All about Desire

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.


Filed under Theology

13 responses to “All about Desire

  1. Shawn Flory Replogle

    Josh: as usual I very much appreciation your writing and thinking. This piece was no different for me; thank you for sharing it.

    I hear you calling for some sort of balance (or reconfiguring) in our relationship with “stuff”… a “in all things, moderation” approach. Sounds about right to me. One piece I wonder about in this reconfiguring is that we often do not reconfigure in solitude. Our re-balance happens in the context of relationships: people we are close to, even intimate with, as well as people we hardly know and barely interact with, and everyone in between (knowing that “relationships” cannot be simply linearly mapped). Sex would be a classic example. If my “desire” is/has become self-centered in some way – particularly in the context of a committed relationship – then it is not simply the desire that has become self-centered, but the relationship is also out of balance, which one cannot “fix” alone, in all likelihood.

    This seems like an extreme or obvious example because two people are so intertwined. I’ve not given it much thought, but I’m guessing that this reconfiguring/relationships occurs a multitude of times a day in the most subtle of ways… even with our environments, both spatially and materially… the latter being more easy to see (“what is my relationship with this plastic water bottle? and is there a ‘sinfulness’ with what I do with it next?” … to which I’d say “of course there is!”)

    Anyway, thanks for the piece… you always push me beyond my boundaries of everyday thinking, for which I am deeply indebted.

    • Joshua Brockway


      I think you’re example is a good one. I think we have yet to critique the consumption implicit in sexual desire. Yet, the erotic nature should show us that there is a reciprocity- mutual giving and receiving in the sexual act. Our culture is such that sex is self pleasing first.


  2. Scott Holland

    Thanks, Josh and Shawn, for these thoughts on desire. I do get rather spooked, however, by the neo-Platonic ordering which demands a hierarchy in all things. This can in fact get a bit kinky when writing of sexual desire and God. Even liberals like Sallie McFague feel they must imagine “God as Lover” along with God as Mother, Father and Friend. When she first published her work on this many of my friends, knowing that I preached and wrote on desire, said, “You must think her God as Lover image is really great?” I responded, “No, I have a lover and have no need to eroticize God in some holy hierarchy to sanctify lovemaking.”

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Scott,

      I am a little puzzled however. The God as Lover image is a huge part of lay monastic mysticism, yet I am not sure I ever read them thinking of that as anything other than metaphor. Again, that is part of the same neo-platonic influence, especially through the works of Pseudo-Dionysius. The affirmation of God as Lover is also met with the reciprocal negation “God is not Lover.”

      I agree though, there are times when the hierarchy was overly systematized- aeons, emerging from God, angels emerging from aeons…. There are a number of problems, yet I think the value of participation makes much more sense than the metaphysical-less systems of deconstruction.

      • Scott Holland

        Right. For me it is the problem of the Neo-platonic (even Gnostic?) hierarchy. Some of my thesis students were attracted to the classical mysticism of God as Lover because they cared about the integration of spirituality and sexuality. However, as they seriously entered the texts it seemed to them there was a projection of eros from the earth to the heavens and thus God truly replaced an earthly lover. We could say much the same about the celibacy of some of the Radical Pietists, influenced as they were, in part, by monastic mysticism.

        In fact, Freudian that I am, as a pastor dealing with some marriage problems in my congregations I concluded that a surprising number of these problems related to the practice of a “married monasticism.’

        I tell the story of a Radical Pietist, a Love Pietist, who had given his desire, he thought, only to God. It became necessary for him to travel in the company of a a lovely young woman. He was certain that because of the hierarchy of desire this time with her would indeed be platonic. His Brethren advised against this journey fearing that he might find too much pleasure in her company. He did. He soon married her and concluded that God was likewise pleased by this expression of human desire. This travel, I think, was an important experiment in the heart’s desire.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Well, the specter of Augustine’s Manicheanism is never far from hand.

        Just to qualify, I am working with a much more Greek version of Neo-platonism. Though I reference Augustine’s definition of evil, I am coming from the Cappadocians, Evagrian line of the tradition.

        To be sure, I am not trying to import it wholesale. Yet, I think that there are parts of the mysticism (language and anthropology) that are much more helpful for current thought than some currents schools of thought.

  3. Hey Josh, I thought this was interesting, especially given that I just started an 8-week sermon series on Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth doesn’t really address “desire” as monastics or post-modern philosophical theologians like James K.A. Smith do. On the other hand, in chapter 2, he described his own experiment with “pleasure.” For his experiment, Qoheleth decided to never deny what his “eye desires.” In the end, he found that the pleasure derived from this experiment was simply inane and “vapor” (which I tend to think of as “absurd”). At the same time, pleasure in one’s toil is really all God gives as our portion. We have to find the pleasure in the life we have, rather than in what we might want for ourselves. This perspective could be consistent with an “ordering of desire” that pushes against self-centeredness. To simply do what we want is probably going to land us in the realm of the inane and absurd. When we do that, we typically end up as frustrated and lost as Qoheleth did.

