“A second look at porn” is a three part series. The first installment addressed the education of freedom. This second column discusses the human need for the Infinite. It will conclude on the theme of everlasting communion.
Author's note: Based on some of the feedback I've received since the first installment was published, it is clear that the term “desire” requires some clarification. By desire I mean the drive, the need, for total fulfillment that is in each one of us. It includes our sexuality but it is not reducible to the sexual urge. It is not reducible to sheer impulse or the promptings of concupiscence. Rather, desire includes the totality of things I want and need: love, affection, beauty, goodness, truth, etc. Desire can reach its destiny only in God as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes in paragraph 27 and as Pope Benedict XVI admirably fleshes out in his General Audience of Nov. 7, 2012.
“Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.” So preaches the founder of the Church of Christ without Christ in Flannery O'Connor's “Wise Blood.” She doesn't tell us what led Hazel Motes to conclude that Christ was a liar; maybe it was these words:
“Amen I say to you, there is no man who hath left house or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, Who shall not receive an hundred times as much, now in this time ... and in the world to come life everlasting” (Mark 10:29-30).
Motes might have, as we are wont to do, looked at his circumstances and asked, “Where's my hundredfold?” Is Jesus being truthful when He says that following Him brings incalculable happiness?Or, to put it another way: do we believe Him? Can Christ actually make us happier – not just theoretically happier, but really happier? Is there more joy with Jesus or with images of naked women? In any case, is there a way in which we can verify His claim for ourselves?
Infinity within the finite
The logic of pornography suggests that happiness can be found in isolating one part of reality, working it up to a fever pitch, and vigorously repeating pointless actions that go nowhere and mean nothing. This is transcendence? Hardly.
Miss O'Connor insisted that one must be “humble in the face of what-is” and that one can transcend life's “limitations only by staying within them” (quoted from “The Church and the Fiction Writer”). If we apply what she says to naughty nudes, we can make this observation: fruitlessly pining after the allegedly perfect woman or the ultimate fantasy can never take us where we want to go; to reach the Infinite, we must see what is really present in reality. In other words, squarely face the “what-is-ness” or hard limits of reality.
A particular and inescapable feature of reality is that one simply cannot possess and fool around with all the attractive women that pop into one's head or that are further conjured up by the tawdry image factory which is pornography. You can't have them all. Further, you probably don't – in your heart of hearts – want them all. Just the logistics alone are staggering: how could you possibly feed and clothe all those ladies? And in heaven's name, can you imagine them all living with you under one roof. Fantasy? No, it begins to take on the shape of a nightmare. Be careful what you wish for, lads.
The limits prescribed by God are clear: “Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). You just get one. That's a limit. It's a limit and if happiness (a seed of the Infinite) is to be found, it will be found within that limitation.
Needs and their satisfaction
Sometimes we conflate our needs and their satisfaction with our inclination toward sin (concupiscence) or sin itself. Thankfully, Jesus didn't suffer from this arid puritanism. Jesus was all about educating the disciples in a way that omitted nothing of their humanity. In His very first encounter with the first disciples, the first question He asks them is “What seek you?” (John 1:38). Years later when He has scandalized a multitude by telling them they must eat His flesh and blood, He challenges the freedom of the apostles: “Will you also go away?” (John 6:68).
Christ never patronizes us with cheap formulas that trivialize the drama of existence. Our freedom is always in play, and He insists upon the reasonableness of faith. All of what we are – including our needs and limitations – are gifts from God. If we are to care for ourselves, have affection for ourselves, we must pay attention to our needs that cry out for fulfillment. Pope Benedict XVI noted that “a kind of pedagogy of desire” is needed for each of us to have “an authentic joy of life” and that one ought not be content but always seek “a higher good, a deeper good” (General Audience, Nov. 7, 2012).
Because of Original Sin, I am wounded and lack clarity. Acting by my own dim lights I might think that the hundredfold – total satisfaction – could be obtained by stocking up on methamphetamine, vodka and dirty movies, and then finding a beautiful young thing share this bounty with and going to town. Clearly, this is not what Christ has in mind, nor does it have much appeal when I am in my right mind. At the level of impulsivity or instinctivity, sure, it sounds great; yet when my wits return and I seriously evaluate what is really attractive, I find that I want something else. Something more.
American culture, which is always selling pseudo-salvation, tells me both what I want and what I ought to be. The feel of this consumeristic (and all-consuming) culture can be felt in the words of Tyler Durden in “Fight Club”:
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy (expletive) we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place.”
If the multinational corporations have a “wonderful plan” for our lives (and they do), sometimes church people offer us “solutions” that alienate us from ourselves no less than the spinning wheel of production and consumption. Some within the Church will tell us to ignore the infinite need that makes our hearts restless and just plunge into Catholic practices and pious devotions. Never mind the meaning, “Just do it.” Here's a sample checklist: start going to daily Mass, pray the rosary, make a holy hour, try this novena, frequent confession more often, do some twelve step program, go to a Catholic conference, be virtuous. You get the picture.
Rather than getting at the source of dis-ease, the checklister would have us multiply activities. This mentality derives from that English proverb “Idle hands are the Devil's workshop.” Sure, there are moments when I need to distract myself in order to avoid sin (thus the utility of the proverbial cold shower or St. Francis' thornbush), but if I live a life of distraction (even if it's filled with “spiritual” content), I'm living something less than a human life.
By all means, pray regularly, love Jesus, and seek out those people, places and things that bring you to life. But if you approach Christianity with checklist in hand because “that's what good Catholics do,” you just may find that this is a recipe for alienation and exhaustion, not holiness.
Re-educating our humanity
Back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI observed that “being a Christian does not mean some special skill alongside other skills but simply the correct living out of being human” (quoted from The Yes of Jesus Christ). Ours is an age when being human is particularly difficult. Of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche pointed to a crucial aspect of the problem: “We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves... As far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.” In the information age, we suffer from a profound knowledge deficit. We don't know ourselves, hence we don't know what we want, hence we chase after the first thing that catches our eyes. Pornography is nothing if not eye-catching.
If we think of the surplus of cultural pathologies in modern America, these surely testify to the fact that the desire for happiness is alive and well – despite our confused grasping after it. Happiness is a human need no less than truth, beauty and goodness. Luigi Giussani calls the need for these four things “elementary experience;” they are at the core of what it means to be human. We don't “invent” them; they are given to us by Another. They are tools to help us evaluate all the different things that come our way and present themselves to us, offering us happiness (or perhaps a counterfeit).
Giussani insists: “If we wish to become adults without being cheated, alienated, enslaved by others, or exploited, we must become accustomed to comparing everything with this elementary experience” (quoted from “The Religious Sense”). This is not navel-gazing. On the contrary. It means that if one wishes to see God's work (the Infinite) in this world (the finite), one must begin a serious work of looking and asking. If I am shut-off from the what-is-ness of every day things, if I am satisfied with pious platitudes and a mere theoretical understanding of reality, I will see nothing.
Jesus sees it: “I confess to thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to the little ones. Yea, Father; for so hath it seemed good in thy sight” (Matthew 11:25-26).
Christ saw into the depths of reality because of His communion with the Father and the Spirit. Our entry into Trinitarian community begins in Baptism and flourishes in the communion of the Church. The hundredfold begins here and now or not at all.
Our final installment will deal with what pornography fails so miserably to imitate: our need for everlasting communion.