Is Desire Enough?

Sex & The Christian Tradition

It seems to me that there are two competing currents of thought about sexual morality, both of them too narrowly conceived to be very helpful. According to one of them, the traditional arguments of orthodox Christianity are a sufficient answer to the questions raised by every aspect of sexual desire. Nothing about those arguments can be seriously questioned. Those who do have serious questions about them are accused of bad faith. The other current of thought recommends openness to the satisfaction of all desires. All sexual desires in particular are natural and therefore not to be rejected or left unsatisfied. In other words, the Zeitgeist is right.

How does a Christian deal with these two currents? The question matters pastorally. The one position can wound people who need to be consoled and reconciled, while both positions reduce Christianity to morality in its narrowest sense—obeying certain rules, or ignoring them—and so allow us to avoid the deeper struggle of real conversion.

The vision of humanity we are given in the resurrected Christ is what Christians are called to. It involves ascesis—the unfashionable demand that we live in our bodies in a new way, whether we are married or single. We know that we can’t cling to any desire that holds us to what is passing. And everything is passing: we must be ready to let it all go. This does not give us an easy place in our economic and social order, but that isn’t what the gospel was meant to do.

One way the teachers of the Christian tradition have tried to deal with our lurches of desire is to watch—as Buddhist monks do with the practice of mindfulness—how we are moved by our desires from a position of stillness. Don’t let desire drag you one way or another, but see it as clearly as you can. Any move we make should be made against a background of stillness, and, though this takes discipline, it is not only possible but necessary. Reacting to how we feel in the moment without that necessary stillness will move us away from a sense of God’s presence.

This is not in itself a question of morality—and that’s the point: if Christianity is about transformation, it is not about obeying rules or obedience to a code. It is about acting with the awareness that you are in God’s presence, and called to live compassionately.

This has everything to do with the current debates over homosexuals and their place in the church. It is certainly true that from its beginning the church has taught that only married heterosexual behavior can be blessed, but even this was conceded grudgingly in some circles. It can be argued that this teaching owed more to Stoicism than to any biblical source, but it is undeniably part of the tradition. Any sexual act that was a departure from the heterosexual norm was sinful. Gore Vidal once said that there are no homosexuals, only homosexual acts. On this point, at least, he was in agreement with medieval Christian morality. Vidal wanted to get away from defining the self completely in terms of sexual orientation; but, worthy as this goal is, the question of basic orientation (not a part of the ancient or medieval understanding) can’t be passed over so easily.

We really have learned a great deal about sexuality that the church fathers simply did not know. There is a minority for whom same-sex attraction is the norm. The church tells them—and them alone—that they must be celibate. In theory, the church says the same thing to the divorced, the single, and the widowed, but for all of these others there remains the possibility of meeting the beloved and enjoying sexual satisfaction. This is, at the very least, a serious pastoral problem.

But the other side of the question carries its own set of difficulties. Does the fact that I desire something always mean that my desire should be met, in just the way I want it to be met? To raise a very difficult point, might it be that those who are attracted to people of the same sex are called to something unlike heterosexual gratification—something involving asceticism that might help enlighten the rest of us?

Neither the married nor the celibate can speak from any Olympian height about the experience of the other. And we need both forms of witness. No one who is not married can begin to approach or understand the reality of God’s fatherhood in the way parents can, and celibacy offers an eschatological perspective we all need to learn from. Civility is possible: the exchange in these pages between Eve Tushnet and Luke Timothy Johnson was exemplary (June 15, 2007). The notion that there is only one Christian way to look at these questions is not only wrong; it is driving away people who should feel at home with us. And who can blame them? It is not that they cannot bear the truth. They know that moralism is not what the Cross and the empty tomb are about.

Published in the 2012-06-15 issue: 
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John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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