The Church, in its various institutional forms, is in the midst of a sexual crisis in which both married and supposed celibate clerics are not keeping their vows. Could it be that the ordering of desire around a misconstrued image of ultimate reality (God and human) is playing into this crisis?
At the heart of what is considered the most theologically developed portion of the New Testament, Paul brings together sexuality, desire, and Trinity that depicts the deepest “groanings” of human longing as a direct communion with the Holy Spirit. Desire gone bad and then rightly channeled is the substance of Paul’s depiction of redemption. For a variety of reasons, this economy of desire once developed and appreciated in the early church, is often no longer accounted for in standard depictions of salvation, God, and what it means to be human.
The extra-biblical discourse on the Trinity, for example, is typically abstract and esoteric or it is presumed that God’s inner life is completely closed off to us (apophaticism). But in passages like Romans 8, which most clearly depicts God as Trinity, there is also a depiction of human entry into the divine life on the basis of this intra-triune relation. Here there is no clear demarcation between immanent (who God is in himself) and economic (and who God is for others) Trinity. In fact, it is not clear that these categories are adequate, as what is being depicted is that who God is for himself opens his life to others.
At the same time, the God who is become man incorporates humankind into his life on the basis of who he is but also on the basis of what it means to be human. That is, prayer “groanings” (Ro 8:26), inclusive of the depth of human desire and need are the point of communion with God through the Spirit. It is not the setting aside or thwarting of desire but the mediation of desire which opens into participation in the inner life of God. God’s desiring love, his incorporating communion, is the ontological ground and fulfillment of human desire.
In this use of the word desire, we have passed beyond gender, though human desire is always initiated in gender. It is engendered bodily, but to limit it to gender is on the order of explaining thought as a mere product of the brain. The embodied and enabling factor of thought and desire, for all but the crudest reductionist, is not its ultimate explanation. Paul accounts for this tendency to reduce desire to gender as the law of sin and death (a law of desire – Ro 7:7). A “married woman is bound by law to her husband” so that her husband, representative of the law, constricts her desire.
Paul is not advocating adultery or celibacy but he is describing how desire can be ordered and channeled, such that one becomes a slave to law/desire (“I did not know desire apart from the law” 7:7). That is, both things (desire and law) arise simultaneously as a form of bondage in which all that one is and does is defined by this dynamic. Those who channel their desire into gender alone are on the order of those who have made the law the ultimate point of mediating relationship to God. The law bound are also the gender bound, so that one is controlled by their relationship to the law/husband. To state it in different terms, one’s love is constricted by the marks of maleness or femaleness.
Becoming united with Christ amounts to a breaking free of this dynamic: “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another” (7:4). The love of God experienced in Christ is a release from the slavery to the law: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Ro 7:6). Gender and with it, desire, is not an end in itself but is the medium to a relationship which transcends gender and erotic love. In the words of Sarah Coakley, “desire is more fundamental than gender, and the desiring, trinitarian God ultimately ambushes all attempts to fix and constrain gender in worldly terms.”
It is on this basis of a transcendent desire that Paul describes a communion with God through the direct intervention of the Spirit in prayer. Prayer, the expression of “eager longing,” is the occasion in which there is evoked and realized adoption into the family of God: “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (8:15). All three persons of the Trinity enable this communion. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him” (8:16-17). Prayer is both the entry point and defined by the communion with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.
This realization of Trinitarian agape love is not on the basis of a sublimation or refusal of erotic or gendered desire but the realization that gender, desire, and marriage, are a human economy which is to be conjoined with the divine communion in which the Spirit engenders Sonship. The divine communion opened to humanity through the Son links all of creations groanings in a cosmic sort of childbirth in which human desire is drawn into the divine economy so as to bring about the full adoption of humanity into the life of the Trinity (8:22-23).
Sex, gender, and desire, disconnected from this life in the Spirit, is on the order of a disembodied agape love or a prayer life that always seems to be speaking into the void. Prayer as a monologue to a distant patriarch is like an empty eroticism or a desire defined by gender and law. The communication, the groaning, the desire is not answered by God but is left to itself – which describes life in the law; relationship, not to a person, but to an impersonal and mechanical-like symbolic order.
In describing the Trinitarian communion Paul also describes a world participating in the purposes of God in which the deepest human “eager longing” is not closed in on itself. Primordial desire left to itself becomes the law of sin and death, but this same primordial desire opened to Christian hope is channeled beyond “life in the flesh” to hope of adoption as “children of God.”
A common theme of the church fathers is that the incorporation of the believer into the life of the Trinity through the Spirit is on the order of being incorporated into marriage through sex. As Sarah Coakley describes it, “For Origen, agape simply is Eros, by another name; whereas for his rather different successor in the Song-commentary tradition, Gregory of Nyssa, Eros is agape “stretched out in longing” toward the divine goal.” Just as the sexual bond makes of the two one flesh, so too the binding together in the Spirit is a fulfillment and ordering of desire. As Dionysius the Areopagite describes it, “’desire’ becomes an ontological force inherent to the divine life itself, an ecstatic capacity of God to go out and return, always ‘carried outside of himself’ whilst also “remaining within himself.” Just as one is incorporated into the marriage relationship through the fulfillment of desire, so too the desire of God (the desire originating in God) describes this same self-transcendence or going outside of himself in an overflowing love.
