Living with Holiness and Desire

I thought it might be interesting to look at the prologue to the Pilling Report, Living with Holiness and Desire by the Revd Dr Jessica Martin.

Revd Dr Jessica MartinThe beginning

Desire begins and ends with God. We who are creatures recognize our incompleteness, through desiring when we do not possess – and we yearn towards the holy when we hope for what we cannot see. The created universe we inhabit is filled with promise, and our human lives with promises, both human and divine. Everything we are and everything we do has a holy thread of promise running through it, and we do not know yet what we shall be.

But, whatever it is, through God’s grace, that we may become, we have some distance yet to get there. Sin, death and damage are fundamental to the world into which we are born, and they make us darker and more sorrowful entities than any innocent creature looking trustfully towards its maker for fulfilment. We are violently separated from the source of our being. Why we have this tragic inheritance is beyond our understanding, but something of its meaning speaks in the narrative of the Fall with which the Scriptures begin.

That’s one true thing. But at the same time there is another true thing about our humanity, which is that here and now, in our mortal bodies and particular histories, God is with us. God breathes within the human condition in the person and history of Jesus. Because of his birth every birth is a fulfilment as well as a nascent hope, every moment has a completion as well as a potential, the promise of every relationship is holy as well as local and mortal. Because of Jesus’ bitter suffering unto death and because he was raised from death, every piece of degrading damage may be transformed and redeemed, every sin forgiven, every death made the occasion of new life. It is holy to be human because everything about being human, its loss and its splendour, is saturated with God.

The Scriptures speak of God reaching out towards his separated creatures and bringing them back into intimacy with him: ‘the kingdom of God has come near’. This is a gift of love. Sometimes it is imagined as the relation of parent and child (adopted or natural), sometimes as the relation of spouse with spouse, sometimes of sibling with sibling, sometimes of friend with friend. These are incomplete analogies, the analogies of promise, and like all rich comparisons they are fruitful and alive exactly because they are incomplete. Each expresses a human bond in which a promise meets a gift (or, at any rate, the nearest we humans can come to a gift). No real relationship, and no particular kind of relationship, is fully identified with our divine bond – or fully separated from it either. In every human encounter where a promise meets a gift, there is God, offering to change its meaning with his presence.

The promise of God which is our hope, and the promises which found and direct our living in time and society are intimately joined together. When we make the promises of human relationship we are also on holy ground.

Here and now

Augustine of Hippo (whose influence upon modern Western understandings of fallenness and desire is difficult to overstate) sees in the restless longing heart an impulse which might in the end toss us towards the divine embrace. His famous insight sees desire as the place of possibility – a creative place, perhaps a place under pressure, but not one of gratification. It is the space which always changes, which joins the past to the future. It cannot be an end in itself. Were it to become so we would be forced to worship craving.

The world of late modernity is where we live. Its commercial drive, the global capitalism which drives its macro-relationships, is founded very largely upon making desire an end in itself (though it is, fortunately, not completely successful in this, or we would already be living in hell). Its effects are particularly acute in countries where basic needs – food, water, shelter – are no longer the visible impulse for the empire of buying and selling. The market in the developed world operates in the gap between what you’ve got and what you think you ought to have to be happy; it is reliant upon the endless retreat of happiness into a consumer future which never arrives.

This has profound effects upon all kinds of human well-being but it is particularly destructive in its effect on relationships. It does not help that, while human desire is much more diverse than just the sexual, for various reasons sexual desire has become a primary cultural medium for all the other kinds, and therefore a normal currency for selling the commodities designed to generate want. So sexual desire has become deeply linked to a cycle reliant on dissatisfaction and disappointment for its continuance.

At the same time (especially but not exclusively in Europe and North America) the last half-century or so has seen the growth of a perception of sexuality as the ultimate place of freedom and gift. In its purest and crudest form, such a philosophy argues that there are no other conditions attached to sexual encounter apart from those of the shared delight of the moment; that the experience of desire is its own sufficient reason for sexual encounter, and that sexual intercourse is always fully private and has no necessary social outworkings.

This is a seductive vision. It has seduced several generations so far (though later generations have had to notice that there are many situations in which sexual encounter has a noticeable social impact). Its normative mutterings are still the loudest of our assumptions about what makes a relationship valuable. Nothing may openly challenge the sovereignty of desire, which is explicitly and mistakenly linked to the primacy of self-fulfilment (mistakenly because, as any parent knows, wanting things and then getting them is not a reliable route to happiness and security). So, as a philosophy for living – deliberate or accidental – desire is not serving us well.

