Some have requested that I make the opening and closing comments to our conversations available as well as our programs. Bear in mind that the conversation is a conversation, so the middle part is just questions that may or may not have been asked on Sunday. I hope they are questions readers will find fruitful to consider.
I remember a few years ago at a dinner at Laura’s house, many of us were trashing the doctrine of original sin. It relies on an essentialist metaphysics that is completely implausible! Augustine was wracked by guilt and shame and wanted everyone else to feel just as bad! The story of the fall proscribes a role for women as the source of evil that generates oppressive, patriarchal systems of power! All of this is true. But Courtney, who had recently begun to attend Church in the Cliff, cut through the fancy talk with a story about her son, Coleman.
She was watching Coleman eat Cheerios, one at a time. But as he ate, his pace accelerated. He no longer wanted to wait until he was finished with one before taking the next. He needed more before the last was even gone. She asked him to slow down and he defiantly said, “No!” before shoving more in his mouth. I’m sure we all have similar stories and not just with children. But the fact that it was a child, unable to engage in complex reasoning or project much into the future, tells us that there is something about being embodied – what theologians call “creatureliness” – that tells us there are limits.
The defining characteristic of having a body is that it is bounded. There is an end to us where everything that is not us begins. Being embodied in a world of things allows us to distinguish between this and that. It is the way the world works; there would be no reality without it. But the very thing that makes reality possible is also frustrating, even terrifying. There isn’t enough. We are not enough. And, in the end, we’re going to die. Every time we bump up against our own boundaries, we grieve a loss – the loss of something or someone, the loss of our own ability, the loss of an idea we have of ourselves and our future. We tell ourselves that it just isn’t right, that it just can’t be, that there must be something more. And so we want. We long. We yearn.
The glutton yearns for enough experience to blot out the boundaries of life. If I can just consume enough, I will forget about my limits. To the glutton, the world is my oyster and the oyster gets eaten. Even people are treated this way, like things to be devoured, consumed, destroyed in the quest for experience. If they can’t provide an experience for me, what good are they? We’ve all lived this, probably on both sides. But, as the Handsome Family sings: “there’s only so much wine/you can drink/in one life/and it will never be enough/to save you/from the bottom of your glass.”
The lustful person yearns for control. The ego is pushed out into the world and the world is subdued. This is also destructive. The ever-expanding ego requires others to shrink. In lust, I am the sole subject, and everything else is an object for my use. The world must conform to my desire.
The avaricious person yearns for safety and security, stockpiling resources against limitation. There is only so much in the world and it is not enough for everyone, so I will take more and more to make sure I’m not left without a chair when the music stops. This is the rich man, in Luke 12, who had too much grain, so he built larger barns to store it. But God says to the avaricious: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Avarice only provides the illusion of safety and security. Meanwhile, it deprives the world.
Is anyone giving up something for Lent?
How has desire played out in your Lenten experience?
If you fail in your Lenten sacrifice, how do you feel about it? Ask the demon its name and where it is from.
Where do we see these demons in our Scripture passage?
Where do we see these demons in the world? How does it affect justice?
Evagrius knew that bodies and the desire that goes with them are good. In his understanding, they are the necessary condition of our moral imperative: to love God and neighbor. We can react to our desires in fear, embrace fear as our way of being in the world. Or we can react to our desires in love. There is a gap between the mortal and the immortal, between the bounded self and the ever-present mystery of the other. Desire occupies that gap.
Desire as fear presses that opposition; it further divides to the point of destruction. Within ourselves, we remain divided, desperately trying to widen the gap between our true selves and the threat of our emotions, building walls to keep things out. We treat people as objects to be consumed or controlled or collected. We do the same with the world, using it up, destroying it. We even do it with God. Hector Avalos, in his book Fighting Words argues that all violence is driven by scarcity, the limitation of creatureliness we’ve been discussing. He examines religious violence and finds that it is the result of making God into a scarce resource, access to which is controlled by a small group of people. So we fight over God. This is how even our noble desire for God is turned toward evil. We attempt to name God with our own name, turn God into another object to be used, devoured, and hoarded.
But desire as love negotiates and traverses the gap between the mortal and the immortal. Love is always becoming and, as such, love is always creating. In love, we need not consume the other or control the other or hold the other captive because love is forever generating something new. In love, we need not put our name on the other. We can let the other be a whole person. And we can be most fully ourselves because love does not devour and there is nothing to fear. This is immortality. We need not wait for death to participate in the life eternal, the life of God. In love, we are no longer bounded; we no longer feel the sting of death because we are forever creating something new as we draw toward the other.
So fear not. Love and create something new. In that, you will find yourself and find God.