacIntyre writes that the simple flight from desire is just a form of hedonism, taking desire as a given that decides for us how we are to live.
Sarah Coakley helps us see that repression isn't asceticism, because it has no room for joy and pleasure. Christian asceticism is something that "yields" to "ecstatic plenitude" and creates space for unexpected love and communion.
Augustine and Pope Benedict XVI help us see that love requires accepting sin at times. If Augustine condones venial sin in sex for the sake of charity, Benedict goes further. He argues for situations in which more serious sins might be considered in workings of the transformation of desire.
What this amounts to is an argument for letting gay Christians figure out ourselves how best to live out our sexual lives, and transform our desires into realities of love oriented towards communion with God and others.
The line between repression and asceticism can be very thin. Many of us can be doing one while thinking we are doing the other, something often only discoverable in the event of a personal crisis demanding a reorientation of life and perspective. For Christians today, this confusion is unavoidable. Asceticism is required in the Christian life, which for most of us means that we will spend considerable time under the burden of repression.
Both Christian cultures and society in general support this state of affairs. Sarah Coakley has pointed out, for example, how the alternatives when it comes to sexual desire have been presented frequently as repression or libertinism. You must choose between either a total rejection of sexuality, or a total indulgence in sexual desire. In many Catholic circles, sexuality is often presented implicitly as something to repress until marriage, after which couples utilizing natural family planning will live cycles of alternating repression and libertinism.
The burden of this confusion in Christian cultures has often come most heavily upon women and gay men. In some circles alleging an allegiance to Pauline teachings, sex within marriage has been seen as a cure to the lust of men, as a way to relieve them of passions in a sanctioned way. Godly women have been taken to be non-sexual, virginal prior to marriage and motherly after marriage. Sexual desire for women outside of the “cure” for man’s passion is often not only proscribed, but unimaginable. It should only and always arise in response to the need for a husband’s relief. One consequence of this position is the horrifying view, as one priest in my diocese has put it: “Before marriage you can’t say ‘yes,’ and after marriage you can’t say ‘no.'”
Because I am a gay man myself, I will focus primarily on the experiences of gay men. In contrast to these women, gay men have been taken to possess this burden of manhood. Lust is assumed as an ever-impending danger. But because no proper “outlet” is imaginable in communities where “sexual activity” is only appropriate in male-female marriage, the only imaginable response for the gay man is rejection. Thus, I as a gay man have been counseled at various times to avoid men to whom I could be attracted, to not live with gay men, and even to not identify my sexual orientation.
For these women and gay men, similar results occur. Authors and researchers such as Tina Schermer Sellers and Linda Kay Klein have explored how women who grew up in purity culture have later had trouble dating, relating to men who attract them, and having sex, even after marriage, at times exhibiting symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Gay men who grew up in traditional Christian communities often struggle with extreme agony over the thought of disclosing our sexual orientation, approach enjoyment in male friendship with anxiety, and assume we will live and die alone in a state of relative loneliness. We live periods under the dictates of these various agonies, which drive us to set our principal value when it comes to sexuality as the avoidance of the pain of temptation and the associated sense of brokenness and shame.
But for many gay Christian men, pornography, masturbation, and random hookups can serve as an outlet when anxieties and demanding desires become overwhelming. Such activities are both pleasurable in their affirmation of certain aspects of our affections (such as even simple longings to be touched and touch with affection but not fear) and safe in that they require no commitment and can be tailored to meet specific desires (whereas in real human relationships one’s desires are always subject to the receptivity of a full human person). For the gay Christian who struggles between alternating periods of continence and libertinism, this can be felt and described as altering periods of asceticism and hedonism. But the description would be wrong.
Consider Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the moral life in Ethics in the Conflict of Modernity. He gives a hypothetical situation:
“Suppose then that someone, recognizing the need to integrate their activities, but being fearful and cautious, adopts as a principle to act so as to minimize their exposure to situations that can get out of hand, that might take them into unfamiliar and unpredictable territory.”
