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As we entered 2022, and I faced the deadline for this article, I found myself struggling with what to write; what topic did I find compelling enough to spend time seriously reflecting upon?  What in the Church’s life was I passionate enough about at the moment that I thought I could add something substantive to Her discussion and deliberation?

Surprisingly for me, I had trouble identifying that thing.  Oh, sure, there was plenty that concerned me, problems around which my thoughts tend to eddy and swirl as I seek some pastoral, theological, philosophical, or practical understanding, strategy, or stance, but what was lacking was the passion that typically makes me put pen to paper — or hands to keyboard.

Passion… it is a word with a storied history in the Church.  In my first ecclesial job as a youth minister, our church’s youth ministry decorated the youth room wall with the words “Faith, Passion, Service.”  Upon visiting, a colleague commented, “Passion is something I think my youth already have plenty of… I’d think more about discouraging that.”

But the Church Fathers — the pastors during the Church’s greatest period of missionary expansion did not feel that way.  C. S. Lewis has introduced many modern Christians to the distinctions between the four Greek words for love through his book The Four Loves, and as a result, many Christians think of storge (affection), philos (friendship), and eros (infatuation with the beloved, not necessarily sexual) as immature or degenerate in comparison to the New Testament standard of agape, Christ’s own self-sacrificial love.

But this is not the way the Church Fathers spoke.  They spoke of God’s divine eros that burned for lost humanity so completely it agape’d the world enough to give His only Son… to give Himself.  Far from fearing passion, a Church whose largely convert members had drunk deeply of the wine of Roman success, who had tasted fruits imported from every corner of the conquered empire (now redubbed “the civilized world”), who had participated fully in the “good life,” the Pax Romana for which so many had given their lives in labor or battle, had come to realize that far from their passion being too great, it was too small.  This was a Church quite literally world-weary, who would have agreed whole-heartedly with Lewis when he preached in war time,

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[1]

They would have agreed with this because they made a distinction that we post-enlightenment, postmodern, post-truth people, whatever our religious convictions, fail to make.  It has been noted by some that we represent “psychological man,” products of what Charles Taylor terms in his eponymous book A Secular Age.  We are people who, however we think of ourselves — straight or gay, cis-gendered or trans, conservative or progressive, believing or unbelieving, a sack of meat directed by selfish genes or made in the image of God — we are a people who almost ineluctably conceive of our identities as emerging from a murky subconscious that is fundamentally comprised of appetites. 

For us, love is almost always conceived of as downstream from appetites in which we are not fundamentally different from animals.  I have 1600 hours of C.P.E. to my credit, and I can tell you that while theological conversation is by no means absent from my cohort groups, it must always be respectfully conditional (to make room for disparate, even conflicting convictions), but the psychological theories that form the substance of our didactics are not so much deferred to as referenced in ways that establish their authority.  These theories, whether Freudian, Behavioral, Object-Relations, or of some other school, all stipulate appetite (conceived of as need) as fundamental and love as an experience later articulated on the basis of such.  Appetite is the water within which we swim, the air we breathe to nourish our sense of self.

This was forcibly brought home to me by my daughter when at age nine she ebulliently showed me one of her bug-eyed Beanie Baby stuffed animals.  After waxing eloquent about how much she loved it, she paused then thoughtfully added, “but you know, I’m pretty much programmed to feel this way about it because it has big eyes.  All mammals are programmed to respond to their babies that way.”  As she skipped back merrily to her play, I not only celebrated inwardly that somehow the brute biological “fact” had not diminished her childish joy, but marveled that this Christian homeschooled, thoroughly-churched girl without social media or unsupervised internet access had somehow been catechized so thoroughly by our culture’s tacit view of humanity… I hoped she would not later be seduced by its reductionism, the storge of a mother for her child diminished to mere genetic necessity.

