Theology and Sexuality, Part 3: Hedonic Terminal Desires


The ACU visit from SoulForce just concluded. ACU did an amazing job at hosting the Riders and providing civil forums of mutual dialogue. I had dinner with a gathering of SoulForce Riders and ACU representatives. The Riders at my table said that ACU was, from a hospitality point of view, the "high point of our trip." After dinner I spoke on a panel regarding Sexuality in Media with a special focus on Brokeback Mountain. The panel was a mix of ACU and SoulForce representatives. It was a fun dialogue, but stressful. There were a lot of people in attendance.

Afterwards, some students approached me and wondered what the day had accomplished. They wondered if ACU got to voice its message to SoulForce. Probably not, I replied. There is a time to speak and a time to listen. On this day ACU listened, and I think it was the right choice.

But, as SoulForce departs, the conversations they stirred up will continue. For that I'm grateful. So, we plunge on...

We have been trying to sketch out a "theology of sin" with special attention on sexuality. In the prior two posts we discussed:

1. Divine Command
2. Appeals to Creation

We found that, although these two theological approaches to sin appear straightforward, they leave a lot to be desired. So, we return to the question: Why might a sin be a sin?

Our third theological approach is:

3. Terminal Hedonic Desires.

From the very outset, Christianity has been very suspicious of pleasure. Hedonism, the lusts of the flesh, physical gratifications, cravings: all these are problematic. This suspicion of pleasure isn't just seen in Puritanical traditions. It is pretty pervasive. We see it in prohibitions of alcohol, dancing, tobacco, card playing, masturbation, and drug use. We see it in the monastic traditions. We see it in mortification of the body and spiritual disciplines such as fasting or refraining from sex for a "season of prayer."

But it is not just pleasure per se that we are suspicious of. After all, pleasure is a part of the created order and should be good. We couldn't function without pleasure. Pleasure and pain are integral to navigating this world physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

No, what worries us about pleasure is when pleasure is the sole goal of an activity. Borrowing a term from William Irvine's interesting book On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, I'll call this type of pleasure, "Terminal Hedonic Desire." That is, the hedonic desire (i.e., pleasure) is a terminal goal; where the point of the activity is to feel "pleasure."

It is this type of pleasure--Terminal Hedonic Desire--that we are suspicious of. Notice that this is why something like drug use is "sinful." Its sole goal is achieving pleasure. Pleasure as the by-product of some other terminal goal is okay. We strive to climb a mountain, reach the top, and feel a surge of pleasure at the accomplishment. Thus, the pleasure functions to reinforce all that hard work. It is the accomplishment that is our goal. Not the pleasure. But when we engage in activities solely for the pleasure, particularly when little to no effort is called for, we sense we are cheating life. Getting the thrill, the hedonic payoff, for little investment. This is one reason we are suspicious of hedonic terminal desires: We can sit around and get quick pleasure fixes and not grow or accomplish anything. The pleasure keeps us satiated and our engagement in the world declines. We become hedonists.

And hedonism gets in the way of following Christ. If all we do in life is seek hedonic terminal desires we will be like rats pushing a bar that stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain. We'll simply push that bar until we die. Humans are more sophisticated than that, but many, perhaps most, people live their lives exactly like this.

So, to summarize, some things are deemed sinful in that they are hedonistic; the point of the action is not be be good or courageous or kind; the point is to have the act terminate in an experience of pleasure.

But here is the problem: Where do you draw the line? Are you really climbing the mountain solely for the accomplishment? What would the accomplishment be without the thrill of victory? Further, pleasure pervades life. Should we enjoy good food and drink? Historically, Christians have differed on this. St. Francis threw ashes on his food so that it wouldn't taste good. Is that the right path? In short, although we should be rightly suspicious of pleasure, it is very hard to determine just how much pleasure you're allowed to have. We know that the excessive seeking of pleasure is bad, but who defines "excessive"?

In short, pleasure might make us theologically suspicious but it rarely offers theological guidance.

Thinking specifically about sexuality. Masturbation has always been morally suspect because it is an act aimed at a terminal hedonic desire: Orgasm for the sake of orgasm. That is, we, through auto-erotic activity, manipulate our bodies to achieve a rush of pleasure. The body is tricked into thinking it is having intercourse with the possibility of procreation. Further, sex is supposed to be relational and masturbation is surely not. For all those reasons, masturbation seems suspect. It is hard to say if it is wrong, but something concerns Christians about it.

