A Covenant with my Eyes: Part 2, Maybe Augustine Was Right

Among conservative Christians, at least among those who love church history, Augustine stands as a giant. But among more progressive Christians, Augustine's image is more troubled. Augustine is "problematic," as they say.

Much of "the problem" with Augustine has to do with Augustine's relationship with sex. As readers of The Confessions know, the central struggle in Augustine's conversion was more about sex than belief. Could he give up sex? That was his huge struggle. And very late in life, in his debate with Julian, Augustine argues that sexual desire is inherently disordered.

Obviously, Augustine's views don't sit well with modern, progressive views about sex. Augustine seems to represent, and is perhaps the origin and source, of all that is repressed, guilt-ridden, and puritanical in Christian views about sex.

And yet, many have noticed that there is a very Augustinian vibe that runs through much of modern life regarding sex. Specifically, men are expected to display the Augustinian virtue of continence, the ability to show self-restraint in controlling sexual impulses.

Consider two examples. 

First, it is widely considered to be a propagation of "rape myths," beliefs that shift blame for sexual assault from perpetrators onto victims, to describe men as being unable control their sexual impulses. Even when sexually aroused, the expectation in our liberated sexual world is that men should display Augustinian control. Respecting consent in the grip of passion, prior to and even in the midst of intercourse itself, demands the virtue of continence. 

A second example concerns the interest of this series. Consider the cultural debates about modesty. Must women dress modestly to prevent men from having lustful thoughts? Historically, in conservative Christian circles, the burden was placed upon women. Women had to dress modestly in order to protect men from sexual temptation. But over the last generation, this discourse has changed, especially in progressive Christian spaces. The burden has shifted onto men. Women should be allowed to dress however they want, and it is up to men to control their own thoughts. Again, the demand here from progressives is Augustinian, a demand for sexual self-control and self-restraint. No matter how women dress, men must make "a covenant with their eyes" in managing their sexual desires when looking at women in public spaces.

My point in these illustrations isn't to take sides in any of these debates, but to simply note a surprising, and even ironic, convergence of our liberated sexual ethic upon the Augustinian virtue of continence. Augustine is regularly made a whipping boy among progressives, a vision of all that is wrong with how Christians view sex. And yet, some Augustinian virtues sit at the very heart of many progressive expectations surrounding sex, from consent to modesty.

But that, however, raises a hug, huge question for the modern world. If the modern sexual ethic demands Augustinian restraint, just where is this virtue being formed in our culture? Because you can't expect virtue without formation. That is a truism. And if this virtue isn't being formed, then whence comes this demand and expectation?

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