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Philip Sheldrake and the Theology of Desire

Review: Philip Sheldrake, Befriending our Desires, 3rd edn (Liturgical Press. $15.95).

Review by Sam Hole

I first read Philip Sheldrake’s Befriending our Desires while a prospective ordinand. I found it an inspiring book, peppered with astute pastoral insights and offering a persuasive argument for the significance of desire for Christian theology. That my subsequent doctoral studies came to focus on the role of desire in John of the Cross was stimulated in part by Sheldrake’s wise prose. This recently published third edition of the book has therefore offered me the delightful opportunity both to return to the volume and to ask how well the book has aged since it was first published in 1994.

As a work that deals with the age-old questions of human motivations, wants, and fears, Befriending our Desires remains highly relevant. I would go so far as to say that it remains the best book for the reader interested in the pastoral and spiritual significance of desire. In six succinct chapters, Sheldrake explores desire with reference to God, prayer, sexuality, discernment, and change. He draws on related themes such as trust, intimacy, and vulnerability to show why it is so valuable to understand the Christian life through the lens of desire. In doing so, he moves briskly between different writers, though with a particular preference for Ignatius of Loyola. These chapters are little changed from the first edition, but the basic material remains highly relevant. It remains valuable reading for those involved in pastoral care or interested (as, surely, all should be) in better understanding themselves.

Befriending our Desires has, though, been a victim of its success. As a trailblazer in the popular theological retrieval of desire, and as a work that anticipated the wider explosion of philosophical attention to the subject, it helped to stimulate great theological interest in the theme. It is this same interest that has developed the theological conversation to the extent that Sheldrake’s volume no longer addresses it as directly as it once did. There are points, therefore, when Sheldrake addresses forms of thought that have changed significantly in the intervening years. In the spirit of both helping others to read the book as it was first intended and simultaneously imagining how such a book might be written if freshly published today, I mention three things that struck me.

First, Sheldrake seeks to recover a positive theological appraisal of desire, above all of sexual desire. This was a daring act in the 1990s, when suspicion of desire, still underpinned by Anders Nygren’s biblically, historically, and conceptually flawed dichotomy of agape (love) and eros (desire), continued to exercise huge influence. Such suspicion remains today in some theological circles, and this book continues to offer a strong antidote to such a view. The weight of opinion on desire has, however, become far more positive, with a burgeoning array of works urging the constructive theological significance of the theme.[1] Often drawing on Freudian stands of continental philosophy, the theology of desire offered by these works has, however, emphasised the positive possibilities of desire, with little reference to the dangers of desire. What is needed today, which Sheldrake’s work might help stimulate, is a theology of desire imbued both with a doctrine of sin and a celebration of rightly ordered human desire.

Second, Sheldrake structures extensive parts of his work as a critique of Nygren. Yet even after criticising Nygren’s dichotomy he continues to speak of “agape love” and “eros love” (pp. 3, 63, 68). The continued adherence to Nygren’s terminology makes it hard for Sheldrake to develop a holistic account of desire, since he continues to position sexual desire as categorically different from other forms of human desire. Perhaps today it would be more possible to write a popular articulation of the relationship between desire and love, and an account of the many facets of desire, entirely freed of the confines of Nygren’s framework. Such an account, rooted in the past thinkers Sheldrake highlights as major theological contributors on desire, might help address this current confusion.

Third, Sheldrake rightly begins from the position that a theology of desire must be rooted in consideration of how desire might exist in God. He cites the Song of Songs and various medieval mystical writers to emphasise that the attribution of desire to God is well represented in the theological tradition. Here, again, the questions asked in 2019 have shifted (in part thanks to Sheldrake) somewhat from those being asked in 1994. Questions today include: How might the sexual language favored by the mystical writers sit alongside other ways of depicting God’s desire? If desire ordinarily arises from lack, how is divine desire different? How precisely may God’s desire serve as the model for human desire? Sheldrake’s book, though it does not address these issues at length, might be a marvellous stimulus for addressing these pastoral and devotional questions.

Even though the theological conversation on desire has shifted gradually in the past quarter-century, Befriending our Desires remains a highly readable book, filled with the same pastoral insight that enthused me some years ago. For those interested in an introduction to desire in Christian thought that will enlarge both their minds and hearts, and introduce them to the flourishing field of theological reflection on desire, it remains hard to beat.


The Rev. Dr. Sam Hole is assistant curate at St. George the Martyr, Southwark.

[1]For example: Virginia Burrus and Catherine Keller, eds., Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline (Fordham University Press, 2006); Margaret D. Kamitsuka, ed., The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires and Sexuality in Christianity (Fortress Press, 2010); Virginia Burrus, Mark D. Jordan, and Karmen MacKendrick, Seducing Augustine: Bodies, Desires, Confessions (Fordham University Press, 2010).


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