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What Would People Think?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

On God and Our Desires, or How I Learned to Stop Listening to Al Pacino and Love C.S. Lewis (Part 1)

(When I started writing this post over one year ago, I thought it wouldn't be that long. Then I realized I was writing a freakin' essay....and I couldn't find the time to finish it. I was trying to express two main points, and just last week, I finally found the time to finish writing my first point. So, after leaving my blog comatose for over a year, I've decided to go ahead and post the first part. Here's hoping I get around to the 2nd part. Also, I realize this thing is really long. If I post this in parts, maybe people will have time to read it.)

Two Quotes on the Relationship Between God and Our Desires

I begin with a quote from John Milton (a.k.a. Satan) from the movie The Devil's Advocate:

Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to
watch. He's a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does he do? I swear for his own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look, but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow. Ahaha. And while you're jumpin' from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He's laughing his sick fuckin' ass off! He's a tight-ass! He's a sadist! He's an absentee landlord! Worship
that? NEVER!

And a quote from C.S. Lewis in his sermon, The Weight of Glory:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised us in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
I want to use these two quotes as a launching point for this blog post (or, as it turns out, series of blog posts).

Many of my friends really like that first quote. I remember watching The Devil's Advocate in college and hearing friends who would cite (or at least perk up) for that line. They may just like the wittiness of it, or the audaciousness, or Al Pacino's delivery of the line. But I think there's more to it than that. I think the quote resonates with them. Even if they don't believe in the Judeo-Christian God, that's what they think Christianity teaches about our desires: that our desires are bad and should be suppressed. (Or as Jeff characterized the conservative attitude toward sex some time ago: "Sex is evil and dirty and should be avoided at all costs.") I remember countless jokes about the latest dumb thing said or done by a fundamentalist or someone from the Religious Right (or, sometimes, a terrorist) being the result of repressed sexuality. I don't think they believed that, but I do think they believe that Christianity teaches suppression and denial of one's desires, and that this is unnatural and unhealthy and joyless.

Obviously, I disagree. There are two points I want to make about what Christianity has to say about God and our desires. (If you're not a Christian, you can take what I write about what God does below to mean what Christians believe God does. Being a Christian, I obviously believe these things and I just don't feel like prefacing everything I say in this post with "Christianity teaches...".) The C.S. Lewis quote applies more to the second. But, as is numerically appropriate, I'll start with the first.

To preview, these are my two points: (1) God wants us to enjoy the good things of life. But we must enjoy them, in the way, and to the extent, that he has mandated. We must not love the created things (including pleasures) more than the Creator. (2) Although we must give up some of our freedom to do what want, what we get in return is joy and life lived to the fullest in a relationship with our Creator and Savior. The exchange is worth it.

(As it turns out, the 2nd point will have to wait for a later blog post. I've got an outline.)

Everything In Its Proper Place

Al Pacino's Satan is right about one thing: God did create in us these desires for stuff like, say, food and sex. He did so not to frustrate us, but because he meant for us to enjoy these things. Even the writer of Ecclesiastes - a melancholy guy if there ever was one, a guy who concludes everything under the sun is "meaningless! meaningless!" - still says "It is good for a man to eat and drink . . . When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work - this is a gift of God."

But here's the rub, the thing people don't like: We are to enjoy these things in their proper time and place. And, above all, we are not to seek these good things over God. We should never love the created things more than the Creator.

Why? Because of the great danger of our desires ruling over us and harming us. People think - or at least our consumer culture implicitly teaches us - that indulging our desires whenever we want is the definition of freedom and happiness - in economic terms, that it can give us the most utility. It's not. More often, it's slavery - like a drug addiction. (As Paul put it in his letter to Titus: "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.") Actually, drug addiction is a pretty good analogy of our desires ruling over us. The addict desperately wants more cocaine or heroin or what have you, but that doesn't make it good for him/her. But even that analogy isn't perfect; I can't envision a scenario when heroin is ever a good thing in the first place.

