Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Discipline of Desire

Matt McGuiness has come out with his second article on pornography at CNA.  If you missed it, I was the harshest and most persistent critic of his first article in this series.  

McGuiness begins his second installment with this quasi disclaimer.

Author's note: Based on some of the feedback I've received since the first installment was published, it is clear that the term “desire” requires some clarification. By desire I mean the drive, the need, for total fulfillment that is in each one of us. It includes our sexuality but it is not reducible to the sexual urge. It is not reducible to sheer impulse or the promptings of concupiscence. Rather, desire includes the totality of things I want and need: love, affection, beauty, goodness, truth, etc. Desire can reach its destiny only in God as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes in paragraph 27 and as Pope Benedict XVI admirably fleshes out in his General Audience of Nov. 7, 2012.  [My note: The Catechism does not say this about Desire but about "desire for God".  Big difference.]

I am going to focus on this "author's note", for I think it is the most telling thing in the entire article.

Elsewhere, Dawn Eden has quite accurately pointed out that McGuiness is very dismissive of the sacrament of Confession in both of his articles.  Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger notes this as well, but recognizes that McGuiness is criticizing Confession and other activities (such as prayer and devotions) which are sometimes used in less-than-healthy ways by Catholic extremists and the hyper-religious.  And Kevin Tierney points out (as does Fr. Geiger) that it's never wise to dismiss such powerful weapons, especially when the issue is considered from a Scriptural point of view.  

But I'd like to suggest that McGuiness' dismissal of Confession, prayer and devotions (which, in context, he apparently meant to dismiss not in and of themselves but as a kind of "busy work") - I'd like to suggest that this dismissal is the fruit of the bad philosophy implicit in the Author's Note.  


McGuiness (like the Westians) defines Desire in the way that Pope Benedict XVI seems to use the word Eros in God is Love. Desire, the Author's Note tells us, is the drive, the need, for total fulfillment that is in each one of us. It includes our sexuality but it is not reducible to the sexual urge.  As a definition for Eros, I think this is a pretty good one.

But it is a dreadfully bad definition of Desire-as-such.  

And this is the crux of the problem.


But before I describe quite how this is the crux of the problem, I would like to point out that it is arrogant and intellectually dishonest for McGuiness to assert in his preface that his critics do not understand what Desire is, as if our emphatic criticism of his first installment arose from our not having understood the most elemental issue he was writing about.  Like all Westians, he implies that his critics are Puritans who want to castrate the human race so as to avoid the thorny little problem of Eros.  Had Mr. McGuiness actually read what I wrote about his article, had he read the posts that followed, had he read the emails I sent him, and had he bothered to read any number of the many articles I've written about the importance of Eros in our spiritual life, he would know that I have no problem with honoring Eros (as he seems to think I do); my problem is with our culture's degradation of it.

Had he read my stuff, he would know these things, but he would also know that I wouldn't buy such a slick definition of Desire-as-such that he tries to slip past us.

For the mistake McGuiness and West and the Westians make is exactly what I described here.  The mistake is this - if all of our Desire is ultimately spiritual, then everything we do is a way of seeking God - and is therefore, by implication, at some level, licit.  


Now since Eros is "upward seeking" and since Eros includes sex, then it might be accurate to define Eros as McGuiness defines all Desire.

But any man or woman can tell you that not all Desire is desire for God.

The Westians are fond of saying that a man knocking on the door of a whorehouse is seeking God.  This seems to be the argument McGuiness is making in his series of articles.  But, come on.  A man knocking on the door of a whorehouse is seeking a whore.  

Perhaps this man does not realize that his sexual desire is ultimately erotic-in-the-full-sense-of-that-word and that Eros includes a hunger for God and that this love is expressed in the love of the Trinity and in the Nuptial of the Second Coming.  Perhaps he does not realize this, but he doesn't particularly care as long as he gets his $100 worth.  

And this mistake - this spiritualizing of all Desire - obviates the need for all of God's Revelation.  

For if all Desire leads to God, then GO FOR IT!  Follow your bliss, baby, even if that bliss takes you through the circuitous route of Sex, Drugs and Rock-n-Roll.  Indeed, some of McGuiness' defenders in these very comboxes make a strong case that it is our obligation to Sin Our Way to Salvation.  


