*Editorial Note: The following is a sponsored partner article from Cultivating Communities, one of Missio Alliance’s partners in mission. Missio Alliance partners participate in creating spaces and resources aimed at helping diverse church and ministry leaders engage in formational conversations around the crucial issues of our day in God’s mission. If you’d like to learn more about Missio Alliance partnerships, click here.
‘Heart’ Has Become a Soft Word
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
‘Community starts in the heart.’
Could there be a more Hallmark way of talking about cultivating community in Christ? Maybe not. As Henri Nouwen observes in the spiritual classic, The Way of the Heart, “In our milieu the word heart has become a soft word.”1
But what if we tried to disentangle all of the sentimentalities that we have attached to heart in twenty-first century Christian America? Not simply the romance novels and the Lifetime Original Movies, but also the religious rhetoric of ‘one heart and mind,’ with all of the ‘life on life,’ ‘life together,’ and ‘building community’ ideologies that come with it? What if heart was more than one side of the sacred/secular coin through which we might imagine transcending the banalities of everyday life?
Understanding Heart as Unconscious Desire
What if, instead, we unpacked heart by describing the ways it unwittingly does work in our lives? I can’t get away from Justin Tse’s helpful understanding of heart as “unconscious desire.”2 This, to me, helps shine light on Jesus’s observation that “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). In other words, we don’t need Hallmark to tell us to follow our heart. We already do that. But the kicker is, we can oftentimes find ourselves befuddled with where our hearts bring us – anxiety, depression, anger, or even boredom. The majority of the time we don’t even realize how we got there!
Scripture tells us that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). Jesus says, “The things that come out of the mouth emerge from the heart, and those defile the man. For from the heart emerge wicked thoughts, murders, adulteries, whorings, thefts, perjuries, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:18-19, David Bentley Hart translation).3 This is also hypothesized in psychoanalytic literature, which explains why many of us deflect daily intimacies through an unconscious process known as repression,4 whereby our everyday actions and body language actually reveal our repressed desires. Even our speech, mainly through slips of the tongue and off-handed jokes, cannot help but tell our heart’s true state. In short, we wear our hearts on our sleeves. Our treasure isn’t buried in it. It’s hidden in plain sight. It marks our behavior. It shapes our practices, both as people and as church.
What Sort of Church Communities Do We Treasure?
So what is it that we treasure as church communities?
Now we are squarely in the realm of desire and formation, and this is a key question for the work through which we are partnered with Missio Alliance, called Cultivating Communities. Our congregational cohorts aspire to become “Churches embodying the way of Jesus, rooted in place.” In order to do so, we must ask: What have we identified as the sacred object that we imagine will fulfill our deepest held desires? How has cultivating theological imagination in this way shaped the life of our congregations? Have we held up a convenient signifier we call ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ to justify the treasures that we’ve unconsciously repressed? This phenomenon extends beyond our privately held intimacies into the public arena of religious life – Sunday worship, the economics of our liturgy, our habits with their conflicted use of time, and our tenuous relationship to space and place.
The point is, we may have presumed that ‘agape’ love alone sustains what a healthy community demands. Perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, we must also cultivate community with an ‘eros’ type of love that opens us up to the desires of our heart. What do I mean by this? Well, the embodied life of Jesus models for us a love born not out of duty, but by the slow draw into relational, even deeply passionate, intimacy. Jesus desires the vulnerabilities of merciful relationships to the formalities of sacrifice (Matthew 9:13).
