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