Gregory of Nyssa, in Homilies on the Song of Songs describes the kinsman/Christ as drawing his lover/disciples through a reflected beauty in which desire is the power of the Spirit: “the Bride has dedicated herself to her kinsman and in her own form has taken on the beauty of her Beloved.” Andrew was led to the Lamb by the reflected attraction in the voice of John. Nathanael attracts Philip through the same allure that the maidens find in the kinsman’s lover – perfect in her comeliness. This reflected “’glory’ means the Holy Spirit, if account is taken of the Lord’s words; he says, after all, ‘The glory that you have given me, I have given to them.’” That is, the eroticism of sexual attraction in the Song translates directly into the attraction of Christ through the Spirit (Homily 15). “For it is obvious that where she is concerned the Word is pointing to this: that the soul, through the upward journey she has completed, has been exalted to the point where she is straining forward toward the wonders of the Lord and Master.”
There is a passage into desire in which “childishness” is left behind as the “disposition shaped by erotic love” is joined to God – “such were the souls of David and Paul.” David says, “But for me it is a good thing to cleave to God” and Paul says, “None shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, not life or death or what is present or what is future, or anything else.” Gregory calls those who stifle this desire through a misbegotten virtue, “concubines” (as they do not share in the divine Spirit of kingship) as it is out of fear, rather than by rightly directed desire, that they refuse evil: “by drawing near to the good through servile fear rather than through a bride’s love—she becomes a concubine rather than a queen because of her fear.”
Gregory, unlike Augustine, in no way denigrates marriage or sex. “We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). As Gregory describes it, however, one can either be a “Pleasure-lover” or a “God-lover.” The problem is not desire per se but whether desire is rightly ordered or given its proper telos (as a God-lover). It is not a matter of setting aside desire but of channeling it and even preserving it. That is, one should not spend desire solely on the earthly but channel it toward the heavenly.
Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose of agriculture, the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands. Just so the human mind (so it seems to me), as long as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power that is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good; but once call it back and collect it upon itself, so that it may begin to move without scattering and wandering towards the activity which is congenital and natural to it, it will find no obstacle in mounting to higher things, and in grasping realities. Gregory of Nyssa (de virginitate, chapter VII)
He goes on to explain, desire rightly regulated and channeled will burst upward against the constraining force of gravity: “in the same way, the mind of man, enclosed in the compact channel of an habitual continence, and not having any side issues, will be raised by virtue of its natural powers of motion to an exalted love.” This is the way God ordained “that it should always move, and to stop it is impossible.” Thus, to spend desire on “trifles” is to introduce a leak into a stream which would otherwise speed one “toward the truth.” This does not entail setting aside sex and marriage. “That in the cases where it is possible at once to be true to the diviner love, and to embrace wedlock, there is no reason for setting aside this dispensation of nature and misrepresenting as abominable that which is honorable” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). It is a matter of arriving at “due proportion.”
Purity is not a matter of ridding oneself of desire but of not dissipating desire on trifling rivulets. Much as in a Lacanian frame, Gregory equates desire with the life force. Lacan’s singular ethical imperative (“Do not give way on your desire”), understood in this light is the empowerment to remain in the right channel of life. “If, as an inexperienced and easy-going steward, he opens too wide a channel, there will be danger of the whole stream quitting its direct bed and pouring itself sideways” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). So, the sexual passion, which he compares to a “trifling debt of nature” need not and should not consume one in “over-calculating.” Rather, through “the long hours of his prayers [he] will secure the purity which is the key-note of his life” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). This purity is a desire preserved and propelled by the Spirit, bent not on sexual union alone, but on the ultimate “blending” by “sharing in the place the Spirit holds between Father and Son.”
William of St Thierry, reflecting Gregory of Nyssa, in his Exposition on the Song of Songs freely depicts an erotic spiritual love: “his left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me” (Song 2:6): “This embrace extends to man, but it surpasses man. For this embrace is the Holy Spirit. He is the Communion, the Charity, the Friendship, the Embrace of the Father and of the Son of God; and he himself is all things in the love of Bridegroom and Bride.” He describes the full consummation of this desire in union with God: “Then, I say, it will be the full kiss and the full embrace, the power of which is the wisdom of God; its sweetness the Holy Spirit; and its perfection, the full fruition of the Divinity, and God all in all.”
This understanding of the Trinity leaves behind the apophatic and lifts up the human condition as preparation and mediation for participation in the inner life of God. God is known through an empirical order, rearranged and redirected by its inclusion in the love of God.
 Sarah Coakley, “Pleasure Principles” in Harvard Divinity School Bulletin Archive (AUTUMN 2005 (VOL. 33, NO. 2) https://bulletin-archive.hds.harvard.edu/articles/autumn2005/pleasure-principles
 Quoted from Coakley, Ibid.