The Pleasure Principle (Part I – A Hedonistic God?)

[I am indebted to Christopher King’s chapter on the “Song of Songs” in The Queer Bible Commentary (hereafter QBC; pages 356-70) for his insights on this most controversial of biblical books]

There’s no denying that personal circumstances are the immediate inspiration for this post. As with all things the present moment is but the product of a whole line of events that slowly pave the way for God’s epiphany, or action of grace (which is the same thing, after all). The irruption of love in my life is such an act. This will mean that what I want to share here is both the result of reading and reflection, as well as lived experience. Hence, the following ground rule…

I’ve always been one to see a direct link between thoughts, beliefs and actions, in that sequence. We may alternatively describe the sequence as being: from head to heart to hands. It is my understanding that integrity requires a high degree of consonance between the three steps such as to mean that one’s actions should follow one’s beliefs, and one’s beliefs should not stand in contradiction with one’s thoughts. It is unfortunate therefore that within Judeo-Christianity so much conflict and contradiction surrounds the notion of pleasure. At the risk of exaggerating, I dare say that we seem to be unable to use the word pleasure without rushing to qualify it, to pin it down, perhaps to stick the adjective guilty to describe our views about pleasure. I think it must have been C S Lewis’ satirical verses in The Screwtape Lettersthat opened my eyes to a different truth. I quote two choice pickings from his book here (in both quotes it is Screwtape, a senior devil, writing to Wormwood, a junior devil; God is referred to as “the Enemy”):

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground … it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures … (pg 44; Harper Collins – 2002)

He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore’. Ugh! I don’t think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific Vision. He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least – sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working … (pg 118)

Lewis’ intuitions, presented in a perverse manner as would befit the language of a senior devil, underscore an oft-forgotten spiritual truth: we have been created in such a way as to be inclined to seek contentment. We are creatures in/of need (beings in becoming), and contentment seems to be attained when such needs are satisfied. Even though sin marred the way we go about satisfying our needs, the fact is that knowingly or unknowingly, we go about our lives trying to fulfil these areas of need. Is God a hedonist? Our God? The God of the bible? Whilst hedonism as a philosophy of life is frowned upon because pleasure-seeking is satisfied in a selfish way (i.e. at the expense of others, their needs, and the good of all), once love is introduced into the equation, then pleasure takes on a totally different meaning. By love here I am including mutuality, parity and liberty. I hope to be able to present pleasure as a notion that is valid for all, straight and queer, putting the love of the latter on the same footing as that of the former. The validity, I believe, of this way of looking at love and pleasure is derived from the example given us in Scripture, precisely in the book of the Song of Songs (alternatively: Song of Solomon and hereafter SOS).

One final point before moving into a deeper discussion on the SOS: the “pleasure principle” is usually associated with Freudian psychology, and often linked to the concept of deferral of pleasure. Basically, what we are saying here is that, whilst the immature self (e.g. a baby, or child) seeks immediate gratification of its desires and needs, maturity of the self (typically, in adulthood) is achieved when such a gratification is postponed/deferred until such time and/or circumstances as the obstacles and exigencies of reality are overcome (the reality principle). Seen from this perspective, the secret of a happy and gratifying life lies not in the denial or castigation of pleasure, but in seeking to ensure that such pleasure is achieved in a context that fosters growth, love, life, and benefit to others besides oneself. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. It lies at the heart of the debate on human sexuality. On the other side of this contest is the tired, old heteronormative assertion that human sex is wholly tied to procreation (as if six billion plus human beings are going to disappear any moment), as well as so-called nature (biological plumbing, Adam & Eve, bla, bla, bla), to say nothing of a marriage tradition (one man, one woman) which is anything but.

The Song of Songs (1853) by Gustave Moreau, Oi...

Image via Wikipedia

Those who’d assert that the SOS backs their heteronormative claims had better think twice. Beneath the surface, this corner of the Bible presents a transgressive eroticism and sexuality that is as sublimely queer as it is straight. The thrust of this little work is that erotic pleasure need not be hemmed by stifling social mores; in fact, it flouts all the rules in the book in the quest for reciprocal desire and pleasure. As Christopher King aptly summarises, the message of the book is simple yet provocative:

When moved by reciprocal desire, men and women have the right to love as they will, whom they will, when they will, and how they will. (pg. 364)

[To be continued]

Suggested Books:

The Queer Bible Commentary (Deryn Guest, Robert E Goss, Mona West, Thomas Bohache editors)

Gay Theology Without Apology (Gary D Comstock)

Sex as God Intended (John McNeill)



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