    That said, here’s my question: By what source does one “order desire?” For Qoheleth, the answer was well outside the traditional Jewish responses that he would have known. Ecclesiastes grounds our discovery about desire, pleasure, toil and folly in experimentation with and experience of the world around us. That makes a great sermon to a congregation that often fears the world and seeks to overly spiritualize or individualize faith. But, it can push you to dangerous places too. I speak from experience when I say that some Christians (conservative and progressive) struggle with Qoheleth’s musings and experiment, wanting something a little more concrete than his experiment with worldly pleasure. Maybe I’m lost in thoughts that will never yield satisfying answers. I guess the question might be analogous to the question of revelation more generally. Do we broaden our sense of what constitutes revelation (i.e. as do the clan following John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy)? Or do we seek to confine the sources for knowing God. I’m all about aiming my desires at God. And for most of them, the general direction is pretty clear. I’m just wondering about the role of experiment, error, dissatisfaction and frustration when it comes to honing our sights more carefully.

    • Joshua Brockway


      Thanks for reading and commenting! Good to hear from you!

      I like where you are going. All I can really offer is the “experimental” nature of the early ascetic project. Reading through Evagrius and Cassian shows just how much they learned from the constant experimention with fasting, sleep, praying the hours, and chastity. They are constantly paying attention to the collective effects and the results toward their intended goal of contemplation.

      The trick, however, is that discernment and discretion are just as central as the experimentation. The brothers helped each other to assess what was being learned in the ascetic practices.

      Fun stuff!

  4. Thanks for this, Josh. After reading James K.A. Smith this summer, I’ve been thinking about desires and their order, direction, formation, malformation, etc., etc. I’m not sold on the re-ordering concept, and while I think the theological anthropology behind it needs some fleshing (ha!) out, my intuition is that the real verb in the equation is discernment.

    Aren’t all desires, at root, desire of necessity? Even malformed desires that lead to pain and harm are the manifestation of deeply felt and deeply unmet need. So, desire for food is rooted in our need for nourishment. Desire for sex is rooted in our need for relationship. And both have roots in enjoyment and gratitude.

    The hard part is getting through the presenting particulars of desire and figuring out where they’re rooted. I’m inclined to believe that in longing, we find that we are both alive and unfinished – and that recognition can point us toward worship and confession. Too Freudian?

    • Scott Holland

      Dana, Like you, I read Smith. I like so much of what he does in his work but his “re-ordering of desire” is for me too informed by the ghosts of Augustine and Calvin. You are right to raise questions about anthropology in this context. It is not surprising that some scholars are making the case that Pietism helped give rise to Romanticism and to expressions that would make an Augustinian cringe, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.”

      • Joshua Brockway

        So a larger question might be how much our understanding of Neo-platonism is really Manichean in nature.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Dana,

      I wouldn’t say too Freudian….cause it could get more so 🙂

      I think what gets problematic is when anthropology is defined by desire- ie that our longings are constitutive of who we are as human beings. I think identity, as we understand it culturally, places desire as a marker of who we are. I think it is a big jump (and i am not saying you are arguing this) from we are beings with desires who experience pleasure and pain to we are desiring beings.

      Hence, I agree that the anthropology here is significant. Just as I read your comment last night I was working with my man Cassian. In the section on greed he talks about how some of the vices are natural to the human person- such as sadness and anger. These embodied vices reveal to us places needing attention- yet, when taken to excess they become vice. (He then goes on to argue how greed comes from outside the person in distinction to natural vices.)

      Part of my dissertation will argue that the stereotype of Neo-platonic anthropology is an overly Augustinian one. In other words, there were neo-platonists who has a much more holistic conception of body and spirit. Hence Cassian in particular is constantly holding together the inner/outer dynamic together- the soul manifests its disorder in the flesh, and the flesh can reorient the soul.

      So maybe the trick here isn’t so much about ordering desires, but paying attention to how desire can be dis-ordered.

      • Scott Holland

        Josh, It could be that we tend to merge Neo-platonic with the Manichean in our historical theologies. This is more your area than mine. I learned my Neo-platonism and Augustinianism from Hans Kung at Chicago while he was under the discipline of Joe Ratzinger and exiled from Tubingen.

        Kung argued that Augustine had huge personal conflicts with sex and authority and thus “we have all suffered for it.” Kung had been arguing that Roman Catholic priests should be permitted to marry. Ratzinger (“the son of a small town policeman”) was very hard on Kung (the son of a cosmopolitan businessman”).

        These various traditions we draw from to compose theologies and thus compose our lives — Neo-platonism, Augustinianism, Anabaptism, Pietism — are all imaginary homelands.

        Thus, in moving from the mind to the soul or from sex to spirit in doing theology I find current studies “on Consciousness” by experts in various scientific disciplines a necessary supplement to our many antique theological traditions. These sciences are also imaginary homelands.

        However, they are important. If we fall ill with cancer we consult contemporary specialists in the disease for treatment even if Augustine also helps us reflect on meloncholia, death and desire. Likewise, in seeking to understand the dynamics of human desire, scholars of consciousness can help us ponder how desire works in the human psyche, soul and body.

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