‘This book is about God’s loving design for our happiness as men and women,” Christopher West writes in his new book Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing. “We are created for bliss, for ecstasy, and our hearts know it,” he writes. West discusses the book (trailer here) in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What do you mean when you assert that a “stoic brand of religion is largely responsible for the fact that many people raised in Christian homes in the western world have abandoned their faith as adults”?
CHRISTOPHER WEST: By the “stoic brand of religion” I mean the suppression of desire, feeling, emotion — the realm of the human heart — in favor of an unfeeling and “dutiful” submission to a dry list of rules. I call this “the starvation-diet gospel.” And, tragically, it’s what a lot of people think Christianity is. Christianity is rarely framed properly as the divine response to the deepest, wildest desires of the human heart. And if it’s not framed that way, the culture’s “fast-food gospel” — the promise of immediate gratification of our hunger — starts to look very attractive. As I say in my book, if the only two choices for my hunger are starvation or greasy chicken nuggets, I’m going for the nuggets.
LOPEZ: How are we “far too easily pleased”?
WEST: The premise of my book is that we’re created for something infinite, an infinite satisfaction, an infinite bliss, an infinite infilling of love — that only this infinite satisfaction does justice to the depth of our desires. If that’s true, then when we find ourselves content to take our desires to the limited pleasures of this finite world, we are “far too easily pleased.”
LOPEZ: You speak of this desire as the “atomic energy of our souls.” Isn’t that a bit dramatic?
WEST: When we tap into the depths of human desire, we discover something mad, something so potent that it’s akin to atomic energy. It can, depending on how it’s directed, lead to great good and human advancement or to our utter destruction. That’s not being dramatic. That’s being realistic.
LOPEZ: Do people actually long for something more? Haven’t many given up?
WEST: Suicide, the vast array of addictions to which we succumb as human beings, these random acts of violence that dominate the news — these are signs, in a way, of people “giving up.” At the same time, however, the depth of suffering in people’s lives to which these tragic things point also speaks of that longing we have as human beings for “something more.” We suffer, and suffer terribly, precisely when we lack that “something” for which we’re created, and when we try to fill that hunger with things that never satisfy. So suffering and hopelessness themselves, when viewed from a particular angle, point us right back to the fact that we’re made for something more.
LOPEZ: What’s the “tremendous gift and weighty responsibility of freedom”?
WEST: Freedom affords the capacity to discover the fulfillment for which we long: a destiny of infinite bliss. But such a destiny is not simply a given. The Latin destinare is an archer’s term that means “to aim at.” Desire has a trajectory. Wherever we choose to aim it, that’s where it will take us. That’s the tremendous gift and weighty responsibility of freedom. We must learn how to direct our desire according to the divine design in order to reach our glorious destiny.
LOPEZ: How can we keep from misunderstanding freedom?
WEST: Today freedom has come to mean license to do whatever one chooses. “Choice,” in fact, has come to mean “any choice is a good choice.” Really? Does anybody believe that? Can’t we see that such a notion of choice is actually the negation of freedom? It’s a notion of freedom that shirks all responsibility. If any choice is a good choice, all choices are ultimately the same, and no authentic “choice” exists — only whims, seductions, and addictions. It’s precisely the real existence of good choices and bad choices that makes choice something real, something weighty, something dramatic.
LOPEZ: What’s “sacramental” about “our creation as male and female”?
WEST: The word “sacrament” basically means the making visible of the invisible. It’s the idea that the physical “stuff” of this world is a pointer to another world that we can’t see with our physical eyes. Our creation as male and female and the call of the two to become “one flesh” is the great sign of the great sacrament in the Scriptures. The human body in its masculinity and femininity, our sexuality, is not only biological — it’s theological: It points to the mystery of God as an eternal exchange of life-giving love. In fact, from beginning to end, the Bible tells the story of marriage. It starts with the earthly marriage of man and woman and ends with the heavenly marriage of Christ and the Church. The former is meant to provide a sacramental glimmer of the latter. In other words, the union of the sexes is meant to point us to heaven. Sexual morality, in this sense, is all about making sure that it does.
LOPEZ: What do you mean when you say “art is the language of the heart”?
WEST: There are longings of the heart, sufferings of the heart, cries of the heart that need expression. That’s what art is — whether it be music or dance or poetry or sculpture or painting or storytelling or moviemaking or architecture. The more we are in touch with what goes on in our hearts, the more we become the true artists we are meant to be as human beings.
LOPEZ: What is the best of our art today?
WEST: I’m not an art critic. I can only speak to what moves me personally. And I’d have to say that today, in the specific sense of right now, I am stunned by the artistry expressed in the movie adaptation of the musical Les Misérables. I saw it three times in its first week of release. Treat yourself and go see this movie.
LOPEZ: Why is it that we are tempted either “to squelch desire in the name of ‘virtue’ or to indulge desire in the name of ‘happiness’”?
WEST: Because we are rarely presented with an authentically fulfilling trajectory for our desires. I elaborate at great length in my book on the idea that, if we are created for infinite satisfaction, we really only have three choices about what to do with our desire in this life: We will become either a stoic, an addict, or a mystic. The stoic squelches desire out of fear, while the addict attempts to satisfy his desire for infinity with finite things, which, of course, can’t satisfy. That’s why the addict wants more and more and more. The mystic, on the other hand — in the Christian sense of the term — is the one who is learning how to direct his desire for infinity toward infinity.
LOPEZ: How is prayer desire and desire prayer?
WEST: Pope Benedict says that “prayer, properly understood, is nothing but becoming a longing for God.” In other words, authentic prayer is happening in us in as much as we are learning to direct our desire for infinity toward infinity. When we get to the deepest yearnings of our heart, then we have arrived at the wellspring of prayer. As St. Augustine put it, “Desire is your prayer; and if your desire is without ceasing, your prayer will also be without ceasing. The continuance of your longing is the continuance of your prayer.” In short, it is impossible to grow in prayer, in the Christian sense of the word, without becoming inflamed with desire for the Infinite.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.