We inherit a long tradition of serious repression about lust. Augustine (354-430) was a major contributor to this repression. For Augustine, the ideal is life-long virginity of heart, mind, and body: without a hint of desire ever arising.

Second best would be a life of unmarried virginity of body.

Third best: matrimony without sex.

Fourth best: matrimony with pleasureless procreative activity. It should be like shaking hands. Through sufficient exercise of the rational will, we can control our feelings and impulses so that sexual activity occurs without any enjoyment, but solely for fulfilling the duty of procreating.

Fifth best: procreative activity accompanied by pleasure. This is a regrettable and clearly degraded state of affairs.

Worst of all: Acting for the sake of pure sexual pleasure without intending to produce kids.

Augustine, like Plato before him, put inordinate emphasis on rational control. But life is not just about what we choose. Some of it is about what chooses us. Sometimes, in fact, we require loss of control. The good life is about being open to the surprises that come to us, including the surprising emotions, and involuntary sensations. The good life includes the possibility of intimate partnership, a possibility undermined by too much control.

We want to feel swept away, and we want our partner to feel swept away. We want to turn our bodies over to the nourishment of a grander thing: a thing grander than our individual rational choice; a love we don’t choose or control, but simply serve. Lust is the unchosen desire best satisfied through losing ourselves in the service of love.

Each one of the seven deadly sins contains a virtue as well as a possible vice. The virtue of lust is that it impels us to risk setting aside our usual defenses and entering radical mutuality.

Lust is not simply a desire, but two desires that become one. It consists of the desire to please and to be pleased. Lovers A and B, in their consummation, find that A takes pleasure in B’s pleasure, and B takes pleasure in A taking pleasure in B’s pleasure, and A takes further pleasure in B taking pleasure in A taking pleasure in B’s pleasure. And so on. In this feedback loop, the two desires merge into one, and the pleasure belongs to neither lover separately.

While there is much about this that is voluntary, and mutual consent is crucial to the enterprise, there is also a significant role for the involuntary – for the delight we take in evoking from each other involuntary bodily responses. In the merger there is a depth of surrender, a surrendering of rational will and separate identity, and thus a liberation from the tyranny of our separateness with its calculated self-protection. The experience reveals and manifests a spiritual possibility: we might learn to encounter each moment of our living with something like that ecstasy of merger – a continuous unfolding lovemaking with reality.

We are emerging out from under the long shadows cast by Plato and Augustine. More and more of us now understand that our bodies are not corrupted prisons for our pure and ethereal souls, but, rather, our bodies are integral parts of our identity and potential vehicles of liberation and fulfillment.

If we find that an attraction, an urge, has arisen within us, we can indulge it. Or we can repress it. Or we can bring presence, awareness, and investigative curiosity to the urge, neither indulging nor repressing. What is it, exactly? What are the options for honoring it and addressing it? We might then choose to defer the urge, seeing a greater possibility of fulfillment at a later time and place. We can bring the urge into dialog with our values: that is, not allowing the urge to overwhelm our values, but also not attempting to use our values to deny the legitimacy of the urge.

To have that dialog, it helps to be clear on what the values are. Margaret Farley, a Sisters of Mercy Nun, articulated seven value principles for sexual ethics:

1. Do No Unjust Harm

Harm can take many forms: “physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.” Lust tugs us toward situations in which either we or our partner are likely to be uniquely tender and vulnerable. Our values tell us to pay acute attention to the risks of harm.

2. Free Consent

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent. Promise-keeping and truth-telling are also aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person.

3. Mutuality

True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both bringing roughly equivalent levels of heart and self to the encounter, it isn’t mutual.

4. Equality

The partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners. The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.”

5. Commitment

A one-night stand “cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.” Nevertheless, an encounter that turned out to be brief may still have been ethical as long as it accorded with each of the preceding principles, and there was openness to the possibility that the encounter might have led to long-term relationship.

6. Fruitfulness

Making babies is one way to be fruitful and keep the relationship from closing in on itself. There are other ways for love to create new life: if not from the lovers, then in the lovers. This new life should bless the world, not just the lovers. Thus is love fruitful and for the good of all.

7. Social Justice

Our intimate relationships occur within the context of social justice, which requires that all people’s romantic and intimate relationships be honored and respected. “Whether persons are single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from...[faith] communit[ies] as well as the wider society. These are claims to freedom from unjust harm, equal protection under the law, an equitable share in the goods and services available to others, and freedom of choice in their sexual lives -- within the limits of” these principles.

When lust arises, pay attention to it -- neither indulging nor repressing. In the process, also pay attention to these seven principles of justice in sexuality.

* * *
See also:
The Seven Deadlies

No comments:

Post a Comment