F. LeRon Shults is professor of theology and philosophy at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway. He is the author of several books and the coeditor with Jan-Olav Henriksen of Saving Desire: The Seduction of Christian Theology, excerpted below. You can visit Shults’s blog at www.leronshults.typepad.com.
“Introduction: Saving Desire?”
by F. LeRon Shults
This book has emerged out of several years of conversation among a group of scholars who share the conviction that something has gone wrong in the traditional Christian theological treatment of human desire. For the most part desire has been construed negatively, as a threatening force connected to the degrading and darkening experience of sin. We believe that desire can and ought to be understood also as a redemptive force connected to the enlivening and enlightening experience of grace. Our common passion, therefore, is saving desire — both rescuing the concept from its imprisonment within repressive, individualistic, and rationalistic categories as well as emphasizing the power of the phenomenon of desire for engendering human flourishing in relation to God.
Most people do not consider theology seductive. Its reputation in many western contexts is tied to Christianity’s (apparent) obsession with regulation: desire ought to be restricted and repressed, closeted and controlled. The contributors to this book are passionate about doing theology, and they believe that the discipline has itself been seduced and seduced others into accepting a primarily negative view of desire. We find theological exploration itself powerfully and positively seductive — even erotic in senses to be explained below! Of course, experiences of seduction feel dangerous as well as delightful. Attending to desire — even in academic contexts — intensifies both our fear of vulnerability and our hope for intimacy. Theology is interested in the origin, condition, and goal of desiring, in the infinite ground of the human experience of being-interested. What could be more interesting than tending to that ultimate reality in which all things live and move and have their attraction?
The first conviction we all share, therefore, is that theology should learn to emphasize the positivity of desire. The salutary ordering of human life occurs through the appropriate intensification of desire, not by its repression or destruction. Desire has often been portrayed theologically in relation to lack, deficiency, loss, transgression, and guilt. We want to stress its potential relation to fullness, being, gift, creativity, and joy. These themes are articulated in a variety of ways in the following chapters. We pursue a theology of desire linked to the evocative power of beauty, the plenitude of life, and the constitution of subjectivity opened up by the arrival of the future. As we will see, there are many resources in the biblical tradition and in contemporary philosophical discourse for developing a positive construal of human desire within Christian theology. We believe that this also may have some impact for the understanding of Christian spirituality.
A second shared emphasis is on the sociality of desire. In other words, our interest is not simply in the individual will and the objects of its desire, but in the communal relations and practices that shape desiring itself. We all want to stress the importance of understanding desire in relation to broader structural and social concerns about justice in community. Saving desire — desire that saves — does not simply alter individual souls; it transforms the way we order our lives together. Here, too, the contributors engage this theme in different ways, emphasizing to various degrees the significance of traditional biblical themes such as law and wisdom, and the relevance of contemporary cultural issues such as capitalism and sexism. All of us, however, seek a theological understanding of desire that contributes to the redemption of concrete social relations in everyday life.
We also share an interest in emphasizing the physicality of saving desire. The traditional denigration of desire was connected to a dualism between body and soul; salvation was understood as the purification of the latter by its escape from the former. In various ways, the chapters that follow all celebrate the inherently embodied nature of desire. This celebration is motivated in part from engagement with late modern philosophical developments (especially feminism and postcolonialism) and scientific discoveries (especially in neuroscience and psychology).We are not saved from bodily experiences, but in and through them. This means that experiences of parental caregiving, going to the movies or shopping, washing the pots and pans, and even sexuality can be redemptive — transforming the concrete, embodied relations within which the human longing for the good life is originated, organized, and oriented.
Both the content and the order of the chapters reflect the outcome of our conversations about desire, and our multiple readings of each other’s contributions. The three themes just outlined are evident in each chapter. The rationale for the flow of the essays is made clear as each author builds on earlier contributions and anticipates later ones. It is not possible in this context to explore human desire in all its depth, breadth, and pluriformity. Our goal here has been to offer an integrated set of essays that contribute to the growing trend among theologians to attend more carefully to the positivity, sociality, and physicality of desire. This approach places the work of theology firmly in the experiential realm of human life, and may in the long run have some impact on how Christian spiritualities are shaped and reshaped.
The dialogue among us has been mutually enriching, enhanced by the fact that we come from different Christian traditions, work in different theological disciplines, and live in different cultural contexts. Our collaboration has pushed us to reflect in new ways on the biblical tradition as well as on the challenges and opportunities posed by contemporary philosophy and science. What is saving desire? How are human desires related to the desire of God? Our contributions are intended to contribute toward satisfying answers to such questions, but even more to open up and intensify the insatiable desire for the infinite goodness of God.