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-anticipated God, 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” from Powers 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.[1]

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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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 you 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.

[1] 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.

[2] To be clear, I am not sure that Coakley ever adequately answers Hampson’s (albeit bluntly overstated) critique. Something to ponder.

[3] Sarah Coakley, “Prayer as Crucible: How My Mind Has Changed,” The Christian Century (March 22, 2011), 37.

[4] Ibid., 37.

15 thoughts

  1. To be clear, the problem Hampson and others (myself included) have with Coakley and her conception of kenosis is this: that for generations, women have been the ‘other’ who have had to make themselves vulnerable towards a male God, in a patriarchal culture shaped by a patriarchal and in many ways misogynistic religion (Christianity). It is not the same to demand of the vulnerable other- already forced on their knees before a male God- to ‘make themselves vulnerable’ to God as it is to ask the same of a white male priest in a religion which only ordains men, to do the same thing.

    It concerns me that Coakley writes about ‘good sacrifice’ and its importance and necessity within societies and cultures, when it is, and always has been under patriarchy, women who have been doing the sacrifice.

    Beyond all of this, her discussion of desire and the distinction between eros and agape is frankly, terrifying, and feeds very conveniently into a very conservative and heteronormative attitude towards marriage and the correct ‘place’ of desire. See the David Nicholls Memorial Trust Lecture she gave her in Oxford last year.

    1. Kate, I’m very sympathetic to the concerns you’ve expressed here, and I think that Coakley’s argument would have more weight if she worked to articulate a more robust systematic analysis of sexism: what is this “divine power” that is so different from the patriarchal power that is supposed to be dismantled? I don’t think she has answered that sufficiently yet for me to be fully comfortable with her argument.

      At the same time, I see her trying to work out why vulnerability is important for feminist ends precisely in light of what you’ve just said. I think of this especially when I read her “Jailbreak” essay. So I’m not really sure what else to say. Your position is clear…and I still think Coakley can serve as a (flawed) resource.

  2. I haven’t read all of Coakley’s work, but I wonder how the relation between her view of sacrifice and her work in evolutionary biology (her Gifford Lectures, if I recall) relate to each other. Perhaps they aren’t related, but if they are, that might be helpful in understanding what she’s trying to do with “good sacrifice.” I don’t know; just thinking at the ends of my fingers.

  3. While your thoughts were inspired by Coakley, the exciting bits of the essay are when you go beyond her focus on sexual expression to more generally affirm that God wants us to discover (and benefit from!) the answer to the question “what gives you glimpses of exuberance, of exstasis, of joy?”

    The earlier people receive this message – that God desires us, and that our desires are made in God’s image – the sooner they break free from false understandings of themselves, and the less damage they do to themselves and others. That’s the hope, anyway.

    Thank you for the food for thought!

  4. I was really struck by your comment: “the Christian insight that sexuality, specifically as a paradigmatic expression of desire, tells us about who we are at our deepest level” … and wondering whether Coakley addresses Foucault, specifically w/r/t the idea that the truth about ourselves is found in sexuality — in confessing, generally of course (for instance Augustine) but particularly about sex (again, Augustine, though there are no doubt many others).

    I’m agreed with this point about confession, and also with the way in which it has to do with the demand you mention for “adulthood,” so i’m pretty polemically related to what Coakley’s doing here, but i’m just curious if she addresses this sort of thing.

    1. You know, I could be wrong about this, but this is something that annoys me about Coakley a bit: my perception is that she’s kind of dismissive of people like Foucault and Butler, so what is otherwise a really intriguing account of desire suffers from a lack of attention to the social constructions of desire particular to modernity. She talks about true and false desires as being discerned for what they are within the practice of contemplative prayer, but desire as such, as a concept with a particular genealogy, doesn’t occupy much of her scholarly time (as far as I can tell). It would be a fascinating line to pursue more.

      1. Yeah, kind of ironic — if i get you right, then Coakley seems to have this idea of a Christian account of desire over against modern constructions of desire. But Foucault would claim that desire in modernity is a construction of Christianity. Of course he wouldn’t be happy with either the Christian or the modern account. But pro or con, a bit strange that Coakley will present as a distinctively Christian account of desire in terms that Foucault would recognize as very modern, precisely because of their Christianity.

      2. If I might tentatively interject here: while I can’t recall if Coakley ever explicitly engages Foucault’s theories about modern desire and its relationship to Christianity, I actually think Coakley is amenable to certain elements of Butler’s thought, especially around the fluidity of gender and bodies. But I also suspect (and this may very well be personal eisegesis in reading her work) that Coakley is secretly an ethicist underneath her systematic armor, and this means she won’t adopt Butler wholesale because Coakley’s turn to human vulnerability in contempative relationships with the Divine requires prioritizing a vertical relationship that is, I daresay, almost normative — though I want to be very, very clear here that the language of normativity is my interpretation of Coakley, not her own. There’s simply no room for that in what would be considered Butler’s anthropology or ethics.