For the gay Christian, this is easy to imagine. Such situations to be avoided are any which might arouse sexual longing or desire, which might cause one to fall in love with another man, or which might establish similar bonds of affectivity and intimacy. For the gay Christian interested in “chastity” and “asceticism,” for the gay Christian who does not want to be a hedonist, this is the approach to take, right?
MacIntyre suggests not. Such an approach would, itself, be a form of hedonism. MacIntyre continues:
“Hedonists act so as to ensure that, so far as possible, what they do and what happens to them gives pleasure and avoids pain. Our imagined fearful and cautious agent makes the avoidance of what pains him his overriding objective, so making the hedonist mistake of supposing that agents should take their appetites and aversions as given and choose their goods accordingly rather than working to transform their appetites and aversions, so that they may achieve goods which otherwise they will have to renounce.”
The problem with MacIntyre’s imagined moral agent and with our imagined gay Christians is that they have adopted the modus operandi of the hedonist, even if this may not seem so at first glance. The gay Christian is pained by and afraid of his desires, so he feels pressure to live a life where one of the key principles is one of avoidance. He fails to see that this will ultimately prevent him from practicing the virtue of chastity which relies on integration. Indeed, it will be a hindrance to his moral life in general and may result in general failure to achieve moral excellence, to achieve his flourishing. He will be unable to understand, deliberate about, and form his desires, because he will largely be out of touch with them. He will hardly understand what they are (affective desires can be very unpredictable in real life), and he will thus be prevented in important ways from relating to them. And to the extent that affective and sexual desires are central to the human person, he will be prevented in important ways from relating to himself.
Another consequence of such a hedonist way of life will be a severely diminished imagination. MacIntyre raises concerns about another key moral failing: an inability to imagine a sufficiently wide range of goods that one might achieve. For this hedonist, the only good imaginable resulting from feeling attracted to someone else (let alone mutual attraction) is actually an evil: lust. He is unable to consider how such attractions might open up knowledge about himself, or lead to friendship or creativity. His fears get in the way of such considerations. He is also unable to allow himself into situations where he might initially fear an inappropriate attraction would hinder a relationship, but then discovers that he was mistaken to have such fears, and that everything is much easier and less tense than he expected. He will be prevented in important ways from developing friendships, engaging in community, and understanding himself. (Note that the form of hedonism which engages in constant self-focused pleasure-seeking does the same.)
What the above hypothetical gay Christian has not realized is that his cycles, of avoiding temptation as the overriding value and engaging in secretive sexual activity, are not cycles of asceticism and hedonism. They are rather, cycles of hedonism and hedonism. His life is more unified than he realizes, as these alternating points need and feed one another and establish themselves as a cycle which can be remarkably difficult to escape. And extended periods of hedonism-masked-as-asceticism can do a lot to hide the reality of this vicious cycle from the man trapped within it.
Repression is itself a form of hedonism which will prevent his full flourishing. For him, the desire to not get sexuality wrong results in the attempt to not have a sexuality at all. For him, the motivation of not getting sexuality wrong precludes his getting sexuality right, because the desire to get sexuality right necessarily implies the possession of a sexuality. One can only get their sexuality right to the extent one possesses it.
How, then, might our hypothetical gay Christian reimagine the role of asceticism in his life? Coakley seems to acknowledge a variety of views on asceticism. But the form with which she identifies in the Christian tradition is that which “yields to that subtle but ecstatic plenitude of divine desire freely outpoured in the life of Christ, and whose test and measure is an extension of that transforming love to the world.” What is suggested by this understanding is that asceticism cannot be an overriding value, because asceticism is something which ultimately “yields,” which steps out of the way.
