On Desire and Risk: Relationships and the World

December 17, 2007

“Today I met the boy…”

I have been thinking of late, as I read more about the diferences between eastern and western psychology, of desire and risk.  I’ve been studying Comfortable with Uncertainty and it has been going painfully slow.  Each two page section takes me about a week to process, as the Buddist teacher Pema Chodron talks about what it takes to have an open heart by rending your own in order to find compassion, loving-kindness, patience, and mercy.

I was reminded this weekend of the not-yet-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William’s essay The Body’s Grace.  It is either a “light-academic” or “heavy non-academic” read, but manageable either way and worth the time.  It absolutely revolutionalized the way I think about sex and desire.  I say revolutionalized but crystalized is a better word.  He articulates, as good theologians do, what we already know to be true deep within us, in the essence that comes from our divine maker, from the breath of life.

I’ve been thinking about a guy this weekend.  It is interesting, this desire.  Western psychology, it almost seems to me, would have us surpress our feelings until they are safe.  Maybe it is just me, but the advice I have gotten from my friends, and even when I think back to advice from my many days in therapy, the advice when beginning to take an interest in a guy is this:  don’t get carried away.  Don’t let your feelings get the best of you.

Now I should quickly say that there is some validity to this:  it is easy to let imagination run too wild:  I have met too many guys (or girls) who, upon meeting someone interesting immediately move to a fantasy life of what it will be like for them when they are retired and have spent 50 years living together.  Oops – did I say that was somebody else?  OK, so I have always had to fight that instinct.  Even if I don’t go to that extreme and “just” jump to the wedding, or to the house with 2.4 kids, or to whatever– for me skipping ahead has been a tendancy I’ve had to fight because I inevitably end up making assumptions about the guy that just aren’t right, and then he can’t possibly live up to them.  Or, more accurately, I may have built up a person that just doesn’t exist.  That just isn’t the way good relationships start.  And I’m not sure that is really what desire is:  that’s not desire for a real person; that is fantasy.

But there is another extreme that I think is just as dangerous:  that is this “don’t let your feelings get the best of you” business.  One of the little Buddhist sayings I’ve been trying to live into is to “lean into your feelings” — even the ones you are uncomfortable with.  Well, for these past six or seven years I’ve been single I have always kept up a wall at the beginning of a relationship.  Wait– don’t express too much interest.  Don’t even admit it to yourself.  Why should you?  Because if you do and he doesn’t share the interest, you’ll just get hurt.  That’s where Rowan Williams comes in– its the same thing as Pema Chodron.  The key to community and communion is to allow that risk; to put yourself on the line and expose yourself so that you are as vulnerable as your feelings call you to be.  In doing so, you open your heart.

Of course this means being tuned in to the desire for another in the sense of romantic desire, the emotional and physical desire that goes with it.  That isn’t jumping to retirement but initially is the desire to get to know the other:  the intense curiosity about him that burns deep without projecting attributes onto him.  By tuning into that desire, though, and riding it out, the heart becomes open and passionate.  That passion is what is human about us.  With that passion comes the potential for joy and the potential for loss; the potential for sharing that desire can turn into wonderful relationship with tremendous mutuality and grace or into rejection and heartbreak: tragedy.

By opening my heart– by opening our hearts– to such passion, we become ultimately more human, I think.  I am starting to realize that there is a great numbness in the world.  There is an aching and longing for feeling which has been dulled by the perpetual fear of tragedy.  In an effort to protect ourselves from tragedy, we have eliminated our possibility for joy.  Passion can’t exist without the risk of both.  Without passion there is only numbness, emptyness, voidness.  Without passion I cannot love my God, I cannot love the world, I cannot love myself.  My kids suffer, my neighbors suffer, my God suffers.

No wonder it is called the Passion of Christ.  I know we are in Advent now and not Lent, but I can just feel the underlying emotion.  I can feel the need for a grand entrance– a grand entrance in a subtle and unexpected way, in a vulnerable way, which makes it all the more joyous.

What potential we have, we creatures of our God.

I hope he calls me, the object of my desire.



10 Responses to “On Desire and Risk: Relationships and the World”

  1. Fr Michael Says:

    The term “Passion” in “Passion of Christ” comes from the Latin verb pati (especially its past participle passus) “to suffer.” It has little to do with strong emotional and/or romantic attraction.

