Bodies beyond sex

I am just beginning to (finally) read Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. In my final trip to the library of St Paul University yesterday, I read Andrew Louth’s 1990 review of the book in question. The review was overall positive, but one note he struck is one that I sometimes feel as well.

Louth observes that “today” (that is, 1990), when you see a book with “body” in the title, you immediately know that it is going to be about sex. And so with this book. His concern with this modern preoccupation with sex is that it was not, in fact, always the main preoccupation of the ancient authors, which therefore produces something of an unintended distortion of their teachings. Yes, Brown may get their teaching on sex right, but without being fully situated, contextualised, and relativised to each author’s wider ideas about the body, we may believe that they were all very, even overly, concerned with sex.

I am at present working on an article about John Cassian’s Conferences, one of the early, foundational texts of Latin monasticism. Cassian’s fourteenth Conference — about chastity — is part of Brown’s concern, largely as a quiet response to Augustine. (In many ways, Cassian is a balancing force against medieval Augustinianism, both being read and copied innumerable times by the monks of the western Middle Ages.) As Brown notes, for Cassian, sexuality is not the heart of the person, but rather a symptom, and the deepest recesses of the person are where the true, most baleful sins lie — “anger, greed, avarice, and vainglory.” (p. 420, 2008 ed.)

Indeed, as Boniface Ramsey notes in the commentary of his translation of the Conferences, food was a much more pervasive concern of the Desert Fathers than sex — something that Brown, in fact, notes. (But Ramsey is not at hand, so I cannot give you a reference to either him or Brown.)

At the same time as all of this, we are reading Clement of Alexandria‘s Paedagogus over at Read the Fathers. In Book 2 of this work, Clement says that since we are rational and have submitted ourselves to God the Word as our paedagogus, we must keep our bodies in check. The chapters of Book 2 are as follows:

  1. On eating
  2. On drinking
  3. On costly vessels (against luxurious tableware)
  4. How to conduct ourselves at feasts (mostly about music)
  5. On Laughter
  6. On Filthy Speaking
  7. Directions for Those Who Live Together
  8. On the Use of Ointments and Crowns (garlands?)
  9. On Sleep
  10. On the procreation of children
  11. On clothes
  12. On shoes
  13. Against Excessive Fondness for Jewels and Gold Ornaments

These are all, in one way or another, matters to do with how we live as embodied human persons, are they not? Food, drink, the treatment of food and drink, the use of our mouths, sleep, etc. Sex does not emerge until chapter 10.

The embodied human existence is more than sex, and all of us know it. I believe a new generation of scholars is pointing us in this direction, not only John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, who is definitely of a generation prior to mine, but my colleagues as well.

If we wish to grasp the ancients as they saw themselves, we need to understand their treatment of the body in matters of sex as well as eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, dressing, laughing, and so forth.


Behr, John. Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement. Oxford, 2000.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society. New York, 2008 (20th anniversary ed., originally 1988).

Louth, Andrew. Review of The Body and SocietyJournal of Theological Studies ns 4 (1990), 231-235.

Ramsey, Boniface. John Cassian: The Conferences. New York.

4 thoughts on “Bodies beyond sex

  1. Adam T


    Thanks for a thoughtful post. Greetings from the corona bunkers. I agree overall, and yet…

    First of all, someone like Augustine does take sex seriously. Read City of God 14.16-20. Other than death, the genitals are his main example for how we can’t control ourselves post-Fall. Sex also does have a significance for him because sexual climax nearly obliterates all thinking. For him, there is no bodily pleasure that is greater: “Cum igitur sint multarum libidines rerum, tamen, cum libido dicitur neque cuius rei libido sit additur, non fere assolet animo occurrere nisi illa, qua obscenae partes corporis excitantur. Haec autem sibi non solum totum corpus nec solum extrinsecus, verum etiam intrinsecus vindicat totumque commovet hominem animi simul affectu cum carnis appetitu coniuncto atque permixto, ut ea voluptas sequatur, qua maior in corporis voluptatibus nulla est; ita ut momento ipso temporis, quo ad eius pervenitur extremum, paene omnis acies et quasi vigilia cogitationis obruatur. ”

    Even from a scientific perspective, that seems honest to me., rather than downplaying sex. It is also important theologically. A main thesis of City of God is that the enduring power of libido – including all forms of libido, not just sexual – demonstrate our need for grace. I personally find part of this account problematic, and granted, your points may hold if we do exclude Augustine; I am not as informed on the wider tradition. Still, I do think his account is fascinating, as someone who is trying to be honest about sex’s unique power with regard to other bodily functions.

    Second, it is significant to me that both John Behr and Andrew Louth are orthodox (converts? and British?). Orthodoxy, like the C of E, has strained with every nerve to fashion a fence-sitting attitude to homosexuals, and are destroying the church in the process. Homosexuality may seem irrelevant here but it puts the disturbing question of gratuitous sex, which the theological tradition, especially the patristic tradition, has not come up with a clear answer to. Conservatives are usually happy to give the orthodox advice, that sex should be pro-creative, and then look the other way when it doesn’t work. That’s the mainstream position in C of E and basically all of evangelicalism today: repeat some vague form of the patristic advice, and then be like: why are we talking about sex? That seems dishonest to me. First because sex is special, as Augustine argues. Second because we have different problems to face now than the church fathers, with gay marriage being legal and contraception not going to go away, infant mortality rates lower, etc.

