Matt McGuiness wrote an article that is premised on this apparent ‘brothel truth’. It has resulted in some controversy due to a perceived likeness to controversial points taught for years by Christopher West. McGuiness proposes that what is needed to combat porn is not running away from our desire, but interrogating that desire so that we might see that it is really God that we are desiring. Instead of running away from impure thoughts, we should say “oh impure thoughts, what are you really about”?
In this way it is hoped that we’ll discover that indeed, we have the wrong house when we are knocking on that brothel door and that we really ought to be looking elsewhere.
But I think there’s a serious problem with this theory.
The probem is that it conflates sexual desire and the desire for God. It suggests that sexual desire and the desire for God exist on a continuum, so that if we get stuck on sexual desire–as seems to happen when viewing porn–then all we need to do is just keep going down that continuum to find it’s real object. If we just went deeper, it’s suggessted, we would find that our desire is really trying to lead us to God.
But sexual desire is not the same thing as the desire for God. We know where sexual desire comes from, we don’t know where the desire for God comes from. Sexual desire originates in the body. It’s part of that ‘lower nature’ that we share with all animals. It can become the raw material for the soul to turn into a symbol of love, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the instinctual basis of the sexual appetite.
When St. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they can rest in God, he wasn’t talking about sexual desire. When we conflate these two desires, it can lead to very bizarre conclusions.
For example, in a report on a talk by Christopher West in Brooklyn, we find this:
Sexual desire comes from a longing for God, Christopher West said during his talk on Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body at St. James Cathedral-Basilica in Downtown Brooklyn.
“Do you know that Jesus came not to suppress our desires but to awaken them,” West asked the audience. “Do you know you have been created for eternal ecstasy?” [my emphasis]
If this is the message people are getting about God and sexual desire, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find people equating holiness with horniness. But this is exactly what follows when sexual desire is equated with the desire for God.
Sexual desire is not the desire for God. Nor is it the fruit of our desire for God. But let’s also be clear about what kind of sexual desire we’re talking about when we are asked to interrogate our impure thoughts.
The person looking at porn, or the man knocking at the door of a brothel are not in their right mind. They are in the throes of the ‘fever of lust’, as St. Ausustine called it. Lust is by definition something disordered. It’s a distorted picture. Distortions cannot give you the truth, that’s why they are distortions. No matter how much you dig into lust, you will never find God there. Interrogate impure thoughts all you want, it will never reveal the real object of your restlessness.
They are dead ends. Smoke and mirrors. Traps.
But the person being blown about by the winds of lust cannot be expected to see that he or she is in a dead end, or that they have fallen into a trap. They don’t see the smoke and the mirrors. You can’t get from lust to the truth of love. They are not just different degrees of one desire that is ascending towards God. They are polar opposites. You cannot get from one to the other.
The education of desire is not a matter of looking ever deeper into desire. It is a matter of learning to have the right kind of desires. And that education is not the fruit of our own labor. It requires the illumination of faith and the Divine Physician of our souls, who is the real educator also of our desires.
I think it’s time to stop assuming that “every man knocking on the door of the brothel is looking for God.” He is merely looking to “scratch the itching scab of lust”.