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It is not uncommon for Christians to feel that their strong sexual desires get in the way of their respective relationships with God. Rather than live the holy life to which they have been called, such desires can tempt Christians to embrace hedonism and even drag them into all manner of dark perversions. Understandably, a common reaction is to try to squelch these desires before they grow insurmountable.
Building upon Sarah Coakley’s recent work, Erin Dufault-Hunter suggested an alternative strategy in a talk she delivered at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her suggestion was to see sexual desire as a sign and an opportunity. Sexual desire can act as a sign in that the strength of the sexual desire perhaps mirrors (in our dim human way) the strength of God’s desire, where the Father, Son, and Spirit deeply desire one another. This sign, in turn, creates an opportunity for the human to channel that desire in a manner that can carry her to her final end, namely, desire-rich union with God and creation.
Regarding the opportunity afforded by strong sexual desire, Dufault-Hunter provided an analogy from her own experience concerning food. Through childhood to young adulthood, junk food was a regular staple of Dufault-Hunter’s diet. At some point, however, she realized that she needed to change her eating ways; she needed to introduce real food with genuine nourishment into her lifestyle. But since her pallet had consisted of mostly junk, Dufault-Hunter did not desire the right kind of food. The problem was not that her desire for food was too strong. Rather, the problem was that her desire was uncultivated and directed at the wrong things in the wrong kinds of ways. So, she needed to train herself to desire vegetables, lean meats, and the like. This she did by learning, over time, to cook and appreciate the flavors of good foods.
The point of the analogy should be fairly clear. Many have sexual desires for the wrong kinds of the things. The problem is not with the desires per se or with their strength, but that at which the desires are directed. The challenge, then, is to cultivate these desires so that they are directed at the right things in the right contexts, ultimately viewing them as a sign that points to the desiring God.
I think the view that Dufault-Hunter proposes is basically right, but it might require nuance. Some desires, after all, appear to be wrong in themselves and necessitate much more than cultivation and redirection. Consider the person who is exclusively sexually attracted to children. Are the affiliated sexual desires really a sign of God and an opportunity to be carried toward God? Or should the advice be to learn to squelch this attraction and to learn to live without the relevant desire-satisfaction? It would’ve been interesting to see how perverse desires such as these fit within Dufault-Hunter’s framework.
There is also the worry that this framework is too sex-focused. In his wonderful essay, “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis is in agreement with Dufault-Hunter that humans need to learn to desire the right things deeply. But apparently unlike Dufault-Hunter, Lewis thinks that we need to cultivate not “earthly” desires but desires for those things that are otherworldly (cf. Col. 3:1-3). Then, and only then, can we desire sex in the right way. Thus, Lewis can be read as saying that the spiritual way forward is not by looking to transform sexual desires into something much deeper, but seeing sex as a good thing that pales in comparison to certain goods that God would like to give his creatures, most especially union with himself. Is there genuine conflict between Dufault-Hunter and Lewis on this point, or is the difference merely one of emphasis?
Regardless of how Dufault-Hunter might choose to answer these questions, I find myself agreeing that sexual desire, at least some of the time, can act as a sign and an opportunity.