Friday, May 4, 2012

Filled with Desire

Andrew Lomas, regular Ink Desk reader, poses some intelligent questions here on issues of Eros and Agape.

First, he rightly notes that Eros presents a minefield for mankind and that many who have tried to navigate it have fallen.  He mentions William Blake, D. H. Lawrence and Eric Gill.  One could certainly add Oscar Wilde to that list, not to mention Sigmund Freud, whose primary task was the reduction of Eros - indeed of everything - to sex.

But it is crucial to point out that Eros is not merely sex.  Eros includes sexual desire, but is not identical with it.  The easiest way to see this is to substitute the word "Love" for Eros.  Is love synonymous with sexual desire?  Of course not; though sex can (potentially) be an expression of Love. 

But Love has many faces or facets or aspects, and there is something about one aspect of Love that we call Eros, and that something is a hunger, a yearning, a desire to possess, a kind of howling for happiness, indeed a howling for heaven - and this aspect of Love is what makes Love dangerous, for this desire is a spiritual thing that cannot be satisfied by the flesh alone.  By contrast, mere lust is a carnal thing and as such is as ridiculous as any other bodily desire or function. 

The problem is that our bodies are not separate from our souls, and even something as merely physical as the sex act is infused with spiritual significance.  This is why lechers who turn their lives entirely over to sex are never happy, for sex-for-sex's-sake ends up becoming more and more dehumanized, perverse and ultimately an expression of the demonic.

Thus, for our sake, God gives us strict guidelines in regard to sex.  When sex becomes fornication, sodomy, masturbation, pornography or any of the other illicit expressions of it, it brings misery and pain and ultimately hell.  When sex becomes the marital act - which is to say the expression of a Love that unifies between a husband and wife, open to the possibility of procreation - then this two-flesh become one-flesh  in life-giving-love expresses the sacramentality of marriage and in a sense, as St. Paul points out, the union of Christ with His Church (Ephesians 5:32).

This is why I take umbrage with folks like Christopher West, who start out talking about Eros but end up talking about sex and who hardly ever discuss sex within the context that God provides for it - marriage and procreation; who go so far as to claim that the "spiritually mature" can forgo custody of the eyes and who tell us that a man sitting in front of a computer screen viewing pornography on the internet is "seeking God" - which is true, but in a very limited sense.  Yes, a man who knocks on the door of a brothel is (ultimately) looking for God, but in that case we must not say, "Knock and it shall be answered".

So it's a minefield.

But Pope Benedict XVI charts a very bold course through this minefield.  Read Deus Caritas Est and read my article about this in the next issue of the St. Austin Review (also see my post The Unity of Love).  In the Pope's encyclical, he asserts that Love is One, that there is a unity to love as there is a unity to truth.  Therefore, Agape (disinterested love of neighbor) and Eros (yearning and passionate love) must go together. 

This brings me to the crux of Andrew Lomas' question, which is, in so many words, "If the Church demands from us Agape - that we love our neighbor disinterestedly - then where is there room for Eros?"

That's a great question, and the Holy Father answers it in his encyclical.  I would only add this - why does Jesus tell us "blessed are they who mourn" and "blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness"?  Mourning, you see, is an expression of Eros - a heart-breaking desire for someone who's absent.  Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is likewise "Erotic" - it can be a flame that keeps you up nights, and we see it in the gleam behind the eyes of saints like Joan of Arc and poets like Hilaire Belloc.

For this is what Eros is.  It's not "erotic" in the sense of strip clubs or porn sites.  These are but the parodies of Eros.  In fact, D. C. Schindler in an essay on Deus Caritas Est writes about "the boredom, the self-protectiveness, the banality, the absence of a sense of mystery and adventure, and the general disenchantment, that characterize a 'de-eroticized' world such as that of contemporary America."

That's right, our contemporary culture, steeped in a parody of the erotic, is actually lacking Eros.  In fact, in my day one of the dangers of "sleeping around" was that you might fall in love with somebody, or she might fall in love with you.  This appears to be a danger that the young folk of today's "hook up" culture seem to have avoided - but only through the emasculation of Eros.

Pope Benedict writes, "Desire is not truly desire unless it is also generous, and generosity is not truly generous unless it is also filled with desire." 

And with this I can't help but think of the typical suburban Mass, where everything is contrived, everything seems artificial.  The music expresses anything but desire, the homilies are usually about the vagueness of good intentions, the fellowship rarely goes beyond being nice.  Yes, we might hear about Agape, about generous love - but we don't hear about desire, about mourning, about hungering for righteousness, about the Fear of God which is the Desire for God which is the first step, without which we cannot see His face.


jvc said...

Kevin, you are a second Apostle of Common Sense.

Paul Stilwell said...

"That's right, our contemporary culture, steeped in a parody of the erotic, is actually lacking Eros."

Bada-bing bada-boom.

The thief is also looking for God, as is everyone else who sins. As to G.K.'s brothel analogy, West says not so much "Knock and it shall be answered", but "Knock *harder* and it shall be answered." For he's says again and again that it is a form of "stopping at the surface", that the problem with it is that it doesn't go deep enough.

When sin is sin just because it's superficial or shallow; when sin is sin because it fails to truly fill one; when this becomes the core definition of sin (and defined as such by way of making it material to be "untwisted") then one can be sure one has taken historical salvation for granted and is "immanentizing" it.

Excellent post, Kevin.