Reforming Desire

Reforming Desire September 9, 2013


I recently heard a priest make the following statement in a homily on the virtue of faith: “As a teenager, I thought that Heaven was essentially a mass that never ended. The very idea of sitting through a never-ending series of church hymns repulsed me. Nevertheless, I wanted to want this because I believed I should.”

Putting aside the idea of Heaven as a never-ending series of church hymns, a few immensely important questions arise from this glimpse into a very common Christian experience. How is it possible to want two different things at once? How can one know what one ought to want? How can one change from wanting wrongly to wanting rightly?

The first question of how it is possible to want two different things at once is, of the three, the easiest to answer. The priest’s description of wanting to want something that he did not want indicates two modes of wanting. The raison d’être for the first mode is revealed in the priest’s words, “because I believed I should.” In this mode, the wanting is informed by the intellect, and it can therefore be identified with the will. That is, the intellect judges what is good and the will follows by desiring it.

However, although the priest’s teenage intellect judged (whether correctly or incorrectly) the “eternal mass” Heaven to be good, he nevertheless felt repulsed by the idea and concluded from this that he did not actually want it. This feeling of repulsion can clearly be linked to the affective desires and, as the priest himself indicated, can be considered a mode of wanting.

Here it becomes clear that there is a certain mind-body schism that pervades this and all similar stories. The mind is here identified with the intellect and the will, which respectively judge what is good and want it. The affective desires, which want what they want without any regard for intellectual judgments, are identified with the body.

Why this split? The answer lies in the familiar story of Genesis 3. Before their deception by the snake (Satan), Adam and Eve were naked before one another and felt no shame. Later, after eating of the fruit that God had forbidden them to eat, they realized that they were naked and clothed themselves. The traditional interpretation of this story is that, before the Fall, Adam and Eve were able to accurately apprehend and act in accordance with the created order of things. After they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (an action which Catholic thinkers have traditionally understood to mean a choice against the created order and for some other order which Adam and Eve preferred), they had fundamentally decided against God, who is the greatest good, and permanently injured themselves in doing so.

One consequence of this first sin is that humanity experiences disordered desires that affect the intellect and will in such a way as to darken and weaken them. The result of this is the mind- body split that explains the priest’s experience of judging something to be good but being unable to want it properly.

As for the second question about how one can determine the rightness or wrongness of a desire, I think there are two sources of moral instruction that all Christians can agree on. Firstly, we can use Sacred Scripture, with its explicit moral injunctions and its discussions of God, Man, and Creation that can be used to derive further injunctions. Secondly, we can ask God for direct intervention. Catholic theology usually refers to this as “actual grace” and defines it as an immediate illumination of the intellect or an inspiration of the will. To this list, Catholics will add Sacred Tradition, which functions similarly to Sacred Scripture when it comes to judging the moral quality of desires and developing the virtue of prudence. Christians can make use of Creation itself for the purposes of developing the virtue of prudence so that they can judge the rightness or wrongness of desires about which Scripture and Tradition are silent.

The logic runs thus: God created an ordered world in which it is right to desire some things over others. Human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are reasonable and capable of determining, albeit in a limited way, the order of things as ordained by God. By apprehending this natural order and acting accordingly, humans predispose themselves to continue this sort of action in the future. Through practice, the intellect improves in its ability to ascertain the created order and the will strengthens its ability to act accordingly. Therefore, Christians and non- Christians alike can improve their moral judgments through practice.

In other words, the process of learning how to desire rightly will involve the whole person—one’s body as well as one’s soul—and will be accomplished not only directly by God by also with the help of practices, liturgies, and rituals that bring our affective desires in line with the judgments of our will about the good.

Father Servais Pinckaers explains this point in his book Sources of Christian Ethics:

On the text of John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me,” the Jerusalem Bible notes: “In Biblical language, ‘knowledge’ is not merely the conclusion of an intellectual process, but the fruit of an ‘experience,’ a personal contact; when it matures, it is love.” Knowledge, and the vision it brings, must be understood as happening at the heart of a personal relationship. It engages the entire person: the mind, where wisdom dwells; the will, which desires and loves; the imagination, the sensibilities, even the body.

Pinckaers is talking about knowledge, which includes knowledge of the good. When we know the good, we don’t just know what the good is: we also love the good. And that love involves the mind and the body. In other words, as C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

The psychological research on this phenomenon bolsters Lewis’s words, and Pinckaers’s understanding of the essential unity of the human person. To pick just one example, psychologist Amy Cuddy has described how our posture and physical expressions affect our feelings and emotions. She has demonstrated that people who position themselves in a certain way before job interviews boost their confidence and improve their performance.

I think it follows, if we extrapolate from this kind of research, that if we act in accord with how we want to want, then we will gradually adjust our affective desires so that they will be aligned with our wills.

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