God, Desire, and Asceticism

Mar 01, 2012 • Culture, Faith, Philosophy

God and desire

In earlier posts, we have reintroduced ourselves to desire and made room within our theology for desire. We have discussed open and closed desires, which help us to understand whether we are using the force of our desire to grow or only to treading water. Now that the theory is in place, we can finally turn towards the way in which we shape our desire: the nuts and bolts practice. At this point, religion eagerly offers a solution: asceticism.

Ascetics will affirm almost everything I have said before, and then add a punchline that the only truly open and proper desire is the desire of God: therefore all other desires need to be checked, subjegated, and ultimately transcended. That is how, according to the ascetic, a truly godly desire is accomplished.

Asceticism, however, contorts desire from its essential nature into a strange and unrecognizable beast. It bends desire so far around that desire turns back onto itself and consumes its own tail. By advocating for desire only towards an unknowable abstraction, theology denies desire in its very essence, which is as an immediate and bodily drive. This is how the apologists for ascenticism argue that practicing death is in fact an attenuation of desire: they refuse to acknowledge that the essence of desire is a bodily drive.

Augustine, that early saint that laid bare his own daliances and desires in The Confessions, famouly made a destinction between relating to things through use and through love. He argued that things in the first category are only a means to reach a further end; while things in the second category are for their own sake.

Although my idea of open desire and closed desire undoubtedly bears some echoes of this idea, there is an important way in which Augustine’s distinction is an utter failure: namely, we cannot relate to things either through use or for their own sake, but only through our embodied interaction with them. And this means that I accept into my experience even those things I relate to for use, and I use even those things I love. This is a phenomenological reality and a fundamental essence of existence: it cannot be sin as long as we affirm there is any good existing in our embodied experience.

All of that is dreadfully abstract, but take the simplest case of use: a tool. When I use a hammer, for instance, I feel the shaft in my hand. When I swing it, the hammer is an extension of my arm and therefore a part of my identity. When I strike the nail with the hammer, the force ripples through my body. Although I use the hammer for a purpose, I also desire a particular experience from the hammer itself: if you don’t believe me, go work on a house with an old, cheap, gripless hammer. As a result of this desire, I can grow fond of a hammer. What started as a relationship of use becomes a relationship of essence. This context of desire may be one of use, but that does not change the fact that I desire my hammer for its own sake.

This is not a sin or a misplaced appreciation like Augustine’s distinction may imply. My appreciation of the hammer is a consequence of the fact that we become fond of that which satisfies our desires, and these affections define how we behave in this world. The tool then becomes a source of satisfaction in its own right, blurring Augustine’s distinction beyond recognition.

Take a case from the other side. The neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran said, “We feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, forever craving transcendence.” My desire for union with God — transcendence — is undoubtedly a desire for its own sake. Yet that desire is also valued as a means, for those brief moments of transcendence are the way in which I gain context and hope in an otherwise void world. This desire for the euphoria of transcendence is not itself a sin, nor is it some kind of cancerous growth upon a proper desire. It is part of the complicated whole which is my desire for transcendence.

So where did Augustine go wrong? Augustine’s mistake was that he treated desire as a mental process: an issue of focus and directed contemplation. Desire, however, is not uniquely mental. Nothing is uniquely mental, for all that is mental is also physical, a fact proven out in more detail by each new discovery in neuroscience. Since desire is physical, the drive to desire is itself physical, too, and so no abstraction can truly satisfy it. Asceticism, having no physical target for desire, is therefore a fundamentally mistaken way to approach the training of desires.

This is not to deny that there are those who are recognized as ascetics who are also profoundly spiritual. Traits associated with that asceticism are even major means they accomplished their spirituality. Gandhi is one of these people. However, Gandhi was not practicing for death: his apparent asceticism was something quite different that the traditional theology of asceticism that people advocate. We’ll return to him in another post, but keep him in the back of your mind.

In the time just before Gandhi, Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil that “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink: he did not die from it, but degenerated into a vice.” Yet this was not always the case. The crucifix was not the emblem of Christianity until the tenth century, and is hardly found before the sixth. The fetishistic obsession with death and pain in Christianity did not surface until the Dark Ages, and rose in dominance in the church along with the idea that Christ was not primarily the triumph of life, but rather primarily a substitutionary victim of death. It was a product of the war-Christianity constructed by Charlemagne and finalized by Pope Urban II into the Crusades. It’s a statist cancer in the body of the Risen Christ.

Let’s run from that cult of death. Let’s cling to the only sacred idea: God is life. Let’s embrace the idea that this body is our soul. Let’s merge into the idea that our desires, situated here and now in this body and the things surrounding it, are in fact the motivating force by which we reach God — not an abstract thing called God, but God in God’s self, encountered through the physical reality of this world. Love of God is the erotic and the libidinous, and so there is no true distinction between eros and agape or between cupiditas and amor. When you hear someone making that distinction, you are hearing a sermon that is preaching death.

Strip away ascetic prudishness. Reject the work ethic that wants to consume your life. Find your body again, and then place that body — which is you — into the beauty that is the creation.

Photo via Jenah Crump.