February 23, 2012

God and Desire: Closed and Open Desires

Culture, Faith, Philosophy 1 Comment

God and desire

I’d like to submit a syllogism. First, God is living and creative. Second, to be holy is to be like God. Therefore, to be holy is to be living and creative. In the words of Leo Tolstoy, the lesson so many have learned from religion is that to be holy is to “deprive ourselves of food and sleep, let our bodies rot on an iron pillar, bend and unbend our bodies in endless genuflections, and do nothing for our fellow-creatures, which is but a type of slow suicide.”

But this simply cannot be true. If we are to be like God, then we must be expressing the creative energy which is God’s first act and the very first line of the Bible. The primal act of God is Creation. If we are to strive to be an image of God, then we must be creative. And through that creative act we, like God, demonstrate our commitment to life. So the best desires are those that drive us towards creativity and life.

That can be awfully vague, though. To help think about desires, I split desires into two camps: closed desires and open desires. These are ideas that I take from a mathematical field called topology, and which I was pleasantly surprised to find echoed (the same words!) in Saving Desire. A closed desire is determined and limited in its expression: only one limited category of thing being engaged in one limited way is capable of satisfying the desire.

An open desire is undetermined or unlimited in its expression: it either is an ambiguous desire or a desire for something that can be satisfied in multiple ways. Coveting thy neighbor’s wife and drug addictions are closed desires. The desire to express yourself artistically or to improve your health are open desires. Given this distinction, we can say that it is the open desires that move towards creativity and life, so our goal should be to have as many open desires as possible.

To encourage open desires, we can leverage some of our closed desires. Some closed desires — and here I am thinking about drug addiction — are simply too damaging to give any foothold on our mind. Some closed desires, however, can be employed to provide energy and motivation, and through self-reflection and habit, they can grow to be open desires. Consider, for instance, the case of desiring to be with someone who is unavailable. Instead of subjecting yourself to the world of the frustrated closed desire, consider those qualities that you find so appealing, and then focus your attention on seeing those qualities in other people who are more available.

Refine your vision and your thoughts to recognize and highlight that beauty in the other people you meet. Consciously focus on that beauty. Seek it. Want it. Crave it. Through this practice, you channel the energy from the frustrating closed desire into enhancing your appreciation of the beauty of the world. At first brush, this may seem like denial or dislocation, but that is simply the closed desire rationalizing away a threat to it. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing it out of hand: in practice, it is a way to retain the energy, drive, and excitement without the attachment and frustration of the closed desires. I know this first-hand.

The other mistake that people make in the “closed” versus “open” distinction is that they unconsciously map all their old ideas of “sin” into “closed”, and all their old ideas of “holy” into “open”. This error keeps them trapped in the very same set of bad expectations they came in with. Open desires do not have to be the kind of abstract, high-minded ideals that came from the pulpit of cathedral-crypts. Open desires, in fact, cannot be those things, because open desires are first and foremost desires.

If you do not desire it, it cannot be an open desire because it is not a desire at all! The “open” versus “closed” part is the means of approach to that libidinous energy — but this all presumes you have libido to begin with! Once you have that energy focused onto a single target, the challenge comes to find the desire’s true root… or at least to dig for it. That is what the “open” versus “closed” distinction does for you: it prevents you from mistaking the single instantiation of a desire for the desire itself.

Ironically, the satisfaction of the closed desire’s object is actually more enjoyable when approached through open desires. Sex is the best case in point: if the sexual act itself is the desire, then permission to accomplish the act or perhaps the lead-in to the act become the actual climax of the desire. Everything after the point where sex is “acquired” — that is, the sexual act itself — is an unnecessary afterthought and fundamentally empty. Instead, it is on to the chase again, seeking one more fleeting moment of satisfaction for that closed desire. If sex, however, is but an expression of an open desire, then the open desire provides a context and a meaning for that act. It provides depth. Sex becomes a symbol, expressing something greater than itself through the satisfaction of the moment.

The self-refinement towards pure, creative, living desire is the self-refinement towards a godly life. It is the drive towards holiness. And that is the true tragedy of any so-called theology that hates desire: it cuts off precisely the means by which we ascend.

Photo via Jenah Crump.


Robert Fischer is our in-house theologian and spiritual scholar. Behold the sacred and the profane -- he’ll shy away from nothing. Well-versed in mathematics, computer science and religion, this man is a bona fide intellectual whose musings on sex and culture are delicate as they are incisive. How could we resist? How could you?

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