Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Desire Under the Sun

“There is nothing new under the sun,” asserted Koheleth, the Preacher in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.  Maybe not.  But there is beginning to be a more and more widespread conversation about desire these days.   It is not by any means a new conversation.  But people, men in particular, are coming to what for us are novel conclusions about the place of desire in human life. 

Not all spiritual traditions treat desire in the same way.  Buddhism is sometimes understood to place desire at the center of the human predicament, seeing it as giving rise to suffering.  Properly understood, it is not desire as such that is the problem , but desire that is not faced, confronted, and dealt with.   Buddhism understands that desire is part and parcel of the human condition—there being no way that we can eliminate desire and still live and function.  The chief aim of contemplation (meditation) is confronting desire over and over again, practicing letting go of the desire, including the desire to let go of desire! 

Judaism approaches desire differently, seeing that desire can be what draws us to God and also what draws us away from God.  One of the most elegant texts in Judaism is the 119th Psalm.  The psalm is a meditation on Torah, the Law.  It is full of yearning and longing to approach the Holy One by internalizing the precepts of the Law.  The very second verse reads,

Happy are they who observe his decrees
And seek him with all their hearts.

This is just one of the many instances in which holy desire is exalted as the appropriate posture towards doing and being what God wills the human being to do and to be.

Christianity continues the general pattern of Judaism by treating desire as neither good nor bad in and of itself, but good or bad in relation to how much desire pulls us toward—or away from­—God.  The locus of the divine-human encounter in Christianity, of course, is the person of Jesus, not the Law.  And the Christian is generally formed by the Church to think of Jesus as being the embodiment of God’s will.  A bevy of texts in the New Testament emphasizes Jesus’ obedience to the will of God.  One of the Church Fathers, Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), articulated the paradox of the two natures of Christ (divine and human) by using the category of will.  Against those who argued that Christ had only one will (the “monothelites”), Theodore argued that he did in fact have a human will, but that that human will was perfectly aligned with the divine will, yet voluntarily so.  Christians through the centuries have tended to understand morality to hinge on the knowing and doing of the will of God. 

Complicating the notion of the possibility of a Christian’s actually doing God’s will is a fairly virulent strain of Christian ethics, by no means alone among religious ethical traditions, seriously suspecting human desire of being corrupted and contaminated.  And, borrowing heavily from Platonism and Neo-Platonism, Christian theology has a history of suspecting that the thing most damaging to doing God’s will is desire, specifically sexual desire. 

Now there is a long and checkered history of suspecting sexual desire, enough to give Christianity in particular and religion in general a bum rap among a great many modern people.  But folded into that history is a very different chain of thought.  It shows up in the metaphors of Christ’s relationship to the Church, which is significantly called his body.  New Testament scriptures such as Matthew 25:1-13 (the delayed bridegroom, obviously an image of the long-desired appearance of Christ) and Ephesians 5:22-24 (in which the Church is depicted as the bride of Christ) when pushed to their logical conclusion, strongly suggest a sexual relationship between Christ and the Church (however metaphorical) and between Christ and his own body.  What ultimately comes to be called the “sacrament” of marriage is a way of recognizing that the union of two persons in marriage both reflects the divine-human relationship and becomes a means of participating in that relationship. 

All this moves desire up pretty high on the scale of things.  Desire does not stop with a kind of non-sexual longing, but goes on to express itself in sexual union.  Of course those who after centuries of failure to imagine that sexual desire and divine life have anything to do with each other will almost always choke at the suggestion that sex organs might in fact be the way that the holiest of desires get addressed.  That it should surprise us that the most natural process—the only way in fact that any species can survive—is reproduction, and specifically sexual reproduction in the more evolved forms of life on the planet, is odd.  But what is even stranger is the general notion that ritual formulas over sexual partners (i.e., marriage rites) actually create or change the nature of sexual expression.  What those rites do, in fact, is formalize a relationship that protects property, ensures family and to some extent societal stability, and confines or attempts to confine sex to approved patterns.  But men have historically voted with their libidos.  Like their primate cousins, they are not all naturally monogamous.  Harems, concubines, mistresses, and prostitutes both male and female, have all been sexual expressions alternative to monogamy.  All attempts to sequester desire, especially sexual desire, have sooner or later run aground.  Yet human beings famously continue to imagine that insisting on what is not working be tried again and again with no new results. 

Still, not all desire is sexual desire, and not all sexual desire is desire for reproduction.  There are other traditions that come at desire from other angles.  Read ancient Celtic prayers and find in them a sweet, peaceful acceptance of the daily round of farming, fishing, and household chores, not exactly devoid of desire, but hardly prayers that can be thoroughly appreciated seen only through the lens of desire or will , for that matter.  To the extent that they are prayers they are voiced desires of the heart, to be sure.  But they are desires of the human soul to live in harmony with the created world, the world of the imagination, and the realm of the divine.  Native American tradition also approaches life more in terms of sharing, in a stance of generosity, than it does in the terms of personal desire. That is not to say that desire is unimportant but that it often shows up as tribal intention and even as universal interrelatedness among all people and all living things.  Desire does not always play out in terms of what modern Western people might call ego-driven thoughts and behavior. 

However we appropriate desire, it is in fact a natural part of the human experience.  On the most basic level, we desire water, we desire food, we desire a certain dependable trustworthiness in key relationships.  No doubt the Buddhists are right in holding that desire when not confronted and understood can be our undoing, leading to all manner of suffering, much of it self-imposed.  No doubt the strain of tradition that suspects desire contains some wisdom as well.  But I want to hold out that desire can be seen differently.  It is another word for prayer. 

I was thinking about this recently and dredged up from the recesses of memory an old poem set to a hymn tune in the 19th century.  It was written by a journalist renowned in his day, James Montgomery. He wrote

            Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
            Uttered or unexpressed.

The poem goes on to say a number of things that I don’t find particularly helpful, tied as they are to a 19th century Protestant theology that seems threadbare to me now.  But in those opening lines, I think Montgomery said something profound.  Everybody is praying, whether he or she knows it, owns it, or not.  Whatever your heart sincerely desires is your prayer.  It need not be addressed to a deity nor uttered at all.  It is the bedrock of your being: your soul’s dream, your heart’s yearning, whatever it is you long for.  It might be an ache, a silent cry for the loneliness at your center to be filled, a need to be heard, a fatigue that languishes for rest and peace, a stirring that gets you out of bed in the morning, a fire that flickers at the center of your Self. 

In my vocabulary, that is the place where you and the Holy of Holies intersect.  The Ground of our Being knows your desire even if you don’t.  To the Mind and Heart of that holy Ground, all hearts are open, all desires known, and from it no secrets are hid. My experience is that, notwithstanding suspicion of religious language and thought, the first place many of us want to go when the subject of desire comes up is sorting out “good” desires from “bad” ones.  What if the point were not that at all?  What if the point were that in the very act of desiring we humans were experiencing what the heart of God (called by whatever name) experiences all the time (eternally)?  What if behind every atom, cell, quark, string in the universe was the unmitigated desire that it be what it is?  What if you and I began to see our desiring as the holiest of holy things?  What if, through our deepest longings and our weirdest fantasies the universe itself and its bedrock Founder were echoing us, loving us, desiring us just as we are?

© Frank Gasque Dunn, August 31, 2016

This article was first published on the blog of Jonathan's Circle, a non-profit organization of which Frank Dunn is Executive Director.

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