The argument from desire

I am currently reading a biography of C S Lewis by Alister McGrath. In the chapter on Lewis’ Christian faith, McGrath argues that Lewis came to believe in God because he recognised that there was something he desired that was always out of reach. This “argument from desire” occurs in Lewis’ well-known sermon The Weight of Glory; in his first novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress; and in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. This desire is not simply a want, or a need for wish-fulfilment; it is not a craving for a particular transitory experience; indeed, it can be occasioned by a fleeting glimpse of beauty or transcendence. It is a desire for connection with, or experience of, the divine (which, for Lewis, came to mean the Christian God). The “argument from desire” is that we all have a “God-shaped hole” in consciousness, which can only be filled by the divine. Lewis writes (in The Weight of Glory):

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them.

Can this concept have any meaning in a Pagan context? What is it that Pagans desire? For one thing, most Pagans believe that the divine (whether it is perceived as a single underlying energy, or as many deities) is immanent in the world, and therefore available to our experience in the here and now. So that is a key point where we differ from Lewis, who may well have seen the divine as both immanent and transcendent, but certainly thought that a full experience of it would only be available after death.

For many of us, Nature does not merely reflect the divine glory: she is the Divine glory – in all her contrary moods and states. And we can experience the divine directly. As we have only finite and local consciousness, we cannot fully apprehend the (presumed) infinite and non-local consciousness of deities, but we can participate in it. That is one of the purposes of magic (in my opinion). I believe that the goal of existence is not to divorce spirit from matter, but to awaken matter to its full potential; to divinize it, if you like.

The aim of my personal Pagan path is to become divine, to achieve apotheosis (not to merge with the underlying divine energy, but to be infused with it). I think this will take several lifetimes, but I believe it is possible. The only obstacle on this path is one of perception. As Blake put it, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.”

I do think that the “argument from desire” is quite a good argument for the existence of deities – but I do not think it is a desire for a realm that is beyond the world (ontological transcendence); rather I think it is a desire to connect with something beyond the ego, something larger, deeper, broader that already exists in our own depths and connects with all that is (epistemological transcendence).

Lewis argues (in The Weight of Glory) that every activity has its proper reward, and every desire has its fulfilment. It is mercenary to desire “the reward which has no natural connexion with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things”; but it is not mercenary to desire the proper reward of the action. The example he gives is that if someone marries for money, that is mercenary; but if they marry for love, it is not – because marriage is the proper reward of love.

In the same way, the fulfilment proper to existence is to encounter it fully; to experience it as the divine beloved. From my personal Pagan perspective, this does not mean to dissolve the self in the great all, but to experience the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) in one’s own depths, between the finite and the infinite, between manifest and unmanifest, matter and spirit.

From a polytheist perspective, even if one believes (as I do) in a single substance or energy from which all other entities (deities, spirits, humans and other animals, genii loci, etc) emerge, the underlying energy is plural and diverse, and so we cannot dissolve into it, and nor would it be desirable to do so (and interestingly, this is not the goal of Christian spirituality either). Becoming infused with it is not the same as losing our identity within it.

So yes, we desire meaning, joy, fulfilment, and the sacred marriage; and we can have them in the here and now, and they can be found through many spiritual traditions. But it does seem that there must be something (however we perceive it) that our desire is fixed upon – the goal of our desire is not merely imaginary.

Religion and humour

Part of the function of humour is to subvert the accepted order of things. Whenever an individual or a group take themselves too seriously, humour — especially satire — cut them down to size. For example, humour was really important for subverting the Puritan hegemony in 17th century England.

In ancient paganism, there were feasts and processions which inverted the accepted order. Men wore large fish-shaped penises in one ancient Greek procession. The Roman festival of Saturnalia had an element of misrule, and masters were expected to serve their slaves for one day. This was a sort of safety-valve to let off steam and prevent revolution.

In the Middle Ages, the whole 12 days of Christmas were given over to feasting and merriment, and a Lord of Misrule was chosen at random. In Northern France, there was a church service at Christmas dedicated to the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem, and everyone brayed like donkeys as part of the liturgy. Churches elected boy bishops to perform a similar function to the Lord of Misrule. As with the ancient custom of Saturnalia, this temporary inversion acted to relieve societal tensions.

Kings kept a fool because they needed one person who would tell them what they actually thought, instead of sucking up to them and telling them what they thought they wanted to hear.