A better example may be food. As the quote from Ecclesiastes above acknowledges, food is a good thing. It's a necessity and one of the great pleasures of life. (Don't believe that? You haven't tried Christy's cooking yet.) But, when indulged to excess, food can harm you. Excess of food can lead to everything from indigestion to heart disease to (in the case of a relative of mine) legs that are too weak to carry all that weight. When it gets to the point that your appetite controls you, food can actually be dangerous in the long term.

Sex is another example. Contrary to Jeff's characterization above, Christianity does not teach that sex is "evil and dirty." Rather, it is a beautiful expression of love that can even lead to the creation of new life. Nobody who reads the Song of Solomon, with its frank and joyous exploration of sexuality, can believe that the Bible teaches sex is inherently wrong. But it's also perfectly clear that the Bible tightly circumscribes when sex should be enjoyed (see, for instance, large portions of Leviticus). But isn't it obvious why? As theologian Frederick Buechner once put it: "Sex is like nitroglycerin; it can either be used to heal hearts or blow up bridges." Or, as a character puts it in the movie Kinsey (never thought I'd be citing that movie, did you?): "Sex is a risky game, because if you're not careful, it will cut you wide open." Sex can bring two people together into an intimate - and, yes, pleasurable - physical, emotional, and spiritual union. But it can also tear relationships apart, cause lasting emotional damage, and lead to STDs if indulged in the wrong way. Sex can be a cruel, controlling master. See the movie Auto Focus: In it, Greg Kinnear plays TV star Bob Crane (of "Hogan's Heroes" fame). Crane has almost daily sex with strangers. Sounds like fun? Not really. For Crane it's a compulsion. It wrecks 2 marriages, leads to increasingly reckless behavior, and ultimately destroys him. It's a portrait of desires ruling over the man.

"Okay," you might say. "So we shouldn't enjoy things to excess. So far you haven't told me anything that Epicureanism doesn't also teach. But why Christianity's distinct rules? Why listen to the Bible's mandates that, say, sex should only be enjoyed within the confines of marriage?" The best explanation I can give is the one I gave to a college acquaintance (Joe Wong, founder of The Slant) when he asked me that same question. What I said then is, "Well, when I want to figure out how a VCR works [hey, it was the year 2000! People still used VCRs back then. I still do.], I read the manual written by the people that made it. I figure the people that made the thing know best how it works. In the same way, I believe that God made me and knows best how I 'work.' Therefore, I will listen to Him and read His 'manual', the Bible, and seek to do what it says. That, I believe, will be most conducive to my happiness and the happiness of others." Well, okay, that wasn't my exact words. But that was my basic point.

And how does Christianity say we "work"? Augustine had the best framework for it, so I'll paraphrase him. Basically, Augustine taught that our loves need to be properly ordered. It's not that we should love God to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. It's not that we shouldn't enjoy food, sex, fresh air, a World Cup soccer game, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, our friendships, or any of the other wonderful things of this world. It's that we should love God first...and most. And then, in loving Him, we obey Him. In obeying Him, we follow his great commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself." So we next love our fellow human beings and earnestly desire their good just as much as we desire our own good. After that, all our other "loves" fall into place....in their proper order, time, and place. When we love God, we are freed to love our neighbors and enjoy the pleasures of this world without being slaves to pleasure.

German theologian (you'll note I'm quoting a lot of theologians in this blog post....it's my new pastime) Helmut Thielicke took that concept of slavery to pleasure in a slightly different direction. We all serve a master. Much as we Americans love to say that nobody is our master, Thielicke argues it's not a matter of whether we serve, but whom we serve. We could serve God or we could serve our desires. We can choose which master to serve. One master (our desires....our idols, as he puts it) will make us slaves. The other (God) will make us children. He will adopt us into His family and then we will serve Him freely, out of love and gratitude.

Or, instead of quoting various Christian theologians, maybe I should just go back to the source of all their thoughts, Jesus. In His Sermon on the Mount, he concluded: "Seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

Ultimately, we must let God rule over our desires, and not let our desires rule over us.

