Tag Archives: Desire

Obey! (Or something like that)

The problem with having so many projects “on the desk” is that things start to overlap. The ideas emerging from one thing frequently merge into the notes for another. Thankfully, even my dissertation intersects with some of my “work” work, especially around the questions of practices and formation.

This last year we have developed a series of resources that describe the ordinances of the Church of the Brethren— Baptism, Love Feast, and Anointing. Speaking humbly, they turned out great. In doing the background work for those cards I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about ordinances as a concept. For many traditions within the Radical Reformation, the idea of sacraments we handily rejected. It was simply too magical and too clerical. But they were struck with the clear commands of the scriptures to “do” certain things. And for many of these folks, who took the idea of “scripture alone” to its logical and radical conclusion, when scripture said to do something it must mean we are to do it. So the idea of an ordinance is that these things we do— baptize, wash feet, share the bread and cup, and anoint with oil— are simply matters we are to obey. Jesus and the scriptures commanded them, so we do them out of our obedience to Christ. They were ordained (hence ordinance) as set apart practices for the church. No magic, no complicated theological interpretations, we just do what we are told.

The idea of obedience is certainly not fashionable today. In some ways, “obey” is a new dirty, four letter word. We like freedom. We crave the idea that we can do what we wish, buy what we want, and vote for our guy. Freedom of choice is the mantra for 21st century America. It is the most supreme of values. So to try to talk of Christian practices as acts of obedience is a nonstarter. If there is anything our culture tells us to obey, it is our inner wishes and desires. True freedom, we are told, is a matter of following our own inner longings.

So, then, what about desire? For good church folk, the word desire is just as taboo as obedience is in the wider culture. Its too messy, sounds too sexually charged. And we all know that decent folks don’t talk about those things. Yet, as James K.A. Smith says over and over again in his book “Desiring the Kingdom,” desire is fundamental to our humanity. We desire things and people. We desire recognition. We long to be accepted. All of these point to the deepest longings of our hearts. And, as Smith says just as frequently, there are forces at work on our desiring. We are formed to want certain things and certain ends. We may not talk about those things as our desire, but we want them nonetheless. The forces at work on us come through the various things we do and see. So commercials and the euphoria of buying work on us, below our conscious awareness, to want the very things we want. These practices point our desiring energy in certain directions. So like it or not, we desire. And like it or not, someone or something is telling us what we should want.

My daughter is in that fantastic age where she wants to be her own person but still wants to please mommy and daddy. So she will venture out on her own, try out something new, and even push the boundaries a bit here and there. But when she does something we don’t like, and we tell her, you can see that she is crushed. The bottom lip pushes out, the head turns down, and little tears start to collect on her eyelashes. When she is clearly tired, or is disconcerted by a new situation she says, with the most soft of voices, “Daddy I want you.” It is as if she gets that weird intersection of desire and obedience that we adults try so hard to pull apart. At her tender age of three, she wants us as parents so much that she wants to do what we want her to do, even while she tests the boundaries of her own identity and explores her own options.

It seems to me that Thomas Merton described just that intersection in his memorable prayer from “Thoughts on Solitude.” His words have stayed with me ever since first reading it: “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” Right there, in the meeting place of God’s will and our desire, is the intersection summed up in idea of ordinances.

We do these things, not out of coerced obedience but out of longing desire. That is the tough-to-grasp nature of our freedom in God that Merton frequently tried to describe. We are most free when we are living within the will of God. For those around us, the idea that freedom and bounds, choice and direction seem contradictory. But in Merton’s prayer we see the beautiful paradox of our “desire to please” and the desires God has for us. The irony here is that Christianity is at least up front about this meeting place of desire and an another’s will. We, as disciples, are in the process of conforming our desires to the will of God.

The advertises, marketers, and the corporations they represent try to buy this intersection. They mask the work they do on our hearts under the guise of “choice.” No commercial is designed to get us to exercise freedom of choice, but to get us to choose this particular thing. There are always people around us telling us what we should want. They conform our desires to the will of an unknown other.

Centuries ago, the philosopher Plato described the human soul as a chariot pulled by two horses. The first, he said, was the desiring horse that pulls us towards certain things. The second was just the opposite. That horse directs us by pushing away other things. In that combined movement of reaching out and pushing away the human soul moves towards an end. In different terms, in our desire for one thing we are simultaneously rejecting others. There is a boundedness to that movement. Our reasoning ability, said Plato, holds the reigns of these two powerful animals. We guide the two— the desiring and the rejecting— between the unlimited consumption through desire on one side and the rejection of everything on the other. Contrary to the proponents of free choice, where every option is on the table and good, reason steers us between the options in the quest to reach what is truly good and beautiful.

And this is just what Merton and my three year old daughter teach us. We desire to obey. We long for what others desire for us. That is the paradox of an ordinance.

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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.

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