I would not join any religion that couldn’t laugh at itself. In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, written by Doreen Valiente, it says, “Therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you”. I think the inclusion of mirth in this list of virtues is really important.

It is quite noticeable that liberal religions spend a lot of time laughing at themselves. I used to have a book of Jewish jokes, written by Jews, and they were brilliant. If you visit any Unitarian Universalist church website, they pretty much all have a UU jokes page. Pagans are no exception – search for Pagan humour and you will find a lot of it. I would even go so far as to say that the sign that a religion is liberal is its ability to laugh at itself.

Pagan mythologies were probably intended to include humour. One use of humour that springs to mind is the story of Baubo, who found Demeter weeping and wailing for her lost daughter Persephone, and by dancing lewdly and making fun, got Demeter out of her depression and got her to do something.

The novelist Tom Holt has suggested that what Prometheus stole from the gods was not fire, but humour. In his novel Ye Gods, there are many parallel worlds, some where humour has been discovered, and some where it hasn’t. In the worlds where there is no humour, the people are oppressed and miserable.

I actually think that religions that are sex-positive, inclusive, don’t take texts literally, and can laugh at themselves, are a different kind of thing than the religions that don’t. This is especially true of Paganism with its esoteric components of initiation and magic, and its celebration of the body and the erotic. But the main point here is that you cannot be completely oppressed if you have the weapon of satire at your disposal.

The belly-laugh and the orgasm both involve loss of control, release into Dionysiac pleasure and union with the Divine – something that the more legalistic religions actually seek to prevent. That is perhaps why Baubo is both sexual and funny, because she represents the Dionysiac side of life.

Theology Is Hard; Let’s Go Shopping

As those of you who have been reading along know, I’ve spent the past three and a half years on an academic theology that’s going to be called Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective. I’m at the teeth-pulling phase, where I’m trying to revise the introduction to give the right amount of context to a diverse readership (college-educated people with interest in GLBT issues, body theology, and/or Pagan studies, none of whom have the same starting vocabulary) without boring anyone to death.

For those of you who want to write books: woe to you if you desire an interdisciplinary audience! The various segments of my audience will all look for something different in this book, and I suspect all will have complaints. I refuse to learn my lesson, though; to me, big picture issues like ethics can’t be dealt with from only one disciplinary perspective and only one methodology. I’m not the person who does most of the primary thinking and research here, though; I’m the synthesizer who tries to bring innovative ideas together, and I’d like to think I’m necessary. (I hope!)

Anyway, since this is what I’m putting all my effort into right now, I thought I’d share a snapshot of my progress (some or all of which may be revised away in the next few weeks). And next week, expect at least one live report from PantheaCon!


Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective has several aims. First, I will bring together the perspectives of theologians, GLBT advocates, and bodyworkers who might never otherwise encounter each other’s work. Second, I will speak openly of controversial issues (such as kink, transgender and queer identity, and adolescent sexuality) that most Christian theologians do not address, and of which some feminist and Pagan writers lack a sophisticated understanding. Finally, I will respond to the ethical perspectives of sex-positive activists and bodyworkers, many of whom speak from a secular viewpoint, with an ethical framework that is both broadly spiritual and grounded in a coherent religious practice. Although I speak as a Pagan, I address liberal religious people of many faiths, bodyworkers, and the many communities that include spiritual-but-not-religious sexual minorities (including the queer, polyamorous, and kink communities).

Because of the writing that these communities have already produced, I feel able to propose an ethics of touch without including a systematic critique of mainstream American society’s sexual mores. This task has been covered by others, and covered thoroughly. In this book, I wish to look to the future. I have lived in communities that are actively raising children with an ethic of sacred eroticism. This book is particularly for those who are exploring the social and community consequences of individual erotic liberation.

Throughout this book, I use the term “erotic” as a category of intimate, embodied, sensual—but not necessarily sexual—contact. Satisfying sex with one’s spouse is both broadly erotic and specifically sexual; breastfeeding a baby, on the other hand, is not sexual, but may be intensely erotic. The confusion between the sexual and the erotic is endemic in American culture, and that confusion is one of the reasons most Americans do not get enough affectionate touch. When any sensual, connected touch can potentially be read as sexual, many people refrain from touching for fear of violating personal boundaries. Although one might expect the problem to be less pronounced in more sexually-permissive, progressive communities, in some cases it is actually exaggerated: since progressive communities tend to be more aware of the widespread presence of sexual assault survivors, even appropriate touch may be withheld out of a desire to respect others’ healing processes. Distinctions between the erotic and the sexual are often problematically conflated, and so this book will return to the concept of the erotic repeatedly, with special attention to what “eroticism” means in a theological context.

