Learning to Desire Truly: Spirituality in a Post-Truth Age

By John Thatamanil

Spirituality is everywhere. From steady growth in the ranks of the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) to immense growth in the mindfulness movement, conversations about spirituality have become part of the North American cultural ethos. Still, few seem to know what they mean by the term or how to define it. Spirituality, I will argue, is fundamentally about our desires and how to order them so that they are rendered true—so that they are in proper accord with the nature of reality.

But what does desire have to do with truth? Can desires be true or false? An unchecked sweet tooth might be unhealthy but not untrue.

Well, that depends on how we understand truth. Ordinarily, we take truth to be a property of propositions. A statement is true if what it affirms corresponds to some state of affairs in the world. The statement, “It is raining” is true if in fact watery precipitation is falling. If not, it is false. But truth can also have a broader meaning; truth might be defined as fit between forms of life, the way we do things, and the nature of reality. Entire ways of living and the desires that sustain those lifestyles can be untrue to planetary realities.

We know that the trouble with an uncontrolled sweet tooth, the reason that it is unhealthy, is that it is incompatible with bodily health. Left unchecked, diabetes looms. This way of living is false to bodily wellbeing because it is untrue to bodily needs. Likewise, unlimited consumption of consumer goods is untrue to the planet. The same goes for an economic system that measures its health by perpetual growth. A finite planet cannot support infinite growth. Contemporary configurations of capitalism are, therefore, false to reality.

Desire and truth are partners in a complex dance, the movements and rhythms of which remain recalcitrant to understanding. Why? Think Jack Nicholson being cross-examined by Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, shouting, “You can’t handle the truth!” Actually, matters are still worse. It is not just that we can’t handle the truth; we don’t want it. We often do not really want truth because it might unmask the shallowness of other desires we hold dearer. The desire to hold on to the easy conveniences of fossil-fueled life is, at present, overwhelming the desire to live on a habitable planet.

Indexing economic well-being to infinite growth on a finite planet is foolish. The point, once stated, is so obvious that it should put an end to business as usual. But little changes even as the planet burns and we run headlong towards civilizational collapse. Why? It would be simplistic to say that smoke from desire’s flame obscures vision. That image makes desire intrinsically problematic—as if, were we to subtract desire, truth would shine out clearly. On the contrary, subtract desire, and the world goes dark. Desire opens up experience and attunes our capacities to recognize the beauty, the worth, and indeed the preciousness of the world’s many creatures.

The trouble isn’t desire as such but desire disfigured and reduced to craving. To see the world only through the paltry and flickering light of my narrow wants is to stand before a fun house mirror: I see nothing but my own image rendered grotesque. Desire is especially corrupted by the toxins that flow through the body politic, toxins like racism and ethnocentric nationalism that tutor us to love some “us” over some detestable and darker “them.” When the aperture of the mind’s eye is narrowed by such poisonous desires, very little of the world’s light enters in, and precious little of the mind’s light gets out. The mind’s light becomes a red hot spotlight that casts its rays only on its addictions leaving the rest of the world unilluminated. Our distorted desires reinforce themselves and obscure our capacity to register reality accurately.

Here, then, we see why we must not squelch desire but seek to true it. If desire is light that illumines the world and lets its inherent value and beauty show forth—the mind’s radiance meeting the world’s luminosity—the task is not to eliminate desire but to attune it to the good and the true—like reducing our craving for sweets to fit the nature of bodily metabolism and the causes of diabetes. And, how is that attunement accomplished? By means of the various contemplative disciplines like prayer and meditation proposed by the world’s religious traditions, which are repositories of spiritual technologies, therapeutic regimes, for the healing and transformation of desire.

Religious traditions, East and West, have long understood that truth and desire are intimately entangled. Beginning with St. Augustine’s intimate, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee,” theologians have recognized the inseparability of truth and love. At their best, they have sought to set desire free from the thorny brambles of ego, me craving for what immediately benefits me and mine, so that it can leap to its true and full amplitude.

They teach us that we cannot know what we do not love, and we cannot love what we do not know—a paradoxical but virtuous circle. Both Eastern and Western traditions have names for desire distorted and desire healed. The dominant name for wounded desire in the West is concupiscence; the primary name for desire healed in the West is love. The dominant name for wounded desire in Indic traditions is craving (tanha/raga). The primary name for desire liberated from craving is compassion. In Christian traditions, God bears both names; God is Love and God is Truth. In Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the Buddha-mind is the inseparable unity of wisdom (prajna) and compassion (karuna): the truth of interdependence calls forth compassion; compassion is completed by wisdom.

In this post-truth age in which desire is dispersed by advertising and colonized and commodified by the market, the very notion that desire might need to be rendered healthy by spiritual disciplines for the sake of fit with the world has been forgotten. That is why we are such easy pickings for propaganda and fake news. Manipulated by markets and media, our desires are no longer our own, and the flow of vital current between desire and truth has been interrupted.

The well-being of human communities and the planet itself will require nothing less than reclaiming our desires and once more marrying them to truth. Paraphrasing Jesus, we might say, “When ye shall learn to desire the Truth, the Truth will set you free.”


John J. Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament and the forthcoming book, Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity. He teaches courses on comparative theology, theologies of religions as well as a course on Gandhi and King. He is a past-President of the North American Paul Tillich Society and the founding chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Theological Education Committee. His Op-Eds have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a variety of sites online.

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