By Diarmuid, O’Murchu, MSC
Diarmuid O’MURCHU, MSC is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin Ireland, is a social psychologist whose entire working life has been in social ministry. In that capacity he has worked as a couple’s counselor, in bereavement work, AIDS-HIV counseling and laterally with homeless people and refugees. His best known books include Quantum Theology (1996 - revised in 2004), Reclaiming Spirituality (1998), Evolutionary Faith (2002), Catching Up with Jesus (2005), The Transformation of Desire (2007), Ancestral Grace (2008).
The human heart knows many desires. Everybody desires happiness in life—the fulfillment based on achievement, the satisfaction of realized creativity, the experience of being loved and attaining a capacity for love. And beyond this experiential spectrum are two poles: firstly, our basic desires (needs) for food, safety and security, vocational achievement, sexual fulfillment, creative work, a long and healthy life; secondly, the transcendent desires for meaning, spiritual enrichment, and a sense of life eternal.
How can one ever hope to realize all these desires? Are we meant to experience such fulfillment? Or is desire one of those paradoxical enigmas, necessary for the survival of the species, but never capable of realizing the prospects it holds before us?
Part One: A Confused Landscape
The human capacity for desire has been analyzed at great length by philosophers, religionists, and psychologists. In the chariots of Plato’s Phaedrus, the soul is guided by two horses, a dark horse of passion and a white horse of reason. Like Plato, Aristotle, too, cherishes reason over passion. In De Anima, Aristotle argued that desire is implicated in animal interactions, particularly their propensity for motion. But Aristotle acknowledges that desire cannot account for all purposive movement, such as goal-oriented behavior. He brackets the problem by positing that perhaps reason (ratio), in conjunction with desire, and by way of the imagination, makes it possible for one to apprehend an object of desire, to see it as desirable. In this way, reason and desire work together to determine which objects are "good" for our desiring and which ones are not.
Since the time of Aristotle, all philosophers agree that the human psyche consists of three faculties: ratio(brain), will (desire), and soul. Ratio, or the use of reason, holds a cherished place, often relegating desire to a secondary and superficial treatment.
In Passions of the Soul, Descartes writes of the passion of desire as an agitation of the soul, although the object being sought may serve a useful purpose. Moral and temporal values attach to desire in that objects which enhance one’s future are considered more desirable than those that do not.
In A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume claims that motion is put into effect by desire, passions, and inclinations. It is desire, along with belief, that motivates action. In his Critique of Judgment, Kantestablishes a relation between the beautiful and pleasure. That which we experience as pleasant evokes pleasure, but in itself, it will never satisfy our desiring to the same extent as the beautiful, which always leads to a deeper satisfaction.
For Hegel, desire denotes the restless inner movement seeking the removal of the antithesis between itself and its object. The object, however, forever remains an independent existence, something other that can never be embraced in a fully satisfying way. This search for a meaningful object for one’s desiring, the precarious process involved, and the frequent outcome of never actually reaching the object, is extensively explored in a field of study known as the phenomenology of desire, with names such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva at the fore (More in Fuery 1995; Irvine 2005; Silverman 2000).
For psychology, desire has also featured strongly, again with the ambivalent tenor of an ultimate good being sought, but never fully attained, the tension between the ego and the Self (as in Freud and Lacan). More human-centered psychologies of the 20th century, humanistic and transpersonal, while retaining a focus on the problematic nature of desire, nonetheless see it as foundational to the human search for meaning, and often acknowledge a spiritual foundation which rational science can never hope to fathom.
Religion also has a great deal to say about the human capacity for desire, and for the greater part the emphasis tends to be negative. Desire is often portrayed as an instinctual drive, to be brought under the bar of reason, controlled by the power of the will, and its fulfillment postponed to an afterlife. Within the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism), desire as craving is thought to be the cause of all suffering, and only the extinction of this craving leads one to ultimate happiness. The suffering arising from false desire is viewed as attachment to, or craving for, worldly pleasures, delusions that lead to unhappiness. Suffering ends when craving and desire cease, or one is freed from the cycle of attachments upon attaining true "enlightenment."
