Note from Barney

Julian’s PhD research asked: ‘Can our desire for God tell us anything – all by itself, without the Bible – about who God is?’ I asked Julian to summarise what he learned in this blog post. I hope you find it interesting!


The Christian tradition is filled with desire for God, a yearning for communion and intimacy with the divine. It is clear that this tells us something important about human beings: we constantly strive for a beyond that we may seem occasionally to glimpse in fleeting moments, but which we can never fully comprehend. But perhaps less obvious is that these longings may also tell us something about what is longed for, and that if what we desire is real, then this knowledge can help us grow in openness to it.

The idea is at heart a familiar one. Suppose you develop a longing for a bowl of juicy strawberries. In desiring them and sensing what satisfaction would be like, you come to know vividly what the strawberries would be like in providing that satisfaction. You can practically smell their fragrant scent, feel them in your mouth, and taste their summery sweetness. Of course this depends on your having tasted strawberries before; but in its sense of lack, your desire for them gives you an especially sharp recognition of their importance to you. After all, if you had access to the best summer strawberries all year round then you’d soon take them for granted.

The same is true of desires that aren’t purely physical. Take romantic desire. Let’s say you desire a romantic partner, and you have some sense that satisfaction would involve being known deeply and accepted, expressed in part through physical intimacy. In order for someone to bring about that satisfaction, he or she would have to be perceptive, accepting, and affectionate, including physically affectionate. When you understand these attributes through the prism of your desire, they come to have a special significance for you: you know how they matter to you in a romantic context, and your knowledge of them is deepened. If someone were to come along who fitted the bill, then your desire would enable you to recognise him or her: ‘you’re the kind of person I’ve been looking for’. In a similar way to the strawberries example, your desire and sense of what satisfaction would be like depend on having experienced these personal attributes in past relationships. But in this case those past relationships needn’t have been romantic relationships. The experience of being known, loved, and accepted is available in (healthy) family relationships; these can give you some sense, albeit incomplete, of what the experience would be like in a romantic relationship. Hence, those who have never been in a romantic relationship can still have some sense of what they’re looking for. And, once more, in the sense of lack that attends a romantic desire, you’ll recognise especially sharply the significance of the personal attributes through which you’d be satisfied.

These two examples show that in desiring something or someone, we can come to know in a unique way about the object of our desire in terms of its significance to us – and this even without satisfaction.

How do these considerations bear on the desire for God? Let’s take as an example one of the prayers of longing in the Psalms. The writer of Psalm 102 exclaims, ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you!’ The depth and expanse of desperation go beyond what a mere human could relieve – something we hear especially clearly in Henry Purcell’s famous musical setting of this text, below. The words express a longing for God in the midst of distress, in the capacity of compassionately hearing and being present.

What would satisfaction involve here? Even if we haven’t experienced divine satisfaction of a desire like this, we know from analogous experience that satisfaction would have to involve a shift in how one sees the situation: a profoundly changed, hopeful perspective and a sense of widened possibilities. In order for God to grant this satisfaction he would need to be deeply resourceful, seeing hope in an apparently hopeless situation; and he would need the power to convey this hope lovingly to the sufferer.

Suppose, then, that this desire is yours. When you understand attributes such as ‘deeply resourceful’, ‘loving’, and ‘supportive’ through the prism of your desire, they come to have a special significance for you: you know how they matter to you in your emotional context, and your knowledge of them in terms of that significance is deepened. If someone were to come along who fitted the bill then your desire would enable you to recognise them at this deep level. And, by definition, such a person would have to go beyond the limits of worldly resourcefulness and intimacy: to satisfy the desire, someone would have to be God. Through your desire, then, you know with a particular sharpness something of what God would be like in satisfying the longing – a sharpness heightened by the lack of God’s tangible presence. So if God is real and is indeed like that, you know something important about God through desiring him.

This is just one example of how a desire for God may give the desirer knowledge about God; there are, of course, as many other examples as there are desires for God that take this general structure. The desire must be for God in a particular capacity, with a sense (even if only partial) of what satisfaction would be like. If you have a desire of this general kind, you’ll know something of what God would be like in satisfying the desire, in terms of the significance that those divine attributes have for you. This knowledge would help you to recognise such a God at this deep level, and you would therefore be open to receiving him were you to encounter him.

If we have desires like this, why might we think they give us knowledge about someone real, rather than about a product of wishful thinking? As far as I can see, there are three possible ways of aligning our desires with a God who is not simply the product of wishful thinking. I believe only one of them has a chance of succeeding.

First, in the spirit of C. S. Lewis, we might try to infer from the desire itself that there is a reality that meets the desire. We’re hungry; there is food. We’re thirsty; there is drink. We desire friendship; there are human beings with whom we can enter into friendship. So surely a desire for God must indicate that there is a God who will satisfy us? I’m not at all convinced by this argument, for the simple reason that whilst food, drink, and the possibility of community are needed in order to explain the desires for those things, it’s not clear that God is needed in order to explain the desire for him. Cognitive science of religion has to my mind provided good evolutionary explanations for the religious impulse, explanations that don’t refer to God in any way. So from the fact that we desire God, it doesn’t follow that there is a God who will satisfy us.

Second, we might, without using our desires as evidence in any way, try to arrive at the belief that there is a God who will satisfy a particular subset of our desires for him. This might be through arguments for God’s existence and nature, or through appeals to religious experience or testimony. Unfortunately there’s no room here to go into any of these, so I’ll simply register my doubt that any such route can provide sufficient grounds for belief in a God who satisfies our desires for him, or any subset of those desires.

We come, then, to the final way of aligning our desires with a God who is not simply the product of wishful thinking. This is to enter into a living religious tradition, whose representations of God come from the accumulated experience of generations, and have been refined and beautified into poetry, music, liturgy, art. In particular, it must be possible to enter into these representations in a way that is not simply an exercise in wish-fulfilment. One example of how this might be done is given by the Christian contemplative tradition, stretching from the Church Fathers to the present day. At its heart is the practice of silent prayer in which one is stripped of one’s false preconceptions about God, so that one may enter into union with the mystery of a divine life that is, in Thomas Merton’s words, ‘beyond comprehension but not beyond consent’. However, in order for this to hold some appeal, the promised reward must speak in some way to our heart’s desires as they already are – even though the contemplative life involves a purging of desire away from self-centredness and towards being centred on God. In other words, desires with the general structure I’ve been describing can have an important part to play even in a life aimed at the transformation of desire.

There are of course other spiritual traditions that are not simply exercises in wish fulfilment, but similarly aim at the inward transformation of the person. Forms of Buddhism fall under this category, as does, for instance, Sufism in Islam. So do we have any reason for thinking that any of these paths is aimed at the divine as it really is, where they seem to diverge in how they envisage the ultimate goal? Have we any basis for training our desires according to one path rather than the others? No, we haven’t, at least not that I can see. However, for many people, not to follow some particular tradition would be to shut off something vital about being human. We can let ourselves be guided by the hope that our spiritual practice might lead us somewhere life giving; this can be the general path we pursue. As the philosopher John Cottingham writes, there is no promise that it will be easy, and there is no guarantee of the outcome. But for some, as long as the music of our human longing calls us, there will be no other path we can with integrity follow.

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Julian Perlmutter

Julian teaches philosophy and theology at Cambridge, having completed a PhD there on sacred music, religious desire, and non-belief. He is especially interested in how non-believers might engage meaningfully with religious life and practice, particularly sacred music and contemplative spirituality in the Christian tradition.

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