        For what it’s worth, I think it’s a good point that Coakley doesn’t sufficiently answer Hampson’s critique, which is less about the actual meaning of kenosis (the point Coakley addresses at length) and more about the way its been used. But I think Coakley is aware of those problems that Hampson is, or so it seems from her Trinitarian work. Here’s a quote from her article “Living Into the Mystery of the Holy Trinity: Trinity, Prayer, and Sexuality,” in the Anglican Theological Review 80, 2: 1998:

        “if human loves are indeed made with the imprint of the divine upon them—vestigia of God’s ways—then they too, at their best, will bear the trinitarian mark…trinitarian image. And what would that involve? Surely, at the very least, a fundamental respect each for the other, an equality of exchange, and the mutual ekstasis of attending on the others desire as distinct, as other. (pg 225)”

        Evidence that she values community, equality, and reciprocity are also found in her essays on spirituality and contemplative practice, though I’d have to dig for those references. The “Jailbreak” essay you mentioned above is a personal example of this, too. So I think Coakley wants her constructions of vulnerability, of desire, and even of sacrifice to sit in a context in which equality and respect are a given.

      3. I’m pretty familiar with Coakley’s use of Butler in her discussions of body and gender fluidity, and I think you’re right that, to a certain extent, Butler functions for her as a useful conversation partner. But, at the end of the day, Gregory of Nyssa has to win the “body lability” conversation because his is an account of embodied identity transformation unto God (and I would like her to take a slightly more critical stance toward his use of the discourse of our “feminization” toward God). I always feel a bit deflated by the competition set up between Butler and Nyssa on this front, especially when she calls Butler “depressing.” I think more time could be spent there before the parting of the ways. To be clear, I am thinking primarily of her essays in _Powers and Submissions_, though not exclusively.

        The other thing I would like Coakley to deal more with (and maybe she will!) is the idea of the diffuse, omni-permeating social construction of our desires: how are we groomed to want certain things over other things? How are our desires socially mediated to us? In what way in modernity does the idea come about with fresh force that desire as such is one of the regulating principles of human personhood? How is the desire she’s talking about, with its intellectual and theological heritage centered squarely within the Christian spiritual tradition, different from the constructs of desire that pop up freshly with Romantic individualism in the nineteenth century and that function within our general cultural ethos? Coakley makes some references to “true and false” desires as those things which are clarified and purified in prayer, so hopefully she’ll expand that idea and think more about the concept of desire as such.

        Lastly, I also find her corpus peppered with these really intriguing appeals to communality, respect for each other and for each other’s otherness, etc., but up to this point I have found them to be too few and far between for me to really think the job is done showing how such things help us dismantle toxic, systemic heteronomy, wherein groups of people systematically treat other groups of people like shit. How does an appeal to vulnerability really work when it has to be received among groups that are so asymmetrical? There’s a crisis of under-articulacy in her work, though I hope that is going to change.

  5. Thank you for this wonderful essay E Lawrence. Besides your taking the discussion in fruitful directions, it is a helpful intro to a significant dimension of one who I think is perhaps the best theological voice in the English-speaking world. Thank you. I am working not only in teaching but am even more concerned with the overall spiritual formation of undergrad and grad students and not simply ones in theology and philosophy, so the following quote from your essay is helping me work through a number of issues related to vocational and educational formation (sorry, I can’t figure out how to do a proper block quote on here),

    “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?”

    That is simply an amazing quote…astounding…and begins to bring together a number of threads not only in vocational formation but the insights that Coakley shares and that you point out in regards to the interweaving of the life of prayer and sexuality. Among other things this statement seems, if I understand you correctly, to articulate how the Divine Desire is the matrix in which (interwoven with and yet still other than) individual desire is woven and thus actualizes freedom on the part of individual humans in their pursuit of vocation and sexual love. However, it seems to provide for an articulation of the formation of individual desire that is also interwoven with the love of the world and the neighbor, which avoids the tired script of the journey of self-actualization that sees the freedom of the individual as unconnected to the good of other humans and the rest of creation.

    I do not share the concerns about a dismissal of Butler and Foucault. As I read her I would say that rather than dismissal, she just may find them inadequate, though I doubt even this. But I will leave this to others of you who are more adept with Butler and Foucault. I find them both helpful but do not share enough of an interest in and rootedness in their writings to speak with enough competency in this area. However, though I suspect she will answer the concerns others bring up in regards to Hampson’s questions as her 1st and following volumes are published, the adequacy of the paradox of vulnerability in relation to traditions of abusive patriarchy is a valid question and one that must be addressed not only by Coakley but you and others of us as we continue to engage her blossoming work.

    Thank you again for this really helpful essay E Lawrence. I hope you continue to pursue the formation of desire and its implications further as I anticipate finding much help for my own academic and ministerial pursuits should you continue to do so.

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