Saturday, February 26, 2011

I don't know what I want: on the ambiguity of desire

"How can we know what the desire is for? The language of "expression" is treacherous. It lets us suppose that our desires are perspicuous, when they are not. Sexual desire in particular is notoriously difficult to interpret; the biblical story of Ammon and Tamar is just one of many ancient warnings of how obscure its tendency may be. It is characteristically surrounded by fantasy, and fantasies are never literal indicators of what the desire is really all about, but are symbolic revealer-concealers of an otherwise inarticulate sense of need. But the point holds also for many other kinds of desire - let us say, the desire for a quiet retirement to a cottage in the countryside, or the desire to own a fast racing-car. We cannot take any of them at their face value. "It wasn't what I really wanted!" is the familiar complaint of a disappointed literalism. To all desire its appropriate self-questioning: what wider, broader good does this desire serve? how does it spring out of our strengths, and how does it spring out of our weaknesses? where in relation to this desire does real fulfilment lie? It is in interpreting our desires that we need the wisdom of tradition, which teaches us to beware of the illusory character of immediate emotional data, helping us to sort through our desires and clarify them. The true term of any desire, whether heavily laden or merely banal, is teasingly different from the mental imagination that first aroused it."

- Oliver O'Donovan, Good News for Gay Christians:
Sermons on the Subjects of the Day
, §11.

The opacity of experience embraces the ambiguity of desire. We can never simply express our desires, since our desires are themselves both questionable and frequently corrupted - or rather, universally corrupted, but in variegated ways that render them not just morally but hermeneutically problematic. In other words, we don't always know what our desires mean and need to reflect upon them together in light of scripture and tradition. They are not to be taken at face value, far less defended against all external evaluation as a matter of principle.

This perspective runs counter to the popular notion that questioning someone's deeply felt desire is itself immoral. Contemporary liberalism is based on the assumption that personal desires are sacrosanct and beyond interrogation. That way lies not only political but also psychological incoherence, since I can never ask the question, "what is that I truly want?" and so am barred from ever asking, "what is it that we truly want?".
I was recently reminded of these lectures by O'Donovan and found that re-reading the final one in particular was a very fruitful exercise. If only more Christian discussions of homosexuality were as patient and gracious.


Al said...

I quoted this same passage just last week in an article that I am writing. After reading such quotes, along with other thinkers like Girard and Lacan, I am far less likely to accept my desires at face value.

Anonymous said...

Well said Byron. I have sat with, listened to and prayed with many "
Christians" who have homosexual desires. Many of them tell stories of being ostracised by their churches when telling the truth about where they are at....

Anonymous said...

Amen. They are great lectures; and that was a great post!

byron smith said...

I'm glad others have found this quote useful. I was particularly struck by it as I read it soon after having a conversation with a friend where we experienced this very dynamic (the assumption that questioning an expressed desire is, if not immoral, then at least deeply rude and socially inappropriate).

(There are of course social situations in which it may be genuinely rude and inappropriate, but the question is whether it is always so and whether friendship may sometimes be best expressed through (gentle and loving) challenge rather than unrelenting affirmation of every whim.)

Anonymous said...

Byron indeed we need to be able to get to the place where we are able to gently challenge sin...and perhaps even be challenged.

The challenge of course is in starting the journey where we can come to the place where our challenge is accepted as loving engagement and not blanket condemnation.

Benjamin Ady said...


I really liked your comments, but found the quote from O'Donovan really offputting. I should analyze why I found it offputting, but instead I'll do what I want right now, which is to watch the next episode of Torchwood.

Cheers =)