BOOK BLOG | The Other Six Deadly Sins: Lust (Sayers - Letter 8)
LUST (luxuria), writes Sayers, is a sin which should be known by its own name. She finds that people tend to speak of “immorality” or the “immoral person” as being the lustful person – the sexually impure. Lust is certainly a sin, but it is hardly the only one, and probably not greatest. So let’s keep the names of our sins straight, shall we?
The opposite of lust, of sexual sin, would presumably be the proper exercise of sex in a marriage defined biblically, and confirmed sacramentally by the Church. Historically, Church and State were of one mind here, since “family solidarity and the orderly devolution of private property [were] in the interests of the state.” Today, however, this is no longer the case. We have instead sophisticated legal contracts which attend to these sorts of questions, and so Caesar has pulled out of the arrangement. Later Sayers will touch on the contemporary development of contractual society and the reduction of human enterprise – perhaps even including marriage – to an economic unit of utility, and we will have more to say on that subsequently.
In the meantime, Sayers reminds us (once again) that the state has its own interests, that they are not those of the Church, that this should not have come as a surprise to so many in the Church, and that the Church must be especially wary of throwing in her lot with the state more than is needful. A lesson, it seems to me, that evangelical, conservative, Christians should have noted more keenly over the past several decades. Swap out Caesar with the Republican party, and the lesson seems particularly timely.
In a larger, civilizational sense this means that the Church has been left alone to “continue her campaign against lust…on sacramental grounds; and she will have to do it, if not in defiance of Caesar, at least without his assistance.” The sacramental nature of doctrine is important here. There must be the sense in which the physical body is a type and reflection of the Divine; that it is truly the temple of the Holy Spirit in the same sense that the bread is the true body of Christ. If this is so, then there is a clear basis for Christian purity. If human sexuality is not tied to the sacramental, then there is only legalism, a shaky and wholly unconvincing basis for either private or public morality.
What drives lust – socially speaking? Sayers believes lust explodes onto the scene “when philosophies are bankrupt and life appears without hope – men and women may turn to lust in sheer boredom and discontent.” We may add to this perhaps the nature of self-discipline or self-governance, ideas which are not ascendant in our time. But when these deeper philosophical issues are corrected (presumably by a return to the robust and correct doctrines of the Church) the lust “may automatically begin to cure itself when that root cause is removed.” That is, if the epidemic of lust in society is ultimately a theological problem, a renewed application of theology may arrest much of the problem rather than having to target particular acts or categories of lust. What this means is that instead of concerning oneself about how far we can safely push the bounds of sexual experimentation and redefinition without falling into hell, we should be laboring towards the overall restoration of a healthy and uncorrupted Church.
Let’s be honest. This is terrible news for now, since it seems unlikely that three centuries of secular humanism and modernity will be put right overnight. Lust, it is clear, has found a receptive TV audience and will therefore continue to spill out into the streets for the foreseeable future. This is not merely a failure of private morality (though that is part of it), but also I believe because there are powers and interests in this world which find it conducive to their own purposes to lead the masses into every greater debasement and indignity, because it results in both a seared conscience and a growing dependency. The censors of the 1950's and 60's failed in halting the progress of the revolution sexual as surely as the Luddites failed to arrest the dehumanization of the worker in the revolution industrial.
Yet there is hope for the future – since all sin ultimately begets judgment (which Sayers has already defined as something like “the logical consequences of human action, especially sin, from which man is not spared”); and since judgment is by nature both corrective and restorative, in time the world’s passions will be brought back into conformity with the moral law of God.
But probably not before we are enslaved by them.