Theology. Desire. Church. Desire. God’s will. Desire.
Simply listing out these terms creates a kind of tension. Thinking about desire and the religious life evokes an image of a cold stone church with a black-robed pastor damning desire as a path to Hell. But desire has gotten a raw deal in our current religious climate: the prudishness and the fear of temptation has conflated “desire” with “covetousness”, and the result is that we have created an idol out of repression. We need a reboot on our theology of desire. We need it desperately.
As I have said in an earlier post, the very act of Creation climaxes with sexuality and a love song, and so it seems like desire should naturally be a part of Creation. Yet our established theological tradition is against desire, and it has somehow divorced this charge from God to be sexual creatures from the desire for that very sexual act. The faithful are apparently to make babies, not love. In a world where this is construed as proper theology, desire needs to mount a deeper defense.
Before charging into this fray, however, let’s start by taking a step back. Desire, whatever else it may be, is a fundamental part of us. Desire precedes our consciousness: by the time our consciousness is engaged, our desire already exists. You cannot prevent desire, because that part of you which does the desiring is not within conscious control. Even if you think you have squashed a desire, it has truly only become dormant. Such apparently absent desires will spring up unbidden and unexpected at the moment when they are most able to seize your attention — this is a lesson hard-learned by drug addicts, but it is often forgotten in religious conversations about desire.
Instead, we get stories about holy people in the wilderness, confronting and besting their desires personified as horrific demons. They banish their demon once and for all and live happily ever after. Perhaps the unique and holy demigod is capable of such feats, but for human beings, face-to-face combat with desire simply cannot be the answer. This doesn’t make us bad, this makes us human. Our desires cannot simply be fought off.
And thank God our desires can’t be fought off. Our desires are what make us a living thing. Although there is a long tradition in religious circles of identifying rationality as the best in people, that can’t possibly be right — if it was, computers would be holier than we are. Furthermore, the more credit we extend to animals, the more they impress us with their cognitive capabilities: dolphin language and canines with theory of mind are but two examples. At the same time, our confidence in our own sense of rationality is being constantly chipped away by behavioral economists, cognitive neuroscientists, and the ever-growing list of cognitive biases — not to mention counter-modern philosophers like MacIntyre, who happily point out just how irrational our pretenses to rationality really have been.
The idea that human beings have some quality called “rationality”, and that this quality makes us distinct from the animals, is a lie that the Western world has been telling itself for millennia. Science has shown that this abstraction we call “rationality” is as wrongheaded as the geocentric universe.
In the face of all of this, it is desire and not rationality where we should stake our claim. Desires are fundamental and definitive of our being, but rationality is a crumbling mosaic that bad theology keeps trying to plaster back together. We live through our veracious and living desires, not our fictitious and cold rationality, and God is a God of Life, not death. God is a God of desire.
To some, I sound blasphemous. That could be a good sign: Kierkegaard said that the truly sacred always looks blasphemous. In this case, the problem clearly lies in my accuser, because my accuser is forced to admit that Jesus, too, sounds as blasphemous as I do. Jesus advocates for desire. Jesus wants us to be desirous. Jesus said, “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:37 – 40).
He also said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt 5:6). Is this loving and hungering and thirsting supposed to be done without desire? No! We are to hunger and thirst and love, and it is godly when that hunger and thirst and love is fulfilled. God wants you to desire. Like a lover, God wants to fulfill your desire.
But is this a bait-and-switch act? When I started, my rhetoric of “desire” did not evoke ideas of righteousness, but of things much more carnal. And it is true: not every desire is created equal. Covetousness, for instance, is not a desire that God wants to fulfill. Jesus has also said, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.” (Luke 6:45) Yet to say that there are better and worse ways to desire is to admit that there exist better ways to desire: it is to admit that there are desires we are called to have. Desiring is good. That was where we start. Now the question becomes: What are the best desires?
Photo via Jenah Crump.