Some Thoughts on the Sin of Sensuality

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At some point every weekend, I spend about an hour giving myself a manicure. It’s a labor of love, and inconvenience: add to that hour the also-half-hour-or-hour spent not doing anything but gingerly pressing “play” on that day’s webisode of Melissa Harris-Perry. I’ve jumped the gun this week: my nails were chipping, so I took the plunge even though it’s only Friday. Removed last week’s nail polish, soaked my fingertips in warm water in the sink, pushed back and clipped my cuticles, clipped my nails and gently filed them. All that’s left is to apply four coats of the too-sheer nontoxic nail polish I’ve been using, but I can’t do that until I’ve typed my piece.

At some point in this flurry of filing and clipping I thought back to the sin of sensuality, a concept I studied as a college senior writing a thesis for Princeton’s Religion Department. My junior year independent work had focused on late 20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian realist and Cold War hawk who advocated action against dangerous enemies tempered by critical self-reflection. For Niebuhr, whose theology developed against the backdrop of enormous multinational wars and power struggles, the greatest virtue was self-sacrifice, the greatest sin was pride, and men fell more easily to the latter than the former.

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For Niebuhr’s feminist critics, his use of “man” and “men” as generic human pronouns was important, and more precise than Niebuhr realized. Valerie Saiving Goldstein’s 1960 article “The Human Situation: A Feminist View,” was the first to articulate the feminist critique of Niebuhr’s theology. Focusing her argument on the visions of love and sin articulated by Niebuhr and Anders Nygren, she considered their views that “man’s predicament [rises] from his separateness and the anxiety occasioned by it.” According to Nieburh and Nygren, Goldstein argued, the anxiety of autonomy led these male theologians to “identify sin with self-assertion and love with selflessness” (100). Pushing oneself to be an individual was construed as sinful; virtue was constructed as relinquishing one’s identity in the interest of others. Goldstein’s concern is not over the reality of this assertion, but rather its presentation as universal. If this vision of love is not redemptive, it is not normative; if “human nature and the human situation are not as described by the theologians in question, then the assertion that self-giving love is the law of man’s being is irrelevant and may even be untrue.” Goldstein boldly claimed that a theology which inaccurately represents the spiritual needs of all people needs to be changed.

According to Goldstein, the experiences of growing up male and female are different: a boy has to prove he is a man, while a woman has only to wait until she is a woman. “[M]asculinity is an endless process of becoming, while in femininity the emphasis is on being” (105). Her conclusions suggested an entire new category of sins and virtues for the powerless: 

For the temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man, and the specifically feminine forms of sin—“feminine” not because they are confined to women or because women are incapable of sinning in other ways but because they are outgrowths of the basic feminine character structure—have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as “pride” and “will-to-power.” They are better suggested by such items as triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s own self definition…in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self. The fact that her whole growth toward womanhood has the character of an inevitable process of bodily maturation rather than that of a challenge and a task may lead her to dissipate herself in activities which are merely trivial…[Indeed,] the specifically feminine dilemma is, in fact, precisely the opposite of the masculine. (108-109)

In fact, Niebuhr was aware of a second type of sin. Daphne Hampson draws attention to to the existence of “[t]wo types of sin, the refusal to relinquish power and the refusal to claim it” (“Reinhold Niebuhr on Sin: A Critique,” 56). Although it plays only a bit part in Niebuhr’s writings and is usually overlooked, the refusal to claim power is referred to by Niebuhr as the sin of “sensuality.”Implicitly, however, it seeps through his oeuvre as the shadow of all his assertions. For every agent of power who sinned in pride, there is always the powerless, whose agency has been corrupted. This is perhaps most clear in his comments on the African American community, whose uplift he saw depending on their decision to take power for themselves, for it would never be given to them willingly (Niebuhr, “The Preservation of Moral Values in Politics”). And this point was taken up by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “It is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals” (King).

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A number of later feminist theologians took up Goldstein’s call and proposed feminist values as alternatives to Niebuhr’s self-sacrifice, values Barbara Hilkert Andolsen’s focus on “honesty, courage, and self-assertion” and “mutuality” (“Agape in Feminist Ethics”). As Fule puts it, rather beautifully, taking up the language of “sensuality” carries its own “weight and shadow” (“Being Human Before God”). Sensuality still rings as a sin–delighting in fleshly pleasures, that sort of thing. No lay person thinks of the word “creatureliness.”

Which brings me back to my manicure. If pride were sinful and self-sacrifice the only virtue, it’d be an affront to paint my nails and a Godly service to keep on biting them instead. But as I sat on the closed toilet seat with clipper in hand, working through my fleeting sense that I should be doing something more productive, this rush of ideas crossed my mind. That it’s okay to be a proud creature for an hour, to tend to my body and enjoy its health. Goldstein, Hampton and Andolsen might suggest that beyond simply tolerable, it’s actually virtuous to take care of ourselves. My fingers do a lot of work for me (see: above), so it’s both reciprocal and right that I let them relax once in a while.

UPDATE: Of course, now that I actually watch the above video, with its keyboardist looking like Cornel West with only a dash of ?uestlove, I wonder whether my whole nails shebang isn’t an example of the sins of triviality and diffuseness that Goldstein warned about, rather than an embrace of creatureliness. Managing vice and virtue sure is a tricky business. What do you guys think?

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