Many today are perplexed by desire and what it says about who we are as human beings. Typically, today’s philosophers, psychologists, educators, and the media tell us to look inward and tap into what our desires are telling us about who we are. The basis of our ‘self-discovery’ is whatever we desire to be. Yet, this inward turn is not bringing us the sense of peace, happiness, and rest we had hoped for. We continual to be ‘restless’ in our endeavor to understand ourselves, our relation to God, and others. Even when we do discover an identity – e.g., a new sexual one, in consumerism, philosophy, politics, relationships, and so on – it quickly shifts like sand from under our feet. Before we know it, we are on the road again in our search for another self. We are ever searching but never finding.
What do we make of this? Does this mean our desires have no say in helping us discover who we are? And what is keeping us from finding a resting place for our identity? But what if we are asking the wrong questions? What if our sense of ‘restlessness’ is actually normal? And the problem is not that we turn inward to our desires for an answer to who we are. Instead, do we rightly understand our desires and how they should be related to God and the world? The answer lies, I believe, in a vision that is severe about the disordered nature of our desires and insistent that our identity is contingent on God. Once we understand the contingent nature of the self on God and that God is not a created thing at the disposal of our desires, only then can we properly tap into our desires for understanding who we are. To support my thesis, I will explore St. Augustine’s theology of desire and its relationship to the God, self, and others.
To get at the heart of Augustine’s vision of desire, we need to first turn to his understanding of creation and the fall. Augustine had a high regard for the good in creation, including sex. In his thinking, sexual activity was the not the result of the fallen adoption of animal nature. Instead, his main concern was that we no longer have control over our wills thanks to our post-fall disoriented desires. Sexuality is simply the arena in which he sees this demonstrated. Second, we need to understand Augustine’s notion of evil. For him, evil is the privation of the good. Evil has no substance of its own. Still, it acts like a parasite on the good dragging it into incoherence. Evil as the absence of the good causes us to misread the world which skews our desires, so we have a disordered vision of ourselves and God. As a result, the ultimate good of our desire rests not in God as it should, but in an irrational, and thus frustrated self-determining vision of the self.
Yet, the answer is not to dismiss our desires altogether, but to tap into them righty. Although the main theme of Augustine’s, Confessions is desire, his first concerned is not what his desires can say about who he is, but instead, directing them towards seeking, finding, and praising God. Unlike the modern person, who’s inward turn is completely self-involved, Augustine’s inward turn to his desires is about discovering God, not himself. Why? Simply because he understands his identity is contingent upon who God is. Made in the image of God, we can only find out who we are in Him. As Augustine says in his Confessions, I can’t make the links that make sense of my life. Only God can do that for me. That is why the focus of Augustine’s desires in his autobiographic Confessions is first concerned with discovering, understanding, and seeing God in all his glory and beauty. Whereas for the modern person, glory and beauty is found in one’s autonomous creation of the self, for Augustine, it is found outside the self in God.
It is because our sense of self is completely contingent on God that Augustine warns us against any ‘premature closure’ on who we are. This goes against the modern grain that encourages us to present ourselves as a finished, branded products for consumption, in hopes of affirmation from others. This branded product of the self comes in many forms: consumerism, workaholism, addiction, sexual identity, relationships, social media portrayals, sports, politics, and so on. Yet all of them leave us anxiously grasping after more and more affirmation that supposedly articulates to us what is found to be socially ‘valuable’ in us. We are left ever restless and confused.
But surely, cannot our desire for the self be fully realized in our vision of God in Christ? For Augustine, the answer is, only in part. We can know and experience God in Christ in this life (e.g., in the sacraments, worship, prayer and so on). Yet, we cannot fully know, see, and experience Him, at least not yet. We are like Moses who could only see God’s back side on the mountain, or the disciples who could not perceive who Jesus really was during His lifetime. Let me try to explain it this way. God is not an earthly object among other objects competing for our love or attention. He is not another consumer item we can turn to, fully grasp, and handle and thus, satisfy our desires as our hunger for ice cream can be. Instead, God is uncontrollably another sort of Being altogether different from ours. Therefore, our desire to know, hear, see Christ in his fullness can only in part be realized in our lifetime. And because our desire and longing to know and see God fully cannot be fully realized, neither can the desire to discover who we are be realized. As it says in 1 John 3:2, what we will be has not yet been revealed.
In our age of autonomy and freedom, seeing ourselves as contingent creatures is not an easy sell, especially if the ‘restlessness’ of our desires to know thyself can never be satisfied. Yet, it brings us a hopeful joy the modern search for the self cannot offer. How so? If God is our ultimate desire so that our identity is contingent upon Him, at least we can rest assured that our ‘restlessness’ is pointing us in the right direction. Restlessness is a sign of hope and joy for Augustine. Whereas it’s the exact opposite for many today. And it is no wonder. The pressures from our society, family, and friends to fully discover who we are by getting a good education, a career, accumulating wealth, success, social prominence etc. brings a heavy burden for most, most especially young people. The pressures to discover ‘who I am,’ yet never getting there, has led to increased levels of depression, anxiety, and suicides. But, if our sense of self ultimately lies in the Triune God, we may not be able to realize fully that sense now, but we can trust we will get there one day. Therefore, we can experience restlessness, not as a burden, but instead as a sign of the eternal hope of fully realizing who we are in Christ one day.
But can we have any rest in who we are in light of our experience of God now? Of course, we can.
Insofar as we realize the contingency of our existence on God, so do we realize its dependency upon others. The God we come to know, experience, and love is the Triune God who in His essence is dependently relational from all eternity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are always orbiting around, giving to, and seeking the welfare of the other. We know this is true in the incarnation of God in Christ. In His submission to the Father on the Cross, there we see the death of our assumed self-sufficiency, so that we might be raised to new life in the whole body of Christ, the Church. Our identity is not discovered by way of an individual, internal exercise, even though it may be rightly directed towards God. Rather, it is realized by way of submission to others in the Church who also seek to do the same in light of their submission to God. The narrative of our lives is not something we can create for ourselves. It comes from God as we submit ourselves in service to each other in our corporate commitment to the mission and ministry of His Church.