In writing this theology, I find myself seeking a difficult balance. Many popular sex-positive books and websites disappoint me by glossing over the risks of defying social norms about sexuality and touch. Accordingly, I have tried to be practical and realistic, rather than assuring my readers that all consensual touch is good and a perfect sex life is just one self-help book away. On the other hand, speaking too much about what is practical and realistic, rather envisioning what would be ideal, makes for an uninspiring theology that is weighed down by the particularities of the moment. As poet Robert Browning puts it, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s heaven for?”—or as Ralph Waldo Emerson says, more pragmatically, “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

The principles below form the basis of an erotic ethics, or an ethics of touch. These principles attempt to balance individual rights and needs with collective ones, with the conviction that in a society that cultivates empathy, individual and collective needs can be brought into a productive balance. They are not meant as rigid rules; ethical decisions are complex and informed by individual life experiences, and the decision-maker may be called upon to prioritize conflicting principles. For me, however, these principles flow naturally from the belief that pleasure is a human birthright. I offer them as guiding principles for individuals and communities seeking to express that belief in their spiritual practices and relationship structures.

A society based around an erotic ethics:

  1. Sees touch as a sacrament, a way of manifesting divine presence that occurs in a context of self-responsibility, honesty, empathy, and mutuality;
  2. Values diversity of erotic taste and expression, as well as diversity of gender expression and relationship structure;
  3. Prioritizes pleasure, beauty, and health in both individual and collective decision-making;
  4. Maintains community norms that balance individual freedoms with community well-being and support economic and social justice work;
  5. Supports personal autonomy through the practices of negotiation, informed consent, and affirmation of individuals’ accounts of their experiences.

Addendum: For those of you who are too young to remember or not American, the title is a bit of self-deprecating humor, referring to a talking Barbie doll that was famously made to say, “Math is hard.” “Let’s go shopping.”

Eco-spirituality and theology

Eco-spirituality is a new name for a set of ideas that goes back a long way.

Baruch Spinoza and Giordano Bruno both viewed the universe as divine. Their ideas were broadly pantheistic. The implications of the idea that the universe itself is divine are explored by Sam Webster, who prefers immediacy to immanence. The universe is a theophany, the manifestation of the Divine. The implication here is that everything is sacred, and we should take care of the Earth and other beings; we certainly don’t have dominion over them.

A common trope in Western views of reality is the idea that there is an underlying essence to everything, a pure state of being, and that everything else emanates from that. This is a very pervasive idea, from Plato’s concept of Ideal Forms, all the way to Cartesian dualismProcess theology was an attempt to correct this thinking; its basic premise is that everything is always changing. It also views the Divine as involved in the process of change, and developing as a result of the changes:

For both Whitehead and Hartshorne, it is an essential attribute of God to be fully involved in and affected by temporal processes, an idea that conflicts with traditional forms of theism that hold God to be in all respects non-temporal (eternal), unchanging (immutable), and unaffected by the world (impassible). Process theology does not deny that God is in some respects eternal, immutable, and impassible, but it contradicts the classical view by insisting that God is in some respects temporal, mutable, and passible. (Wikipedia)

As Pagans usually view our deities as neither infinite nor perfect, and many of us regard them as beings on their own spiritual journeys, this makes a lot of sense. Cyclicity and change are regarded as positive in Paganism, so process theology fits in well with that. Indigenous traditions also affirm that process and becoming are natural and inevitable; many indigenous American languages do not translate well into English, because English refers to everything as a fixed state (nouns), whereas they refer to everything as a process.

Gaia theology & theory affirms the idea of the Divine as living, and therefore changing. Gaea theology was developed by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart in 1970, independently of James Lovelock‘s better-known Gaia Theory. Oberon Zell-Ravenheart derived his ideas in part from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic palaeontologist and geologist. Both Zell and Lovelock regarded the Earth as Gaia, a living organism, and named the idea after the Greek Goddess Gaia.