(Part 2 - entitled "The Exchange Is Worth It" - to follow...)


  • Ben,

    Thank you for your thought provoking words. You say that you think Al Pacino's quote resonates with some people because of their concept of Christianity. I mostly agree with you here. I think you have overlooked that much of the suppression of desires, as attached to any "ought" statement, is cultural rather than due to a perception of Christianity. We are too often taught, implicitly, that it is okay to have desires and to pursue them, but don't talk about them in public or with anyone outside of a locker room. Focusing for a moment on sexual suppression, there are many countries that are culturally more open about sexually and just as Christian (demographically) as the US. In these countries, it is typical for the rate of sex crimes to be much lower than in the US. My question to you, then, is why do people often think that the suppression of desires comes from religion rather than tradition? Is it that it's easier to point to a faith that you do not hold nor understand and condemn it and its followers rather than to look at family and cultural history?


    By Blogger loui77, at 6/27/2010 8:44 PM  

  • Interesting stuff, Ben. I was mostly just being a jackass when I wrote that about Christianity, but it's interesting to know about Christianity's actual relationship to desire. I'm looking forward to the second part...

    Jonathan, you raise an interesting point, and here's a case study for it. As far as I know, the Bible doesn't make a distinction between male and female sexual desire. However, in our society, somehow the former is accepted while the latter is often the subject of shame and ridicule. How did this come about? From what Ben's saying, this seems like it's not necessarily a Christian thing, though such a viewpoint often gets associated with Christians...

    And Ben - as far as I know, marriage isn't actually described anywhere in the Bible, though husband/wife relationships are frequently mentioned. How do we know what a marriage, in the Biblical sense, is?

    By Blogger Jeff, at 6/28/2010 10:49 AM  

  • Ben -

    Fantastically written. This largely mirrors my own thinking on the way our human desires work in concert with God's Will. I got your back on this one.

    Jeff -

    I've often thought about that whole male/female sexual desire & pleasure dichotomy too. It's so unfair that women are held to a different standard. Especially for my wife, given my prowess as a gifted lover... ;-) (Sorry, I couldn't resist).

    As for the "Biblical" understanding of marriage... I'd guess that it probably shifted throughout the historical time covered in the Bible. Pinning down a single expression of marriage probably isn't easy. But pinning down some of God's rules for marriage probably is: specifically, the mutual support and love shared by the couple, marriage's role in creating and raising children, the indissoluble nature of the relationship, etc. But I'm no expert on the subject, so I'm plenty happy to be defer to someone else.

    By Blogger Matthew B. Novak, at 6/28/2010 5:10 PM  

  • I know I promised a more substantive response to you last week, but since I don't know if I'll ever get to it, and I'm not sure exactly what I would want to say anyway, I'll raise the following question:

    One of my greatest struggles (and probably an inherent struggle of any religion) has always been doubt. Logically, I have simply never been able find a reason to believe the Christian teachings of the Bible any more than the teachings of any number of other philosophers. Feelings of doubt have consistently trumped feelings of belief, to the extent that they were felt. (The seeming absence of doubt in so many other Christians only exacerbated the condition.)

    So. If we assume, as stated in one of your later paragraphs, that we all serve a master, and that we have the freedom to decide which master to serve, and then get to reap the rewards provided thereby, the question (for me at least, and probably for many others) becomes this: do I choose the immediate, certain reward, or the distant, uncertain reward?

    And, as a corollary: in the face of such debilitating doubt, can one honestly expect your typical person to opt for the latter?

    I dunno. Maybe those are rhetorical questions, but they were the first thoughts that occurred to me.

    By Blogger Mike, at 7/06/2010 5:14 PM  

  • Mike -

    Isn't the response to your query Pascal's Wager?

    And I certainly get the "doubt" part. I think all of us believers comes across it from time to time. Although you write about "feeling" doubt and "feeling" belief. I think ascribing doubt and belief to "feeling" is part of problem. For me, at least, faith is less a way of feeling and more of a different way of knowing.

