A LOVE SUPREME

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Meaning, Desire and Light

In our recent discussion on Cyber Sex I referenced Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) saying that on my reading one of the major points of Qohelet is that there is no absolute connection between fulfilling one's desires and living a meaningful life. That if we pursue our desires we may or may not grasp them, and if we do satisfy desires that this may or may not result in a feeling of fulfillment or the sense of having lived a meaningful life.

This prompted a comment by Ktismatics:

If there's no discernible connection between desire and meaning, then why not accept that disconnect? Eat, drink and be merry if you feel like it; it doesn't have anything to do with meaning anyhow. You could make a case that Judeo-Christian sexual morality attempts to impose meaning where it doesn't belong, that it makes to big a thing about it. After all, there's no law against chasing the wind, and it can be kind of fun and relaxing to do so, even if it doesn't really mean anything.

Paul says he wouldn't have known sin except through the Law, that he wouldn't have known about coveting if the Law hadn't said "Thou shalt not covet." The sinful passions were aroused by the law, the commandment not to covet created the desire to covet. Doesn't this suggest that prohibition creates corrupt desires? That if the prohibitions were eliminated the desires would find their own way without being forced into the darkness of bad conscience? Die to the Law, live unto God, who regenerates the desires without reference to prohibition and self-discipline?


This brought to my mind the movie Leaving Las Vegas:
An avowed alcoholic, Ben drank away his family, friends and, finally, his job. With deliberate resolve, he burns the remnants of his life and heads for Las Vegas to end it all in one final binge. On the strip, Ben picks up a street-smart hooker named Sera in what might have been another excess in his self-destructive jag. Instead their chance meeting becomes a respite on the road to oblivion as something connects between these two disenfranchised souls. (Yahoo plot summary)

Here is a scene from Leaving Las Vegas where Ben (Nicolas Cage) completely breaks down in a Las Vegas casino. At this point Sera (Elisabeth Shue) and Ben are together and out for a night of fun.


The movie is brilliant in its raw and authentic look at human nature and our potential for self-destruction. Two souls find each other, Ben and Sera. Separately they were destructing and destroyed. Having intersected into each other's world we now sense that a meaningful relationship is possible. No, more than that - that a meaningful life is possible. We are filled with a sense of potentiality. Something meaningful is within their grasp.

But the relationship is twisted and perverse. Sera is a prostitute and Ben is a dying alcoholic. Sera keeps working the streets and Ben's binging is killing him. Their lives destroy them and warp them such that they get close to love, close to a meaningful sexual encounter, but they never quite get there. The ending is authentic: Meaning is lost.

My response to Ktismatics and to Ben/Sera is the imago dei, the image of God. That humanity searches for meaning because it is in our nature as a reflection of our Creator. Fundamentally we are needy beings. Our needs drive us to something more meaningful. Our needs for relationships, for example, can provide meaning and deep fulfillment. But our needs can also lead us into cycles of self-destruction, like Ben. Need and desires can easily become frustrated, repressed and chaotic.

Ktismatics says, That if the prohibitions were eliminated the desires would find their own way without being forced into the darkness of bad conscience?

Our desires are pure but our desires are also dark and evil. And for most of us there is a jumbling of them all together such that one cannot discern what motivates them and what desires are pulling us along at any given moment. Ultimately, I think that Ktismatics is on to something. We were created for light, to be exposed.

We were created for light and authenticity. To live the genuine life:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (I John 1)

As such the Psalmist pleads in Psalm 139 for God to search and expose. That the Creator and Knower would reveal the depths of the soul - to somehow bring light to darkness:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

14 comments:

ktismatics said...

Coincidentally or not, Anne and I just saw Leaving Las Vegas recently, and I made a few comments about it on one of my posts. I called it a morality play showing the dangers of alcohol, sex, gambling, screwing up on your job, pissing away your money. All of it is framed in a tragic love story: these two people, really nice people underneath, would really have hit it off if not for all the ways they subject themselves masochistically to the pleasurs of the flesh, that the sins of the body were really hurting the hearts and minds. And the corruption isn’t that of a tyrannical government or church but the anything-goes American lifestyle as epitomized by Las Vegas.

