Psychology and Biblical Studies


SBL Annual Meeting Papers, November 2010

For review only; do not distribute

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Donald Capps
Princeton Theological Seminary

Comments on Kathy L. Gaca’s
The Making of Fornication

I assume that other respondents will address the historical, theological, biblical, and ecclesiastical issues that this beautifully structured book raises. My comments will derive mainly from my perspective as a pastoral psychologist, a field to which I gravitated after considering and then rejecting the idea of becoming a systematic theologian, a Christian ethicist, and a historian of religion with a specialization in early Greek religion. (I have just summarized my three years of study at Yale Divinity School for the Bachelor of Divinity degree.)  My comments, therefore, are more in the nature of observations than of the critical sorts of commentary that are typical in scholarly settings such as this one.

The opening chapter on “Desire’s Hunger and Plato the Regulator” was illuminating in many ways, but especially noteworthy for me was the fact that Plato was especially interested in (and supportive of) the pursuit of happiness (also an important theme in Augustine’s Confessions). Thus, his view that human desires should be moderated by reason was based on his judgment that unbridled desires can cause a great deal of unhappiness. In this regard, I was struck by the fact that although sexual desire was, to him, “the leader of the hedonistic pack” (p. 41), he was also critical of unrestrained pursuit of economic wealth, noting how “men think they will be happy by owning land, big fine houses, fine furnishings, . . . gold, silver, and all other such things” (p. 43).

A question this chapter raised for me was whether Plato was opposed to the family as such or whether he was essentially attacking the extended family model (with the inevitable grievances and grudges that persist over several generations within families and the longstanding feuds that occur between families). Was he, in effect, an advocate of the nuclear family?  In other words, did his proposals arouse such vehement reactions among his contemporaries because he sought to do away with the family altogether, or because he attacked the extended family model?  I assume that the answer is no, that he was an advocate of “sexual communalism” (p. 47); but, if so, this seems to be somewhat incongruent with the fact that his socialism was rather “puritanical” (p. 45).

The chapter on the Stoics--especially the sections on the views of the early Stoics (Zeno and Chrysippus)--was also illuminating. I was impressed by their view that human beings are “a communal and mutually friendly animal” and that “appropriate erotic love” is “neither harmful and contrary to friendship, as eros is in the popular Greek sense, nor is it austerely detached from friendly sexual arousal and activity, as reproductive marital sex becomes in ecclesiastical sexual ethics” (p. 75). And, although I tend to be somewhat adverse to sex education, I found myself responding quite positively to the “didactic” nature of the friendship-building aspect of early Stoic eros, as it served “to train male and female adolescents alike in the arts of sexual conduct that show friendly reciprocity” and its “ultimate goal” is to “help the younger partners progress toward the virtue of flawless reasoning and perfect friendship” (p.76). This emphasis on friendship reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1983) essay on friendship in which he suggests that the two primary aspects of true friendship are truthfulness and tenderness (pp. 347-48).

Finally, the chapter on the Septuagint Pentateuch and Paul was interesting to me because I was unaware of the role that the Septuagint principle of religious endogamy played in Paul’s own thought and of how central this principle was to Paul’s views on sexual fornication. All other issues that might come under the heading of sexual fornication pale in comparison to his opposition to “religiously mixed marriages” (p. 133). It occurred to me in reading this chapter that Paul brought this problem on himself when he took the teachings of Jesus to the Gentiles. But what struck me even more is the fact that his prohibition against religiously mixed marriages and his desire to make converts presented both a problem and an opportunity.  A member of the Christian community may contemplate marriage with a non-member if the non-member is in the process of disowning his or her religion and becoming a member of the Christian community, but the problem this poses is that the process would need to be carefully regulated and the sincerity of the convert would need to be assessed (one thinks here of Augustine’s comments in the Confessions about his parents’ marriage). The opportunity, of course, is that marriage becomes a means to gain converts.