When you idolize the ecstatic experience of the moment, you sever your past from your future. The present doesn’t necessarily inform how you live in time, because within the logic of the moment you can only find out what to do next by being overmastered by another desire. Meanwhile the severed past is allowed, even encouraged, to die. In multiple sexual relationships great swathes of people’s intimate histories become meaningless, unshared, unspoken, beyond response. The now stretches out and out, behind and before. It is a kind of refusal to live within time and its consequences, but it saves no one from ageing or from death. It is, in the end, lonely. Living for oneself alone is a wish which isolates as it gratifies, and it is merciful that many people see through it sooner or later.

The idolization of desire is intimately connected to abuse, because an overriding desire tends to be selfish rather than generous. It doesn’t offer the space to consider the particularity of another person – their own needs and wants, their history, even their own experience of the moment. So you won’t be well placed to decide upon a sacrificial or self-denying stance in relation to a person whose vulnerabilities you haven’t had time to discover. Other factors will determine what happens – factors you probably never meant to be decisive, to do with the balance of power between you and your partner and determined by age, gender, income, status or beauty.

The long-term effects of impulse are working their way now through our law courts in a series of sexual abuse scandals which expose our profound confusion about the limits of liberation. We are discovering, painfully, that what we thought was a philosophy of generous mutuality is too often reliant upon the acquiescence of the powerless – usually, but not only, women and children – in the driven fantasies of the powerful.

Our combined, inconsistent perception of sexuality as both innocently free and essentially commodified is being particularly hard on the undefended and the vulnerable: upon children, the poor and the disenfranchised. Commodified sex, in its fully business-dominated forms of trafficking, prostitution and pornography, privileges consumer demand and minimizes personal encounter. It invites its users to believe that the fact of the transaction frees them from the constraints of seeing a person as a person. In reality, even the most distanced and virtual form of pornography relies on a residual idea of the imagined encounter as personal – though it also betrays it when the user discovers that, after all, he (and, increasingly, she) is alone. Pornography addiction is a basic modern problem, a cheap and quick way to discover that the god of craving will endlessly escalate his demands, shifting ground from imagined and malleable mutuality to more explicitly dehumanized scenarios of power and violence. It is a deathly terrain and dominated by the fear of death itself.

These extreme consequences of commodification are now very widespread, because of the internet and because physical travel between richer and poorer countries is easy and cheap. But we live with the ordinary, everyday outcomes of our confusions as well. Anyone who accepts uncritically the cultural invitation to live as if yesterday’s promises could be endlessly revised by the sovereign demands of new desires is settling for disappointment. ‘Choice’ is central for almost every public context, from the trivia of shopping to the life choices of conception, birth and death. But its representation (perhaps because the demands of the market have infiltrated our welfare systems along with everything else is often deliberately deceptive in focusing on the moment before a decision is made.

This is the moment of desire, and it’s not the most important thing about choice. The most important thing about choice is that it excludes all other possibilities; you decide not to do a far wider set of things than the one you have actually opted for. So choices exist not in the moment of making them but in the living out of their consequences through good and ill. Our human failures to live out our choices are more complicated to characterize than their fully commodified counterparts, because few people actually live according to the pure logic of desire (love being the resilient and persistent condition it is, no matter how impoverished our philosophy) and therefore most shared lives are a mixture of generosity and selfishness about which it would be presumptuous to generalize.

But we are under pressure. We perceive, rightly, that our children need protection, a safe space to grow up in at their own pace; but we acquiesce in their early covert sexualization at the same time – in, for example, the pressure we put upon them to conform to particular impossible body shapes and sexualized ideals of beauty, all themselves shaped by the profit motive. The commercially-driven images of the perfect and beautiful family are also not, on the whole, replicated in the modern consequences of serial monogamy and widespread divorce and relationship break up (circumstances which also have observable economic consequences for the state, incidentally, in the pressure they bring upon services for the old as well as the young. They are becoming very anxious, our children, and many of them are pinched as they grow up by a variety of different sorts of poverty, from the economic to the emotional and spiritual.

So this is our everyday reality. Most of us manage – since the grace of God is larger than we imagine it to be – to maintain generously conceived private lives in some form or other; but we struggle daily with a constant cultural nudging of our human interactions towards a consumer relationship which conceives of the self as selfishly lonely and constantly hungry. It is harder to stay with a past promise when we are constantly impelled towards the endless horizon of a new one; hard to be satisfied with the actual families we are dealt in the face of the better ones we might acquire. In the circumstances, it’s very striking that we manage as much faithfulness as we do – and suggests a healthy, even life-saving scepticism about advertising culture. We want to get married. We want to grow old together. We want to nourish our children. Their flourishing matters to us very much.

