Desire is Essential: A Little Riff On The “Unthought” Behind All The Sexual Controversies

imagesWarning: This is a post which depends on some knowledge of Foucault, Coakley, even Zizek and McIntyre. Read at your own risk. I probably can’t reply to comments asking me to outline the thought of these thinkers. Sorry :)


There is an idea in the work of Michael Foucault (p. 322-327 Order of Things 1970) he calls the “unthought.” It is the set of assumptions and stories that form the backdrop of our conscious thoughts and actions. The “unthought” drives how we see the world yet is never really examined. It’s in the water we swim in. In some sense the “unthought” can’t be examined, because it is so ingrained in the frame by which we think and feel and move. To look at it face to face is to dismantle the whole “frame” and, in a sense, have to start all over again (a bit of Zizek here). We lose who we are and that is just too traumatic. “Unthoughts” can only be revealed as inadequate through some sort of “epistemic crisis” (MacIntyre), through contradictions that in the end force the subject to deal with the inadequacy of the way (s)he is living his or her life.

For me, an unthought that drives our culture is “desire is innate, not shaped, cannot be changed, and is who I am.” This unthought is so much part of the water we swim in it is rarely if ever challenged. It plays deep into the psyches of the sexually charged cultures of the young. It drives the sexual controversies in society at large and in the church. To challenge this unthought is to invite the accusation of being a medieval fundamentalist who would repress people for the sake of a Victorian morality. This unthought orders the psyche of every man women and child raised in the West post the 1960’s. Desire is essential to us. It is what keeps us getting up in the morning. It is the indicator of our identity. The loss of desire is cause for psychological (not religious) concern. This unthought is inscribed deep into modern capitalism’s ideology despite the fact advertising industries baldly spend billions to influence and shape these same desires. This contradiction is overlooked everyday as we live and breath this unthought. It is American to announce to the world “we are free!” to fulfil all our human desires all the while we are the most drugged up addicted culture in the world.

But of course no society can run ultimately on the premise of this unthought. Even Freud said we must channel, indeed repress our desires in order to live together in a civil society (Civilization and Its Discontents). And so everywhere we see signs of the contradiction exhibiting itself (but largely ignored). We say our children must discover their sexuality at their psychic core, discover their sexual identity, all the while admitting the young and innocent are susceptible to having their desires formed by many sordid places that they must be protected from., i.e scripts from R rated movies (we therefore rate movies), pornography, and sexual abuse of multiple kinds. So we rightfully protect our children at all costs. It’s a contradiction among contradictions. Most recently, this contradiction was written large in the Santa Barbara killer’s manifesto and the response to it in media. Oddly his desire for a certain kind of co-ed that looked a certain way was not the focus of the media response. Instead, the outrage was over the killers’ implicit denying of those women the right to choose who they’d have sex with. This was what was focused on as objectifying/mysogyny, not the whole culture that shaped the desire. This contradiction is also exhibited every time a pedophile is revealed in an institution. Here, rightfully, the whole of society’s outrage explodes against the sexual perpetrator and the institution who allowed such a thing (because the evil is clear cut and unquestioned). Meanwhile, on the other side of town, we celebrate sexual expression as the core of our identity in the ways we march for and legislate for “the right” to sexual expression whether it be heterosexual or an alternative sexual expression, “unless of course it hurts somebody else.” Sarah Coakley argues (here read all 3 parts) this contradiction is revealed in the church everytime we tell the pedophile priest to stop sexually abusing children all the while extolling the virtue of self expression as the end of all sexual desire in the way we think about marriage, celibacy, divorce, and most recently same sex marriage. Through all of this, somehow, somewhere, (I would argue this is largely the work of late capitalist economic organization) desire got essentialized, and now it is unquestioned on a universal basis.