But God doesn't agree with my commenters.  God doesn't agree with Matt McGuiness and Christopher West.

God tells us that all Desire does not lead to Him.  

That is why He gave us the Ten Commandments.  Adultery does not lead to God.  Lying does not lead to God - to mention only two of them.

That is why He gave us the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the Desirous is not one of them - unless you count Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness - not a particularly erotic kind of desire.  

That is why He gave us the Cross.  Suffering and renunciation lead to God, not physical pleasure and satisfaction.

That is why He gave us the Sacraments.  Confession, for example, leads to God - much more clearly than the confused message McGuiness gives us.

For the message is ultimately quite confused, and quite confusing.  If McGuiness and the Westians are really so keen on reforming our sexuality and pointing us away from porn and toward Our Lord, then why so few references to Scripture?  Why the peculiar condemnation of pornography from one side of the mouth while encouraging the indulgence in pornography (as a "thought experiment") from the other (not to mention the occasional praise of Hugh Hefner)?  Why the definition of all Desire as Eros?  Why the contempt for the Sacraments and for prayer?  Why almost no mention of marriage or children and their connection to sex?  And why the bizarre attitude of the defenders of West and McGuiness, who seem to be receiving a message from their writings that is different from the message they claim to be sending - though they're never really clear about what even that message is?


Let me make, as a closing remark, a final - and crude - illustration.  I think I have to be a bit graphic here, and this may be disturbing to those of you who have been victimized sexually.  But I feel this point needs to be made and made clearly, for the spiritualizing of desire is the ultimate goal of McGuiness and the Westians, and it is a dangerous goal.

Let's say you, dear reader, met me and introduced me to your five year old son.  And when your son left the room, I said to you, "Wow!  Does that little boy make me hot!  I'd love to get it on with your son!"  You would consider that expression of Desire to be something less than "the drive, the need, for total fulfillment that is in each one of us."  If I were to say something similar about your teen-aged daughter when she passed by in a bikini on her way to the swimming pool, you would likewise be creeped out, though in a somewhat lesser way, for at least that would be an expression of a Desire that would be more normal - though certainly a Desire that would seem to be seeking something other than "the totality of things I want and need: love, affection, beauty, goodness, truth, etc."  Even if I were to ogle the adult waitress while you and I sat at lunch, you may not be offended, but you would at least know that I, as a Christian, should make more of an attempt to honor my marriage and should try to avoid, as Jesus told us, even committing adultery in my heart.  

In all cases, you'd see much of what God's whole revelation of sin - what God's Law - teaches us - that we must mortify the Desire that leads away from Him and cultivate the Desire that leads toward Him.

If Matt McGuiness could only say that and say that clearly, his three part series on pornography might end up being worth it.


John C. Hathaway said...

As I contemplate my ever-closer impending death (now a close to 1/3 chance it will occur by June at the latest), I keep reflecting on the notion of the notion of desire, and of Hell as the fulfillment of desire, and while it seems simplistic to say, most sin boils down to grabbing at a healthy desire before God intends for it to be fulfilled.
We forget that we have ages of ages to experience all sorts of stuff. The devil is constantly telling us, "Grab what you can before you go." One of the arguments for Catholic asceticism has always been, "Why chase after fleeting pleasures?" But quite a different one has also always been, "You're going to experience it in Heaven, so why not give it up now so you can get there."

jvc said...

Brilliant post, Kevin.

It seems to me that a succinct description of the West program is the baptism of lust.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post; well put indeed. C. West is coming to my area for probably the fifth time in as many years. I'm flabbergasted: if you've heard him once, you never need to hear him (or his stale Braveheart shtick) again. Particularly galling is his arrogance: if you disagree with him in any particular (even his manner of delivery, which is occasionally offensive), it means YOU are maladjusted spiritually or sexually, and are therefore in need of repentence. I must have missed the memo: when did he become infallible?
Wife of recovering porn user

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your vigilance on this - as a sinner trying to undo the knot of porn, your clear concise defense of purity is something that resonates with me. I am grateful.