This concern is most clearly seen in the Catholic views regarding birth control. According to the Catholic church, sex for the sake of orgasm is morally wrong. That is, sex has to be about something other than orgasm. The true goal of sex should be procreation and, if that goal happens to have a pleasurable side-effect, that much the better. But pleasure cannot be the terminal goal of the sex act.

Protestants don't agree with this reasoning. But this just goes to show that, although we are suspicious about pleasure, it is hard to find a theological consensus on how to solely use pleasure to define sin.

Some more ideas are needed.

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7 thoughts on “Theology and Sexuality, Part 3: Hedonic Terminal Desires”

  1. I agree with Cole. Keep this up.

    Your remarks remind me of the passage near the end of Colossians 2, where Paul writes...

    "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence."

  2. Just a nitpick, but I'm not sure that drug use falls completely, or solely, into the category of hedonic terminal desire. That is, from a certain Christian perspective, drug use is bad not merely because it involves pleasure for pleasure's sake, but also because it's (often) ultimately self-destructive.

    I'd be curious to hear your reflections on the commendation of enjoyment in Ecclesiastes, in light of this discussion of hedonic terminal desires.

  3. I have been out of the blog loop since the beginning of March, so I had no idea that you had started a blog. It's good to see you wrestling with these questions. Christine Gudorf, a Catholic feminist liberation theologian from Florida International University has an interesting book called Body, Sex, and Pleasure in which she tries to construct a new Christian sexual ethic. Her thoughts on masturbation may be helpful as you continue to flesh this out this topic (no pun intended).

  4. What are your 50,000 thoughts a day creating?
    Our thoughts create our reality. This is a simple truth known by all people involved on the spiritual path. It is one of the most taught universal principles in the personal development field. Yet it is one of the most misunderstood!
    People practice visualisation, affirmations, they use hypnosis, subliminal programming or countless other tools to transform their lives. However they fail to recognise one key area in their lives that hinder these wonderful techniques from being effective.
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    The thoughts that you follow and give energy to become more dominant than the thoughts you discard. Your subconscious mind records these as your dominant picture on the issue at hand. You then move towards this picture because your subconscious mind starts making your outside world reflect the picture that you have stored internally.
    Your mind should be on whatever you want. The picture you need to have is a positive vision of you already having achieved your goal. To realise this vision you need to focus and concentrate. Remember thoughts are real, they create your reality.
    Let's say you have been visualising a new house. You spend your ten minutes in meditation picturing yourself living in your dream home. You finish your session and get up feeling positive that you will achieve your goal. Then during the day you get a heating bill through the post and exclaim "Oh no look how expensive this is I cannot afford to heat this house". Where is your focus in the present moment? What are you affirming? You are telling your subconscious mind that you cannot deal with what you have. You are affirming that your life is not how you want it to be. If you knew without doubt that within a week you would be moving to your new home would you honestly be worried about a heating bill? Perhaps other doubts creep in like "I should be happy with what I have", or "I will never get this house looking the way I want it" and so on and so on.
    These thoughts that are not aligned with your goal. You are not giving complete attention to what you want. Whilst you are dealing with these other lines of thought your attention is not on your goal.
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    Point your focus in the direction of you're the life you want. Think about what you want NOT what you don't want. It's that simple.
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  5. OK. so I am a year late getting to your blog. Just a couple of observations. First, I am not sure that the Christian Community is necessarily suspicious of terminal hedonistic desire in and of itself. It may be, but it seems to me that terminal hedonistic desire is fine as long as it is derived from communion and worship with the Lord. Other than that, I would agree that pleasure that is incidental to God-ordained acts, like sex in order to please your mate, is healthy enough. Sex that is intended solely for procreation?

  6. I agree with Bob. I am sure God wanted us to experience pleasure in the context of relationship with Christ. In my limited years of practicing Christianity, I have not thought of pleasure as suspicious unless it produces consequences of harm to self, harm to others, or harm to the cause of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth through faith in Jesus Christ.

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