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Desire and the quest for God

31 December 2021

Do our deepest wants point to carnal or spiritual realities, asks Fiona Ellis


LAST night, I had a desire for a glass of wine. Luckily, I had a bottle in my fridge, and could satisfy that desire. Earlier in the day, I had a desire to go for a walk on Hampstead Heath with Ruby, the sausage dog, and I satisfied that desire, too.

So, desires can be satisfied — not that they are guaranteed to be satisfied: the bottle in the fridge might have failed to materialise, and something might have prevented me from walking to the Heath; but they can be satisfied.

Desires such as this come and go, but how do they relate to the restless and seemingly endless desires or longings that tug at the human heart in the deep dark night, and that, as one philosopher has recently put it, are just “too big for words”?

Such desires are not satisfied by anything as simple as a drink or a walk: they are infinitely difficult to pin down, and there is a clear sense in which they resist satisfaction — underpinning our dreams and aspirations, and keeping us alive and kicking. But how are they to be understood? And what are the implications for how we think about our nature as desiring beings, and the world in which those desires are played out?

These are just some of the questions that keep me awake at night. I have taken inspiration from a range of thinkers and traditions in my quest to arrive at an understanding of the philosophical and theological issues they raise.

Take, for example, C. S. Lewis. He agrees that the relevant desires or longings are insatiable, and talks, in this context, of desires that no experience in this world can satisfy. He then says that, if I find in myself such a desire, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

He goes on to say that this does not prove that the universe is a fraud, and that it is probable that earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy such a desire, “but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing”.

He concludes that the main object of life must be to press on to this other world. This other world is not to be found until after death, but we are led to suppose that it provides the ultimate focus for our earthly desires, and that what we really desire cannot be had in this world.

Lewis talks in this context of the longings that arise when we first fall in love, claiming: “You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of” (Surprised by Joy, 1955).

LEWIS spells this all out in theistic terms; but one doesn’t have to believe in God to allow that we have desires or longings that are insatiable in some sense. Many atheists worry that a theistic solution has the effect of downgrading the significance of such desires — and, indeed, their desirability.

For, if what really matters for the theist is that our restless hearts find proper and permanent fulfilment, this suggests that there is something undesirable about desire — something that we leave behind when we make it to Lewis’s other world and discover the real thing.

This sort of response is familiar from philosophers such as Nietzsche, who describes God “as declared aversion to life, to nature, to the will to life . . . the deification of nothingness”. This type of criticism has been taken up by atheists such as the philosopher Ivan Soll, who argues that the endless recurrence of desire is something to be celebrated and affirmed in the here-and-now rather than some non-existent beyond.

Understood from this perspective, theism seems pretty hopeless: it undermines our humanity, trades it in for an illusory ideal, and paves the way towards nihilism and despair.

THIS attitude to theism is frustrating, because it ignores the huge body of theological work in which human desire is both affirmed and celebrated. So, rather than focus on what divides us, perhaps we need to think more carefully about the nature and direction of our deepest desires, and what it means to describe them as “insatiable”.

One of the advantages of this new starting-point is that one can move from the standard question whether God can be known to exist — often a source of sterile debate between atheists and theists — to a genuine and fruitful dialogue about the desires that we have in common.

My research — in collaboration with John Cottingham, of Reading University, and Clare Carlisle, at King’s College, London — establishes the common ground for such a dialogue by exploring how the phenomenon of endless and open-ended desire is rooted in human experiences that are widely shared across the spectrum of believers and non-believers.

These include not only explicitly spiritual practices, such as prayer and meditation, which serve as a means for expressing our human longing for transcendence, but also a wide variety of transformative practices, whereby people orientate themselves towards not-yet-achieved goods that, as Iris Murdoch put it, have the power to “purify our desires”.

We are exploring how poetic, literary, and musical experience, and also how the kind of intimate personal awareness that is generated in close relationships — when, for example, we fall in love — all serve to take us beyond ourselves and draw us forward, so that we are caught up in a quest for healing and completion.

AGAINST this background, religious impulses no longer appear as spooky forays into the supernatural. Instead, they become part of a pattern of human seeking which is characterised by what Josef Pieper has called “joyful wonder”.

Such wonder reveals itself to have the same architecture as hope: an ineradicable aspect of the human spirit that cannot rest content with predetermined goals, but must always reach in longing towards a destination that is only partly glimpsed.

By exploring these characteristic signatures of our human existence, we are seeking a richer and more psychologically illuminating account of the quest for God than is offered through the resources of traditional philosophical theology and philosophy of religion.

One of our discoveries is that spiritual desire, understood in the broad human terms described above, is not simply a subjective feeling. Rather, this kind of seeking is bound to express itself in embodied action in the world.

For this reason, we have examined religious practices with the question of desire in mind. We have asked how different kinds of practices orientated to some sense of the divine — for example, meditation, contemplation, rituals of worship, singing — give different shapes to desire as it is lived.

Such practices may be enacted in solitary ways, or shared by communities, and the desire animating them can, likewise, be individual or collective. Desire provides the motivation and momentum that guide these practices, while, over time, the practices themselves modify such desire by enriching our sense of what we are reaching towards.

Our research poses a challenge to the idea that desire is permanently cut off from its object, and that its pursuit in this world is bound to be futile. This is not to deny that desire can be misdirected, and its pursuit unfulfilling, although Lewis is wrong to insist that the physical expression of love must fall into this category.

Action and practice give shape to desire, but distortion is possible in these contexts, too. It is a familiar enough complaint that religious practice has become consumeristic — that it’s all about getting what we want for ourselves and feeling good in the process.

It might be the case that certain styles of ecclesial practice promote this kind of thing, but spiritual desire is more than an abundance of good feeling. This is borne out by the religious practices we have studied.

All of this has great relevance to the age-old question of life’s meaning or purpose. My latest research involves treating desire as the guiding concept from which to tackle this question. The basic idea here is that a meaningful life is a desire-involving life. But this can mean several things, not all of which are compatible with theism.

Nietzsche is one of my key interlocutors here, and I take equal inspiration from Schopenhauer and Murdoch. These figures tend to be classified as atheists — perhaps rightly so where Nietzsche is concerned.

Does this mean that I am a closet atheist? The quick answer to this question is that it presupposes wrongly that the distinction between atheism and theism is entirely clear-cut. All the figures I have just mentioned have acutely religious sensibilities, and would, I think, have sympathy for the theistic framework that I am trying to develop.

The longer answer involves showing that many so-called atheists are responding to problematic and distorted versions of theism, which, in their different ways, alienate us from our proper humanity and the world. In contrast, the theist that I wish to defend joyfully affirms that humanity — and the insatiable desire or yearning that is an ineradicable part of it.

Fiona Ellis is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Roehampton.
She is the author of God, Value, and Nature (OUP, 2014) and editor of New Models of Religious Understanding (OUP, 2017). Much of the research described here was funded by the Templeton Religion Trust for the project The Quest for God: Towards a Philosophically and Experimentally Based Theology of Desire. It was set in motion originally by the Desire Group, a group of people brought together by Professor Ellis, the Revd Professor Sarah Coakley, and Professor Clare Carlisle to “speak in praise of love and desire”.

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