In a recent blog post over at “There is Power in the Blog” I argued that ascetic Christianity offers a helpful corrective to liberal forms of the faith, both progressive and conservative. In the comments Scott Holland, professor of theology and peace studies at Bethany Theological Seminary, asked a helpful question that some how slipped my awareness until recently.
I’m interested in your familiar refrain about “the re-ordering of desire.” Must desire always be re-ordered? Doesn’t this refrain imply that the desire of earthly delights is debased? There are spiritual traditions that insist the relationship with the divine is not a gnosis but rather an eros, a desire.
The question is intriguing and worth some extended reflections.
I often turn to Mary Margaret Funk when talking about asceticism. The general knowledge base regarding askesis is often formed by a medieval form of practice something akin to the penitential monks that frequently appear in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. As these monks enter each scene they intone in flat Latin chant “Pie Jesu…” and bang their head with a board. This penitential, self abusing parody speaks volumes. Asceticism in this popular view is a process of self denial and even abuse that seeks to purge desire from the human person. Funk, on the other hand, in her book “Thoughts Matter” states very plainly that the monastic project was not the eradication of desire, but the “right ordering of desire.”
So the simple answer to the question is that no, earthly desires are not debased. Rather they are to be understood in their place and for their effects. John Cassian, my dissertation companion for the next two years, often speaks of desires wrongly engaged. Rather than reject them outright, Cassian often speaks of our desires for “earthly things” as a diagnostic for what is out of place within the heart. This is especially clear as he talks of sex and food. These two things are not categorized as evil but rather as desires that must be monitored. In fact, our hunger and lust are often signals within Cassian’s system that the heart is focused on other matters, mostly self gratifying in nature.
All this is to say that desire is not evil, rather the impact and telos of our desires must be discerned. Desire, un-ordered or grounded in self seeking, is to be shunned. Yet, desire for things as a windows into Divine wisdom is to be embraced. Thus, desire as a general category is neutral but the effects are not. To turn toward desire of “earthly pleasures” for the sake of our own self-centered consumption are evil. Yet, these desires and enjoyment for the sake of God and neighbor are to be celebrated and cultivated.
Of course this makes sense especially within the Neo-Platonic ontological system. That is to say, desire and its ordering is best understood in what is often called the hierarchy of being. All things that exist participate in God to varying degrees. The more material things around us fall at the lower end of the ladder while the more spiritual things towards the higher, God-end of the hierarchy. Augustine famously uses this frame work as he defines evil as the absence of the good- so far at the bottom of the hierarchy that it moves into death.
In this frame, sin is to look down the ladder towards death and away from God. Repentance, or metanoia, as a turning makes the most sense in that it is a literal turning of one’s gaze from down to up. Reordering of desire then, is what James K. A. Smith speaks of as aiming our desires toward God.
Two things emerge from this system and understanding. First, repentance and turning from evil is not a rejection of earthly things, but a re-understanding of them in light of their participation in God. To color our desires with evil is to see them as objects for our consumption and self-gratification. When we reorient our desires and pleasures they are all seen as joyous windows into God’s goodness and sustaining of life, not just our own self-centered life but for the whole of creation.
Second, desire in this frame is teleological. There is an end or object of desire. Put in plain english, we desire something or someone. When desire is disordered it seeks these objects as things to be consumed by us. Food or people get sucked into our obsession with self-gratification. When it is re-oriented by Christian practice our desire is set like an arrows toward God- increasing our understanding, our resolve, and the common good of all God’s creation. Thus, the objects of our desire in this way are partners in our shared ascent to God- not stepping stones or consumables- but companions on a journey.