Michel Foucault traces the West’s shift in concern from sexual acts to sexual desires to second-century Greek thought, a shift which was fully embraced and completed by Christianity, in his series, The History of Sexuality.  This transition to concern for desires, the interrogation of desires, the confession of desires, and the hermeneutics of desire inform the modern conceptualization of the self, specifically the idea that our desires, when they are properly known to us through the act of interpreting them, reveal the “truth” about ourselves. While the ancients had developed a system of regulating desires, the specific contribution of Christianity was the hermeneutics of the self.

Foucault suggested that psychoanalysis was simply an extension of Christian morality, an incorporation of the same values of “truth” told from the interrogation of desires into medical discourse.  In psychoanalysis, this interrogation moved from the confessional booth to the couch.   This medicalization and the categorization of desires marks a shift to modernity.  In this new discursive moment, desires were not just the root cause of the Fall as in Christianity, but also of neurosis, and now of our sexual identity.

Latter-day Saints belong to this same intellectual tradition of the investigation, regulation, and interpretation of desire that forms the modern subject.  The paradigmatic example of this tradition is Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, which offers an unrelenting program of self-examination, cataloguing of sins, and regulation of desires.

In my view, the LDS emphasis has shifted away from desires, primarily with regards to its treatment of homosexual desires, back toward actions.  While there was a time when “homosexual” desires themselves could be the cause for discipline (though the same was not true for “heterosexual” desires), there has been a recent trend to distinguish between desires and actions, placing great emphasis on actions as truth-telling about the self. This two-tiered conceptualization of confession, separating desires from actions, seems to suggest that actions are more important and therefore need to be confessed to another person.   Yet, at the same time, confession of desires remains central, not in the bishop’s office, but in the hermeneutics of the self.  Our desires still are meant to reveal something about ourselves to ourselves, our innermost truth, even if this truth need not be confessed.  This deciphering of desire still remains central to LDS discourse, a tribute and attribute to its Christian heritage, and its participation in modern discourses of the self.

So what is the significance of this shared discourse of confession and desires in Mormonism, Christianity, psychoanalysis, and sexual identity movements? For one thing, it contextualizes and historicizes Mormon thought on these issues and belonging to larger cultural discourse. Secondly, I’m not sure.

6 Replies to “Desire”

  1. Does the rest of Christianity have anything that promises as much about changing desires as we have in Mosiah 5:2?

  2. Very interesting point, TT, about the change in discourse regarding homosexual desire versus homosexual acts. It does raise the question of what potential there might be in Mormonism for different understandings of the self not based in the hermeneutics of desire.

    What does it mean that we’ve given up policing a certain kind of desire? To what extent do we consider certain desires an inevitable part of our fallen experience–or even not necessarily sinful in and of themselves, if not acted on? How do we believe our desires will be different in our perfected state?


  3. I am wondering how Christ’s admonition about adultery figures into this kind of discussion:
    (Matt. 5:27-28)
    27 ¶ Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
    28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
    Here we have Christ explicitly indicating that the “desire” in and of itself is a sin though perhaps not as serious as the actual act. Christ’s overall message seems to have therefore been in advance of the shift Foucault sees taking place in “second century Greek thought” (now I am assuming that is AD and I could be wrong). However having started down the path it would seem that the New Testament would have provided some of the stimulus with this emphasis on our internal thoughts.

  4. Sterling,
    It is a good question. In a way, I think that that sentiment is the Lutheran conception of works, that good works are the consequence of being touched by the Spirit, rather than the other way around.

    ZD Eve,
    Yes, those are exactly the questions that interest me. In a way, there seems to be a kind of parity between homosexual and heterosexual desires now, so in a way this entails a changed view of both, putting them in the same category. I think that is significant, but at the same time I think that there is still an intense concern for desires in Mormonism, for the regulation of the passions.

    It is an excellent question and allows me to clarify. While the historical boundaries of the second-century AD are not meant to be a hard generalization about the concern over desires, but rather a point of intensified concern, the point that Foucault is making about how desires are understood does differ from the saying of Jesus that you quoted. While Jesus suggests that our desires ought to be regulated, he does not say that they need to be confessed to God or to another person, nor does he offer practices and techniques for regulating desires. Further, there is not the kind of self-examination practiced in later periods about investigating desires, nor the idea that our desires reveal some deep truth about ourselves.

  5. I would say that there has been a shift towards what desires LDSs consider to be normative. I think that there have always been desires that have been seen as natural impulses or simply reflexes of being human. Heterosexual desire seems to fit in this category. We are of course cautioned to bridle, restrain, or master this desire, but the desire itself is not abnormal (of course what “bridle”, “restrain”, etc. means changes). The shift, IMO, comes by including homosexual desire in this category as well.

    Inclusion in this category implies things such as:

    1) Accepting that the desire is not inherently wrong.

    2) Focusing on what to do with the desire rather than a focus on eliminating the desire.

  6. Returning to Matt 5:28 one more time it strikes me that if you take the admonition seriously you must at least begin the kind of “discussion” with yourself that leads to what you mentioned in your initial post:

    “when they are properly known to us through the act of interpreting them, reveal the “truth” about ourselves.”

    So when I look at a pretty girl am I simply admiring beauty and serenity (much like a sunset can have beauty and serenity) or am I undressing her in my head? Do I really hate the person who is giving the priesthood lesson because I think he is stuffed shirt full of his own importance and knowledge or am I only “hating the sin”? If Priesthood class or Sunday School makes me uncomfortable is the source a cognitive dissonance between the santized interpretation and the much richer messy facts or have I sinned to a degree that makes me automatically react negatively to any gospel message? It can go on and on, and I think you are correct, Christianity fully lived requires of the honest person an ongoing analysis of their interior states, thoughts and emotions.

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