Towards a Theology of Desire: Lewis, Buber, de Unamuno, and Coakley on Human Longing

“Longing is the umbilical cord of the higher life.” -Soren Kierkegaard

In seeking to wrest the definition of what constitutes a human being from the clutches of materialism, evangelical theologians would do well to draw from a wide range of theological and philosophical traditions. Beyond diffuse understandings of the imago dei and standard anthropological texts in scripture, Christians struggle to identify the self as anything other than a biological or spiritual reality. While the acceptance of mental health counseling within the church and the forced conversations around sexual orientation and gender have, perhaps, revived the conversation, our generation’s obsession with self-expression is an opportunity for the Christian understanding of the self to ring true. As heralds of a kingdom without end (2 Sam. 7:13), our proclamation of a risen Christ is “the one fact above all others which vitally concerns, not only the individual Christian, but the entire human scene and destiny of the race.” Within this framework of the resurrection and newness of life, the apostle Paul places the curious and interesting concept of human longing in Romans 8.
Located at the center of aesthetics, relationships, sexuality, love, work, anomie, ambition, mental health struggle, and questions of identity is the all-too-human subject of our desire. Setting aside, temporarily, the question of its right ordering and the noetic effects of the fall, humans are longing beings: ones created with an irreversible desire for transcendence. A case could be made that longing is the constitutive element of the human experience. As Blaise Pascal observed in the mid 1600’s:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

The paper proposes that longing, not hope or certainty, is the central value that defines both human anthropological understanding and our eschatological anticipation as evangelical believers. The paper will draw upon C.S. Lewis’s understanding of sensucht as longing in The Pilgrim’s Regress. It will examine Martin Buber’s concept of anthropological crisis in his work Between Man and Man. It will detail the existential longing for immortality found in Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life. Finally, it will draw upon Sarah Coakley’s understanding of prayer as lens for theological longing in her work God, Sexuality, and the Self. The paper will make the case that longing provides the best template for anthropology inasmuch as it leads to epistemic humility, balances theologies of glory and the cross, and allows us to live in eschatological anticipation for Christ’s return

5 thoughts on “Towards a Theology of Desire: Lewis, Buber, de Unamuno, and Coakley on Human Longing”

  1. Intriguing topic: “longing,
    Intriguing topic: “longing, not hope or certainty, is the central value that defines both human anthropological understanding and our eschatological anticipation.”

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