I have watched with keen interest the debates unfolding around the Revoice Conference, which takes place in St. Louis at the end of July. (The mission of Revoice, for those who don’t know, is to support LGBT Christians who seek to observe the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.) The debate began with a concern over whether “Side B” (celibate gay) Christians can sustain the tension between homosexual identity and Christian identity expressed in the phrase “gay Christian.” This question has now led to a debate over the nature of temptation and the presence of disordered desire in the Christian.
Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield are among those who have taken the lead in criticizing Revoice. In response to Ron Belgau’s defense of the conference, Burk and Butterfield have articulated the theological foundations of their position in the controversy. Though they seek to defend the traditional Reformed interpretation of St. Augustine, their understanding of concupiscence misinterprets Augustine in fundamental ways.
Privileging Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings, Burk and Butterfield have argued that the mere presence of concupiscence is itself a sin, even among believers. But their concerns about eros do not take into consideration the nature of salvation as the ecstatic flight of desire to its true home. In Augustine’s vocabulary, eros is amor, not concupiscentia.
For Augustine, love is the most basic appetite of the soul. It is the soul’s movement outward in union with all that is good, whether temporal or eternal. This outward movement is a form of ecstasy, a reflection of God’s internal ecstatic movement from the Father through the Son in the Spirit. It is intrinsic to the human person as a creature that cannot sustain its own existence. In short, God has designed humans to be lovers.
The question is how to direct this outward movement, thus properly ordering one’s loves. Charity emerges from loving God above all, and loving everything else in and through love of God. Privileging temporal goods over the eternal good that is God turns love into concupiscence. Concupiscence becomes a shorthand for a new reality. Death’s grip upon the body snares humans in a cycle of moving from one created good to another in a desperate bid to find release. Humans yearn for the freedom to transcend their own condition in union with the good, yet they seek this transcendence in temporal realities that can never deliver it.
Central to this problem is the fact that temporal goods can and do transmit eternal realities. There is a sacramentalism to creation, which Augustine grounds in the seminal reasons woven into the fabric of matter. Seminal reasons are the individuated patterns of all living things, placed within matter and from which matter individuates itself. These created patterns point toward the eternal reasons or patterns and serve as conduits for God’s presence in creation. God speaks and touches in and through the patterns of all living things, which continuously point back to the Son. It is for this reason that love of a temporal good can offer a temporary glimpse and foretaste of eternity. The ecstatic touch of sexual union offers a glimpse of a much richer hue, the union with God at the center of all.
Fallen existence means that humans stand under the penalty of sin. In this broad sense, “sin” denotes fallen existence. It is not the same as “transgression” or the voluntary consent to commit an action contrary to God’s moral law. The penalty of sin is a life caught between death and the desire for transcendence. Since created realities offer a genuine glimpse of transcendence, humans pursue them, with a lust that consumes them even as it devours created good after created good in the quest to become more, to find rest at last. Augustine refers to this lust as concupiscence. It is misdirected love and thus disordered desire. Such is the cycle of fallen existence. To flee death, humans lust after this or that created reality, always moving between love for temporal things and fear of losing them.
Augustine is insistent that the problem is not love per se—not amor or eros—but the prioritizing of the temporal over the eternal, the treatment of what we should use for our good over what we should enjoy as the source of our good. Since the difference between lust and love comes down to the object of desire and how the person understands that object in relation to others, it is often difficult to tell where love ends and lust begins. Likewise, it’s difficult to tell where genuine love of self ends and the lust that treats the self as a god begins. This problem spills over into other areas, such as knowing where self-defense ends and the lust to control and dominate begins.
This problem will always be a part of Christian existence. Believers will remain defective and diseased until complete transformation. But this does not mean that we stand perpetually guilty, nor that we must surrender to inclinations of the flesh. Augustine is clear that “concupiscence itself is not sin any more in the regenerate,” even if he acknowledges that it can serve as a metaphor for sin, since a sinful action produced the condition and the condition inclines persons to sinful action. Guilt entails consent (whether explicit or implicit), as Augustine’s analysis of the temptation scene in Genesis 3 makes clear. The term vitium (vice) denotes primarily physical deformity, but it can also denote spiritual deformity. When Augustine claims that humans remain vitiated, he means that they remain deformed. The penalty for sin is always present as long as death is present. Yet we fundamentally misunderstand Augustine if we think that the mere presence of disordered desire makes believers perpetually guilty.
Humans are all prodigal sons and daughters, wallowing in the temporary fixes of created goods rather than returning to the Creator of all. The good of sexual union in marriage may compete with the good of union with God, because humans taste something richer in and through the sexual act and take the act itself for the source of transcendence (rather than a conduit of it). This is the essence of idolatry. Conversion is the grace-initiated process of turning our loves back to God as the only source of all reality and the eternal good to which our love points.
As Augustine makes clear in On Holy Virginity, Christians who have chosen holy chastity, consecrating their love to God, have already determined by an act of will that eternal union is the true home of eros, and thus have elected the eternal over the temporal. This election is only possible by the Spirit through whom Christians taste the delights of the age to come.
When, for instance, Wesley Hill claims that being gay colors everything, he is not referring to concupiscence per se, but to the way in which eroticism under the yoke of Christ opens up the erotic life as so much more than sexual union. In this way, the flight of eros finds its way back home. This is precisely what twelfth-century Christians like Bernard of Clairvaux were trying to bring about in response to the growing popularity of Ovid and the fixation on the physicality of love.
Side B Christians know, as we all do, that it is not easy to distinguish genuine love for temporal goods from lust. Maybe, instead of condemning the ascetical struggle of Side B Christians, we should see them as partners in the erotic and ecstatic journey to the Triune God.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University