The church in our culture, in response, has largely been impotent in addressing this new world, unthinkable just a short 50 years ago. The protestant mainline liberal mostly encourages the flourishing of all desire as innate and God given. Why should any desire be denied if it feels right and doesn’t hurt anyone else (at least that we know of). To repress is evil and a sin against God’s creation. The evangelical fundamentalist condemns all desire outside of God’s parameters as evil and just says stop doing it. And yet it is pathetically vacuous in offering a way of sanctification that melds suffering with formation with hope. This leaves the soul formed in modern American self-expressivism with nothing. You take away desire and what do you have to live for in this world? Therefore this comes across as an attack against “who I am.” The evangelical response leaves the person lost in desire with nowhere to go with that desire. Both engagements with the culture of desire ideologies are inadequate on their own, although there’s some truth in both.

The way forward for the church, I would argue, is to display a way of life before the rest of the world that defies its very ideologies. You cannot argue with an ideology. You cannot confront it head on. You can only live a life that reveals its holes until it comes crashing in on itself, and be there to provide help. The idea that desires are not the foundation of life, but rather the life of crucified desire and resurrected desire in Christ is absurd to the ideologies of desire in the West. It must be lived in such a way that cannot be argued with, only looked at with amazement.

To me, the best shot for such a faithful integral theology of desire being worked out lies with the sanctificationist traditions melded with the Anabaptist ones. People in these traditions have resources to explore the way God works to order desire in the life of a community (not individuals). It offers a way of being shaped by a community of worship and service as opposed to a consumerist potpourri of the capitalist smorgasbord. What Sarah Coakley says about Gregory of Nyssa, I say is a possibility for the Anabaptist/Holiness traditions. She says:

Gregory’s vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified through its relations to God – which would then produce spiritual fruits of love and service in a range of other relationships and communal bonds – represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of ‘repression’ and ‘libertinism’.

What say you?

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Posted in Ideology and Witness, Incarnational, Sarah Coakley
18 comments on “Desire is Essential: A Little Riff On The “Unthought” Behind All The Sexual Controversies
  1. Martin says:

    Some deep thoughts on a July Wednesday morning. The notion of the “unthought” influences and presupps around desire are profound and need to be articulated, if not challenged. Thank you for this insightful piece Fitch!

    • Austin says:

      I love this post. I’m a Calvinist with some reading in the anarchist tradition, with a lot of post-modern influences and I am finding this article to be such a resource for my imagination, both as a critique for our society’s enlightenment/liberal values (which from a huge part of our ‘unthought’) and as a positive vision for how the church can transform culture and act as a force for the new creation that anticipates the kingdom of God. Pressing the issues in this post can be the most powerful type of transformation to deal with sexual brokenness, to root sexuality back with human dignity, for holiness as both a reconstructive healing force and a constructive positive force, etc. etc.

      So much at work here.

  2. Greg Arthur says:

    This is such a great post David, thank you. As one of those living in a sactificationist tradition (never heard it called that before, but I like it), this has been at the root of all my conversations on sexuality. Desire defines us in our culture, but even in the church there has been little work on transforming that desire. As you stated it has mainly been focused on suppressing or ignoring desire.

    There is such a link between sexual desire and worship in scripture. I just wrote an article for an upcoming book called Renovating Holiness that explores this connection and our submission of our desires to intimacy with Christ. I think this link can be seen in the link between idolatry and adultery in the prophets and Paul’s language about worship and adultery.

    Desire is an essential part of our connection to God, but it must be submitted to that covenantal relationship and transformed by it. Our broken desires will define us until we do so.

    I am going to send this blog to a number of friends I have been talking with this about. Thanks again-

    Greg Arthur

  3. David Opderbeck says:

    Yes, and no. Yes, modern western popular culture is satisfied with the themes of “desire” and “authenticity.” I think you’re missing the “authenticity” piece. It’s not just about fulfilling “desire.” It’s that, at each person’s core, there is a basic, constituting desire that must be released and fulfilled for the person to become an authentic self. This is the theme, for example, of every Disney movie: “discover WHO YOU ARE”. This theme doesn’t, however, eschew all asceticism. One might have to sacrifice lots of lesser desires to get at that core identity: think Rocky, the Karate Kid, Frozen, Katy Perry (Baby, you’re a firework!)