According to Wikipedia:

According to James Kirchner there is a spectrum of Gaia hypotheses, ranging from the undeniable to radical. At one end is the undeniable statement that the organisms on the Earth have radically altered its composition. A stronger position is that the Earth’s biosphere effectively acts as if it is a self-organizing system which works in such a way as to keep its systems in some kind of equilibrium that is conducive to life. Biologists usually view this activity as an undirected emergent property of the ecosystem; as each individual species pursues its own self-interest, their combined actions tend to have counterbalancing effects on environmental change. Proponents of this view sometimes point to examples of life’s actions in the past that have resulted in dramatic change rather than stable equilibrium, such as the conversion of the Earth’s atmosphere from a reducing environment to an oxygen-rich one.

An even stronger claim is that all lifeforms are part of a single planetary being, called Gaia. In this view, the atmosphere, the seas, the terrestrial crust would be the result of interventions carried out by Gaia, through the coevolving diversity of living organisms.

Eco-spirituality embraces an ethic of non-violence and sustainability. Non-violence includes respect for life in all its manifestations (human, non-human, animal, vegetable and mineral); harmonious use of natural resources, with respect for the natural order and cycles of the environment, and development compatible with the ecosystem; and listening to Nature, not dictating to it. In Hinduism, non-violence is known as ahimsaSustainability means not using up or depleting the resources available, and maintaining the diversity of ecosystems. Reducing the diversity of an ecosystem, or doing something that creates an imbalance in it, upsets the food web (what eats what in a specific ecosystem).

A key idea in eco-spirituality is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their usefulness to humans. Deep ecology argues that the natural world is a subtle balance of complex inter-relationships in which the organisms depend on each other for their existence within ecosystems. This philosophy was named “deep ecology” by Arne Næss in 1973. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a deep ecological approach is needed to ensure sustainability, biodiversity and the continued existence of the human species. Vandana Shiva writes:

‘Deep ecological solutions are the only viable solutions to ensuring that every person on this planet has enough food, has enough water, has adequate shelter, has dignity and has a cultural meaning in life. If we don’t follow the path of living in ways that we leave enough space for other species, that paradigm also ensures that most human beings will be denied their right to existence. A system that denies the intrinsic value of other species denies eighty percent of humanity, their right to a dignified survival and a dignified life. It only pretends that is solving the problems of poverty, it is actually at the root of poverty. And the only real solution to poverty is to embrace the right to life of all on this planet, all humans and all species.’

Another important strand of eco-spirituality is eco-feminism, the idea that the exploitation of the Earth is symbolically linked to the domination of women, with talk of conquest, dominion, and so on; whereas respect for the Earth can be equated with respect for women. This is a big part of contemporary Goddess spirituality, and is obviously related to Gaia theology. In Ecofeminism (1993) authors Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies point out that modern science is not a universal and value-free form of knowledge, regarding the dominant scientific discourse as a projection of Western men’s values.

Another green precept is “Think global, act local“, the idea that before acting, we should look at consequences for the whole biosphere, as well as for the local environment. This is consistent with the Wiccan ethic “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”, which encourages us to look at the consequences of our actions. It also relates to the idea of spirit of place. The Romans honoured the genius loci, and the Greeks honoured the daemon (both terms mean ‘spirit of place’). This was the consciousness inhabiting wood and grove, tree and well, river and lake. Pagans have found that specific locations have a different atmosphere, a sense of presence. Christians have started to talk about ‘thin places’ – liminal places where the numinous can readily be encountered.

One of the things that keeps me Pagan is the importance of wildness. For me, this concept includes the erotic, the instinctive, the intuitive, a sense of connection to Nature, intimacy, freedom, and solitude. It also links in with deep ecology – the valuing of wild places and wild beings for themselves and not for their utility. An excellent book on the subject of reclaiming wildness is Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian psychotherapist and traditional storyteller.

Ancient cultures regarded the landscape itself as sacred, and devised sacred geography to describe it. This includes the concept of the four cardinal directions and their associated symbolism; the idea of the World Tree at the centre; and cosmologies with the heavens above, the underworld below, and the Earth in the middle.

So, how do we put these ideas into practice? That will be the topic of the next post.

Eros and Psyche

L’Amour et Psyché, by François-Édouard Picot, 1819

Pagan rituals are performed with the whole body as well as the mind and the heart. They have an erotic quality – not overtly, but sublimated and transmuted. Ritual is sensual, and involves all the senses. This erotic aspect of worship is frequently expressed by medieval Christian mystics, Sufis like the poet Rumi, as well as contemporary Pagans.