Buddhist scholars such as Epstein (2005) claim that this popular Buddhist analysis of desire leading to suffering is based on a superficial understanding of Buddhist belief. The problem, he claims, is not with desire in itself, but with its appropriation, and the conscious awareness with which we engage our desiring. Indeed, one could view the troubled history of desire in the Western context with similar insight. The notion of human desire has been subjected to a great deal of analytical and philosophical examination, with an outcome that is not merely inconclusive, and at times self-contradictory, but most serious of all, fails to honor the subtle depths of the desiring process itself.
The Inherited Delusion
The history of human desiring is based on several cultural distortions which need to be named before we can hope to lay the foundations for rehabilitating desire as a psychospiritual power for transformation (in Part 2 of this essay).
There are cultural presuppositions. Desire is based on a range of instinctual urges, with the sex drive very much at the fore. Many writers (such as Shorter 2005) equate desire with the sex drive. In this analysis, sex is viewed primarily as a biological process, and the strong instinctual dimension is often endowed with evolutionary survival value. Little attention is given to other aspects of sexual longing, desire, and fulfillment (see Evola 1983). Consequently, in the highly sexualized culture of our time, the primary resolution is assumed to be sexual fulfillment through embodied sexual pleasure.
There are also philosophical assumptions. In addition to those noted above, the enduring impact of Greek thought and philosophy is rarely highlighted, as Schaab (2007:4) does in this resumé:
When the early Christian community came into contact with the influence of Greek philosophy, the notion of God changed decisively, particularly concerning divine mutability and possibility. The Stoic quality of imperviousness, the Platonic notion of perfection, the Aristotelian concept of the Unmoved Mover fashioned a deity incapable of pain with a primary quality of permanence. Hence, rather than aroused by covenant and compassion, God’s nature was characterized by autarkeia (self-sufficiency) and apatheia (immunity to outside forces), because, for the Greeks, rationality rather than relatedness was the measure of perfection.
In a culture addicted to the primacy of the rational—in pervasively subtle rather than overt ways—it is very difficult to honor the human capacity for desire. Continuously subjected to the bar of reason, desire is suppressed, maligned, and often demonized.
A favored philosophical analysis of the present time—especially among contemporary theologians (cf. Kirwan 2004)—is that of the French theorist, René Girard (1977; 1986), who situates desire in the human urge to imitate, to a point of rivalry and conflict, which can only be resolved by invoking victimization and scapegoating. Girard’s critique of our cultural employment of scapegoating has won international acclaim for its clarity and insight, yet his analysis is totally confined to the human sphere, based on historical and literary sources of the past few thousand years. His ultimate resolution to misplaced desire lies in the death and resurrection of the historical Jesus. This endorses the traditional Christian view that it is the death, rather than the life of Jesus, that is truly redemptive, a view challenged by several contemporary theologians.
Closely aligned with the philosophical influence are several religious presuppositions. The Christian influence is one of moralistic judgment and suspicion. Desire is suspect, awakening drives and instincts that do not seem to be of God. Therefore, the safest way out is to postpone as much desiring as possible in this life and await its fulfillment in the life hereafter. As already noted, popular versions of Buddhism evidence a similar critique, with the added insight that desire is the source of all pain and suffering.
There are, furthermore, sociological assumptions. I refer particularly to the political and financial arrangements through which humans function on a daily basis. Our earth is divided into nation states, a construct widely assumed to be conducive to human flourishing, requiring political forms of governance that in most cases inhibit, and often seriously undermine, human potential and creativity. Even our so-called democracies, while giving the impression of social and political empowerment, actually disempower people for most of the time.
Similarly, with our capitalistic economic procedures, see the valuable critique of Bell (2001). All leading economic theories of our time assume that scarcity is the norm, and because essential goods are scarce we must pursue strategies that police the limited resources. Thus, we devise highly competitive market systems in which those who already possess wealth and knowledge tend to win, to the detriment of those who cannot compete. This system is based on a fundamental lie: the organic principle of planet earth is one of abundance, not scarcity. If we had honored that principle, we would have devised a very different economic system, with a much more favorable impact on human desiring.
