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Sebastian Moore: The Structure of Desire

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Before we can see how Moore conceives of the paradox of salvation in human desire, we must first more fully develop his concept of desire. The basic distinction we need to begin with is between desire for particular things and desire as such, or, as he often puts it, the “whole context of desire” that manifests as desire for “we know not what.” He reads basic distinction through the classic theological tradition, as most notably formulated by Augustine and Aquinas, and also through the psychoanalytic tradition.

In the classic theological tradition an “exit and return” pattern is adopted from Neo-Platonic spirituality in which creatures have their particular nature because they are fallen from their original home in the divine One. Salvation is then thought to be a power that enables creatures to return to God who is the unity beyond the many particular things of creation. Yet, though our desire—having its origin in the divine—finds its ultimate fulfillment only in the divine, it nevertheless seems endlessly misdirected toward the fleeting things of creation. The love of God revealed by Christ thus enables a certain detachment from the merely creaturely dimension of reality, thus liberating love to be properly directed to the divine dimension in which all created reality participates. [1] This reorientation of one’s love simultaneously allows one to love creation in a way proper to one’s own creaturely nature, namely as an unexpected gift rather than a possession. In this way desire is moved from the known and the particular to the mysterious and eternal in all being.

Luminous Forest

Moore sees in the psychoanalytic tradition a similar motion. A central Freudian insight, which he deems to be very important, is that the child grows out of an undifferentiated “sea of delight,” a sort of “oceanic dream of self….” [2] Compared to the theological imagery we have just discussed, this undifferentiated state is analogous to the divine One prior to the fall, or perhaps one might think of it as the pre-fall state of Adam and Eve in the Biblical narrative, before the separation from intimacy with God occurred. This delightful background precedes desire as it later becomes channeled more and more into particular objects. Much like the Platonic imagery that infuses classical theology, the loss of touch with this original context of all-embracing goodness leads to a terror of death and fetishization of particular objects of desire. The process of the differentiation of desire, as we shall see later, is traumatic and dramatic. This drama plays itself out in the relationships the child negotiates with its first caregivers. Psychotherapeutic method seeks in various ways to heal the trauma that attends the birth of self-consciousness. Moore sees this most fundamentally as an effort to to reconnect the patient to the long neglected sense of self as good/desirable that largely resides beneath the surface of everyday awareness.

Out of these two traditions Moore creates his distinction between particular desires and the preceding origin of desire as such. The former, if fixated upon in the absence of a solid connection to the later, constitutes the core problematic of his analysis.

With this in view we can now see another crucial element of Moore’s thought, namely the distinctive way he relates these two modes of desire. His concept of generic desire, or “desire for we know not what,” inverts a commonsense idea of desire, namely that desire flows from an inner emptiness, or a lack. Moore objects. Desire, he wants to say, flows from an original over-abundance of goodness. To see his point, it is worth quoting him at length.

Wanting this or that cannot possibly be the start of the wanting process. It too must be preceded by a continuous condition of myself in my environment, a continuous wanting-I-know-not-what, a ‘just wanting.’ Now what is this ‘just wanting’ state? If we don’t reflect carefully, at this point, on our experience, we will say, ‘It is a state of emptiness wanting to be filled.’ But if we reflect, we see that this is the opposite of the truth. ‘Just wanting’ is a feeling good that wants to go on feeling good and looks for things to feel good about. This is very clear in the child. The child—like the dolphin—is a bundle of pleasurableness. Freud describes our original condition, moving in the amniotic fluid, as the ‘oceanic’ condition. Thus as we move, in our inquiry, from the definite, specific wants, back to the undifferentiated ‘just wanting,’ we are moving towards not emptiness but fullness. In the life of desire, it is ‘everything’ that becomes ‘this thing;’ it is not ‘nothing’ that becomes ‘this thing.’ (Let this Mind Be in You, 5.)

The basic structure is now in view. The task now is to show how this structure operates in human life.

Two Awakenings to the Ultimate Cause of Desire

Moore describes two basic ways that individuals who are living under the normal circumstances of focusing only on particular desires can be awoken to God as the ultimate mystery of desire. These two ways he calls “indirect” and “direct” awakening. The first is an awakening mediated through particular things, especially through intimate relationships with other people, whereas the second is not so mediated. In both cases a successful awakening has the same result, the liberation of desire and a reconnection with an immeasurable sense of self as desirable, that is to say, as good. Let us now briefly consider each of these ways of awakening.