The mood-swing of Western culture against the body, women and sensuality is said by historians to have begun around 500 BCE and reached its height in about 500 CE. At its worst, it was profoundly anti-women. It had a lasting influence on the Christianity of later centuries.

Bound up with this fear of women, sexuality, and the body was the fear of the dark, which is connected with the feminine, nature, and wilderness and has been denigrated for most of Christian history.  In patriarchal culture, the assertive and sexually active female is regarded as dark, dangerous and malevolent, and characterised as a witch.  The passive female is elevated as the model for how women should be: quiet, virginal, and modest.  In order for patriarchy to function, female sexuality must be suppressed and controlled, and men must be taught to fear it and abuse it; and the wilderness must be conquered and tamed.

Fortunately for us, the mystics frequently rebelled against this anti-women worldview. Their writings were deeply sensual and erotic, and extolled the dazzling darkness of God, the ultimately unknowable and mysterious aspect of the Godhead.

Judaism, on the other hand, never entirely abandoned its respect for the body and for women, and making love remained an act of worship. It was and is obligatory in Judaism to make love on the Sabbath Eve, because making love reunites the exiled Shekhinah with the Godhead. According to many Jewish theologians, the Shekhinah, who is the immanent feminine aspect of the Divine, is exiled in the material world, and seeks to be reunited with the transcendent male Godhead. We can help her by making love and performing acts of kindness, which are known as Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.

Spirituality and sexuality are intertwined. The most profound sexual experiences involve an abandonment of the centrality of the ego and opening up to the beloved other; this can become an opening up to the Divine Beloved. This is reflected in the erotic and spiritual poetry of the Sufis. The Sufis loved the night, which was seen as the time when the soul was most open to the Divine Beloved.

Similarly, the deeply spiritual is also erotic, and opening up and self-abandonment to the Divine can resemble a relationship with a human partner. The ancient Greek story of Eros and Psyche represents the Divine visiting the soul. In India, the story of Krishnapleasuring a thousand cow-girls simultaneously also symbolises the erotic relationship with the Divine. Medieval mystical poetry is full of erotic yearning for the Divine. One meditation on the Song of Songs exclaims “Oh that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”. In the medieval period, among both Jewish and Christian thinkers, the Song of Songs was seen as an allegory of the soul’s relationship with God.

So, how can ritual be erotic without being overtly sexual? How do we entice Eros to visit Psyche?

The erotic can be sensual, involving all five senses. There can be visual elements to ritual: magical tools, the altar, flowers, candlelight, jewellery, pictures.

Ritual can include scent – the smell of flowers, incense, good moist earth, baking bread, wine, fruit. Smell is the most subtle and evocative of all the senses, and smells can transport you instantly to a memory of the past or an intimation of future bliss.

Ritual can include taste – the taste of food, mindfully and appreciatively savoured, shared amongst friends. Many Pagan rituals include the use of food in a ritual context.

Jewish worship in the home includes food, as in the well-known ritual of the Seder (Passover meal) with its various symbolic foods.

Ritual can include touch and movement – hugging, dancing, joining hands, gestures, warming oneself at a fire, anointing with oil and water, ceremonial kissing, the feel of rich earth, planting bulbs, experiencing textures.

Ritual includes sound, but there is not as much singing in Paganism as there could be (presumably a reaction to the singing of hymns in Christianity. The lyrics of Pagan chants are sometimes a bit trite. In Hinduism however, the classical raga form goes through stages, firstly of yearning for the Divine Beloved, making contact, and achieving union. The erotic aspect of this encounter is clearly celebrated in the music.

The erotic aspects of spirituality are present in Paganism (especially Wicca) but not much talked about, because they are so easily misunderstood. The erotic can be sensual, passionate, tender, mysterious, alluring, mystical; it does not have to be explicit or acted upon.

Our rituals are performed with the whole body, not just with mind and heart. This is how we integrate our spirituality with everyday life. As Mary Oliver so memorably put it, “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Let us welcome Eros into the bridal chamber of the psyche, for only then can we make the shift from the domination of the ego (the rule of law) to the balance of all aspects of the psyche (the religion of love). Let us descend into our own depths to encounter the darkness and silence, and be dazzled by the unknowable mystery of the Divine.