Desire is the way. Thoughts on Bishop Barron at ARC in London

An audio version of this talk is at my podcast, Talks and Thoughts, available via podcast feeds.

Bishop Barron is another figure I think worth listening to, who spoke at ARC in London, alongside Jordan Peterson. And like Peterson, he simultaneously leaves me as wary as enthused. And so, like Peterson, I listened both to my felt response and what he was saying. I’ve explained where that took me with Peterson in another short talk. Here’s where I’ve ended up in response to Barron, which interesting is also, in my view, with a richer, fuller sense of Christianity untamed, unleashed.

In short, you might say that Barron has his diagnosis right but his antidote wrong. And like Peterson, the misstep turns on this word, responsibility.

He offered the diagnosis in terms of the history of ideas, tracing the modern mentality back to that remarkable set of Franciscan thinkers which includes William of Ockham. They set the ball rolling on a perception of reality that is now called voluntarism. From the Latin for “will”, voluntarism started off as an assertion of the supreme will of God, which seems quite reasonable: that God can will anything. But as other thinkers since, not least CS Lewis, have pointed out, what humans imagine to be true of God, they soon imagine to be true of themselves. So willing what you want has become untamed consumption and untold distress in the modern world, as people try to will a good life from within their own constrained and confused imaginations. So far, so much a restating of hyper-individualism.

Barron then turned to responsibility, to invoke a training of the will to want what might satisfy its longing, namely freedom. If you want to learn a language, you have to learn the grammar and vocab. Only then will you be able to express yourself fully and freely.

Now, there’s clearly a truth in that –  although the first language we learnt to speak, as infants, wasn’t an effort of responsibility but of desire. Which signals something. As with Peterson, the piece that is missing in the argument is desire or love – the God-like impulse or spirit that fires the yearning which will, in time, find its way back to God.

I think Barron knows this. At one point in his talk, he referred being responsible in our response to life, so that we might find true satisfaction. However, there are a couple of elements that threw him off track, in my view.

The first has to do with his office. Barron is a bishop. I know a few and what you find is that they are in a bind – the bind which the Hebrew Bible tracks as the tension between the priests and the prophets. The priests must keep the temple going. The prophets must keep the people alert to what the temple points to, namely God – which when the temple becomes corrupted, by becoming too concerned with worldly matters, it readily forgets. Bishops, and often priests and ministers in general, gain their authority from doing the temple work and whilst they feel the pull of the prophetic vocation, because they do love God, they routinely have to make a choice between the two impulses in them. The priest bit wins out, so long as they remain priests. Beware the priests, Jesus almost said and who was, of course, not one himself, but that marvellous, rare thing – a rabbi who spoke with his own authority.

The second element that took Barron off course takes us back to the history of ideas. It is his account of freedom. To cut the the chase, he didn’t quite get to the crux of the matter in this talk at least, which is the goal of freedom, what it longs for, and what it needs to know to become liberty in fullest extent, which is to become divine. Only God is truly free, because only God is fully realised. God’s being, God’s goodness, God’s desire, God’s freedom are all maxed out and are one, a unity – or rather, a tri-unity, as the Trinity is the Christian way of expressing that dynamic manifestation of being – endlessly giving, endlessly receiving, endlessly creating, endlessly loving. You might say that God doesn’t have to bother with choice or responsibility or will, which are all fallen versions of God’s life in all its fullness.

So if that’s the vision of God, what does that mean for the vision of what it is to be human? Well, it is risky, which is why Peterson, Barron et al are concerned about the way the world is going. Liberty regularly becomes license in human souls. St Paul had to tackle it, remarking that everything is permissible but not everything is wise. There’s an art to liberty, which I think is best learnt by another version of freedom – the freedom to make mistakes.

This is why Christianity also stresses forgiveness. Take the woman who is caught in adultery, brought to Jesus by her accusers, whom Jesus disperses by saying, the one without sin cast the first stone. He then turns to her and judges her condition, but not so as to condemn her, but liberate her. She may now learn from her mistake, though not so as to have her desire or freedom sidelined by advice about being more responsible in the future. Rather, she can pursue her desire better, more truly freely. Jesus would have known that what led her into adultery is what will also lead her back to God, as she becomes wiser by learning from her love life.

Love, desire, sexuality mustn’t be compromised in the spiritual life, which is why in Orthodox Christianity, amongst the mystics and monks, the most important book in the Bible is the Song of Songs, the great hymn to desire. It’s the pivotal book, in a way, because the spirit it conveys is the spirit with which everything else must be read and understood. That ensures that nothing undermines the tremendous desire we have for God, which so easily goes wrong, but mustn’t be stopped.

Mystics understand this, which is why their writings are often erotic. The two that I have studied the most, Dante and William Blake, are full of it. Dante’s eros terrifies him as much as he yearns to have it delight him. But for all the errors he makes, he never gives up on it and it eventually leads him to the state in which his understanding and love have become aligned, which is to say, when he becomes divine.

William Blake comments on the same path in often provocative ways. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” is a phrase you wouldn’t have heard at ARC. But you can hear what Blake means. He is accurately describing the tumultuous path of love.

The same thought highlights a part of Bishop Barron’s diagnosis of our current state that I think needs tuning. The modern world, for all its folly and violence, hasn’t lost faith with desire. In fact, people who are furthest from God are often those whose desire is unleashed. Felix culpa, you might say – though cautiously as lots of damage is undoubtedly done.

But I think the response to that is not to put a lid on it, with calls for responsibility, but to understand what’s going wrong, with an eye kept firmly fixed on love. Consumption and so on are cries for God. What needs to be heard is the insight, expressed by William Blake and the mystics, that the human soul won’t be satisfied with less than all, though is often mistaken by seeking more and more. The trick is to realise that all is not found in accumulation but in participation – that state of being when freedom, love, goodness and so on – and being, existence itself – are overflowing without reserve. “Kissing the joy as it flies”, is another lovely Blakean erotic spirituality.

You might say that our times are telling us what is wrong with our times. God is speaking not from outside of human hearts, but from within them. Barron’s diagnosis includes much that is right. But I think that a full strength Christianity doesn’t hold back from what lies within love, which as Jesus said, is that all may be one, as he and the father are one. The watchwords for such astonishing unity are freedom, love, wisdom – and forgiveness, for all the errors made along the way.