Finally, there are educational assumptions. From a very young age we indoctrinate our children to be fierce competitors. Impressionistic media influences bombard young psyches with aggravated desires and wants, long before they become conscious of what is going on. There is also the subtle, but pervasive, enculturation of robust individualism, promoted under the rubric of personal growth and development. Our youth are highly skilled to engage with our information-saturated world, but poorly prepared on how to critique the subtle and dangerous forces that drive their psychic processes on a continuous basis.
In a word, we are immersed in a culture that capitalizes on our desiring in a devouring manner, often leaving us mesmerized, confused, and feeling overwhelmed. To quote Bell (2001:2): "Capitalism is one such discipline of desire. It is a form of sin, a way of life that captures and distorts human desire in accord with the golden rule of production for the market." How do we survive in this harsh interrogating climate? How do we make sense of what is going on? And for the purposes of this essay, how do we befriend our capacity for desire in a more fruitful and empowering way?
Part Two: The Long Journey Home
How do we reclaim an authentic understanding of the capacity for desire? How do we rehabilitate a dimension of our life experience which seems basic and foundational? And in practical terms, how do we integrate that which has been so problematized in cultural and religious discourse?
The British theologian Mary Grey (2003) makes this bold assertion:
Eros, archetypal of the lost individual of an addictive society, the individual with a crisis of misplaced desire, will find no way back to psychic integration, and the realization of his own heart’s desire, without an entire cultural revolution.
I want to add: without an entire cosmic revolution! Mary Grey probably does not go far enough. She acknowledges a serious crisis, its impact on the human condition, and the enormous psychological and spiritual challenges that ensue. However, the cultural revolution she rightly describes is bigger than culture in any of its conventional definitions. It is not merely human; the suggested "revolution" is transpersonal, planetary, and even cosmic.
What we humans describe as desire is itself a dimension of a larger life-force that permeates everything in the web of life, in the whole of creation. The energy encapsulated in human desiring is the self-same energy that sustains and animates everything in creation. Human desiring cannot be understood in anthropocentric isolation; it belongs to something much bigger and more enduring than itself.
This expanded understanding of the human capacity for desire is what the educationalist Wayne Dyer calls intentionality, which he describes as follows: "Intention is not something you do. But rather a force that exists in the universe as an invisible field of energy … Intention itself is a unified energy field that intends everything into existence" (Dyer 2004:4, 135).
We are into the complex landscape of quantum physics (Chown 2007). Energy is the basic stuff, the essential life-force, of everything in creation. It is an "invisible field," yet nobody doubts its existence. And energy has a strangely dynamic twist to it: it is never wasted, never depleted, forever reconnecting, forever flowing, transforming and being transformed. For more on this expanded meaning of energy, see Smith (2007).
Classical science could not go that far; quantum physics would—and does! But neither the classical nor quantum approaches will venture into the next quantum leap awaiting our analysis and discernment. The mystics are already there, but not many others. Perhaps, few apart from the mystics really understand the complex depth and breadth of human desiring (more in O’Murchu 2007:152ff.).
The next step I allude to is the need to embrace the question: what energizes the energy that constitutes everything in creation? Few have asked the question, and few have dared to entertain the response that is slowly coming into consciousness in our time: the living Spirit of Holy Mystery, what traditional theology names as the Holy Spirit of God. The living, breathing, divine Spirit animates and energizes all the energy that enlivens the entire web of life. The spirit force is what gives direction to the intentionality, and in the human psyche, that intentionality becomes the capacity for desire.
What initially may feel like an original insight is in fact quite old and foundational. In the Hebrew Scriptures we read of the Spirit of God breathing life and order into the chaos of creation. And every indigenous culture in the contemporary world has a primordial understanding of God (or Holy Mystery) as the Great Spirit. Compromise and confusion enter the picture when the Christian Church seeks to domesticate the Holy Spirit, claiming that the Spirit could only be fully conferred at Pentecost (chronologically dated about 2,000 years ago), and can only be appropriated fully in individual human life after the reception of Baptism.