A story from Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis can help illustrate the point:
“Although he energetically urged the friars to lead an austere life, he was not pleased by an overstrict severity that did not put on a heart of compassion and was not seasoned with the salt of discretion. One night a friar was tormented with hunger because of his excessive fasting and was unable to get any rest. When the devoted shepherd realized that danger threatened one of his sheep, he called the friar and put some bread before him. Then, to take away his embarrassment, Francis himself began to eat first and affectionately invited him to eat. The friar overcame his embarrassment and took the food, overjoyed that through the discreet condescension of his shepherd he had avoided harm to his body and received an edifying example of no small proportion. When morning came, the man of God called the friars together and told them what had happened during the night, adding this advice: ‘Brothers, in this incident let the charity and not the food be an example to you.'“
Here, repression might be mistaken for asceticism in a friar who may be stepping into a vicious cycle similar to our gay man above. He might be engaging in an avoidance of bread out of a desire to pursue a misunderstood and decontextualized virtue, resulting in harm to himself, and perhaps sending him into an indulgent frenzy, followed by a period of angsty hedonism-masked-as-asceticism. But it is the love of Francis which disrupts this possible cycle, where asceticism steps out of the way for the transformative love of fraternity, with its tenderness, gentleness, and compassion. And what turns out to be most pleasing is something that the friar did not expect: a pleasure more pleasurable than bread, but for which the pleasure of bread creates space, the pleasure of love and fraternity with Francis.
This also helps us to understand something of what Coakley means when she says that the pleasure-lover and the God-lover can become one in Christianity:
“Christianity tells us that these senses ultimately unite in the beatific vision—because there could be nothing more joyous or transformative or pleasurable than being desired by God and responding in complete unity with God—but in the lower rungs of life we have to make choices about how we are going to spend our time, let our imaginations play, or direct our will.”
Our friar above was not entirely wrong. He wanted to do the right thing. But “the right thing” can often obscure the reality of charity, and so we in the lower rungs of life must create space for divine charity to enter into our lives and to demonstrate to us how we have mistaken vice for virtue, and be fed in transformative ways in this process.
This can be very difficult in the world we currently live in. Coakley shares in an interview another way in which asceticism can be mistaken for hedonism:
“You asked me what we mean by ‘ascetic practice.’ In contemporary American culture there is a fascination with asceticism in one form—what do you think all those people are doing in the gym? We’ve developed a sternly punitive vision whereby we pummel the body for the sake of longevity, sexual attractiveness, and the denial of death. Asceticism has been marshaled into a hedonistic metaphysic. Yet I don’t think that everyone who is engaged in working out is wrongly motivated. There are certain things we can do that balance our lives, that make us feel better, and that make our relationships with others and our relationships with God better, and these are things I might call properly ascetic. At its best, I don’t see asceticism as puritanical and punitive but as a set of directives, practices, and guidelines by which we can be held accountable to God and to our various communities so that we can best serve them and best serve God.”
This form of hedonism-masked-as-asceticism might be found in the couple discussed earlier, the couple who understands the permitted practice of natural family planning within Christian marriage as an ability to engage in cycles of sexual repression followed by sexual libertinism, the rejection of sexual desire followed by the unleashing of sexual desire. To a certain extent, such a dynamic may simply be part of figuring out one’s sexuality in a new context of marriage. But the ability to have a stable, fulfilling, and enjoyable sexual life within a marriage, I suspect, will be in part reliant upon a couple’s ability to transform this dynamic into a fuller unity of love. I suspect that the vicious cycle, if maintained, will lead couples to frustration, insecurity, and displeasure.
The Acceptance of Sin
One thing perhaps required for this reimagining of asceticism will be a reimagining of the role of sin in our lives. What may be required, for example, is a recontextualization of Augustine’s views on sex and sin. It is common knowledge that Augustine in De Bono Coniugali held sexual intercourse that “exceeds to some extent the measure required for the procreation of children” to be a venial sin. He wrote similarly in On Original Sin that the connubial embrace, “by reason of this body of death [is]… impracticable without a certain amount of bestial motion, which puts human nature to blush.” And in On Marriage and Concupiscence he wrote,
“Since, therefore, marriage effects some good even out of that evil, [i.e. concupiscence or lust] it has whereof to glory; but since the good cannot be effected without the evil, it has reason for feeling shame.”
