By exploring the implications of Augustine’s doctrine of sin, Christian theologian Jesse Couenhoven analyzes the link between the doctrine of original sin and sexism. He argues that sexism can be understood as a form or outworking of original sin. His point of departure is the existence of common elements between Augustine’s views of sin and the perspectives of many feminist scholars. One of those elements is the nature of sin/responsibility.
Original Sin and the Criticism Made by Feminist Scholars
A general criticism made by feminist scholars (for instance, Valerie Saiving) is that Christian tradition has paid nothing or little attention to female experience in theological anthropology and central doctrines of the Christian faith such as sin and salvation.
In this respect one important problem to note is the way men and women are raised. In Western societies, men are taught to be more active and tend to define themselves as superiors in relation to their mothers, an aspect that might cause those boys to develop temptations toward pride, understanding pride here as the excessive assertion of oneself and as the opposite of the virtue of humility (please note that both, however, can be vicious). Unlike boys, girls are taught to be submissive, developing temptations as low self-esteem and damaged identity (p. 198). This situation is aggravated by the status quo which it has understood sin in binary categories: victim/perpetrator, active/passive, and alike. Under this binary framework, women are usually viewed as victims and passive persons in relation to men.
This issue, along with the fact society tends to see only accountable persons as autonomous, has led feminist scholars to give a different account of the concept of autonomy. As a response, what some feminists have done is first emphasizing the relational aspect of human beings with the purpose of highlighting that such relations shape human character and behaviors (p. 199). This also aligns with both incarnational and disability theology. Second, feminists have introduced the terms “hiding sin “and “sin hiding” as an alternative proposal to the binary categories mentioned earlier. The rationale behind this proposal is the belief that it is in relationships what we become who we are (something that Christianity tends to emphasize as well). In this respect, Couenhoven writes: “In a fallen and sinful world, we are born into a situation determined by structures of sin, and our thoughts, desires, and intentions are shaped into sinful patterns” (p. 199). Affirming this position allows us to embrace a twofold view of sin: women are both passive and active in the sin of hiding. In this way, women internalize their sin, and at the same time they can fail to resist such oppression. Thus, in such a process of hiding, women are put into the service of sin (p. 200). As seen, the sin of hiding would be both cultural/social learned and a willing decision. A question that one might arise is whether the hiding sin is also present in men. Because this feminist critique speaks of women as experiencing the sin of hiding, the situation of men experiencing the same sin remains unclear. However, let’s advance with the proposal as understood by Couenhoven.
Regarding the implications of terminology, the use of the term “hiding sin” instead of evil seems to bring some advantages for the sin-talk discussion: First, it challenges the traditional understanding of the link between responsibility, choice, and autonomy. Second, it lets us to rethink if the process of hiding is indeed sinful (as Mary Potter Engel argues). Engel redefines sin as free acts made by responsible individuals that create/reinforce oppression. Under this redefinition of sin, Engels claims that victims of oppression such as children or women would not be able to sin under such situation. Engels’ position is, however, not accepted by others theologians and philosophers. It is important to mention that other feminists go into the opposite direction: “hiding sin” is a proper term because such act is not passive at all. By hiding sin women are active, for example, in losing their personal identity (as Judith Plaskow holds). Other interpret that hiding sin as the sin of sloth (as Hampson, Vaughn). This definition would work for both victims or not and does not depend on the fact if it is active or not — the point here is highlighting the fact that because it is easily internalized, people tend to perpetuate the very system which oppresses them (p. 201).
Interesting to analyze here it would be the definition of sloth. Thomas Aquinas in Suma Theologica (II-II, Q.20, A.4) argues that sloth leads to despair. Isn’t despair one of the consequences of blunt sexism? It could be. In Glittering Vices (Brazos Press, 2009), Rebecca DeYoung, for example, briefly challenges the popular notion about understanding sloth as mere laziness. She argues that the modern concept of ‘sloth’ has departed significantly from the spiritual roots which with it had connections (DeYoung, 82). DeYoung’s aim is to retrieve the Christian notion of sloth and clarify the misunderstandings around this concept. To that end, DeYoung clings to Aquinas who is in the middle between the old notion of sloth and the modern. For Aquinas, DeYoung affirms sloth is an “aversion to the divine good in us.” (qtd. in p. 85) By using an analogy with marriage between two persons, DeYoung argues that sloth happens when someone “resists the effort of doing day after day after day whatever it takes to keep the bonds of love strong and living and healthy, whether he or she feels particularly inspired about doing it or not.” (p. 86) This has to do with the transformation process (becoming) of Christians into whole persons. It is in this respect, sloth is connected with the process of sanctification, as DeYoung suggests. She writes, “Becoming Christlike isn’t about us working like crazy to improve ourselves and merit place in God’s favor. Sanctification is about effort—but not earning.” (DeYoung, p. 87). With this brief introduction to the vice of sloth, Hampson and Vaughn may be correct by interpreting hiding sin as the sin of sloth.