I contended that Leaving Las Vegas is a threatening gesture that's distinctly Protestant: be fearful of what can kill body and soul in hell, which is the marketplace of earthly delights. These delights destroy your body, which is unfortunate, but they really push from outside into the soul, which is an even more deadly death. So: deny the worldly lusts and preserve your soul. The world is Las Vegas, booze and sex and gambling are its evils. Be warned, for vengeance is near, and it will be administered through the very pleasures you seek. It’s as though God is using whiskey and whoredom and money as an avenging angel. It's kind of a Fallwellian story, like AIDS being God's judgment on gays.

Observe that there's no desire in either character's sinful pursuits. Ben is consciously trying to kill himself with booze; for Sera sex is just a job. Sera's desire is for a meaningful relationship with Ben, but she must continually suppress this desire because Ben is on a personal mission of self-destruction. He desires death. And Sera desires her own unhappiness: she goes directly from a masochistic relationship with her pimp to a relationship with a guy who refuses to let her get close.

It seems that Ben and Sera are both consciously punishing themselves. They pervert booze and sex, using them to satisfy desires for death and self-abasement rather than for pleasure. These are people who already had a bad conscience, already felt guilty and worthy of punishment. Here guilt is the desire that motivates the conscious and disciplined abuse of sex and booze. They undertake a strict regimen of sin as a way of atoning for their deeper unworthiness. Protestant morality turned on its head.

Melody said...

If these were real people I seriously doubt that their sin would have started out as self imposed punishment. But these things do end up owning you in the end...so that yes, people end up doing the wrong thing and not even getting anything good from it.

The bible refers to sin as slavery for a reason.

Jason Hesiak said...

Doylomania,

How about some deconstructive medicine, here :)

"Here guilt is the DESIRE that motivates the conscious and DISCIPLINED abuse of sex and booze."

Aquinas says that evil is the absence of the good. Aquinas, however, does not fit in the theoretical framework of Deleuze, in which everything becomes a vector of desire, which would include guilt. This means that your argument is valid only within its own framework or when stood on its own foundations.

On a particularly Christian foundation, then, "Leaving Las Vegas" presents a picture of guilt as the death of true desire that demotivates us for disciplined sowing of good seeds in our lives and in our souls. This stands upon the foundation of the imageo dei, in which our true desires...and the Law...reflect and emmanate from the truth and love of God.

"Let your love, God, shape my life
with salvation, exactly as you promised;
Then I'll be able to stand up to mockery
because I trusted your Word.
Don't ever deprive me of truth, not ever—
your commandments are what I depend on.
Oh, I'll guard with my life what you've revealed to me,
guard it now, guard it ever;
And I'll stride freely through wide open spaces
as I look for your truth and your wisdom;
Then I'll tell the world what I find,
speak out boldly in public, unembarrassed.
I cherish your commandments—oh, how I love them!—
relishing every fragment of your counsel."
- Psalm 119: 41-48

Also, as the Erdmanian Tormado sort of indicated in this post, and as he did indicate in his paper on Qoholet and hevel, the only reason meaningless means meaningless is because of some supposed quest for meaning. Hence, "Easter, The End of Deconstruction." :)

:)

ktismatics said...

Oh that's right, this is a Christian blog. Nonetheless, I will return to the "light" discussion.

ktismatics said...

"Our desires are pure but our desires are also dark and evil. And for most of us there is a jumbling of them all together such that one cannot discern what motivates them and what desires are pulling us along at any given moment."

Would it be a worthwhile undertaking to subject one's desires to scrutiny, to put them under the light, to try to sort out the jumble? I feel like I'm being forced into some sort of libertine stance, just because I think that guilt can sometimes make things worse and that desires, even sexual ones, can be good things.

Why do you guys think that Christian men, who presumably already know these Christian teachings, who presumably are already being renewed in the spirit of their mind, still go in for cyber sex? Couldn't Paul's argument about Law creating sinful desires have at least something to do with it?

The imago dei: does God have desires, do you think? Or is the imago the feature that separates us from the animals, such that the desires are the lower nature that is overcome by regeneration? Such that meaning replaces desire as the motive force in the Christian life?

And Jonathan, do you disagree about my reading of the two main characters' sins of the flesh, that they weren't doing it to satisfy desires but out of a strange self-discipline?

Jason Hesiak said...

"I think that guilt can sometimes make things worse and that desires, even sexual ones, can be good things."

