One interesting advantage about this comment list is that I have to read things that are a little challenging. I waded through this post and am better for it. Dave indeed is a valuable voice in modern thinking. The best summary I can give is to quote his own words. The first is his introduction.
In many ways, the question of what to do with desire is one of the central concerns of all religions. In Buddhism, with the presumption of reincarnation, overcoming desire becomes linked to the escape from otherwise endless suffering. In modern world religions in general, the salvation of the individual usually assumes a central importance, despite the lip service given to charity or compassion. Neither of these scenarios has much attraction for me, I’m afraid. To me, the quest for human perfection would be better sought through more pragmatic ends – caring for each other, building community, defending political freedoms, and the like. That is to say, through love . . . which can never, and should never, in my opinion, be divorced from desire.
Dave explores these ideas with many references, including Marvin Pope among others, and several passages from the Bible and biblical scholars. The main inspiration for this post is this section of the Song of Songs (8:5-7)
Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? I raised thee up under the apple tree: there thy mother brought thee forth: there she brought thee forth that bare thee. Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.
He ends with this:
“. . . The coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.” What gives light must also give out heat. To become enlightened, in the Biblical view, is to endure great burning. Only thus can the waters of chaos and death be transformed into so much harmless steam.
Here, finally, is Peter’s comment to Ring of Fire:
Thank you for giving the Song of Songs some breathing room! It isn’t one thing to the exclusion of another, I don’t think. It’s foremost a love song, of course. I had a Bible that plastered “allegory of Christ and the church” in the margins and over each page of it — the effort was like the modest (in both senses) movement in the 19th Century to bowdlerize the Bible.
People ridicule Protestantism’s spiritualization of the Song as something like an attempt to put clothes on voluptuous, naked statues. I think the critics are right to a large extent — the Greek notion of separating body and soul is largely foreign to the Hebrew culture but it is still with us today, working its magic.
(I had to edit some otherwise creative religious material I was responsible for reviewing. It would have taught children that, “Our bodies are like space suits.” Necessary appendages. Such stuff teaches an ambivalence — and therefore a hatred — toward our bodies, and therefore toward ourselves, I think. Paul, on the other hand, saw that, “No man ever yet hated his own flesh.” And he was fine with that. After all, Christians are to receive spiritual bodies in the resurrection, which Paul links to our earthly ones in a kind of farming analogy. If you don’t like bodies now…)
Anyway, I guess if one comes to terms with sexuality, the spiritualizing of the Song may bring even more passion to it, if that is possible. Who else but God would be worthy of such lines about the king, both as the subject and object of passion? A couple of big names on both sides of the Christian aisle come to mind: John of the Cross (“He slept soundly on my flowery breast…â€) and Jonathan Edwards (“The Holy Scriptures clearly see religion as a result of affections”).
I do not mean to minimize the instinct to wards detachment found in Christianity and Buddhism and other religions. Some of the ancient Christian monks taught that detachment — the peeling away of obsessions and the false self behind them — is the first major stage of a monk’s work. The Praktikos was simply preparation, and it may have taken a lifetime often.
“Once the heart has been perfectly emptied of mental images,
It gives birth to divine and mystical concepts that play within it
just as fish and dolphins play in a calm sea.”
Many of us Christians find it easier to dress the statues and to ban the dolphins.
Thanks Dave and Peter (and Dave’s many other commenters) for the chance to dip into something so satisfying. I come away breathless, with great respect for deep intricate thinking. But I also come away comforted knowing my own crude versions of these ideas are not too far off.
PS Thanks to Jennifer of Architect by Day, Writer by Night for the graphic!