The Source of Desire

I abandoned and forgot myself,

Laying my face on my Beloved;

All things ceased; I went out from myself,

Leaving my cares

Forgotten among the lilies.

(The Dark Night, stanza 8)

Theology must address the multifaceted relationship of sexual desire to desire for God in order to speak to those who, having felt the full force of the challenge queerness presents to traditional Christian doctrine, still sense (or are at least open to the possibility) that sexual practice can lead us towards God. The fluidity, gender crossing, and affinity with male homosexuality which shapes John's desire for God contributes, I have suggested, to a contemporary harnessing of homoerotic desire towards theological and spiritual ends. Although there is a risk here of confusing sexual desire with desire for God, St John directs us towards practices of discipline and discernment which, in correctly aligning the two, prepare us for their fulfillment in intimacy with God.

What are the prospects for contemporary queer theology to take up these concerns of St John of the Cross? Though I suggested in the introduction that "queer theology" might include any theology directed towards queer people, I cannot ignore the theological significance of the scholarship loosely joined under the term "queer theory" whose influence within the academy and within queer popular culture appears to be increasing. Based on the complex interactions between feminist theory and theology and between Marxism and liberation theology, one may expect that as queer theology further develops it will both draw on and seek to challenge queer theory. As of yet, however, queer theological writings seem with a few exceptions unaware or uncritical of queer theory's antipathy towards the most basic Christian commitments. I described above the way in which St John's fluid experience of a desire transcending social categories resembles a queer theoretical picture of sex as too diverse and unstable to fit within neat categories of sexual orientation. This resemblance must not be taken to imply an acceptance of the secularizing conclusions which accompany these queer theoretical claims, though I do hope based on such overlap that a queer theology opposed to such conclusions is possible.

Perhaps the best way to present the contrast between St John's Christian theology and the assumptions of queer theory is to ask about the source of desire. This question of where desire (or more specifically homosexual desire) comes from is one generally avoided within queer theory, both in order to move away from essentialist conceptions of sexual orientation and because inquiries into the source of desire seem inevitably to be linked to some vision of eliminating whatever form of desire is deemed problematic. Still one finds in queer theoretical writings a fairly uniform account, explaining sexual desire and also desire for God in terms of social forces.

We must struggle to discern in what we currently regard as our most precious, unique, original, and spontaneous impulses the traces of a previously rehearsed and socially encoded script. . . . We must train ourselves to recognize conventions of feeling as well as conventions of behavior and to interpret the intricate texture of personal life as an artifact, as the determinate outcome, of a complex and arbitrary constellation of cultural processes. (Halperin 1990: 40)

St John's theological task is not utterly opposed to such a deconstructive habit at least as a starting point. The stripping John describes stems in large part from his recognition that much of our desire is tied to these "natural" sources, and that even that which seems supernatural to us in fact can be explained this way. But central to John's entire project is the conviction that there is a desire for God which comes unmediated from God, which is not simply the magnification or refinement of other natural desires. Unless this is the case then it is impossible to transcend the sensual attachments which are stumbling blocks on the spiritual path and John's non-discursive contemplation is nonsense and self-delusion. John thus seeks in the end to direct us towards a very different awareness of desires than does Halperin, one in which beyond all the cultural artifacts and processes there is a source of desire (and thus a purpose for desire) which cannot be encompassed in these terms, which is timeless, and in which both sexual desire and divine desire attain their true form. In this "intimate nakedness" before God, "God does not communicate himself through the senses as he did before, by means of the discursive analysis and synthesis of ideas, but begins to communicate himself through pure spirit by an act of simple contemplation in which there is no discursive succession of thought" (DN 1.9.8; John of the Cross 1991: 380).

The opposition between Christian theology and queer theory on this point is not incidental or superficial. Robert Goss writes that most queer theorists "find Christianity irrelevant at best and too often violent and oppressive" (Goss 2002: 247). I would say more strongly that queer theory emerges as a discipline in part as a strategy for resisting Christian authority over sexual matters, for challenging distinctions between approved and forbidden sexual activity, and for replacing doctrine and tradition with new sexual experts qualified to explain (and incite) our sexualities in secular, liberating ways. At its best, however, queer theory, following Foucault, is well able to recognize in this its own will to power and so to recognize that whatever sexual liberation it describes represents the promotion of new controls and categories for distinguishing good (now healthy, amoral, and polymorphous) from bad (restricted, overburdened with religious significance) sex. Queer theory has the tools (and perhaps, if we trust John's theological optimism, even the desire) to rise above a self-promoting dismissal of Christian claims and even in some cases to be transformed by them. In directing all of his urgent longings towards God, John of the Cross does not pretend to describe a theology in which sex is autonomous and unburdened, but he does describe sexual desire and divine desire, both gifts of God, as means towards an intimacy with God in which all expert knowledge is relativized. Thus St John continues to act as a spiritual guide for contemporary queer Christians whose own divine desires lead towards a queer theology which comprehends queer theory but is directed towards God.

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