Teach us to want: the quest to transcend evangelical moralism

Teach us to want: the quest to transcend evangelical moralism August 25, 2014

“I was beginning to confidently believe that the only way of discerning what God wanted me to do was, in every case, to find the path that seemed least desirable and most difficult.” These words, from Jen Pollock Michel’s Teach Us To Want, capture the curse of evangelical moralism, the assumption that the only way to ensure that I’m obeying God is to do the opposite of what I want to do. Michel’s book is an attempt to get past this moralism by learning how to want things that are good and beautiful and true rather than assuming that whatever we want is always bad and we should muster up the willpower to do the opposite.

There’s a basic difference between being moral and being moralistic. Being moral simply means doing what is right; being moralistic means doing what makes you right. A moral person can behave righteously for a variety of good or bad reasons; a moralistic person is concerned with being right. When your greatest concern is to be perfectly right, then you’re paranoid about doing what’s right for the right reasons, so you scour your motives for any trace of ulterior self-interest. This causes you to try to pick the most difficult, “selfless” path for all of your beliefs and actions. This moralistic approach to life is how people like me who grew up evangelical have been taught to approach all our decisions.

Michel traces the moralism of modern evangelicalism to the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant who believed that “the moral by definition is opposed to natural inclination” (27). This is part of the Enlightenment system of thought in which “objectivity” is preferred to “subjectivity.” Objective thinkers are those who has completely suppressed all of their feelings and natural inclinations in order to have a strictly rational view of the world, whereas subjective thinkers are those whose thinking is corrupted by self-interest. Today’s evangelical moralism is the result of interpreting the Christian virtue of self-sacrifice through Enlightenment rationalism in which desire is supposed to be subdued by reason rather than transformed through love.

But Michel goes further back in Christian thought to the 12th century theologian Thomas Aquinas for a different perspective on the relationship between desire and morality: “Aquinas did not suggest, as Kant may have, that we overcome our natural inclinations (desires) in order to be virtuous. He illustrated that virtue, by definition, could be measured by the degree to which our desires inclined themselves toward good” (28).

So for Aquinas, moral virtue is not the degree to which we straightjacket our personal idiosyncrasies and become “selfless” rational observers of the world (a.k.a. Enlightenment scientists). Our “effort may not be the best measure of [greater] virtue,” but rather “when it becomes more and more effortless to do all the difficult things God requires of us” (28). A morally virtuous person actually wants what God wants rather than just wanting to be right. It’s a deeper kind of sincerity than Enlightenment rationalism allows for. It’s not just being able to see the objective truth because you have sufficiently squelched your self-interest, but actually desiring the true and good and beautiful as your self-interest.

The bulk of Michel’s book concerns how we go about this business of learning to want differently rather than learning to do what we don’t want. The means of desire transformation that Michel proposes is a prayerful appropriation of scripture, in other words, not using the Bible to make arguments about God, but using it to cultivate “renovated, rehabilitated, and renewed desire” so that our “obedience [to God] eventually becomes organic and reflexive” (92-93).

In particular, Michel zeroes in on the Lord’s Prayer, which she calls “a lexicon of holy desire and a project of counterformation” (62). Each chapter is filled with meditations stemming from the consideration of a different phrase from the Lord’s Prayer. Michel uses the metaphor of a cattle pasture to describe how the prayer gives structure to her desire:

The prayer, at least for me, has served as a theological fence: its language corrals my wild horses of desire and restricts me from wandering off into dangerous woods. I find safety in the refuge of these words. But restriction is not the only purpose of a fence: it also encloses pasture… The Lord’s Prayer leads us to the spaciousness of God’s good–even the good of church. [179-180]

I would say that one of the biggest transformations I’ve experienced as a Christian over the past few years has been coming to understand that prayer is primarily about reshaping my heart. I used to think that the goal of life was mostly about acquiring knowledge; I’m coming to understand that it has more to do with transforming desire. Michel’s book is an important contribution to the shift that’s underway in the evangelical thinking away from the rationalistic moralism of Kant back to the virtue cultivation of Aquinas. A people of transformed desire are certainly better off than a people of repressed desire.

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  • Joe

    I’m far too familiar with the logic of “what God wants for me is whatever I really don’t want.” Before I knew about deacon’s orders in the UMC, I was convinced that God was calling me to be an elder, and I was miserable – and the fact that I was miserable, rather than being taken as a sign that maybe I had misunderstood God, I took to mean that I was not yet holy enough to accept the plans that God had for me. Which I suppose was some sort of mixture of Kant and Aquinas – God clearly wanted me to do that which was contrary to my wants, and the fact that it was contrary to my wants confirmed that I needed to be better at wanting what God wanted.

    • Yeah I’ve totally done that before in my discernment processes too.

  • Paul_Hansen

    MG, this kind of moralism—which finds anything subjective suspect—is all too common in fundamentalism. I wish I had a dollar for every time my pastor(s) advised from the pulpit, “Do the opposite of whatever you are naturally inclined to do.” Obviously, a lot hangs on the adjective ‘naturally’ and to what degree, or in what sense, human ‘nature’ is understood to be corrupt. This sort of theology may have have been influenced by Kant, but I also suspect it reflects a hangover of Platonism, according to which the world of appearance (phenomena)—entailing the body, emotions, and passions—is inferior to the world of Ideas (noumena)—entailing the mind & the rational. Pastors often quote the O.T. passage that declare “all our righteousness is as filthy rags” compared to God’s holiness, that “Out of the heart of man come jealousy, striving, hate”, etc. and the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “in me dwells no good thing.” All such references, however sound theologically, engender a basic DISTRUST of “gut feelings” in evangelicalism. I’m sure you have more to say on this.

    • Yeah there’s definitely a very particular slant of Platonism going on in moralism. I think what we need to mistrust the most within our nature is our need to be always right and our tendency to filter our perceptions through that need. Self-justification is the poison underneath all the corruption of humanity whether it articulates itself in fundamentalism or nihilism. I just wrote another piece about worship and moralism that talks about similar issues.

  • KA Crosby

    Oh wow, this is all very reminiscent of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and rivalry. HUGELY helpful for me in getting passed that whole evangelical rut of moralism. The thought that God’s desire is for our desires to imitate his (positive mimesis) is what I now believe to be the heart of true discipleship.

    • That’s an awesome insight about the positive mimesis of divine desire. I will hang onto that one!