Our friends at the Ekklesia Project have taught us how to analyze our desires theologically, and we are grateful to be in partnership with them. Through their Congregational Formation Initiative, they have taught us how ‘schooling desire’ has everything to do with formation. With regards to how desire informs consumer behavior, which gives shape to our lives, we might say ‘We are what we eat.’ If this is true, followup questions become simple, yet remain challenging: What are we hungry for? What motivates us? What gets us going? What turns us on? Desire comes to us from every angle, seeking our constant attention. Our global capitalist society thrives on weaving a narrative that embodies the desire for endless consumption — of images, ideologies, and instant gratification. Click To Tweet
The problem is that desire comes to us from every angle, seeking our constant and undying attention. Our global capitalist society thrives on weaving a narrative that embodies the desire for endless consumption — of images, ideologies, and instant gratification. The powers and principalities of our capitalist society are schooled in a psychology that is designed to awaken and take hold of our desire, but this is largely an unconscious process, befitting the unwitting: Desire is caught, not taught. And to exist in today’s world requires exposure at some level. In fact, the less we are aware of how we are driven by affective and emotional responces, the more repressed our desire is, and the less we understand why we do what we do. This is how unconscious desire works. We can say anything, but what we really want is always right there underneath the surface. Therefore, we act in the ways that fulfill us. None of us are free from the primal lure of dreams and fantasies. Desire is caught, not taught. The less we are aware of how we are driven by affective and emotional resonances, the more repressed our desire is, and the less we understand why we do what we do. This is how unconscious desire works. Click To Tweet
A prime example of this desire: Everybody wants healthy community. This basic desire is what makes us social human beings. That said, we also want a world that makes sense to us. We all want a life that is fulfilling. That is, we each have very particular images in our head about what the world should be like. In the literal sense, these are fantasies. When they become encapsulated in speech and circulated among others, these become ideologies. Ideologies come in all shapes, sizes, and moralities. But at the end of the day, no matter how appealing (i.e. ‘life on life,’ ‘life together,’ and ‘building community,’), they are still fantasies. They are still products of human imagination.
Unceasing Prayer with the Spirit at the Level of Desire
So what do we do with this seemingly abstract and perhaps nihilistic information?
Well, it’s simple, really. Scripture tells us to pray without ceasing. And by this, I don’t think the Apostle Paul meant to babble off to God ad infinitum. In fact, Jesus himself warns against praying with many words. Rather, we must learn to pray with the heart. We must engage the Spirit at the level of our (unconscious) desire. We must receive the mind of Christ. We must seek a new heart and new mind altogether. Daily. Moment by moment. Unceasingly. We must learn to pray with the heart. We must engage the Spirit at the level of our (unconscious) desire. We must receive the mind of Christ. We must seek a new heart and new mind altogether. Daily. Moment by moment. Unceasingly. Click To Tweet
This is the hard work for the disciple of Jesus, because prayer, ultimately, is not about our correct execution of it. Unceasing prayer is about clearing a space. It is to courageously stand alone before Jesus in naked silence. Fantasies and dreams are a part of our humanness and it is not within our power to suspend them. But communion with the Holy Spirit is the gift of partaking in the desire of God. This is the uniqueness of the incarnational gift of Jesus Christ. It is a life experienced in the body. It moves us from obsessions for sacred objects to a life of sacred subjectivity. Unceasing prayer is about clearing a space. It is to courageously stand alone before Jesus in naked silence. Communion with the Holy Spirit is the gift of partaking in the desire of God. Click To Tweet
So, if you want to build community, become an organizer of community. If you want to create spaces that facilitate building community, become a developer of community spaces. And if you want to cultivate community under Christ, learn to pray from the heart without ceasing by practicing intimacy with the Spirit in space and time. There is nothing strategic about this. There is nothing technical about this. There is nothing efficient about this. As we shed the many layers we’ve enveloped ourselves in as a defense, the Spirit gives us the gift of God’s presence, transfiguring our primal desires, ligamenting us together as a community in Christ.
“Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) As we shed the many layers we’ve enveloped ourselves in as a defense, the Spirit gives us the gift of God’s presence, transfiguring our primal desires, 'ligamenting' us together as a community in Christ. Click To Tweet
1 Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 76.
2 I want to acknowledge the contemporary cultural geographer, Justin K. H. Tse, who shares his affinity with Freudian psychoanalysis on various online platforms. Tse’s description of the heart is especially helpful here.
3 *Editorial (Foot)note: David Bentley Hart’s 2017 single-author translation of the New Testament is audacious, unorthodox, and even shocking at times – and yet deeply beautiful. It eschews the traditional approach to scripture translation (meticulous research, translation committees, boards that approve translation changes, etc.) for the fresh value that Bentley Hart argues is found in starting from scratch. Two perspectives of review on his approach:
David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).
4 What I’m referencing here is the Lacanian notion (building on the work of Freud) of “the return of the repressed.” The following interview Jacques Lacan did unpacks this concept in layperson’s terms: https://www.lacanonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Interview-with-Jacques-Lacan-LExpress-1957.pdf.
Cultivating Communities is a growing network of cohorts across North America, each composed of congregations that are conversant with the way of Jesus in their respective places. The Cultivating Communities team journeys with existing congregations who desire to cultivate a deeper life together in Christ and overflow into tangible love for the communities in which they are embedded. Connect with them by signing up for their newsletter.