Augustine also held, however, that fornication and adultery (on the part of either the man or the woman) were worse sins than this, and so the venial sin is condoned for the sake of avoiding the worse. Interestingly, Augustine frames this as a matter of charity:
“But because that Continence is of larger desert, but to pay the due of marriage is no crime, but to demand it beyond the necessity of begetting is a venial fault, but to commit fornication or adultery is a crime to be punished; charity of the married ought to beware, lest while it seek for itself occasion of larger honor, it do that for its partner which cause condemnation.”
This is a similar argument to that made by Pope Benedict XVI in Light of the World regarding the use of condoms by male prostitutes:
“She [the Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
The former pope moves beyond Augustine, in considering the ways sexual desire might be transformed for the better in the context of sexual relationships outside of marriage, even if one believes that sexual contact in these contexts is “intrinsically disordered.” If Augustine condones venial sin to avoid mortal sin, for the sake of charity, Benedict goes further to suggest there may be situations in which more serious sins might be considered within the workings of charity, in the slow gradual transformation of sexuality and desire.
What all this amounts to are further questions about the ways in which desire, asceticism, sin, and charity might be reimagined for those facing moral dilemmas regarding sexuality today. Might a woman facing vaginismus or sexual trauma be permitted by the Church to engage in self-pleasure as a way of reorienting her relationship to sex and her trauma? Might a gay man broken by hookup culture be bettered by a committed sexual relationship as a way of transforming sexual desire into something more relational and responsive?
And if Coakley, as I have understood her, is right, then this problem is not limited to our hypothetical gay Christian or single Christian woman. The confusions around desire and asceticism affect all of us. They can lead single persons into vice and distort marriages which seek to be Godly. They tend to confuse us all. Certainly, such confusions are endemic to the life of the Christian struggling to become holy in a fallen world with the burden of original sin. But in order to move beyond this state we should be open to being wrong about how to be right. This helps to explain the necessary role of mercy in the Christian life, both towards others and oneself. We are all doomed to be wrong in both perspective and practice at various points in our lives, and our ability to move forward will in large part depend upon the capacities for forgiveness and reconciliation held by ourselves and our communities. This helps to explain why those least willing to consider they may be wrong are often also those least willing to exercise mercy either towards others or towards themselves.
Narrative and Imagination
Much will also hinge on narrative and imagination. One problem for the trauma survivor is that their imagination runs the risk of being caught up in the narrative of the traumatic event. They might be inclined to worry, “If I let myself go to this place, I will get traumatized again,” or, “If I am vulnerable, I will get hurt.” A similar problem for the gay Christian might be the inclination to think, “If I let myself love, I will go to hell,” or, “If I let myself love, my love will get trampled by lust,” or, “If I am vulnerable, I will be rejected.”
These concerns are, in large part, the constructions of a formed imagination. The philosopher and gay rights activist John Corvino reflects on his own experiences as a child:
“When I was eight or nine, I used to get a funny, animated feeling watching the boy next door mow the lawn. Did I sexually desire him? Not really, no. I certainly didn’t desire to have sex with him, or even to kiss him: I just felt a kind of amorphous excitement in his presence. It wasn’t until much later that I could retroactively characterize that excitement as a ‘gay feeling’ and the person experiencing it (me) as a ‘gay person.’ Now when I’m in the presence of a handsome guy, my desires are much more specific.”
Corvino opines that it was, in some ways, in the context of growing up in his particular community and society that the directedness of such feelings achieved greater clarity and specificity. Without holding that one can be “made gay,” Corvino sheds light on ways in which society can open up a landscape for a kid with such desires:
“Today more than ever, young people see gay life and gay sex and gay relationships as possible options. Gay-rights advocates (myself included) have worked hard to ensure this, from the It Gets Better Project to the marriage-equality movement to college football star Michael Sam’s coming out. What we advocates want is for these young people to have plausible pathways for a healthy, fulfilling adult gay life. We want them to know that they’re not alone.”