For contemporary theologians this more expansive understanding of the Holy Spirit is a subject of intense exploration. The Australian theologian, Denis Edwards (2004:1), opens his book, Breath of Life, with these words: "What is required is a holistic theology of Spirit, one that begins not with Pentecost but with the origin of the universe 14 billion years ago."
More than any other, the American theologian Mark I. Wallace (2005) pushes the new pneumatology to its limits: "The Spirit is not a heavenly phantom … but God’s all pervasive presence and energy within the universe. … The Spirit ensouls the earth as its life-giving breath, and the earth embodies the Spirit’s mysterious inter-animation of the whole creation. … The world’s forests are the lungs we breathe with, the ozone layer is the skin that protects, and the earth’s lakes and rivers are the veins and arteries that supply us with vital fluids" (Wallace 2005:7, 125, 147).
The theologian Elizabeth Johnson (2008:191, 189) supports these same intuitions when she writes: "Ecological theology proposes that the Creator Spirit dwells at the heart of the natural world, graciously energizing its evolution from within, compassionately holding all creatures in their finitude and death, and drawing the world forward toward an unimaginable future. … Bringing the Spirit back into the picture this way leads ecological theology to envision God, not at or beyond the apex of the pyramid of being as in modern theism, but within and around the emerging, struggling, living, dying, and renewing circle of life and the whole universe itself."
All energy is infused with living Spirit. Energy is endowed with intentionality, with a sense of direction towards creativity and flourishing. In humans, this primordial orientation translates into the capacity for desire. The chain linking energy, Spirit, and desire can be detected in this passage from a recent work of Miriam Therese Winter (2009:70)—
The originating blast of energy in the flaring forth of the cosmos is with us everywhere as the air we breathe, the fire within, the life-force of our being and our serendipitous becoming. It is the Holy Spirit, the essence of divinity, matrix of our reality, an energy spiraling inside and out from the far rim of our universe and all that lies beyond it, to the inner realm of an unseen world as real as real can be.
Desire as a Transpersonal Energy
Desire—the yearnings and awakenings of the human heart—belongs to a sphere of life and meaning far in excess of our biological, psychological, or even spiritual makeup. In our essential nature we are programmed to desire what creation desires for us. In more explicitly spiritual language, we can say (as many mystics have claimed) that our desiring stands the best chance of being realized when it becomes congruent with God’s desiring for us in the evolving dynamics of creation itself.
Many theologians and spiritual writers claim to know what God desires for us. But their understanding of God is often loaded with human projections. Theologically, God is often depicted in anthropocentric isolation, devoid of little or no connection with God’s creation. The conventional God of theism tends to be portrayed as an anthropocentric supernatural human-like person, transcendent to the planetary and cosmic creation of our daily experience. It is a God-image rapidly losing appeal and meaning amid our expanding knowledge of the universe in which we dwell (Primack & Abrams 2006).
Reconnecting desire with its divine source will not in itself guarantee the rehabilitation of desire so urgently needed in our world of alienation and estrangement. Not merely do humans need to be reconciled with God; more urgently, we need to be reconciled with God’s creation. All the formal religions claim to believe in and seek a God of unconditional love. It is impossible to be alienated from someone who loves us unconditionally, and yet, as Farley (2005) highlights, alienation is widespread in the modern world, mainly because we misconstrue the source of our alienation. Our alienation is not caused by a disrupted relationship with God, whose unconditional love remains firm, come what may. The disruption is with God’s creation, not with God.
Deep in our hearts, our primordial desire is not about being reconciled with God, because that relationship was never disrupted in the first place (as all the religions claim, because of a misguided anthropocentric focus). Our desire is to be reconciled with God’s creation, to come home once more to where we truly belong, to God’s primary revelation for us, to the cosmic-planetary grounding without which we can never hope to realize our full potential as human-divine beings.
