This post original was published on the blog Women in Theology. In a culture which capitalizes so much on desire, exploring the topic is an important theological task. Though this is a longer discussion than is usually shared here, the E. Lawrence gives a helpful reflection on desire as a theological category. It is shared here with her permission.
The older I get, the more I think that the crux of becoming a mature person, the person God has created you to be, is about discerning your desires. Your deepest desires. I have to admit upfront that I am not necessarily sure what you should do with your desires in all cases (especially since there are life-giving, truthful desires and selfish, destructive desires…), but I think we should decide it’s a good thing that desire is there, inside of us, and we should strive to know it.
Perhaps if I continue to get older, I will stop pursuing this line of thought and decide that something else is key. But, as it stands, as I am on the cusp of turning 30, I think that being honest about your desire lines is necessary for mature adult personhood.
If you’re studying Christian theology, I can imagine a certain uneasiness cropping up at this point, at least for some of you (especially some of my peers at my graduate institution). But no, I’m not blessing consumerist individualism. Or hedonism. Or any form of extreme self-indulgence, really. I’m not telling you to go in peace and excessively indulge in whatever happens to get you off, whether it be shopping or food or porn or sports.
I’m not even blithely endorsing expressive individualism, which, as a distinctively modern phenomenon, pivots around the centrality of the individual self and its unique worth, a singular identity that just has to be expressed. (“My self-expression is my only truth.”)
Importantly, I’m not adducing the concept of discerning your own desire as a way of ignoring the desires and needs of others. In reality, clarity about one’s own desires, and an ability to see—to empathize with—the hopes and wishes of others, should rise in tandem together. (But how all that gets concretely negotiated is obviously very complicated…)
Hopefully some of that throat-clearing is done now. What am I up to, then?
To begin, I’ll say that I’ve been reading Anglican feminist theologian Sarah Coakley lately. Also, she plays an important role in my dissertation. This return to Coakley’s corpus is especially timely given the impending release of her much-anticipatedGod, Sexuality, and the Self later this month in the US. (Could this turn of events be a beacon of hope for the coming release of David Tracy’s God book?! Do the books of lore eventually get published?!)
A couple things about Coakley. The cornerstone of Coakley’s work is a particular kind of prayerful practice: allowing oneself to be de-centered by God so as to become still, to be able to discern and follow through on the possibility of right relationships within the world. In her famous essay entitled “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing” fromPowers and Submissions, she writes (and I quote at length):
What I have elsewhere called the ‘paradox of power and vulnerability’ is I believe uniquely focused in this act of silent waiting on the divine in prayer. This is because we can only be properly ‘empowered’ here if we cease to set the agenda, if we ‘make space’ for God to be God…[E]ngaging in any such regular and repeated ‘waiting on the divine’ will involve great personal commitment and (apparently) great personal risk; to put it in psychological terms, the dangers of a too-sudden uprush of material from the unconscious, too immediate a contact of the thus disarmed self with God, are not inconsiderable…But whilst risky, this practice is profoundly transformative, ‘empowering’ in a mysterious ‘Christic’ sense.
Even though I continue to have some reservations about the ease with which Coakley brushes past the potential psychological burdens of sustaining contemplative practice described in such self-effacing terms, I remind myself that she intentionally makes this argument in response to post-Christian feminist Daphne Hampson and the latter’s rejection of a discourse of kenotic vulnerability before God. In other words, Coakley is keenly attuned to the reality of women’s oppression and noxious infantilization under the rough hands of patriarchy. And, it is precisely in and through this concern that she argues that making space for a powerful triune God in prayer does not reinforce subjugation, but rather, gives one the strength to resist it. So, to understand Coakley, you’ve got to understand how important the paradox of prayerful human vulnerability before a powerful God is for her thought.
But to really understand Coaklian vulnerability, you’ve got to locate it in proximity to her account of desire, and that is what currently interests me. For Coakley, the act of making oneself vulnerable allows for a couple significant things to occur: you become in touch with your desire for God, and, through that, you also become in touch with God’s desire for you: “There is our own primary desire for God, of course, which we strive in prayer to put first; but underlying that is God’s unique and unchangeable desire for us, without which all our own striving is fruitless.”To make space within oneself for God, is to connect—and reconnect—with a yearning for God, to be filled with God’s goodness (“Our hearts are restless,” etc.). And, then, if we sit with this desire, we realize we are being buoyed up by a stronger, underlying undercurrent of divine love directed at us, permeating us, praying within us (cue Romans). In grasping for God, we realized we are always already being grasped (and this point reminds me of Rahner’s notion of mystery as superabundant, positive and gracious).
Importantly, this matrix of divine and human desire that suffuses prayer also affects our desires as directed at people and things within the world. Specifically for Coakley, this means that our sexual desires and our desire for God are entangled with each other: “No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered…Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will nor allow this, or not for very long.” Among many things, I take this to mean that our sexuality, in its essential goodness at its root, is a compass to help us discern the precise ways that we each choose to love God in this life. And, inversely, our love for God directs us to expend our energy toward particular people in particular ways, including sexual ways, in our lives. (Perhaps surprisingly, though, Coakley, as I recall, defends celibacy precisely as a particular kind of channeling of sexuality into various other forms of intimacy with groups of people.)
