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.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Whether Pigs Have Wings

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, an Episcopal priest and spiritual writer, tells of a flock of guineas she had at one time.  There was one little guinea hen that the other hens refused to allow among their number.   The little hen, shunned and picked on by the others, would try her best to fly up to where they were perched, but they would never let her perch with them.  Finally she just wandered off and never came back, dying, I suppose you might say, of a broken heart.

            There is something pretty deep in our animal nature that tries to protect status, and, when status is denied or out of reach, desperately craves it.  Human beings are always talking about three things:  inclusion, affection, and control.  Nearly everything we do and many if not all words out of our mouths are not far from those three things:  inclusion, affection, and control. 

            So when Jesus gives his fellow dinner guests a commentary on humility, it might sound tame but it cuts with diamond hardness to the heart of the biggest challenge for the human animal.  Sure, one might argue that humility comes naturally to some.  And others might point out that even lower animals frequently intuit how to behave humbly.  No doubt genetics plays a role in fashioning some to be naturally submissive and deferential—if that is the same as humble.  But the fact remains that an overwhelming number of us obsesses on status, rank, privilege.  If we don’t have it, we tend to admire those who do.  Perhaps you have noticed, as have I, that when a person puts on a uniform of some sort or wins a position of recognized authority, in, let’s say, the Department of Motor Vehicles, she or he takes special delight in showing all the people who wait in long lines exactly who is boss.  There is nothing particularly odd about this.  It is primate behavior, and, as the guinea hens show, deeper even than primate behavior.  It is animal behavior.

            Some say that Jesus calls us to rise above our animal inclinations.  I am not so sure that is true.  What I believe is true is that Jesus calls us to be fully aware of who we are.  Taken on the whole, the Good News is that we are creatures who can be conscious of our capacity and our vocation to share God’s life. 

            I grew up on a farm outside a small South Carolina town.  My dad raised hogs.  My first acquaintance with hogs was when I was about 8 years old.  Daddy bought a sow who after a few weeks delivered quite a litter.  Always one to make connections, I began to relate to the new pigs as if they were pets.  One little pig was my favorite.  I would convulse with laughter when, after he was weaned, he would get into the trough with the wheat shorts we fed them and roll around as he slurped.  For a long time I thought that was the nature of pigs—to roll around in mud or food oblivious to anything but filling their bellies.  Many years later after I had long since left home, Daddy told me a story about pigs.  He said he noticed during the late summer one year that every morning, some of his shoats would maneuver out of their pen and trot across a bridge into a garden fairly well concealed from the house.  A while later, they would cross the bridge and return to their pen.  Strange, he thought.  After several mornings noticing that, Daddy went to investigate.  He found that the pigs had discovered his grapevines. 
Duroc piglets, the kind Dad raised
Having eaten all the grapes on the lower of two tiers, the pigs had figured out how to get to the upper vines.  Some of them stood together and let some of their brethren climb on top of their backs.  After a few moments, they would swap places, so all the pigs eventually got to eat some of the grapes.  And, of course, they moved their pyramid down the line as they wiped out all the grapes in one spot and needed another.

            To be sure, this story, which I might not even believe if it weren’t straight my father’s mouth, is no indication of a higher nature among pigs, just evidence that they are a lot smarter than sometimes we imagine.  And certainly it attests to there being a lot more to swine than the mud-wallowing and greedy eating that we associate with them.  And maybe that is not totally dissimilar to what people need discover about being people.  Groomed by a self-centered society, schooled in the touted benefits of competition, we frequently scramble for status, acceptance, prestige, power, control, and lots of things to reassure us that we’re hot shots, or at least relatively acceptable.  Whole industries exist to convince us that we are not as beautiful, as thin, as muscular, as young, as smart, as up-to-date as we should be.  We buy into the ongoing narrative that something is the matter with us, something that needs to be fixed lest we not be OK. 

            But there is more to us than the impulse to be self-serving.  Traditional language puts it in the phrase, “We are created in the image of God.”  I would go further.  I would say that the entire thrust of the gospel is that we are the image of God, and God’s tabernacle, God’s dwelling place, God’s partners, God’s tools, God’s means of expression.  That is why we keep talking about God, even when we can’t believe that there is anything to what we are saying.  And to be like God, in Jesus’ terms, is to be generous, to stop obsessing over status.  The paradox of God is that God voluntarily limits God’s self in order get down, down, down into the muck and mire of creation.  That is the story of Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, thought equality with God was not something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born as a human, humbling himself—to the point of embracing mortality, accepting death, and not just any death, but a death of indescribable suffering, death on a cross.  [Philippians 2:5-8]  The entire movement of the incarnation (the Word of God made flesh) is a movement from high to low and then to lower and then to lowest in order that all might be raised and given new life.

            That puts this teaching about scrambling for places of honor in perspective, doesn’t it?  We are not talking about ordinary human courtesy, though that isn’t a bad idea.  We are talking about a sharp overhaul in attitude—a full realization of what we are capable of deep down in our souls.  It is nothing less than to share in the amazing humility of our generous and loving Lord, who for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty might share riches that are far beyond the perks of this world.

            If Daddy’s pigs could only talk, I wonder if they would come back and look at us quizzically wondering why we haven’t yet seemed to figure out that sometimes you can get more grapes  

by taking turns at being on the bottom.

            Pigs get a bad rap, even in the Bible.  Sometimes the least likely beings are the wisest teachers.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016