I would agree that guilt becomes a mover when it takes hold. Not that it is a desire vector necessarily, but that it blinds us to true desires. Guilt is a product of sin and deception, in that it brings shame, which doesn't align with how God truly sees us. I would also agree that desires, even sexual desires (OF COURSE), ARE good things. Sorry, the caps make me look pissed off. I'm not.

"Why do you guys think that Christian men, who presumably already know these Christian teachings, who presumably are already being renewed in the spirit of their mind, still go in for cyber sex? Couldn't Paul's argument about Law creating sinful desires have at least something to do with it?"

For one thing, I think it takes some interpretive gymnastics to say that Paul argued that the Law creates sinful desires. I could see how one might arrive there, but I'm not exactly there. In the biblical narrative, both sin and sinful desires were around long before the Law.

What that would mean is that the Grace of Christ frees us primarily from sin, and from the "rule" of Law along the way. As Paul says, though, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't follow the Law.

My answer, then, largely from experience, would be that I don't always do what I want to do, nor what I know I "should" do. As I've begun to be "renewed in my mind" in this area of my life, the "renewal" has not brought more conviction or knowledge of what is Lawful or right (that was already there), but instead the "renewal" has brought a "new" "image" of who I am in the eyes of God. That "Golden" part of my "Golden Ass." :) This "new image" has made it "easier" to truly and freely act out of that truth of God's freedom, Grace and Love.

Along those lines...I'm not sure about "God's desires." Thomisticguy has said that God doesn't have "desires," since He's not subject to such carnal wishy-washyness. But the Incarnate Jesus certainly did, as does his church body.

I think this gets at your "image and likeness" thing. But I'm not sure what you mean by: "Or is the imago the feature that separates us from the animals, such that the desires are the lower nature that is overcome by regeneration? Such that meaning replaces desire as the motive force in the Christian life?"

I get the sense that you are feeling like Christianity is meant to repress desires. The justification of this repression, according to what you are saying, is that God doesn't have desires; and, of course, we should be like God. I'm not sure, though, if that's what you mean to say or imply...??? I'm also not sure how our distinction from the "lower" animals comes into play here, either. I'm definitely missing something about what you mean there??

Jonathan Erdman said...

ktismatics:
these two people, really nice people underneath, would really have hit it off if not for all the ways they subject themselves masochistically to the pleasurs of the flesh, that the sins of the body were really hurting the hearts and minds.

I would suggest that they hit it off primarily due to the fact that they "subject themselves masochistically to the pleasures of the flesh." They are two souls on the brink of destruction and I think their need for each other is magnified because they are so broken. Ben needs someone to care for him and provide companionship, even more so than he would if he were "normal" (whatever that is!). Sera is terrified of being alone. She needs to feel protected, and to care for someone - again, this is magnified because of the danger of her profession and the fact that she is continually providing gratification for men while remaining isolated and fearfully unfulfilled.

Their need for each other is exponentially amplified by their self-destruction. But they are both dying, internally and externally.

Ktismatics:
Here guilt is the desire that motivates the conscious and disciplined abuse of sex and booze. They undertake a strict regimen of sin as a way of atoning for their deeper unworthiness. Protestant morality turned on its head.

I think this is an incredible observation that I have never really thought about or explored. It seems true that in some cases one destroys themselves with their vice as self-inflicted punishment. A form of atonement. The body, meant to be a part of a holistic endeavor at glorifying God and caring for earth and neighbor is now being destroyed - the soul is twisted and its aims are distorted and perverted. It no longer feels the impulses of the imago dei and is driven by its own sense of falling short. Of being broken. Perhaps it seeks to destroy the body and everything associated with the imago dei because it knows it has failed.

Is this something like what you are getting at?


Ktismatics:
I feel like I'm being forced into some sort of libertine stance, just because I think that guilt can sometimes make things worse and that desires, even sexual ones, can be good things.

Why do you guys think that Christian men, who presumably already know these Christian teachings, who presumably are already being renewed in the spirit of their mind, still go in for cyber sex? Couldn't Paul's argument about Law creating sinful desires have at least something to do with it?