    Just one more rant about this duplicitousness or dishonesty: I was at a meeting in 2018 where the current Archbishop of Canterbury (Justin Welby) said something like “why can’t we just stop talking so much about sex?” when at the same time, he was banning the USA Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion meetings for supporting gay marriages. It is unbelievable. I just think talking about sex in the church has reached a level of hypocrisy and unreality that is shocking. Given that Welby is both straight and in the evangelical majority, that was like a rich person saying, “why are we talking about money so much?”… I worry about that with scholars too, that this claim “why is sex so important” further drives the church away from real people.

    There may be something from the younger generation that comes out that is good, yes. There is work being done on celibacy, but that is unlikely to find a wide appeal, if we look to history. I am not sure what else is being done; I am pretty pessimistic given the current leadership or state of English-language theology. I personally think there are historical figures with healthier attitudes to emotions, body, and sex like Montaigne or Luther that had a more realistic view to sex that was influenced by Augustine. Augustine saw body, emotions and sex all linked together (again, cf. City of God 14, or my doctoral thesis). It may also be we can take over stuff that was never integrated into Christianity from the earlier ancient literature, like the Phaedrus. Augustine never had access in Latin to a lot of the Platonic dialogues that deal more realistically with the body/desire question (e.g. Phaedrus, Lysis), and Theodosius’ and Constantine’s laws made sexuality morality more of a serious (and sometimes dangerous) public matter than it was at other times. And Plotinus is horrifically homophobic. So it’s an error, I think to try to act like the church fathers, Augustine or others, are just thinking about the same exact problems we are.

    If you have any thoughts I would be interested.

    End of rambling thoughts, Adam


    1. MJH Post author

      I’m so glad you are a reader of this blog, because this is probably one of the best-informed comments I’ve ever seen. A few responses, now that I am into Brown’s long introduction to the book from 2008.

      First: I always bow to you when it comes to Augustine. From what Brown says in the intro, it seems that Augustine is his own man here as elsewhere. I have been thinking about the dual Augustinian-Cassianic influence on medieval thought about predestination lately. Perhaps the same could be plumbed regarding sex. Anyway, sex is special and ancient people had important things to say about it, things that were part of a very different vision of the cosmos — part of Brown’s approach to the material in this book is the “othering” of ancient Christianity. So we’ll see where I go. He certainly agrees that they are not “thinking about the same exact problems we are” — which is why a book such as The Body and Society is important.

      Second: Louth’s critique was not so much that sex wasn’t important for this people so much as that it wasn’t their only concern. For John Behr, who is also taking on Foucault, his thoughts about anthropology in ancient Christianity are trying to be theologically embedded within the specificity of each author — which is to say that sex in his book will, presumably, end up being relativised to all other aspects of embodied personhood.

      Behr and Louth are interesting in the things they say in the controversial issue of The Wheel that addresses homosexuality. Not that they say anything very interesting about homosexuality, actually, but because they are trying, within the confines of that tradition, to find new ways to attempt talking about human relationships, embodiment, and sexuality. Whether there is any long-term theological fecundity there is a different question.

      Third: I guess the concern I have is more that of a historian who fears that other aspects of the range of human embodied experience may be lost in the focus on sexuality, no matter how well done. Because of the timeliness of Brown’s topic, it will always outsell Susan Harvey’s book Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination. In short: I fear a narrowing of our imaginations when we confront ancient experience and ancient bodies.

      That said, I want to emphasise that sex is definitely an important and ingrained part of the human body for the ancients, even if they approached it very differently from us. And that, therefore, seeing their strangeness is perhaps a way to look at new ways forwards.

      Fourth: As to whether any church has a possible way forward in sexual ethics and theology that does justice to Scripture, tradition, and the lived experience of Christians today regarding their sexuality — I have very little to say on that matter and suspect the answer, barring a new special revelation, is No.


  2. Adam

    Thanks Matthew – this is a really thoughtful response.

    Just one thing in particular: “Behr and Louth are interesting in the things they say in the controversial issue of The Wheel that addresses homosexuality. Not that they say anything very interesting about homosexuality, actually, but because they are trying, within the confines of that tradition, to find new ways to attempt talking about human relationships, embodiment, and sexuality.”

    Thanks – I will have a look. I will have to look more at Behr – Foucault’s approaches and claims are often so bizarre that I am not sure he is the best interlocutor, but … he is popular.

    Just one other thing: in my opinion, the English-speaking theology scene is not paying enough attention to interesting work from the Germans, for example of Peter Dabrock: Unverschämt schön is maybe not the most appealing title but the direction of that project was interesting.

    “Fourth: As to whether any church has a possible way forward in sexual ethics and theology that does justice to Scripture, tradition, and the lived experience of Christians today regarding their sexuality — I have very little to say on that matter and suspect the answer, barring a new special revelation, is No.”

    I mean, did you read Robert Song? I thought it was a good book – the arguments and hermeneutic were grounded in Scripture, tradition, and experience today.


    1. MJH Post author

      Hi Adam! Thanks again for another thoughtful response. I have no doubt most of us anglos are ignorant of the German theological scene! And I’ll have to read Robert Song. My experience with what anglophones have to say has been mostly evangelicals and the occasional unimpressive liberal, which is possibly why I find Behr and Louth interesting and refreshing! Sarah Coakley, although she does not get into sexual ethics, has some good things to say in God, Sexuality, and the Self, actually.

      As I reflect on our exchange, I realise that I am in danger of swinging too far regarding sexuality and the human person — in a desire to bring balance as well as through my own interests (I honestly am more interested to read about monks and food, or sleep, or the sense of smell most days), I would probably inadvertently downplay the significance of sexuality for the ancient thoughtworld.



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