Indirect Awakening

Before all else, says Moore, we long to be desired. More precisely, we long to be desired by the one whom we desire. (The Fire and the Rose Are One, xiii.) This longing flows from a certainty of being desirable. This is a counter-intuitive statement, but it shows itself when we are spurned by one we love. We become angry and indignant which proves that, deep down, we really do have come concept of our desirability. (Let this Mind Be in You, 14) This makes no sense if consider this desirability as being based on a notion of self-awareness that looks at oneself as an object. Indeed, we often do not feel desirable when we reflect on ourselves in that way. This deeper concept of our own desirability flows from Moore’s idea of our unfathomable inner-goodness that we often cover up. Such desire flows from a concept of self-awareness that looks “with” the self, not “at” the self. Problems of self dis-esteem flow from looking at the self, which is a rationalization of one’s very being. (Let this Mind Be in You, 13-14.)

From this sort of psychological sleep, the experience of desire for another has a way of reconnecting one with their own sense of desirability. As Moore says, “…when you feel drawn to another person, that is your own sense of your goodness expanding. There is always, in the attraction to another, the feeling of a larger life opening up in myself.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 14.) Moore traces this movement through several steps. First one is attracted to another. In this attraction, their own sense of their desirability is awoken. But this is only the beginning, for one wants their desire to be fully exercised in having the other be also attracted them. This can only happen, however, if the other person comes under the power of the first person’s goodness and beauty. This awakening, in turn awakens the other person to their own desirability. It is at this moment that the relationship moves from a relation of dependence to interdependence. In the early stages of mutual arousal, interdependence happens with ease, but if the relationship is to grow, one’s own self-affirmation (which is the power that attracts the other) needs to persist in order to avoid sliding back into an unsustainable relation of dependence.

This new moment, of self-acceptance in a love relationship, is the crucial moment. It is the watershed in all human relations. It is what most of us most of the time stop short of. For this is the vital point at which our belief in our goodness is not strong enough to carry us forward. It is always some, often subtle, self-rejection that hinders us from believing in another’s finding us attractive and from seeing that the other does so when this happens. (Let this Mind Be in You, 27.)

When our belief in our goodness persists in interdependent relationship “…each is affirming, is accepting, is appropriating, his or her own goodness as working in the relationship.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 27.) Desire has now been transformed “…into an investment of myself in a developing shared life, a commitment of myself to the unpredictable in hope.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 28.)

It is here that we see the paradoxical nature of a stage transition. In moving from dependence to interdependence one is actually entering into a new dependence (though qualitatively different from the former dependence). As Moore says, “…it is a dependence on the total mystery that constitutes me, this unique good person, and supports my investment of my goodness in the risk-laden adventure of intimacy. The anchor of my new hope is goodness itself.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 28.) These words sound familiar as they contain elements of two different stage transitions that Scharlemann mentioned in the previous chapter.

Another thinker who has done a great deal of work on this particular transition, and who has made explicit use of Moore’s theology, is David Schnarch. As I have mentioned earlier in this thesis, Schnarch is a psychotherapist who specializes in merging the disciplines of marital and sexual therapy with a particular emphasis on the dynamics of desire. He makes use of the idea of “inherent paradox” to help his patients see that they have, in fact, become “too important to each other” because they have ceased to grow beyond a dependency relation to each other. He calls this state “emotional fusion,” and though this state has the merit of regulating the anxiety of those in the relationship, the negative result is that desire evaporates. (Intimacy and Desire, 44-46.) Because partners lack the confidence in their own fundamental goodness, they cannot stand the anxiety of upsetting their partner beyond a certain point. Difficult issues are thus left unaddressed, and the couple contents themselves with elements of the relationship that are not as problematic, but which (owing to their safety) also tend to be quite boring and lacking passion. Some spend their whole adult life in this lifeless anxiety management system, but for others, something within refuses to accept such a circumstance. These are the one’s who either leave their partner or end up in therapy. Schnarch’s tactic as a therapist is just what Moore has previously indicated: He attempts to help the couple feel their own desirability/goodness that exists prior to the validation of their partner, thus enabling the courage to face the difficult elements within themselves and their relationship. [3] Interestingly, Schnarch has found that in the process a spontaneous spirituality is birthed in such couples. (Passionate Marriage, 382.)

The basic movement of the indirect awakening of God as the ultimate mystery of desire can now be seen. From desiring another, to the exercise of desire in a relationship of interdependence, to desire become hope in the total context of desire. The self is thus moved from an experience of isolation to a “partnership in the energy that unites persons in love.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 20.) This, argues Moore, is life in the Spirit. “Spirit [is] inter-life, the mysterious energy that flows between persons”. It is participation in this energy that “opens us to God, [and is] at once the opening of our desire to God and God’s point of entry into us; our way of opening, God’s way of entering.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 25.)