I never disagreed with your take on Paul. I'm still torn as to Paul's original intent, however, I think that as soon as you make a law and say, "This is wrong/taboo" two potentialities are born:
1) That whatever is wrong/taboo becomes more desirable simply because it is wrong. I think this was, to some degree, what happened in the Garden of Eden. There is a curiosity element at work as well. Leave the adolescent kids at home with their friends and see what happens when you tell them, "Whatever you do, don't open the cabinet to see what is inside." Why is it that one of the sexual turn-ons for many people in our culture is to talk about what is "naughty" or to have sex in a public place?
2) If you break the law you develop a guilty conscience. The question I have for you, Doyle, is this: Is the conscience a purely social thing or is it something intrinsic to being human? Is it imposed on us by culture or is it part of human nature (perhaps imago dei)?

ktismatics said...

Jonathan -

Is it just me, or is that YouTube clip in French?

A commenter from several posts back brought up Jonathan Edwards, that old American Puritan, whose ideas are relevant here. Edwards proposed that the "affections" (i.e., desires) set the direction of the self beneath the level of conscious awareness. The will then freely chooses to pursue a course that attempts to satisfy whatever affections are dominant. When the Holy Spirit saves someone, He regenerates the unconscious affections so that the will spontaneously and freely chooses the Godly path.

Interestingly, Nietzsche -- he of the will to power who goes beyond good and evil -- agrees with Edwards here. I hope you'll excuse a long quote from Nietzsche:

However far a man may go in self-knowledge, nothing however can be more incomplete than his image of the totality of drives which constitute his being. He can scarcely name the cruder ones: their number and strength, their ebb and flood, their play and counterplay among one another -- and above all the laws of their nutriment -- remain unknown to him... Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm... While we 'believe' we are complaining about the vehemence of a drive, at bottom it is one drive which is complaining about the other; that is to say: for us to become aware that we are suffering from the vehemence of a drive presupposes the existence of another equally vehement or even more vehement drive, and that a struggle is in prospect in which our intellect is going to have to take sides... Wherever we encounter a morality, we also encounter valuations and an order of rank of human impulses.

You asked: "Is the conscience a purely social thing or is it something intrinsic to being human? Is it imposed on us by culture or is it part of human nature (perhaps imago dei)?" Let's say it's part of human nature. But it can get tuned to different value systems. Presumably the conscience gets invoked when different sets of affections/desires/drives compete for dominance. The conscious mind wills in favor of one constellation of desires, but the competing desires may surge and shift the force of the will accordingly. Conscience is the recognition of this inner conflict between competing sets of desires, a conflict that seems to set the will at cross purposes with itself. This would, I think, be both Edwards' and Nietzsche's position. Does that work?

So sometimes Ben's desire for suicide is overwhelmed by a desire for love. He is internally, morally conflicted, but he is consciously behind the will to death, treating it as his highest value. And this will eventually wins out.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Let's say it's part of human nature. But it can get tuned to different value systems. Presumably the conscience gets invoked when different sets of affections/desires/drives compete for dominance. The conscious mind wills in favor of one constellation of desires, but the competing desires may surge and shift the force of the will accordingly. Conscience is the recognition of this inner conflict between competing sets of desires, a conflict that seems to set the will at cross purposes with itself. This would, I think, be both Edwards' and Nietzsche's position. Does that work?

I think this is very insightful.

I am reminded of James 4:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight....

Interesting that James links interpersonal conflict with an internal battlefield of raging desires. We were designed for relationships on multiple levels. We need them. But relationships can't exist solely for the need of one person, b/c there is always more than one. And there is the conflict: Who's desires will be satisfied? And what happends when "desires" rage and morph into something we "covet."

Like a raging cancer "desires" can infect and destroy producing madness and tragedy.

ktismatics said...

Like a raging cancer "desires" can infect and destroy producing madness and tragedy. What about the desire for affection, for empathy, for truth, for God? The James 4 passage is relevant, but it gives the impression that James regards all desires as contrary to God. The big distinction is this: does regeneration transform the desires so that they aim for godly fulfillment, or does it give strength to overcome the desires?

I see an implication of both in James, but generally he seems lined up against desires. Instead of struggling against one another to meet your desires, he says to ask God and God will fulfill them with grace. But then he says God will deny grace if you "spend it on your passions." So it seems like your in a tough spot with James. I think you see both in the NT: the war against desires, and the desire for God. Presumably you want to win the war because your intellect has taken sides with the godly desires.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics:
The James 4 passage is relevant, but it gives the impression that James regards all desires as contrary to God. The big distinction is this: does regeneration transform the desires so that they aim for godly fulfillment, or does it give strength to overcome the desires?