    Of course, you probably already know that IMO any equating of same sex (or heterosexual) attraction and the Lord’s Passion is well-nigh blasphemous, so I need not drone on about that here.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Again, Fr Michael, you’ve missed the point. I guess that’s the risk you take when reading my blog. I’ll give you an A for effort though– at least you are reading material that is obviously not easy for you to understand, so you must be trying to branch out.

    If you don’t like my comparison, I suppose it goes without saying that you don’t like the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comparison of gay sex to God’s grace in the article I linked?

    The passion and suffering of Christ comes from Christ’s willingness to risk. I know you subscribe to what I consider to be non-Biblical substitutionary atonement theory and therefore we could get into a great argument over the point of his suffering, but I think substitutionary atonement misses the point.

    He risked. He opened his heart. He exposed something vulnerable to us. In doing so, a great tragedy unfolded, for which he suffered the ultimate price– and then the ultimate joy.

    That is the human experience. That is the incarnation. Anglican theology is incarnational. The point of the post is that if we shut that down we become numb to the very life Christ came to lead. Risk is a part of the life we are called to lead. You don’t have to agree– you’ve got your parish and your pope. You’ve got your high God so distant that he is unreachable. My God is here and now, human and infinintely more– but human nonetheless, with us in all of this mess and amazing us with this wonder I’m talking about.


  3. D Hamilton Says:

    I wonder which POV Rowan Williams would most like to expunge from the cosmic memory banks – his 1989 essay or his 2007 Advent message? They do stand in contrast with each other as he excoriates scripture in one and embraces it in another.

    I can see why the 1989 work is embraced by LGBT folk, but it represents a ++Rowan that no longer exists. He has matured and grown up.

  4. Jeff Says:

    No, D, it represents a Rowan who does not bear the role of Archbishop of Canterbury.

    All accounts I know of see him as taking that role very seriously, and that it requires of him laying aside his theological opinions for the unity of the church. It does not mean that he has given them up but re-prioritized them because of the role he currently plays.

    It is one thing to write as chief theologian for a highly respected educational institution, quite another as an instrument of unity for the Anglican Communion.

    At any rate, the audience for this post is not anti-gay critics. I wrote this post for my gay and gay friendly compatriots. I really have little interest in rehashing the entire antics of the Anglican Communion but welcome further discussion of the passion of the human experience.


  5. FrMichael Says:

    Dear Jeff:

    Substitutionary atonement is only one of several theologies of salvation that I hold: it’s not complete by itself to explain the mystery of our salvation won on the Cross, but it is true.

    It goes without saying that living out the Christian faith is one of great risk, and in a small way through the grace of God our small sacrifice’s are joined to His on the Cross. I’m guessing we are in agreement on that. I just deny that all human passions are necessarily linked to Our Lord’s Passion as you seem to think above. Some human passions are disordered and others that are correctly ordered aren’t sacrificial by their nature.

  6. Jeff Says:

    Rowan addresses both of your points in the article.

    They are off-topic for this post, though.


  7. Judy Says:

    You wrote: You don’t have to agree– you’ve got your parish and your pope. You’ve got your high God so distant that he is unreachable. My God is here and now, human and infinintely more– but human nonetheless, with us in all of this mess and amazing us with this wonder I’m talking about.
    I noticed Fr. Michael did not respond to your harsh statement – since I am also Catholic, I can’t let it go, if you are generalizing about all of us. My God is not distant and unreachable, we speak to each other; I to him in prayer, He to me in the wonder around me, if not in answers to some of my requests. He showers me with love, and I love him in return. I think my pope and certainly some of my priests are distant and unreachable, but not my God (of course, the God of all humankind).

  8. Jeff Says:

    Hi Judy –

    The comment was not about the relationship between the layperson in the pew and God. Of course God is there for you. Anglican theology revolves around that very point.

    The comment is about official Roman Catholic theology and ecclesiology and polity, which says that you need the priest and hierarchy in order to have certain things, including absolution, I believe, and the pronouncement of doctrine.

    The thread, however, remains about the relationship between desire inherent in the human experience and the numbness that Western culture superimposes on top of it, something no comment has yet to mention because all of you have focused on the culture war elements of the contemporary Episcopal theology rather than the substance of the post.


  9. Bianca Says:

    Hi Jeff,

    It must be frustrating to muse on one of life’s delights (happening to you!) and only get responses critical of your theology. Thanks for writing as a person instead of a representative. We wish you every joy.

  10. Jeff Says:

    Thanks Bianca!

    Happy New Year!


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