Rehabilitating Misplaced Desire
Once we have reestablished the connecting sequence: energy-spirit-power-intentionality-desire, we can readily see why things have become so distorted, why authentic desire has so often been suppressed, and why compensatory forces subvert our desiring into several compulsions and addictions that abound in our time. Bruce Wilshire (1998) saw right through the disrupted process—and the misguided perceptions that ensue—suggesting that the rapid increase in addictive behaviors in recent decades can be attributed to a lack of genuine mysticism. Popular religion has lost its soul because it has lost its organic connection with the planet and the universe, leaving its adherents drifting and confused, prone to be lured by the several superficial placebos our emptiness has created in our time.
We live in a state of estrangement, far from ourselves and far from God. Popular religion itself contributes to this foundational alienation mainly because it has espoused the dualistic split between God and the primary source of God’s revelation for us, namely, the planetary-cosmic creation. The heart’s desire can only be honored when we rectify that foundational relationship between ourselves and the spiritual source of life and wellbeing. We can envisage the task in a series of steps.
Strangely this rather perverse view has become the basis on which we understand human sexuality throughout the entire modern world. Every religion moralizes on this basis and every government tends to legislate on the same primitive foundations. The source of human sexuality in the erotic spiritual energy of God and creation—the view adopted by humans over thousands of years in ancient times—has been suppressed and demonized. Little wonder we are left with a sexualized landscape of wild untamed eroticism, seeking a timely vengeance.
Desire’s Evolutionary Moment
Why is desire back on the agenda of human study and reflection? Probably because of the compulsive dynamics of contemporary advertising and marketing forces. Faced with this psychological onslaught, our capacity for desire is being driven and subverted in ways that were unknown to previous generations. Thresholds of satisfaction and happiness are pushed to new aggravating, disturbing, and dangerous levels. Millions of people are seeking levels of fulfillment that are often unattainable, and when achieved, tend to awaken further restless seeking rather than a sense of joy and achievement. Many are caught in an unrelenting cycle, a voracious appetite that seems to defy any meaningful satisfaction (more in Farley 2005).
Understandably, the human impact wins primary attention. Analysts, whether philosophers, psychologists, or theologians, tend to retain a focus almost exclusively anthropocentric in nature. They see it as a human problem requiring humanly-based solutions. Politically and economically, we are beginning to realize that our cultures are driven by forces bigger than ourselves; in time, we are likely to realize that is also true of every sphere of life. We are not as much in charge as we thought we were, and as we would like to be. Increasingly, we realize that we are not masters of our own destiny. In fact, we probably never were!
A new evolutionary horizon illuminates our context, but as yet not many are prepared to follow this lead, and millions among us are not culturally or spiritually adept to discern its deeper meaning. Our past enculturation and patriarchal indoctrination is proving to be a heavy, debilitating burden that will not be easily dislodged. Fortunately, evolution does not wait for those who opt to linger on; it moves forward in response to the lure of the future (Haught 2000; 2003). If we follow creatively—perhaps recklessly at times—our desires stand a much better chance of being fulfilled authentically.
That option for a better and more fulfilling future is more pressing today than it has been for a long time. Evolutionary momentum in our time seems to be evoking a new vision and therefore a new quality of response. Central to that quantum leap is the trans-anthropocentric context of the larger web of life: the cosmos, the planet, all the other creatures that share the web of life with us. Without embracing this larger landscape we cannot hope to live meaningfully or authentically.
Clearly a new consciousness is emerging, alerting us to the larger context we have ignored for far too long. Our cosmic identity and planetary rootedness claim fresh attention and creative responses on how we live our daily lives. And we are beginning to sense that it is in this wider, deeper realm that our capacity for desire will find its true home. Therein our desires are likely to be fulfilled in more authentic ways, and our deeper hungers satisfied. Not alone will we become happier people; hopefully too we will have a more peaceful world, and the prospects of a mutual co-existence conducive to the flourishing of life at every level.
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