    That isn’t really Foucault’s conception of desire. It’s more like Maslow, or even like Augustine in the Confessions, before he realizes that the true desire lies outside himself, in God. Foucault’s conception of desire shows up in the next “layer” of our popular culture — the young adult and adult cynical, nihilistic posture that recognizes and celebrates the final emptiness of seeking the source of what we desire in ourselves. This is when we realize, with Foucault, that there is nothing but desire, which is nothing but an animal biopolitic. Whatever is twisted, whatever is dark, whatever is uncontrollable, whatever is orgasmic, whatever exposes the beast within — finally, brothers, think after these things. Kids graduate from Frozen to South Park.

    So the remedy, as Augustine said, is to move from being curvatus in se to being curved out onto God. That isn’t a loss of desire, it’s the true call of desire from which all other desires derive and without which all other desires become distorted. The Anabaptist santificationist tendencies are helpful here but I wonder if their spareness sometimes results in an ascetical practice that remains focused on the self rather than curved out to God. Iconography is an interesting test case here. The richness of ecclesial and iconographic art, vestments, censing, and so-on traditionally helped focus desire on beauty outside the self and directed it towards God. The iconoclastic tendencies of churches in the radical reformation traditions can become so spare that desire has no where to go but back inward.

    • David Fitch says:

      I was with you til you got to the commentary on Anabaptism … and the authenticity piece – tied to the self expressivism culture .. is all part of the unthought. That was helpful to hear it made more explicit.
      But the conceptionof Anabaptism – put together with sanctificationist … extracts either out of American individualism … and into God’s mission, and broader embodiment… which inevitably requires a liturgy. … There’s my rambling general affirmation of most of what you said!
      Thanks my bro.


  4. Josh Broward says:

    Thanks David. I’ve been working along similar lines in my blog series “A Better Conversation about Homosexuality.” I think my next post will be “Not About Desire”- in that this debate is not about our sexual desire but about how we define marriage. I’ll probably link to your post as I discuss that desire does not equal right (as in the right thing) or right (as in I have a right to this).

  5. Now, having read this twice and pondered David Opderbeck’s help response, I have to say both Yes and No.

    I am not fully convinced that contemporary culture has essentialized desire so much as it has said that fulfillment of one’s desire is essential. I think Gregory of Nyssa and (gasp) Augustine both point to desire (thumos) is part of the human person. So maybe there they agree with modernity. Yet, it seems that today, as you noted, that this fundamental desire is unshapable. It just is. And our goal then is to fulfill that desire.

    Two things, then, come to mind. First, the modern value of “Fulfillment” ignores the very nature of desire in that once it has been satisfied it is no longer a desire. But for it to be truly desire, it must and does, remain never completely satisfied. In the end, there is a kind of violence in the modern sense of desire– it is always consuming others in the quest of satisfaction. Once someone no longer fills our desire (or sparks new desire), the exhortation is to move on to the next desire. Sounds a bit like an escalating addiction.

    For both Nyssa and Augustine, though, there is an equal balance to human desire in wrath/anger (epithumos). This counter move is one of pushing away. (I think Coakley handles this well.) In this (gasp) Platonic anthropology there is a dual movement of pushing away and drawing near in the search for fulfillment. That, I think, is the root of the ascetic project. The ascetic acknowledges that both anger and desire are central to “formation”, or as Nyssa calls it, “eternal progression.” There is to be both a rejection of some “goods” in the quest for some greater good.