Is this a set of circumstances into which an Anglican bishops’ ’Working Group on human sexuality‘, born out of a very specific set of anxieties about same sex relationships, can offer much? In looking at this one aspect of human sexuality we have discerned two basics. First, that we cannot talk about same sex relationships in isolation. Culturally the whole issue is being made to bear more freight than it can or should possibly carry. Second, that we cannot say anything about human sexuality without speaking first of our sense of the body and bodily relationships as holy. Christianity is incarnational: God and body come together in Christ. Anything Christians might think about same sex relationships (especially as we have not discerned how to speak with a single voice on this topic) has no value except as part of this larger vision of all our human relationships; and for this reason the vision itself comes first, before we ever start talking about single-issue specifics.

Living with promise and gift

Christ is the centre of everything. God and man; heaven and earth in little space; particular time spreading backwards and forwards to join the promises of God to the gift of himself. Jesus the gift offers himself all the way from first breath to last, a choice lived sacrificially, generously, in and through each successive moment. From conception to death to resurrection, a life where gift meets promise, healing through touch and word, proclaiming the presence of God with human beings. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus contemplates what is asked of him and keeps choosing to face towards love’s sacrifice. He allows his body to be broken and given away to nourish others. Through his living in time, and the gift of his body, he joins God to humanity, death to life, the unfinished to the complete.

The two great commandments Christ brings out from Leviticus and Deuteronomyare the foundation of living well: to love God and neighbour. This radical command to love cuts across the usual confines of kin, tribe, gender and nation; Jesus is someone for whom all humanity is ’my brother, and my sister, and my mother’. He is properly cautious about where sexual desire belongs in the radical command to love – they are not straightforwardly aligned. He declares that sexual desire in its imaginings is as powerful and as dangerous as in its actions. He proclaims sexual bonds to be lifelong but recognizes that this can be beyond the capacity of limited human love. He perceives the sexual bond as powerful enough to remake family relationships, so that the family unit becomes concentrated round the couple united sexually rather than around their kin relationships. Meeting a Samaritan woman by a well, he first offers her the water of life and then reflects the sexual contingencies of her life back to her. What she registers is a profound recognition: ‘he told me everything I ever did’. We do not know what happened next. He sees clearly that all humanity falls short of love’s promise: ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. Forgiveness overcomes sin: he even suggests that God’s overflowing gift of forgiveness is the means by which human beings learn to offer the overflowing gift of love.

No relationship, seen in the light of Christ, can be transactional or even purely contractual; all need to be properly attentive relationships which seek to recognize and to be recognized. People can never treat each other as if they were things, even by mutual agreement, because to do that is to damage the soul. Human bodies are sites for the sacred and holy. You need to treat them with the greatest possible respect, so that in the body of another you see something to cherish as tenderly as if it were your own. Our relationships are modelled on the generous pattern of Jesus, rooted in mutual trustfulness and not in the wielding of power for its own sake.

For Jesus the natural citizens of the kingdom of God are children. This is because they are powerless and therefore especially beloved. Our responsibility to our children is a common one, a shared commitment across the whole human family. Kin is not the last word in permanent relationships – in the Christian understanding we are ourselves adopted children of our heavenly Father, grafted into the family of faith through the generosity of God. We are also Gentiles, accepted by grace into the family of Abraham. Families are made by the love of God, not the love of God by families.

God is the end and fulfilment of human desire, and our generously conceived desires point beyond their objects and towards God. Desire’s balancing point between past and future means that it can only exist as a gift nourished by a promise. Desire joins what has been to what will be, and when it is hallowed by an exclusive choice it can grow into a shared common life, faithfully given all the way to its last breath. Such a life is not really a private arrangement, but one of the goods of community, worked out in a network of relationships which live out promise by self-giving: to children, family, the wider society. They need to be remembered and nurtured throughout a whole life. These relationships are not limited by the confines of kinship and procreation; we, the adopted children of God, will particularly honour the relationships touched by the encompassing love beyond tribe and blood. In a world in which contraception has effectively separated sexual bonds from procreation, and in which families contain many members not linked by blood, this vision calls us to highly demanding kinds of lived-out commitment where we find ourselves.

We will fail at all this. Because we are flawed, we will fail each other all the time. We need to forgive each other even as we hope to be forgiven. Relationships, too, will fail; but no bond of love can ever be forgotten or belittled. Our past speaks to our future, always. At the centre of the Christian faith is anamnesis – not-forgetting. In Christ all things may be made new, every failure may be made the occasion of a generous forgiveness.

Some thoughts to get us going.

1. I’m not sure I agree with Jessica when she writes,

It is holy to be human because everything about being human, its loss and its splendour, is saturated with God.

