The Religion of Desire

By Mark Judge

Christianity is the religion of desire. It is the religion that redeems eros, the yearning for love, into Eros, God's love for us.

This is the theme of Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing, a wise, beautiful, and perhaps revolutionary book by Christopher West. West is an expert in the Theology of the Body, the remarkable series of lectures about human sexuality given in1985 by Pope John Paul II about human sexuality.

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West starts with an obvious but important observation: human beings are creatures of desire. We are filled with passion and longing. This is how God made us. We ache for something. It's why we love rock and roll and sex and art. West writes gracefully and with a vast knowledge of popular culture, and he convincingly makes the case -- which, it should be said, others have also made -- that a lot of our popular culture is a healthy expression of this desire. U2's lead singer Bono called the band's song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" "a gospel song for a restless spirit."

According to West, Christianity should celebrate our passions, and our sexual longings, provided that we truly understand what they are, how to respond to them, and ultimately what they point to.

God wants us to take pleasure in drinking, laughing, music, making love and eating good food, provided that we understand that these things are not God in themselves -- that they are finite things that point to the infinite, to the heavenly celebration to come. We can enjoy them if we do not make idols out of them.

West argues that we have three ways to deal with our longing: as a stoic, as an addict, or as a mystic.

The stoic "tries to avoid the pain of desiring more than this life has to offer by choosing not to want too much, by shutting desire down." This, of course, was preached by many in the Catholic Church for years. This wasn't totally wrong. Particularly in a decadent culture, It's important to live a countercultural life of self-denial. Yet Jesus came as a bridegroom, after all. He came with a heart burning with passion.

After the stoic, the second way of dealing with our longing is as an addict. As West puts it, "the addict tries to avoid the pain of wanting more than this life has to offer by gorging on the things this life does have to offer, trying to suck infinity out of finite things."

But finite things can never satisfy our desire for the infinite. West compares this lifestyle to fast food -- something we consume impulsively, and that does not truly feed us.

The right way to order our desire, says West, is the third way: the way of the mystic. The mystic is the one who "allows himself to feel the deepest depths of human desire and chooses to ‘stay in the pain' of wanting more than this life has to offer." Having gone through many purifying trials (or "dark nights of the soul"), the mystic "is able to do without the many pleasures of this world, and at the same time rejoice in all the true pleasures of this world without idolizing them."

West poetically elaborates: "For the mystic, the true pleasures of this world are a welcome but only dim foreshadowing of the ecstasy that awaits him in the life to come. He can live within the ache, or wound of love, because of his living hope that his soul shall be satisfied with a banquet, a banquet that lasts forever and truly fulfills all his desires. A mystic is someone who has been captivated by the fragrance and beauty of divine love, and nothing can thwart his or her desire for ever deeper intimacy with the Divine Lover. God calls us all to this intimate union with him."

Fill These Hearts is an important, passionate, and grace-filled book. It should be required reading for every teenage, and their parents.

Mark Judge is a columnist for RealClearBooks and author, most recently, of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock 'n' Roll.

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