    Where I disagree with David a bit here has to do with an Anabaptist/Holiness asceticism. Basically, asceticism is not equivalent to a kind of self-focus. There is a clear sense in many of the patristic ascetic teachers (Basil and Cassian) that the communal formation is equally important. For Basil especially, the ascetic project is entirely engaged in the world. Take for example his noted rhetorical question- If I am in not with others, whose feet will I wash?


    • David Fitch says:

      at least I got you to half agree with me. Actually … I think you agree with me entirely … or at least I agree with you. Good clarifying addition to discusssion! THX

  6. David Opderbeck says:

    Of course, there can be varieties of “anabaptist” ascetical practice that correct the iconoclastic tendencies of historic anabaptism. I’m encouraged by anabaptist-tinged new evangelical churches that are trying to foster ancient-future type practices, being attentive to aesthetics, etc. (which is my own ecclesial location right now!) Still there’s a bit of a basic tension — what is being “sanctified” or “redeemed”; what is _need of_ being “sanctified” or “redeemed?” How do “nature” and “grace” relate?

    • Thanks David(s).

      I think the nature/grace thing is present here, but at the same time that tension might be a bit over-determined. In other words, performance/practice and formation are present here. Maybe Fitch is pointing to this through the language of sanctification. My take, though, is that askesis (or as Jamie Smith puts it, cultural liturgies) is a key aspect of the desire question. What are we doing (both intentionally, and by participation in various intersecting communities/cultures) that orients and shapes our desire? Those practices of cultural formation (pre-conscious formation a la Bourdieu’s Habitus) and intentional askesis seems to me to be both individual and communal in nature.

  7. David,

    Yes. Like the post. And, the discussion here.

  8. Lois says:

    I’ve appreciated the original post AND the ensuing discussion! It’s very encouraging to hear thoughts that are at a deeper level about the public discourse around sexuality.

    In addition to these reflections on “desire” in relation to identity and fulfilment, would it be appropriate to extend the discussion to include thoughts on suffering – as in, a theology of suffering – perhaps the suffering that comes from, or is a consequence of, the personal and social consequences of desires that are (rightly) restrained? For example, polygamy may be a perfectly natural consequence of natural sexual desire but we have largely accepted a cultural understanding that defines polygamy as unacceptable (and yet in some cases the desire is not actually constrained but finds other routes to fulfillment – prostitution, pornography, adultery, etc.). Is there a link between suffering and restraint?

    Our culture routinely views suffering as something to be avoided. Why should we suffer? If norms and values are uncomfortable or unpleasant for us, then it’s possible for us to work to change the norms and values. There is no need to deny ourselves any desire or pleasure if we can convince enough people, and especially policy makers, that our desire is natural. Jesus’ words (Luke 9:23) that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” seem appropriate, though in sharp contrast with the culture around us.

    I realize that such references, however, can be quickly dismissed as vestiges of a theology of repression and asceticism. But let’s not be too hasty. It does seem to me that understanding holiness and sanctification is at the heart of these discussions.

  9. Worship is the highest expression of eros. If the church wants to change the culture, it needs to stop playing politics and start training ascetics.

  10. Dwight Stinnett says:

    Yes — well said. I think your analysis is correct. We might quibble about the answer.

  11. Nate Yoder says:

    “The way forward for the church, I would argue, is to display a way of life before the rest of the world that defies its very ideologies. You cannot argue with an ideology. You cannot confront it head on. You can only live a life that reveals its holes until it comes crashing in on itself, and be there to provide help.”

    Great quote and great post, David! The church spends too much time arguing about specific issues rather than living a truly counter-cultural life.

  12. Coming late to the game, I know…

    I wonder if the bifurcation between the inability to say NO to desire, to recognize any desire as less than natural and admirable, and the cultural infatuation with Buddhism, which at its most basic is a denial of desire, gives our culture a false map of the territory. It’s EITHER accept all desire as good, or reject all desire as leading to death/frustration/suffering.

  13. There is certainly a lot to know about this issue.

    I reallly like all the points you made.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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