I don’t think saying humans have the imago dei in them is the same as saying they are holy. Holy when referring to humans constitutes a particular meaning in the New Testament and that is of a redemptive nature – the people of God, those who are saved, are a holy nation. At the same time those who are unsaved are not referred to as holy. I would much preferred it if Dr Martin had explored instead the notion of imago dei meaning we are creatures ascribed with something of God.

2. Jessica writes,

At the same time (especially but not exclusively in Europe and North America) the last half-century or so has seen the growth of a perception of sexuality as the ultimate place of freedom and gift. In its purest and crudest form, such a philosophy argues that there are no other conditions attached to sexual encounter apart from those of the shared delight of the moment; that the experience of desire is its own sufficient reason for sexual encounter, and that sexual intercourse is always fully private and has no necessary social outworkings.

This is a seductive vision. It has seduced several generations so far (though later generations have had to notice that there are many situations in which sexual encounter has a noticeable social impact). Its normative mutterings are still the loudest of our assumptions about what makes a relationship valuable. Nothing may openly challenge the sovereignty of desire, which is explicitly and mistakenly linked to the primacy of self-fulfilment (mistakenly because, as any parent knows, wanting things and then getting them is not a reliable route to happiness and security). So, as a philosophy for living – deliberate or accidental – desire is not serving us well.

When you idolize the ecstatic experience of the moment, you sever your past from your future. The present doesn’t necessarily inform how you live in time, because within the logic of the moment you can only find out what to do next by being overmastered by another desire. Meanwhile the severed past is allowed, even encouraged, to die. In multiple sexual relationships great swathes of people’s intimate histories become meaningless, unshared, unspoken, beyond response. The now stretches out and out, behind and before. It is a kind of refusal to live within time and its consequences, but it saves no one from ageing or from death. It is, in the end, lonely. Living for oneself alone is a wish which isolates as it gratifies, and it is merciful that many people see through it sooner or later.

The idolization of desire is intimately connected to abuse, because an overriding desire tends to be selfish rather than generous. It doesn’t offer the space to consider the particularity of another person – their own needs and wants, their history, even their own experience of the moment. So you won’t be well placed to decide upon a sacrificial or self-denying stance in relation to a person whose vulnerabilities you haven’t had time to discover. Other factors will determine what happens – factors you probably never meant to be decisive, to do with the balance of power between you and your partner and determined by age, gender, income, status or beauty.

I think it is wrong to simply see this as a critique of promiscuity and abuse. What Dr Martin is arguing here is that although our sexual desires in the here and now may appear to be good, in the context of eternity these are not good things. We have also have the issue that our society is constructed upon a sexual premise (men and women in creating the next generation sire children and in doing so are recognised as their parents with legal rights and responsibilities) and that to divorce sex from this sexual premise is an unhealthy thing.

What Dr Martin is leaning towards here is an understanding that even a monogamous (PSF) sexual relationship is not in and of itself “good” just because it is mutual. Such an approach (to say PSF is enough to validate a sexual union) is simply one aspect of the commodification of sex where we devolve such unions from both a wider social good which interests itself in the true well-being of society and a divinely ordained good that sees sex through an eternal lens and a Scriptural framework (including the husband / wife icon of Christ and the Church in their sexual union).

3. Jessica writes,

[Christ] declares that sexual desire in its imaginings is as powerful and as dangerous as in its actions. He proclaims sexual bonds to be lifelong but recognizes that this can be beyond the capacity of limited human love. He perceives the sexual bond as powerful enough to remake family relationships, so that the family unit becomes concentrated round the couple united sexually rather than around their kin relationships.

There is something lacking from this analysis of Jesus’ approach to marriage in that Jesus (and Scripture in general) not only envisions sexual union in marriage to powerful enough to remove the couple from their unique kin relationships but as importantly creates a new kin relationship (which the consequential children). Once again this understanding of what Jesus is saying attacks our modern understanding that “Permanent, Stable, Faithful” is all that is required. Rather, it is the new kin relationship with it’s procreative potential that is also a necessary aspect of the sexual union. Dr Martin herself recognises this when she adds,

Desire joins what has been to what will be, and when it is hallowed by an exclusive choice it can grow into a shared common life, faithfully given all the way to its last breath. Such a life is not really a private arrangement, but one of the goods of community, worked out in a network of relationships which live out promise by self-giving: to children, family, the wider society. They need to be remembered and nurtured throughout a whole life.

4. I would want to question what Jessica means here by “Desire” in her summary. Sexual desire of something deeper which is the desire for personal union and the living our of a life that honours God?

All in all it’s a good piece, but it suffers from a problem with much of modern theology that seeks to draw general principles from Scripture and then fails to recognise when Scripture applies those general principles in specific circumstances (like Rowan Williams’ The Body’s Grace does).

Thoughts?