Lacan and the Beacon of Desire

The Challenge and Salvation of Desire
Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett

Blogger at Basileus
Ben is an independent communications and strategy consultant to churches and social enterprises. A graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, his interests are asset-based community development, liberation theology, critical theory, Christian anarchism, trauma studies, and mountain biking. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife Candra and dog Winnie.
Ben Garrett

Latest posts by Ben Garrett (see all)

Christians have a hard time talking about pleasure. In America our puritan heritage seems to linger on suggesting that pleasure = sensuality = sex = sin. We are warned off the pursuit of pleasure because we are told it leads to wrongdoing. It also seems that desire has been sucked into this infernal economy and is only recently being recovered by folks digging in to Augustine’s theology.[1] When it comes to ethical decision making Christians are often taught pleasure and desire are not valid guideposts to morality and instead obedience/duty/obligation are our path.

I think Christians are right to be deeply suspicious of pleasure but for the wrong reasons and that we are just wrong about desire. If we want to bring about The Kingdom we must be apathetic to pleasure and laser focused on our own desires. In the golden words of John Chrysostom, “Find the door to your heart and you will find it is the door to the Kingdom of God”.

In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan explores, in his typically winding fashion, the relationship between pleasure, desire, and ethics. What he claims to uncover by the end of this journey is that pleasure is a form of social control to those who conform to a particular ethical system. This turns our normal understanding of social control on its head.

Typically we imagine social control as fundamentally negative: scolding, timeouts, spanking, detention, expulsion, arrest, jail, execution. Lacan does not deny that these things happen. Instead, he is interested in the “internal”[2] regulation he sees in his patients.[3] Lacan observes that despite the “death of God” and our supposed liberation we are wracked with guilt about our ethical failings. Our attempt to escape from God, The Judge, The Big Other, has left us trapped in a relationship with this entity because we measure ourselves based upon our ability to rebel relative to this other.[4] It would appear we are all still in a stunned silence before Nietzsche’s madman, wondering what exactly we are supposed to do now that we are god-killers.[5]

Worse yet, even if we are able to decenter the Divine Judge in our ethical imaginations, we often do so by placing ourselves on another ethical hook which will leave us with dissatisfaction and guilt. According to Lacan this is how ethics works, “The true nature of the good, its profound duplicity, has to do with the fact that it isn’t purely and simply a natural good, the response to a need, but possible power, the power to satisfy. As a result, the whole relation of man to the real of goods is organized relative to the power of the other, the imaginary other, to deprive him of it.”[6]

Following Freud, Lacan sees in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics an obvious use of pleasure for social control. Aristotle makes it clear that he believes the ethical life is the most pleasurable one, or perhaps put more accurately, the pleasurable life is the ethical one. While the Nicomachean Ethic has some sage advice, it is worth remembering that it essentially functions as a textbook about how to be a successful aristocrat in a slave-holding society. From the Lacanian perspective, Aristotle is instructing his son Nicomachus how to maintain the social order by promising him pleasure for doing so.

We see this in our own day with “The American Dream”. We are promised that we can grow up and be whatever we want, that if we get good grades we can go to college, go crazy for four years (plus a possible victory lap), land a good job, make money, get married, get a nice house, have 2.5 kids, retire and live out the golden years. The truth is all of this funnels us into careers which produce outrageous amounts of wealth (for other people) and leave us frustrated and anxious about how we will maintain our current quality of life, nevermind how this all currently depends on our brothers and sisters across the world being functionally and in some cases actually enslaved to provide us the raw materials to do all of this. Our “pleasure” is the grease on the gears of the world as it is.

Desire, on the other hand, is dangerous to the world as it is. It is what produces our dissatisfaction with our pleasures because our pleasures can never keep up with the desires they (cl)aim to satisfy. Desire is a beacon to a different world.

We see in Christ a profound and implacable desire for a different world. Perhaps the starkest expression of this aspect of Jesus comes from Luke 9:51-53, where Jesus is said to have, “set his face towards Jerusalem.” If we meditate for any length of time on Christ’s desire to attack the status quo: his temple rampage, his public confrontations with the religious leaders, his ironic march into Jerusalem on a donkey, we might come to be horrified of this Christ. Indeed, what Lacan says of Antigone (his paragon of the desire-led person) can just as easily be applied to Jesus, “It is Antigone herself who fascinates us, Antigone in her unbearable splendor. She has a quality that both attracts us and startles us, in the sense of intimidates us; this terrible, self-willed victim disturbs us.”[7]

We see in Jesus a rejection of pleasure, most dramatically expressed in his wilderness temptations by Satan in favor of a desire for the Kingdom. He incarnates a world of radical equality and love, enacting repeatedly his desire for this alternative existence. He embraces pain for the sake of desire. This is captured powerfully by the painting Un affresco di una umanità toccante e profonda teologia at the Monastero di Sant’Antonio[8] in which Jesus scrambles up a ladder onto the cross.[9]

Surely only a being with Christ’s purity of heart should pursue their desire in such an unqualified manner. Our desires are warped, selfish, destructive. Perhaps. But perhaps we have confused pleasure for desire. Perhaps it is the admixtures of socially constructed pleasures which have warped our desire. After all, pleasures are only useful lures if they connect in some way with desire. What is needed is a way to trace the light beam of desire through the funhouse mirror distortions of pleasure on which we are offered contorted near-satisfactions to keep us in the maze.

Fortunately, we need not reinvent the wheel of discerning desire. The Christian tradition contains thousands of years of men and women eager to hone their desires down to their divine vectors. One exercise that has proved useful to yours truly comes from Elizabeth Liebert’s excellent and practical The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making. The activity is called Seeking Your Heart’s Desire and goes like this:

  1. Start by asking the Holy Spirit for vision into your own desires.
  2. Ask yourself “What do I want right this moment?” Write it down. Do not judge this desire even if it feels silly or simple. Repeat this process until nothing else comes to mind.
  3. After this, choose one of the desires you have written down, the one that seems most meaningful or exciting.
  4. Ask yourself, “What is underneath this desire? What is even more basic than this?” Write that down and ask about this more basic desire, “What is underneath this desire? What is even more basic than this?” When you have gotten to a point where there is nothing more basic thank God for that desire.

Engaging this activity around particular decisions or as a habit builds within us an awareness of our desires and helps us strip away the unsatisfactory pleasures. You might move from “I want a slice of pizza” to “I want to eat” to “I want a meal” to “I long for community”.

The recognition that the world as it is thwarts these deep, basic desires, both for us an others, is an invitation. That invitation will take us on a journey where we will be tempted with pleasures and threatened with various sorts of retribution. However, it’s the only journey worth taking because it leads us into the world we were created to create. May you be haunted by Lacan’s ethical rubric, “Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is within you?”[10]



[1] James K.A. Smith for example

[2] The scare quotes are there to warn us that the lines between internal and external blur rapidly when we attempt to understand human beings, especially alongside Lacan.

[3] It is worth noting here that I have a suspicion that this negative form of social control is experienced in degrees relative to one’s level of privilege in a given social structure. Put another way, my hypothesis is that the ruling classes are regulated by pleasure, the oppressed by violence. I would welcome conversation on this.

[4] Lacan, pg. 4

[5] If you have not yet encountered Nietzsche’s parable I would encourage you to check it out

[6] Lacan, 235

[7] Lacan, 247


[9] I am thankful to Marcus Pound’s Theology, Psychoanalysis, and Trauma for introducing me to this painting and for a useful way to read Lacan for theological purposes.

[10] Lacan, 314