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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White Americans Don’t Believe in Death (a collection of testaments for Dr. King, belatedly)

Last semester, after my students were done working on a small-group activity involving theologian James Cone’s book The Spirituals and the Blues, one of my students announced that Cone was guilty of reverse racism. From the section on “The Blues and Sex,” here was the passage which offended him:

People who have not been oppressed physically cannot know the power inherent in bodily expressions of love. That is why white Western culture makes a sharp distinction between the spirit and the body, the divine and the human, the sacred and the secular. White oppressors do not know how to come to terms with the essential spiritual function of the human body. But for black people the body is sacred, and they know how to use it in the expression of love.

Now, this book is and will continue to be a hard book to treat in an introductory class, not least because of Cone’s fondness for the steadfast binary (here, at least) between “white oppressors” and “black people.” But that body/spirit split so central to Western Christian thinking is worth meditating on.

I first came upon it in feminist criticisms of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which criticized this binary as not only an underappreciation of the fullness of the human condition, but–in the way that the spirit was continually valorized over the body–a construction that led to an overemphasis on sins and salvations of the spirit. Judith Plaskow wrote in her Sex, Sin and Salvation:

First of all, Niebuhr’s concern with the negative side of creatureliness may be part of what leads him to underestimate the sin of sensuality. The fact that Niebuhr ignores the positive features of human naturalness may prevent him from fully apprehending sensuality’s temptations. Not seeing human beings as continually, positively involved in the world’s vitalities, he is less likely to view loss of self in some aspect of these vitalities as a clear and ever present danger. (1980, 69)

How great of a word is creatureliness???

But this distance from the realities of the human body have repercussions outside the realm of the theologians, in spaces spiritual and political. In his book The Fire Next Time (1962), James Baldwin explained the conundrum simply and powerfully (as he explains all things in that little book).

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality–the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life….But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant–birth, struggle and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so–and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. (Cone’s emphases)

Mexican poet Octavio Paz makes related comments in his essay “Dia de los Muertos,” from his 1961 collection Laberinto de la Soledad, in which he contextualizes death’s disappearance as a paradox of modernity.

Modern death (Paz writes) does not have any significance that transcends it or that refers to other values. It is rarely anything more than the inevitable conclusion of a natural process. In a world of facts, death is merely one more fact. But since it is such a disagreeable fact, contrary to all our concepts and to the very meaning of our lives, the philosophy of progress (“Progress toward what, and from what?” Scheler asked) pretends to make it disappear, like a magician palming a coin. Everything in the modern world functions as if death did not exist. Nobody takes it into account, it is suppressed everywhere: in political pronouncements, commercial advertising, public morality and popular customs; in the promise of cut-rate heath and happiness offered to all of us by hospitals, drugstores and playing fields. But death enters into everything we undertake, and it is no longer a transition but a great gaping mouth that nothing can satisfy. The century of health, hygiene and contraceptives, miracle drugs and synthetic foods, is also the century of the concentration camp and the police state, Hiroshima and the murder story.

In his recent article for the Washington Post, “Why do we ignore civilians killed in American wars?” John Tierman detailed the many ways that official tallies undercount the damage done by the Iraq War–but his argument is more about the attitudes that underlie such a callous inattention. Suggesting that America’s wars of the last 50 years have produced around six million casualties (no Holo), he refers to a theory called the “just world” theory, “which argues that humans naturally assume that the world should be orderly and rational” and explains that the “The public dismissed the civilians [of Vietnam, Korea and Iraq] because their high mortality rates, displacement and demolished cities were discordant with our understandings of the missions and the U.S. role in the world”  (Tierman).

Sounds to me like Mr. Tiernan found–but didn’t name– another reason Americans ignore death: chauvinism.