This situation got me to thinking about the various “blueprints” or designs for a better social order, projects that place rather heavy emphasis on the regulation of sexual practices. Such projects confront the obvious difficulty that people don’t want to change their sexual behavior or they consider the proposals that are being made to be too radical. But another more subtle problem is that those who present such programs realize that when one is trying to create a blueprint for a less disorderly society as far as sexual behavior is concerned one will inevitably confront the problem of having to make room for exceptions to the rule.  A relationship between two adults of different religions that may progress toward religious unanimity is an example of an exception to the rule. Another arises because many humans live beyond their reproductive years. Plato (and others) believed that it is best for humans to reproduce when they are young adults, but the fact that many humans live beyond the reproductive years cannot simply be ignored; and this being the case, it is difficult to sustain a hard-and-fast rule that sexual behavior is for reproductive purposes only.

One could simply observe, of course, that the exception proves the rule. But Steve de Shazer, a psychotherapist specializing in brief therapy, points out in his book Putting Difference to Work (1991) that the exception also proves the exception. He cites the dictionary definition of exception (“anything deviating from the usual pattern or course”) and notes that “exceptions” are those behaviors, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that contrast with the client’s basic difficulty and have the potential to produce a solution if identified and explored by the therapist and client and then acted upon by the client (p. 4). Thus, if a client reports that he is depressed, the therapist may ask if there are days when he is not depressed; clients typically respond that this is in fact the case. The therapeutic goal then becomes that of making the exception occur more often by taking greater notice of what the client does or doesn’t do on the “exceptional” days.

In general, the proponents of a better social order that Kathy Gaca presents in her book viewed the deities as agents supportive of the rules for which they were advocating.  Although the very appeal to deities in support of one’s societal blueprint may be inherently problematic, could one not also argue with equal or greater justification that the deities are aligned on the side of the exceptions? We resonate with the story of Sarah and Abraham who learn that they will reproduce when they are in their nineties. Of course, they laugh at the prospect. Their laughter alerts us to the fact that there is something profoundly liberating about the exceptions to the rules, so long as they do not become a new source of rules.

I began these comments with a reference to my own brief careers as a systematic theologian, a Christian ethicist, and a historian of religions. I think that I abandoned the idea of becoming a Christian ethicist because the ethicists talked so much about creating a social order based on principles of justice. I wasn’t against justice—no one in his right mind would be a supporter of injustice—but I realized that justice is such an elusive goal while personal freedom is more attainable in the here and now.  As William Stafford (1998) notes in his poem “Thinking for Berky” (pp. 80-81):

There are things not solved in our town though tomorrow came:
there are things time passing can never make true.
We live in an occupied country, misunderstood;
Justice will take us millions of intricate moves.
Meanwhile, the exercise of personal freedom serves as an interim strategy.

As Kathy Gaca’s book shows, Plato felt that the way to address “the things not solved in our town” was to develop a guardian class who would exemplify and enforce sexual behavior based on rational principles; Paul, on the other hand, thought that he could make things right by driving “polytheistic sexual practices from the borders of the known world and to replace them with his emergent Christian brand of religious endogamy and biblical monotheism in Christ the Lord” (p. 189). On the other hand, her book provides considerable testimony to the fact that there are limits to what the social regulators can do by way of controlling what we think and what we do.  As Stafford (1998) notes in his poem “Freedom” (p. 142):

If you are oppressed, wake up about
four in the morning; most places
you can usually be free some of the time
if you wake up before other people.

Having read her book, I know Kathy Gaca’s capacity for witty word play and double entendres. So I’ll leave it to her make an appropriate quip about possible connections between a sense of oppression, waking up at four in the morning, and fornication.

One final observation: The social regulators presented in the book chose that aspect of human life—sexual behavior—that is perhaps the most resistant to social regulation. Of course, they knew this and that is why they felt they had no choice but to give it highest priority. However, because they did, they violated another important counseling maxim, which is that if you want to effect change, begin with small workable goals, goals that are perceived as the start of something and not as the end of something; and that involve new behaviors rather than the absence or cessation of something (de Shazer 1991, p. 112). This raises the issue to which Kathy Gaca alludes in her chapter on Plato, that of the sublimation of sexual desires in the form of “a learned taste for Beauty or the Good, which one gains through becoming enlightened by Platonic metaphysics” (p. 36).