I like the way Coakley retrieves the Christian insight that sexuality, specifically as a paradigmatic expression of desire, tells us about who we are at our deepest level, in relation to God (and it’s definitely there in the tradition. See the Bible, the mystics, other people). In making this argument, she—unsurprisingly—puts me in mind of Rowan Williams’s essay “The Body’s Grace” and the way he understands same-sex desire in a similar theological paradigm. I like what these Anglicans are doing.
At the same, time, however, as a Catholic who is all-too-familiar with JP II’s theology of the body, I know how this high theology of sexuality can easily be deployed in service of homophobia and static gender roles oppressive to women. (In sum: sexuality is amazing when you are in a heterosexual marriage and the husband/God/Christ “initiates” and the wife/humanity/Church “receives.” The ontology of Everything Ever, especially Your Interlocking Genitals, stipulates it!)
Furthermore, I am aware of the ways that construing desire almost exclusively in terms of sexuality can problematically reduce desire down to one particular slice of human passion and feeling. I don’t think Coakley actually holds such a narrow conception of desire, but all too often in her work, desire is glossed in terms of sexual eros, and then she rest content to play with the supposed scandal created by crossing the gap between that desire and the desire for God. But I want more. (Wording intentional there.)
So, in returning to the opening of this post, and my positing that discernment of desire is pivotal for becoming an adult, I’d like to take Coakley’s positive valuation of desire and think about it in ways that include sexuality but also go beyond that. I’d like to think about the importance of desire more holistically in living a good life.
Desire, to my mind, is about figuring out what—and who—gives you the energy to be an instrument, an agent, of divine grace within the world. What lights you up and sets your ablaze? What makes you fully alive for God’s glory? Where do your passions lead you? What gives you glimpses of exuberance, of ekstasis, of joy? In other words, in all senses of this phrasing: what turns you on?
This kind of discernment isn’t about opposing desire and work, or desire and self-sacrifice for others, or desire and other frameworks for moral reasoning. It’s about gaining the kind of self-knowledge that is rooted in being a creature of God. Note that, in the list of questions I offered, I didn’t separate the joy of authentic human desire from living for God’s glory. The two are together. That’s the kind of passion I mean.
As I’ve gone through my twenties, I’ve noticed that the push for adulthood as an escape from childhood seems to go hand-in-hand with trying to fit into the expectations and wishes of others for us. The pressure doesn’t have to be as blunt as your parents wanting you to have a Responsible Job even though you Let Them Down by doing something silly like going to graduate school for a humanities degree. (That’s actually not my particular situation, luckily.) Rather, the external pressure can be much more subtle and diffuse.
For example, if you’re at a prestigious graduate institution to get your doctorate, you can gradually imbibe through the general intellectual ethos that being a “good” scholar is about putting all your energy into research (so you publish like a maniac) and the intellectual crushing of opponents whenever possible (there has to be violence at some level…). Or, to take another example, you may think that one particular romantic partner is the “right” choice for you based on various external criteria you have appropriated over the years. But in both these cases, you may come to realize that what you’ve been “groomed” to think about what’s proper and ideal is not actually what gives you energy and sustains you. In the first case, maybe you want to teach and lead a quieter—but no less profound—intellectual life geared around mentoring. And in the other case, maybe you come to see that your partner, for whatever reason, doesn’t fit into your desire lines as they orient your life. Maybe you want to be with somebody else, somebody who doesn’t fit the profile. Maybe you want to be indefinitely independent and single and use that particular freedom as an opportunity to direct your energy in new ways.
I hope these examples show that my emphasis on desire is not a rejection of broader frameworks for moral reasoning that include discerning right/wrong, the rights and needs of others, the formation of empathy, etc. (and these frameworks, of course, are initially exterior/heteronomous before they are internalized and learned over the years, and that’s good and normal).
I’m simply saying that there are too many people walking around with a false sense of direction in their lives when, in truth, they really don’t know what they want from life, who they are supposed to be, or that it is a good thing to stop and contemplate these desire lines as a mode of adult spiritual and emotional askesis. Women in particular, please listen up.
Before you dive headlong into the task of Meeting Expectations, at least take a second and think about protecting your joy and your energy any which way you can. The thing, too, is that God wants that, anyway.
 Sarah Coakley, “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing,” Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 34, 35.
 To be clear, I am not sure that Coakley ever adequately answers Hampson’s (albeit bluntly overstated) critique. Something to ponder.
 Sarah Coakley, “Prayer as Crucible: How My Mind Has Changed,” The Christian Century (March 22, 2011), 37.
 Ibid., 37.
E Lawrence is currently a PhD candidate in systematic theology. Her academic interests include theological anthropology, specifically theologies of disability, and feminist and womanist theologies; the intersection of ethics and systematics regarding love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self; the relationship between suffering and oppression and the cross; and embodiment and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. And, as Netflix informs her, she also enjoys “TV shows with a strong female lead.”