Direct Awakening

Though our desire has its source in our own basic goodness or desirability, we typically sense it indirectly through the “symptom” of desiring an other. (Let this Mind Be in You, 35.) But there is another way for our desirability to be felt, and this is what Moore calls a direct awakening of desire. Here desire breaks the rules and reaches out towards “nothing in particular.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 35.) It is not a matter of “I am wanting such and such a thing,” but rather, it is a matter of “I am.” This experience of desire is simultaneously the experience of one’s own desirability. No object has aroused it, rather “its very center has been stirred.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 43.) For this reason, a direct awakening of desire reverses the order of desire as normally experienced in indirect awakening. Rather than the self coming to experience its desirability in desiring another, here the self experiences its desirability first, then, like a river overflowing its banks, other objects of desire are caught up in the flood. (Let this Mind Be in You, 43.)

One might think to ask towards what this direct awakening of desire is aimed since, as we have noted, it has no object. Clearly language is strained at this point, but the only adequate answer is that “it is with ‘what makes me desirable’ that I seek intimacy,” (Let this Mind Be in You, 35.) the cause of my being and goodness. In line with classical theology, the only reality that makes desirable what it desires is God. It is God alone that “…directly arouses my self-awareness as desirable; that which, not as object desired but as subject making desirable, causes in us that desire for we know not what which is the foundational religious experience.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 36.) The intensity of this experience is certainly lost amidst this academic prose, but for a moment consider what it would be like to experience all the various forms of your erotic engagements with friends, lovers, and even the glory of nature, at its source. (Let this Mind Be in You, 38.) This, Moore encourages us to see, is the heart of religion, even while it turns conventional notions of religion on their heads. It fact it is often the case that when people first taste this experience they feel that conventional religion no longer speaks to them. Why? Because this awakening brings with it “a sense that I am in myself and not relatively to other people and to my culture and race.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 38.)

This breakthrough is what Moore calls the discovery of luminous selfhood. It is not necessarily a religious experience, he says, but it is spiritual. For it to become a religious matter one must answer “yes” to the call of longing that emerges. This latter choice, says Moore, is what constitutes religious faith. The result is a life lived in love, for “Love is desire decided for.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 40.)

From this distinction between an awareness that is dominated by knowing oneself always as measured against the responses of others and an awareness that is dominated by knowing oneself directly as good, somehow chosen, and beloved, Moore makes a distinction between two types of religiosity: Romantic and Mystical religiousness. Romantic religiousness takes its point of departure from the first mode of consciousness. Here religious truths are spoken of “by spinning a web of speculation and beautiful thoughts out and beyond this sure base. It’s up in the air, controlled only by the person’s fancy as he/she conjures up a God who is like Grandma but infinitely better. So it’s romantic. It’s building castles in Spain.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 39.) Mystical religiousness, on the other hand, renders ordinary consciousness questionable rather than taking it as its point of departure. “Its religious thinking is not up in the air, romantic, moralistic pious guesswork whose only anchor is ordinary social consciousness, but is deeper [and] more real.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 39.)

Romantic religiousness has the great risk of painting a picture of God that “evokes an experience of being loved first by another person in whom we are not interested—which is one of the most negative experiences we have.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 45.) Mystical religiousness is not about “loving others,” but about “turning them on.” What we desire most is to be desired by one who excites us, and in a religious context this boils down to being Christ for people. Jesus did not “love people,” rather, “he allowed God to show him to people as his beloved, desirable because desired from all eternity. As each of us is.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 46.)

Those who experience direct awakening become means of grace for others. And what “we call grace, or the new creation, is that movement within people whereby the infinite desire which constitutes them in being (the ‘first creation’) happens for them, happens in their consciousness, happens as a new empowering of the heart.”[34] Thus, whether first mediated through human relationships, as is most common, or awoken directly, the goal is the same: the liberation of desire by making contact with desire’s ultimate cause, the love that courses through the entire universe.


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

[1] Augustine stressed that this is a process that is never completed in this life. As he says in the City of God, “For to be quite free from pain while we are in this place of misery is only purchased, as one of the world’s literati perceived and remarked, at the price of blunted sensibilities both of mind and body. And therefore that which the Greeks called ἀπάθεια, and what the Latins would call, if their language would allow them, ‘impassibilitas,’ if it be taken to mean an impassibility of spirit and not of body, or, in other words, a freedom from those emotions which are contrary to reason and disturb the mind, then it is obviously a good and most desirable quality, but it is not one which is attainable in this life.” (The City of God, 410.)