In our article “Sigmund Freud and James Putnam: Friendship as a Form of Sublimation” (Capps and Carlin 2010) Nathan Carlin and I focus on the correspondence that followed from Sigmund Freud’s lectures at Clark University in 1909 between Freud and James Jackson Putnam, a Boston neurologist. Against Putnam, we endorsed Freud’s view that sublimation should not be a goal of psychoanalysis. However, we supported Putnam’s emphasis on the social value of sublimations, but in a more limited sense than he proposed in his correspondence with Freud. We also suggested that the correspondence between the two men reflects the very fact that the lifting of sexual repressions makes possible the development of male friendships. Thus, we view the correspondence between Freud and Putnam as an instance of sublimation, and suggest that the friendship that this correspondence reflected and nurtured is an example of the ideal community to which we humans aspire but which often remains elusive and unrealized.

In our summary of Freud’s lectures, however, we noted his concluding observation that because the sexual instincts or desires are uniquely capable of being sublimated, i.e., redirected toward activities that no longer serve a sexual goal, it can be very tempting to become as ardent champions of sublimation as our predecessors were in their programs of sexual repression. To caution against this seemingly edifying program, Freud (Rosenzweig 1994) tells the following story about a town referred to in German literature by the name of Schilda, a town to whose inhabitants “every sort of clever prank” has been attributed:

The citizens of Schilda, as the story goes, owned a horse with whose capacity for work they were well satisfied, and about whom they had only one complaint—that he consumed such a large amount of expensive oats. They decided that they would carefully break him of this bad habit: they would cut down his rations by several stocks daily until he had grown accustomed to complete abstinence. For a time things went very well: the horse was weaned to just one stock a day and on the next he would finally be working with no oats at all. But the morning of that day the malicious beast was found dead. The citizens of Schilda could not fathom why it had died (p. 438).

Freud drew this conclusion: “We are inclined to believe that the horse had died of starvation and that without a certain ration of oats, no work can indeed be expected from an animal” (p. 438). Thus, his last official words to his American audience were not ones that extolled the sublimation of sexual instincts but cautioned that recognition of the role sexual instincts play in our “highest cultural achievements” could have undesirable consequences if this were to lead to a failure to recognize that a certain amount of sexual libido “has a right to direct satisfaction and ought to obtain it in the course of living” (p. 438).1   



Capps, Donald and Nathan Carlin (2010). Sigmund Freud and James Putnam: Friendship as a Form of Sublimation. Pastoral Psychology 59: 265-86.

Davies, Christie (1998). Jokes and Their Relation to Society. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

de Shazer, Steve (1991). Putting Difference to Work. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1983). Essays and Lectures. Joel Porte (ed.). New York: The Library of America.

Gaca, Kathy L. (2003). The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rosenzweig, Saul (1994). The Historic Expedition to America (1909). St, Louis: Rana Press.

Stafford, William (1998). The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.


1  The analogy Freud employs here between eating and sexual behavior is discussed in Kathy Gaca’s chapter on Plato.  Plato, she notes, considered sexual activity to be one of three “physical appetites,” the others being food and drink. She also notes that although Plato considered sexual desire “the most recalcitrant troublemaker of the core appetites” he “argues that it is both harmful and unfeasible to starve or deny it altogether. The sexual horse should be given its requisite carrots now and then, for a strict regimen of moderation exemplifies Plato’s notion of sexually appetitive virtue. Like hunger and thirst, sexual desire is unavoidable and beneficial to a degree,” and if for no other purpose, “persons ought to be sexually active for health reasons” (p. 40).  A philosophy student before he became a medical student (largely for economic reasons), there is every reason to believe that Freud was familiar with Plato’s views as presented here in The Republic.  It is perhaps also worth noting that Schilda was the German equivalent of Boetia to Athenians in Plato’s day.  See Christie Davies’ (1998) chapter on “Fooltowns Traditional and Modern: Local, Regional and Ethnic Jokes about Stupidity” in Jokes and Their Relation to Society (pp. 11-25).