This is a good question, and I agree with your conclusion. In this context "desires" are evil desires. (See James 1:13-15, below) There is no neutrality. James is very concrete and practical: Recognize the corruption in your world and in your soul and make the change. Avoid being "double-minded" and developing fragmented religiosity whereby we claim one thing and live another life. (See James 4, below)

This apocalyptic tone (see James 5, below) might sound a bit too fundamentalist for our contemporary context where we desire to explore and understand and analyze desires, but I do think there is something profound in the doing of what is right. Maybe we could parallel Heidegger's being-there. The resolve of the will combined with cultivating a lifestyle that moves toward good deeds results in transformation. We change not simply by analyzing-there, but by being-there. Time is a key component. Change does not happen in a closet, but by interaction and by active participation in the world. From a pragmatic standpoint it is effective. There is certainly more to explore on desires - James isn't the last word on this, but his voice is very important.

Also of note is the "Word." (See Chapter 1, below) Works and deeds are not done in a vacuum or on one's own strength. We "look into" the Word as though looking into a mirror. We contemplate and study and absorb. Having done so we leave as changed people...or do we??? Change isn't complete until put into action, and so we put the Word into world.

To extend James' metaphor of the mirror I would suggest that the Word is looking back at us, that we are being exposed and looking into our souls. Hence, we should not leave the mirror and forget ourselves and what we have seen. We leave and interact with the world. Over time this process transforms and "desires" are tamed, overcome, understood, redirected, etc.

Sometimes Christians tend to think that change happens instantaneously in all cases. Usually it is process.

James 1
13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death....

21Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

....Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does...


James 2
17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do....But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.....

James 4
7Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

James 5
The Judge is standing at the door!

ktismatics said...

Jonathan -

Maybe you're ready to move on -- if so, fine. Anyhow, the position I've been putting forward assumes that desires are part of human nature and that they influence will from the bottom up, and that maybe God implants godly desires which also work from the bottom up. The will then leans toward whichever desires seem to be winning the battle, but the intellect can overrule, or at least try, in favor of a less powerful desire. This is Edwards' and Nietzsche's position. The alternative is that God reinforces will from the top down, that conscience is an instrument of the higher nature detecting counter-forces of the lower nature, that morality is a matter of overcoming natural desires either by work or by grace or both.

You mentioned the image of God in your post. Is the imago something supernatural that's superimposed on human nature? Is the intent of the indwelling Holy Spirit eventually to overcome human nature, which will pass away in the afterlife anyway? The Greeks and the medievalists asserted that God had no emotions, passions, appetites, moods, etc. because he lives in eternity, whereas these other ways of being-in are by their very nature changeable. You certainly get this feeling from James and usually from Paul. What think you?

samlcarr said...

I'm not sure where i stand on the from above/from below debate. Looking at 'the gospel' - in Jesus teaching and especially what He has to say about His kingdom, it looks to me to be a sort of 'through the middle' approach. He acknowledges that there can be evil in the heart and the decision to follow Him conquers that and then the cognitive + the will are the primary sources of action and it is action that counts almost regardless of the depths of confusion that it may be rooted in.

We tend to think of many 'levels' in our personalities, the unconscious, memories, thought, will ... but most of this is missing. There is the heart and the decision making part. Desire flows from the heart but can be trumped by our decisions. Action flows from decision.

ktismatics said...

Sam -

I agree that the Jesus of the Gospels is strong on heart and will. He's very concerned about morality, but he's not invoking rebirth or regeneration or any of the other supernatural aids invoked by the epistle writers. He's more like a prophet. He has an idea of the Kingdom of God being present, that it's a Kingdom founded on love, that people need to find in themselves a way of being that's appropriate to the Kingdom. Does the heart change and the will follows the heart's promptings; i.e., is it a renewed and redirected desire that motivates Kingdom living? Or does one will oneself to love as the greatest of the commandments that must be obeyed in spite of desires not to love? I'm not sure whether Jesus resolves this ambiguity in His documented teachings, but like you I see more evidence in the Gospels for willpower aimed at love than for a change of heart that redirects the will.