By Mike Michielin
Many today are “perplexed by desire and what it says about who we are as human beings.” Typically, today’s philosophers, psychologists, educators, and the media tell us to look inward and tap into what our desires are telling us about who we are. The basis of our “self-discovery” is whatever we desire to be. Yet, this inward turn is not bringing us the sense of peace, happiness, and rest we had hoped for. “We continue to be “restless” in our endeavor to understand ourselves, our relation to God, and others.” Even when we do discover an identity — whether sexual, political, philosophical, relational, or as a consumer — it quickly shifts like sand from under our feet. Before we know it, we are on the road again in our search for another self. We are ever searching but never finding.
What do we make of this? Does this mean our desires have no say in helping us discover who we are? And what is keeping us from finding a resting place for our identity? But what if we are asking the wrong questions? What if our sense of “restlessness” is actually normal? What if the problem is not that we turn inward to our desires for an answer to who we are, but instead that we do not rightly understand our desires and how they should be related to God and the world?
The solution lies, I believe, in a vision that is severe about the disordered nature of our desires and insistent that our identity depends on God. Once we understand the nature of the self and its contingency on God, only then can we properly concentrate our desires for understanding who we are. To support my thesis, I will explore St. Augustine’s theology of desire and its relationship to the God, self, and others, and show that our restlessness can be a sign of hope and joy.
To understand Augustine’s vision of desire, we need to turn first to his understanding of creation and the Fall. Augustine had a high regard for the good in creation. Our problem, even after the Fall, is not that any created thing is bad, but rather that our desires have become disordered, and, as a result, we no longer have control over our wills. Second, we need to understand Augustine’s notion of evil. For him, evil is the privation of the good. “Evil has no substance of its own. Still, it acts like a parasite on the good, dragging it into incoherence.” Evil as the absence of the good causes us to misread the world which skews our desires, so we have a disordered vision of ourselves and God. As a result, our desire rests not in God as it should, but in (infinitely) lesser goods, leading to an irrational, and thus frustrated self-determining vision of the self.
Yet, the answer is not to dismiss our desires altogether, but to harness them in the right way. Although the main theme of Augustine’s Confessions is desire, his first concern is not with what his desires can say about who he is, but with directing them toward seeking, finding, and praising God. Unlike the modern person, whose inward turn tends to be unreflectively self-involved, Augustine’s inward turn to his desires first seeks God. is. Why? Because he understands his identity is contingent upon who God is. Made in the image of God, we can only find out who we are in him. As Augustine says in his Confessions, I can’t make the links that make sense of my life. Only God can do that for me. That is why the focus of Augustine’s desires in Confessions is with discovering, understanding, and seeing God in all his glory and beauty. Whereas for the modern person, glory and beauty is found n one’s autonomous creation of the self, albeit influenced by cultural and societal forces, for Augustine, it is found outside the self in God.
It is because our sense of self is completely contingent on God that Augustine warns us against any “premature closure” on who we are. This goes against the modern conception that encourages us to present ourselves as a finished, branded products for consumption, in hopes of affirmation from others. This branded product of the self was once described by as “self-fashioning” by the historian Stephen Greenblatt. It comes in many forms: consumerism, workaholism, addiction, sexual identity, relationships, social media portrayals, sports, politics, and so on. Yet these leave us anxiously grasping for more and more affirmation that supposedly explains what is found to be socially “valuable” in us. We are left ever restless and confused.
But isn’t our desire for the self fully realized in our vision of God in Christ? For Augustine, the answer is, only in part. We can know and experience God in Christ in this life (e.g., in the sacraments, worship, prayer and so on). Yet, we cannot fully know, see, and experience him, at least not yet. We are like Moses who could only see God’s back on the mountain, or the disciples who could not perceive who Jesus really was during his lifetime. God is not an earthly object among other objects competing for our love or attention. He is not another consumer item we can turn to, fully grasp, and handle. Instead, God is uncontrollably another sort of Being altogether different from ours. Therefore, our desire to know, hear, see Christ in his fullness can only in part be realized in our lifetime. And because our desire and longing to know and see God fully cannot be fully realized, neither can the desire to discover who we are be completely realized. As it says in 1 John 3:2, what we will be has not yet been revealed.
“In our age of autonomy and freedom, seeing ourselves as contingent creatures is not an easy sell,” especially if the “restlessness” of our desires to know thyself can never be satisfied. Yet, it brings us a hopeful joy that the modern search for the self cannot offer. How so? If God is our ultimate desire so that our identity is contingent upon him, at least we can rest assured that our “restlessness” is pointing us in the right direction. The need for closure in today’s search for identity can only lead to anxiety. The pressures from our society, family, and friends to fully discover who we are by getting a good education, a career, accumulating wealth, success, social prominence etc. place a heavy burden on many, especially young people. The pressures to discover “who I am,” together with never getting there, have led to increased levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide. But, if our sense of self ultimately lies in the triune God, we can experience restlessness, not as a burden, but instead as a sign of the eternal hope of fully realizing who we are in Christ one day.
But can we have any rest in who we are now in light of our experience of God? Of course, we can.
That our identity is contingent on God means it is also dependent on others. The God we worship and love is the triune God who is inextricably relational through all eternity. From all eternity the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit orbit, give to, and adore one another. This is who God is. Made in God’s image, he made us to likewise relate to one another in the body of Christ, the Church. Only in this way can our perpetual desire to know who we are be, at least in part, realized.
The Rev. Dr. Mike Michielin is rector of St. John’s Anglican Church, Kingston. Canada
This essay has been revised to include the following citations.
 Jonathan Jameson, “Erotic Absence and Sacramental Hope: Rowan Williams on Augustinian Desire,” Anglican Theological Review 102, no. 4 (2020): 575.
 Ibid., 581.
 Ibid., 582.
 Rowan Williams, On Augustine (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 5. Cited in Jameson, “Erotic Absence,” 584.
 Jameson, “Erotic Absence,” 584 (citing, Williams, On Augustine)
 Ibid., 587.