What activists like Corvino allow for is an imaginative context for that kid, whose desires might otherwise remain but avoid defining and directedness. Corvino further opines:
“Under the old regime, that boy might have grown up to marry a woman, for example, and had a not-passionate but still adequate marriage. Sure, he’d continue to get that funny feeling around guys, but it might not be a recognizably gay feeling, let alone a fully formed desire for gay sex. Or he might have grown up to be a priest. That was my plan, actually.”
Corvino goes on to share how this plan of his was not mutually exclusive with gay sex and relationships, something others in the order he discerned with made clear. But what is of greater relevance here is Corvino’s recognition of the values of organizations and story-tellers who can speak to the experiences of that eight-year-old boy and establish an imaginative landscape for his future, something which for these activists might include, but is not limited to, gay sex.
Christian cultures often leave gay persons with a sense of being trapped, trapped in loneliness, trapped in cycles of hedonism, trapped in experiences of rejection and insecurity. Nothing is more antithetical to either moral formation or Christian development than the feeling of being trapped, as this feeling indicates the lack of an imaginative moral landscape for the future and is destructive of the pursuit of human flourishing. One condition of human flourishing is a sense of goal-directedness and the belief that achievement is possible. A sense of being trapped can preclude both of these.
The great failure of Christian cultures over the last several decades is the failure to establish alternative imaginative landscapes. A positive story will always carry more power than the dictate, “No gay sex.” If evil really is the absence of good, then a good will always be more powerful than an evil. But when it comes to the question of sexuality, and especially homosexuality, many Christian communities have proceeded as if the opposite were true, as if good is the absence of evil, and, consequently, evils will be more powerful than goods.
We need a reorientation. For the gay Christian, a story must be told that does not revolve around lust and hell. And it cannot be a story made up to justify a particular dictate, but must be a full and real story, one which has space for failure and growth and surprises. Indeed, we will need to have multiple stories, multiple paths, because the lives of gay persons are just as unique and diverse as all other lives. This will require significant lived imaginative work. As MacIntyre writes,
“So the young learn, or fail to learn, to imagine themselves as they were, as they are, and as they might become and the limits of their imagination set limits to their desires and to their practical reasoning. They learn to hope for the best that they can imagine, and they despair when they can imagine no good future. Because this is so, the storytelling resources of each culture are of great political and moral importance.”
This, I believe, is the great failure of the Christian cultures which saw the key to the cultural issue of same-sex desire in the intellectual and political resistance to same-sex marriage. What they failed to understand about the move for same-sex marriage was that the issue was never about the definition of marriage, but about the imaginative landscape for gay persons in the Western world, whose storytelling when it comes to the good life was bound up in marriage-making. Christian communities have thus squandered their time and resources in political battles they lose again and again, rather than investing in the real problem: working with gay persons to imagine and create a full range of possibilities for good lives. Indeed, political obsessions and a lack of such creative thinking do much to hide the ways in which certain “concessions” might actually strengthen the position of Christian communities.
The way forward, I believe, is a general reimagining and an openness to new stories. Obsessions over avoiding lust, wholesale condemnations of commitments to mutual love and care, and the shaming of people who live messy lives have done much to hinder real moral development, obscure the role and meaning of asceticism in the Christian life, and leave the Church powerless before a culture that seems to have a monopoly on good stories for many. Much more is at stake than we realize in the narratives of ostracization shared by queer persons, the abused, and women in the Church. Those stories need new endings, and we must help make them.
This is no easy task. In order for this to happen, we may have to be willing to expose our comforts, our established institutions, and our own narratives to vulnerability. For example, Christians will have to expose, and possibly abandon, many of our presumptions concerning the meaning and practice of Christian marriage, in ways that seemingly have nothing to do with questions related to same-sex marriage, going “against the grain” not just in matters of sexual practice, but in matters of economics, the prioritization of time, and the relationship of the married couple to the broader community. Most Christians, especially those in positions of power and influence, will have to realize that we are not the primary authors of these stories, and we are not their main protagonists. We must be open to these stories proceeding in ways we do not expect or may not necessarily want. And we must resist the urge to co-opt those stories and make them our own in ways that exclude the full realities of the real protagonists. We must allow an opening up of their moral imaginations, and of our own.
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