The Problem and How Augustine’s Theory of Responsibility Can Help
The problem which has concerned feminists is the following: How to explain the passivity of women in relation to the doctrine of sin and human freedom? Plaskow believes the passivity of women can be explained in terms of Pelagian autonomy. Others such as Marjorie Suchoki defends the “nonculpable original sin” approach, a position that has problems claiming that a person can be a victim and has blame at the same time. If a person has libertarian freedom, then she can transcend the oppression.
It is in this sense that Augustinian compatibilism provides a way to overcome this issue. Augustine’s theory of responsibility responds to the concerns expressed by some feminists such as Saiving. “There are important similarities between the feminist discourse that speaks of hiding as sin and Augustin’s discourse about original sin,” Couenhoven states (p. 202). Despite the differences, the common area is very significant: human identities are shaped not in a vacuum but around relationships. This position can explain patriarchalism not just as a group of choices a person does but as a worldview which has the power of becoming second nature. In this respect, Couenhoven argues that sexism is, in fact, a “form that original sin takes.” (202).
Especially when discussing the kinds of sin people perpetuate (most inadvertently), it is important paying attention to sin-talk theological discussions. Regrettably, some modern theologians, according to Couenhoven, tend to downplay this aspect (p. 202). What Couenhoven seeks is not blaming victims but identifying the sin in order to confront it.
Inspired by Sarah Coakley, Couenhoven offers a series of resources to develop further our understanding of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin in its compatibilist version. Hiding can be understood as a form of original sin of sexism, which it can be internalized by men and women. The problem is, nonetheless, about identifying sexism as the source to be blamed. Couenhoven thinks most people would agree that “sexist beliefs, desires, and (in)actions are evil” but they probably would not recognize [though they should] their responsibility of those beliefs and actions (p. 203).
Two important questions which emerges are the following: Does non-culpable ignorance can be an excuse for exculpating people who have sinned a) in terms of sexism/racism, (b) in terms of other non-moral kinds of sin? It seems that regarding sexism/racism non-culpable ignorance should not be excused in our society, mainly because there has been done a lot of work done by activists and education to teach people about the dangers of sexist/racist behavior. I concur. However, there should be more awareness around this topic in cross-cultural situations because under this situation, things complex and are never easy to analyze. For instance, for people who come from other countries it takes significant time to learn about the culture and local customs. Concerning non-moral kinds of sin, non-culpable ignorance seems to be more acceptable. In the end, we should consider that a bad action does not necessarily entail blame.
Can Augustine Be Considered a Sexist?
In light of this discussion Couenhoven offers a case study: Augustine himself. Couenhoven argues that Augustine is not a sexist person (p. 203). Although in Augustine’s specific belief that women are inferior to men, he is indeed sexist. Augustine was not only responsible for his beliefs (he could choose differently), but his beliefs seem not to be justified, morally or socially. Someone could argue that Augustine did not have any blame because his belief was mistakenly promoted in his socio-cultural context. It seems that under this perspective, sin by ignorance does not lead to blame (p. 204). Nonetheless, for Couenhoven, although Augustine would not be blameworthy he was indeed responsible for his belief due to the circumstances of his context where inequality was common. With this, it seems the Augustinian account of compatibilism allows the situation of someone being responsible but not blameworthy (p. 204).
In this respect, Couenhoven is aware that within a certain view of Augustinian compabilitislim non-culpable ignorance can be sinful. This position is the represented by Lloyd Fields who is following Aristotle. Lloyd believes there are two kinds of ignorance: of particulars and of universals. There is no doubt that ignorance of moral principles, for example, is blameworthy. Couenhoven goes further. He believes that the ignorance of particulars is also blameworthy, understanding an ignorance of particulars as ignorance of “what one is actually doing in a situation or of what is going on in a situation.” (p. 205) Couenhoven thinks that most content of our moral life has to do with particulars. It is a matter not only of what or not do but with the where, when, and how. In the case of Augustine’s ignorance, for instance, he was not just ignorance about women, but it made a moral judgment. For that reason, Couenhoven writes: “There is something blameworthy about that kind of ignorance because Augustine, in holding sexist beliefs, is not simply false beliefs, but also holding morally evil beliefs. And evil beliefs are intrinsically blameworthy, just as evil desires are blameworthy.” (p. 206)
In my view sexism is blameworthy despite the fact little attention has been paid to it. Couenhoven agrees there’s a lot of work to do regarding the topic on sexism and original sin. He asks whether someone can be blamed for involuntary and inherited sins. If we rethink sexism as a form of original sin (collective sin), to what extend an individual has responsibility and blame? As discussed earlier, rethinking sexism as outworking of original sin means that each person can be susceptible to it (both men and women). Although in our discussion it became clear that despite such propensity to sin, we should take care of our behaviors. In that regard, I think that if sexism is an inherited sin, we need more flexibility to understand that people would need to be educated about the propensity to commit this kind of moral sin. In short, considering sexism/racism as a manifestation of original sin is something needs further exploration and more attention among theologians.
Notes & References
All references are taken from Jesse Couenhoven, Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology (Oxford University Press, 2013), section 7.1.3.