[2] Moore will later be critical of Freud because Freud called this desire that precedes the desire for particular things “the unconscious.” Moore sees Freud as having “made the common mistake of thinking of self-awareness as having oneself as object of awareness”, thus, “he had to call the fundamental condition that precedes all our [desirous] activity the ‘unconscious’.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 6.) For Moore this fundamental sense of desire is not unconscious, but instead, is a mode of consciousness that, though seldom present to us, can be reconnected with though meditation. (Let this Mind Be in You, 10.) Indeed it is this fundamental desire that is the deeper stability that all therapy directs itself toward. (Let this Mind Be in You, 14.)

[3] For Schnarch this basic idea is interpreted through the idea of “differentiation” as first developed by Murray Bowen, but expanded upon in Schnarch’s own work.

Borges and God: The Unrecognized Orthodoxy of Refusing to Speak of God

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Jorge Luis Borges, SicilyOur cultural moment has lost a classic insight. We have arrived at a place in history where we presume to know, straightforwardly, what we are talking about when we speak of God. Because of this, most Westerners think that religion is essentially a matter of whether or not we believe in this thing, the existence of God, let’s say. Combine this with the overwhelming advances in our scientific knowledge of the universe and you have a situation where most scientifically educated people see no real reason to believe in this thing, this God.

I’m one of them. That may seem odd since I’m a theologian by training. But that only demonstrates how confused the broader culture has become on this point, and therefore how confused the general meaning of “God” has become. In fact, my rejection of belief in this “God,” is not odd at all. My solidarity with the growing impulse in culture to disbelieve in this thing we call “God” is an essential feature of my discipline. We call this thing “an idol.” Forgive us for having not made this clear during the past few hundred years. Our ancient teachers, Augustine and Aquinas, have been notified of our behavior, and we have since received our due scolding.

The insight that has been lost, and which desperately needs to be recovered is as follows: God, as the eternal source of all temporal reality, is inconceivable. This is so because our conceptions follow from how we know things, and what we know is temporal reality, not, eternity. Thus, God, as eternal, is inconceivable. This has important implications for how we speak about God. Since our language represents concepts and our concepts are formed according to how we know things, this entails that our language about God will never rise to the level of what it seeks to name. There is no straightforward talk of God, which is to say that, strictly speaking, God is ineffable (That’s all straight out of Aristotle and Aquinas, in case you were curious).

An example of this confusion passed my way this morning. It was a beautiful interview with author Jorge Luis Borges on his beliefs pertaining to the transcendent and God. I found myself feeling sympathetic for him as he sought to find the right words to describe his outlook. He seemed to want very badly to speak of the divine, but felt that the way to do it was just not available to him.

In seeking to speak of the transcendent, Borges says,

I do think that it’s safer not to call it God. If we call it God, then we are thinking of an individual and that individual is mysteriously three, according to the doctrine of the Trinity, which to me is quite inconceivable.

Is this heresy? Not at all. It is an essential feature of Trinitarian thought that it is inconceivable. It’s not a description of things that exist in the world. It’s an inadequate formulation using temporal concepts that points to an indescribable reality beyond them. To see the inconceivability as a flaw in the construct is to miss the point. The great father of the church, Augustine, would have enthusiastically agreed with Borges on the inconceivability of the doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s Augustine after discussing the Trinity in “On Christian Teaching.”

Have we spoken or announced anything worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say. Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable? If what I said were ineffable, it would not be said. And for this reason God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable. This contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved verbally. For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken of Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words.

A final point is worth mentioning. Borges has what much of our culture has lost: a deep intuition of transcendence. It must be stressed that the early Christian doctrines were formed out of a culture that stimulated this sense. I’ve spoken of this repeatedly on this blog, and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. The early Christians were steeped in a contemplative form of life in which prayer was essentially the regular practice of ego death. The philosopher Wittgenstein came to hold a view quite similar to Aquinas in which he argued that the meaning of a word is in its use. The form of life from which the words emerge designates their meaning. It must be remembered, then, that early Christian words developed in a context of contemplative prayer that stripped the mind of all images and concepts out of a passion to love God as God is in God’s own eternity, unobstructed by the limitations of our concepts. That is why they were always careful to stress God’s ineffability. They spoke of God, but always with the recognition that their speech was inadequate, though offered in love and praise.

I have a feeling that Borges would rather like this idea. Can you imagine what the world would be like if such a language, born of such a practice, were widely adopted? Would we, all of us, together, speak the divinity we sense in all the various particularities of our life with gratitude and praise, and yet never banish each other on the basis of difference? I pray for the day when we enter a freedom born of knowing that while our particular utterances always fail to reach the mark, our hearts might still break free in a love whose voice sings beyond words.

Written by Alex

November 5, 2014 at 11:06 am