The Great Tradition of the Church views humanity very differently, in a way that should not sit as peacefully alongside our modern biological and psychological conceptions, as it too often does. If we are truly made in the image of God, the template of our souls is not the paltry desire that modernity stipulates and Kierkegaard lamented.  Rather, what is fundamental to our identities is love — a divine eros that burns hotter than we can imagine, for “our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29)

The ascetic tradition of the Church cautions us about passion, but in this, it does not mean the passion of love — any of the four loves about which Greek is so articulate in comparison to English.  Our elder brothers and sisters in the faith knew well from personal experience that appetite could easily obscure love as the prime mover of the soul, for it offered easier and immediate (albeit temporary and incomplete) satiation of the desire that is one of the many aspects of love.  Love desires the beloved, not as a possession but as simply its object, the sun around which it orbits.  A robustly Christian anthropology would see appetite as parasitically imitating love, seeking to consume or possess the thing or person desired, not as the foundation upon which rarified “conceptions” of love would later be built.

The seeds of ascetic Christian spirituality are already evident in 1 Corinthians. There the Apostle Paul states:

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.[2]

We must not let the force of the Apostle’s words here be softened as I have heard too many well-meaning preachers do into weak-kneed warnings, back-handed reassurances that we might not “finish well.”  The salvation that is by grace through faith may be lost — we may be disqualified — if our appetites convince us that their satiation is the face God’s love takes for us, if our trust in them slowly but decisively supplants our faith in Christ.

The sexuality debates that have riven the Church of late should put a recognizable face on the process, at least for readers of this periodical, but I do not wish to direct this warning toward those who have appetites with which I do not struggle; I need this strong medicine myself, as the consumerism of our unbelieving culture’s annual Christmas bacchanal has brought into sharp focus for me.  I say, “brought into sharp focus,” because what I am seeing as I write this reflection is true of me all year around; though I call myself a Christian, though I believe I have faith, the shape of my life (which reflects the shape of my soul) is still largely formed by the unsanctified narratives of our cultural moment.  My life is far more driven by appetite than I would care to admit on most days.  I too often shop for new theological books rather than re-read those in my library whose arguments I have digested but whose wisdom eludes me in the daily practice of Christian discipleship.  I too often tune-in to pedagogic YouTube videos rather than practice my guitar.  I too often numb the pain of a day in which I have dealt with the tragic consequences of life in a world ruled by the power of death and the devil or the sinful choices of people who know better with a scotch or a mindless movie than with prayer and time with the Great Physician who alone can heal my infirmities.  Too often, my appetites direct my activity rather than my faith.

In that last sentence, I nearly wrote, “my appetites dictate my activity.”  The great hope we have — the promise of discipleship and evangelical freedom — is that I used the proper verb, and that with the help of the Holy Spirit, our history need not be our destiny.  To be sure, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,” but while we are bound, Christ is not and He may direct us differently.

I am coming to believe we focus so much on what we are saved from that we too often neglect what we are saved for.  The 2007 film Amazing Grace about the life of William Wilberforce begins with his motion to abolish slavery being defeated on the floor of the British Parliament because some of those who had promised to vote for it were given tickets to the Comic Opera by his opposition.  The modern equivalent would be binge-watching a Netflix series when, led by the Spirit through our faith, we should be praying, consoling someone, enjoying time with a friend, reading Scripture or similarly engaged.  How many key moments have each of us missed when, through Jesus Christ, God had a Spirit-led motion upon the floor of our lives?  Appetites distract, dim, and partially satisfy, making us forget — and so fail to enjoy — the promise of the freedom for which we were saved.

The acedia, the sloth, the deadly sin of passionless-ness with which I began this little reflection is a sign to me that I have been too much with my appetites, that they have been directing me in spiritually unhealthy ways, leading me to seek satisfaction too often on the penultimate rather than the ultimate.  I generally love the Christmas season, but this year for the first time I found myself discontent and eager for Twelfth Night to arrive so we could begin the process of undecorating.  This year, for the first time I understood in my bones the words of the twentieth century theologian who said, “the only time I don’t feel like a hypocrite is when I am in liturgy.”

The feast of Christmas is over, and I am ready for the fasting of Lent to begin, not because I cannot bear to feast, but so that the joy of feasting — dining with Our Lord — may return.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses

[2] 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 (ESV)