Can Pleasure be a Virtue?

Next week, I’m speaking at the 2018 Christian Feminism Today Gathering about pleasure and virtue. Here are my thoughts/notes for the workshop.

You can also check out my notes for my CatalystCon Midwest presentation about a progressive approach to Christian sexual ethics.

What is Virtue?

Definitions of virtue:

  • Behavior showing high moral standards (Oxford)
  • Conformity to a standard of right (Merriam-Webster)
  • A particular moral excellence (Merriam-Webster)
  • A quality considered morally good or desirable in a person (Oxford)

A virtue is a moral character trait or, in other words, a deeply embedded disposition to act in line with that concept.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics asks 1) Who are we? 2) Who ought we to become? 3) How are we to get there? (1).

“These three questions cannot be answered until we first acknowledge and understand who we are as sexual beings.” (2).

Christian Virtues

The three “theological virtues” — as defined by Thomas Aquinas and based on 1 Corinthians 13 — are faith, hope, and love.

And the fruit of the spirit — as defined in Galatians 5 — are commonly seen as virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Where Things Go Wrong

Old Lens: Spirit vs Flesh

The rest of Galatians 5 warns readers against “the desires of the flesh” including a list actions or emotions, such as anger, jealousy, and fornication.  The desires of the flesh vs the fruit of the spirit sets up a toxic dichotomy between the body and the spirit.

We have a divine rebuttal against this dichotomy: The Incarnation.

“God’s revelation in Jesus should have precluded Christians from accepting Platonic or Gnostic notions that reviled the human body/flesh. Jesus Christ, the incarnate one, suggests the inherent contradiction between Christianity and any form of spiritualistic dualism that tends to place the soul and body in an innately antagonistic relationship. The message of God’s embodiment in Jesus is unambiguous: the human body is not a cauldron of evil but, rather, an instrumentality for divine presence.” Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church

A Better Way

New Lenses: Just vs Unjust; Loving vs Unloving

The list of “flesh-based” traits and actions aren’t always sinful. For instance, there is a time for anger. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a godly time for fornication. 😉

What if we view any action, reaction, or identity component through the lenses of whether it is serving justice and love? Is anger the just reaction? Is this sex loving?

This requires us to adjust our Biblical reading via cultural considerations

First off: you can’t look at a list of values without interpreting how they were used in context then vs now. For instance, what did impurity mean then? How was Jesus and Jesus’s followers trying to change this meaning?

According to Episcopal priest James Reho, in his book Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity, when the early Christians (including Paul) speak of “flesh,”  they don’t mean the physical body: “Flesh describes that which is, on every level of reality—material and psychological and spiritual—unfree, bound by compulsion or addiction, opposed to the illumination offered by divine consciousness.” He further explains that being of the spirit is to be “alive with God’s divine energies.”

Where Does Pleasure Fit Into This?

Let’s compare pleasure and joy:

“XXX brings me great joy.”

“XXX brings me great pleasure.”

What does it mean to be a joyful person? Do they only seek joy for themselves or to bring joy to others?

What if pleasure is a tool through which one can be virtuous?

When someone truly enjoys or accepts pleasure, it can be a humbling experience.

Truly accepting pleasure can lead to gratitude, even wisdom. How? Embracing pleasure is a part of loving others and ourselves, as well as acknowledging the beauty and good of the world.

How can we learn to take pleasure in things that have traditionally brought us shame?

In other words, how do we heal from a toxic view of pleasure and desire?

How might you learn to embrace a fetish or other taboos? Sex outside of marriage? Your own body?

Maybe it starts with seeing how these things can be good.

Can the activity or the identity surrounding that pleasurable thing be considered loving and just? Never mind what the church says. What does your heart say, your partners … what does God say?

Featured image is The Joy of Life by Henri Matisse.


  1. J.F.Keenan. “Virtue Ethics and Sexual Ethics” in: Louvain Studies 30/3 (2005), 180-197.
  2. Todd Salzman & Michael Lawler. “Sexual Anthropology and Virtue Ethics”  INTAMS review 17, 174-186.

2 thoughts on “Can Pleasure be a Virtue?

  1. When reflecting on the meaning and value of pleasure, I find a sort of paradox: a life lived only for pleasure is closed to love and ultimately to joy but a life closed to any pleasure is closed to joy and ultimately to love. Let me explain. A person who lives only for pleasure cannot engage in the self-giving and vulnerability necessary for love; self-interested transaction is her or his only available means of relationship. Because no meaning can trump pleasure, joy evaporates – joy requires deeper meaning than pleasure. Conversely, where pleasure is eliminated there can be no joy, because to enjoy something one must take pleasure in it. And now, in an unexpected twist, the Trinity comes into play. God is love and God exists in relationship with Himself. Thus, love is fully realized only in reciprocation or community. Altruism, therefore, is love cut tragically short. If this sounds wrong, ask yourself this, “What form of love is most amenable to the “high austerity” of hell.*” One cannot really love something or someone while also refusing to receive any pleasure or reciprocation from that person or thing. Sin may tempt with pleasure, but it is only a pretense to establish a will in opposition to God. Ultimately, real material pleasure is antithetical to the “high austerity” of Hell because it means submission to the “givenness” of creation.

    Paul’s dichotomy of “flesh and Spirit” is not the platonic distinction between the material or “accidental” form and the spiritual or ideal form, nor is it the enlightenment distinction between the finite and contingent body and and the supposedly infinite mind or “inner self” with its supposedly unbound will. Paul certainly does not mean the Victorian reading of “flesh” as sex and other physical desires and “spirit” as human aspirations of spirituality and moral authority. For Paul, the “flesh” is the whole of the inherently but accidentally corrupt nature we receive from Adam and the “Spirit” is the Holy Spirit whom Christ promised to His followers. In Galatians 5 and 6 Paul deploys the Spirit/flesh dichotomy in response to the demand that non-Jewish converts be circumcised. Hypocrisy, self-justification, and moral tokenism are “of the flesh” according to Paul. While it is true that the “fruit of the Spirit” may understood abstractly, we as human beings have proximate knowledge of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,” and “self-control” only through embodied experience.

    *Hell is, at minimum, the “place” where the logic of sin, which privileges will over being and being over love, reaches its final conclusion.


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