    I don't feel God's existence and therefore believe. I first know God's existence, which opens up my ability to experience God and understanding the world a different way. Faith, for me, is a different way of knowing. Do I suffer from doubt? Of course. But I took the faith leap, and I "know" because of it.

    By Blogger Matthew B. Novak, at 7/07/2010 3:06 PM  

  • Mike,

    I can think of 2 responses to your questions. First, as I think this post makes clear, even the immediate consequences of choosing to follow our desires may not be "reward." This is most clear in the example of a drug addict, but I think it applies elsewhere.

    Second, as I plan to express in the 2nd part - "The Exchange is Worth It" - (assuming I ever get to it) I believe there a immediate, or at least "this-worldly", benefits to submitting our desires to God....entirely apart from the whole heaven thing.

    About doubt...I, too, have struggled with deep doubts. (My nieces were murdered in their sleep. After that, how could I not doubt?) One thing that made Christianity more palatable for me after I had resolved some of my logic-based doubts was the idea that my God didn't exempt himself from our sufferings....but rather chose to fully partake of those sufferings and even to suffer for me. That means a lot.

    As for the logical doubts, the book that best captures the conclusions I've reached, and has most informed the rational aspect of my faith, is Timothy Keller's The Reason for God. I may just buy you a copy one of these days so you can engage Keller's arguments and thoughts for yourself, but in the meantime, here's a website for the book.


    Jeff - I'm not sure what you mean by describing marriage. If the Bible describes husband-wife relationships, isn't it describing marriage? Are you talking about whether the Bible defines marriage in a manner that excludes gay marriage? Or are you getting at something else entirely?

    By Blogger Ben, at 7/07/2010 10:51 PM  

  • Matt - I see what you're saying, but there's a difference between doubting the existence of God (less of a problem for me; while I would probably technically be considered agnostic, I generally believe in some form of higher power) and doubting the specific teachings of Christianity. There have been numerous instances throughout time of people claiming to directly speak for God or even be His Earthly offspring. To use a simple example, why should I believe the teachings of Christ but not the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed (with which I'm admittedly unfamiliar - it's just an example)? Therein is essentially where my question lies. (As for Pascal's Wager, if I bet that God exists, there's still the issue of which God, and which principles, and even if I lived my life as such, which I think I kinda do in many ways anyway, there's still the matter of actual belief.)

    Ben - your point about the drug addict is taken: the "pleasure" derived from his drug du choix eventually erodes due to his addiction. But that's an extreme case. I'm more talking about pleasures in moderation (e.g., occasional drunkenness or extra-marital fornication) which, while certainly ephemeral, are generally more entertaining than enslaving. Of course, if there were a certainty that forsaking these entertaining pleasures in fact led to something greater, it'd be easier.

    Which of course leads back to doubt. Like I said in my original comment and my response to Matt above, it isn't God specifically who's the source of doubt, it's the Christian version of Him. (I can only assume "The Reason for God" has an implicit "the Christian version of" in its title.) I find it easier, for example, to believe in a God who provides multiple paths to salvation rather than a specific one. (E.g., what about the unfortunate soul who lives and dies without ever hearing tell of this Jesus Christ?) Granted, I know many people who consider themselves Christian who believe that there are multiple paths; I'm not sure how they reconcile that with the Bible, but whatever.

    Matt talks of a "different way of knowing", which I get; there are a lot of ways of knowing, whether it's concrete fact (such as that 2+2=4) or more intrinsic (such as that I love my mother). But how do you choose to know? Don't you just learn, one way or another? Because one of the main things I learned along the way is how much life opened up for me when I stopped being so damned puritanical. Therein, again, the dilemma.

    (Post-emptive warning: the above may be the mere rantings of a spiritual lunatic. Consume at your own risk.)

    By Blogger Mike, at 7/19/2010 10:14 AM  

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