Spiritual Erotics, Part 3 – Eros, Ecstasy, and the Pentecostal Experience

In the first installment of this three-part book preview of my forthcoming work on machismo in Latino culture I explored the role of the new, and “hot”, methodology of affect theory as a lens through which to achieve a radical, new set of insights about a somewhat contested phenomenon.  In the second part I discussed the nature and history of machismo and its relationship to Marianismo, its feminine counterpart.  In this third, and final, essay I talk about the meaning of the concept of spiritual erotics itself, and how it serves to frame the problem of machismo.  I conclude with a brief effort to contextualize my research with respect to other current literature.

In my forthcoming book I argue that machismo is a myth, not a fiction, that is, an authoritative religious script for human behavior that is authorized by notions of the sacred—a gendered order of divine creation. As such, it is intimately bound up with the regulation and maintenance of “sexuality,” what Michel Foucault describes as “rules and norms,” supported by “religious, judicial, pedagogical, and medical institutions.”[1] Yet, like other religious beliefs, machismo mandates its own transgression.

In the words of Georges Bataille: “Religion is the moving force behind the braking of taboos.” More specifically, for Bataille, Christianity is “founded on a reaffirmation of the primary taboos, this spiritual life yet implies a celebration, that is, the transgression not the observation of the law.”[2] In this theory, contravention is necessary for the production and maintenance of spirituality.

Focusing machismo through a religious discourse, then, invites the understanding that regular violation of macho ideologies is the norm, rather than the exception. For the macho, religious expression is most transgressive when channeled, experienced, and performed through the erotic.   Resonating Bataille’s theory of religion as transgression, Ana Castillo argues: “Christianity is based on the dualistic principle and polarization of good and evil. Christianity depends on our desire to disobey: to rebel against the repression of the human spirit and the desire to create a balance out of the celebration of flesh and spirit—to experience a life of ecstasy. The word ecstasy itself, if not related to the passion and suffering of Christ, implies sin.”[3]

Ecstasy is a feeling that yields Eros, and is regularly cultivated and transmitted affectively in Pentecostal ceremony, robustly violating macho mandates that require men to shutdown physically and emotionally.

My reading of these men’s narratives demonstrates the transmission of Eros, through caress, embrace, involuntary imitation, and, perhaps chemically, via olfactory and other senses. This erotic contagion violates macho codes and therefore marks machismo as fluid, fungible, and shifting: the recognition of the possibility of transgressing machismo without repercussion is the radical and transformative aspect of Pentecostal spirituality— and certainly not the Christian Fundamentalism that too often accompanies it through varying levels of recognition and negotiation. The affective transmission of spirituality is one example of what I call “spiritual erotics,” which opens the psychic and somatic possibilities for transformation and change.

I draw on a number of definitions of Eros in order to customize my theory. Originally, Eros, the Greek God, was deified lust, love, sexuality and fertility. His Roman avatar was called Cupid—desire and love. Like Dionysus, he was known as “the liberator” for his unshackling of sexual restraints—particularly the love among men. Spartan warriors prayed to him before battle. My work retrieves this primal meaning, particularly as representing the affection and unity among men.

Along these lines, C.S. Lewis argues: “Of all loves he [Eros] is, at his height, most god-like; therefore most prone to demand our worship. Of himself he always tends to turn ‘being in love’ into a kind of religion.”[4] Similarly, Bataille argues: “Eroticism is primarily a religious matter….”[5] Pentecostal male spirituality is a natural place to find ErosI also follow Freud who famously proposed that Eros is the psychic life force, existing in dialectical relationship with Thanatos, or the death drive. According to Freud “the main purpose of Eros—that of uniting and binding—in so far as it helps towards establishing the unity, or tendency, which is particularly characteristic of the ego.”[6]

Herbert Marcuse, one of the pillars of the later Frankfurt School, clarifies Freud’s definition as follows: “striving to form living substance into ever greater unities, so that life may be prolonged and brought to higher development.”[7] Bataille has added to this definition, claiming: “Eroticism opens the way to death. Death opens the way to the denial of our individual lives.”[8]    Like religion, Eros binds people together into fresh and distinctive organisms.

A philosophical feminist tradition additionally informs my understanding of Eros. Audrey Lorde has tied together eroticism, politics, and spirituality: “The dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic—those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, in its deepest meanings.”[9]

Carter Heyward has elaborated on Lorde, creating a theology of the Erotic: “Lorde writes brilliantly of (and, I am sure, with passionate desire for) the Sacred. This woman knows the erotic as sacred power: life-force, creative energy, nursemaid of wisdom.”10] Ana Castillo critiques the church for fragmenting women erotically: “Because of the degree to which religion has stigmatized women, it is understandable why women still do not see the link between eroticism and spirituality.”[11]

Marcuse and Bataille have also recognized the connection between Eros and spirituality. Marcuse writes: “If the antagonistic separation of the physical from the spiritual part of the organism is itself the historical result of repression, the overcoming of this antagonism would open the spiritual sphere to the impulse.”[x12] Bataille draws the connection between the condition of spiritual and physical rapture with the erotic, claiming that the Bacchanalia contained “the sense of a surpassing eroticism. Dionysiac practices were at first violently religious; it was an enflamed movement, it was a movement of self loss.”[13] There is a Dionysian quality in Pentecostal ritual, which is a movement of self loss. When Pentecostals engage in their most powerful ritual, “blessings of the Holy Spirit,” they surrender their individual selves, opening themselves up to the sensual organism that emerges from their spiritually erotic union.

Context in the Current Academic Literature

This work is focused on Latino Pentecostals in the United States. While there is a small but growing literature on evangelical and Pentecostals in Latin America, there are few books on Pentecostalism in the U.S. Perhaps the first academic book length study to have emerged on this topic was Arlene Sanchez Walsh’s volume entitled, Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self and Society (NY: Columbia University Press, 2003).

This is an ethnographic study of the Pentecostal Victory Outreach Church, and the Vineyard Church. She finds that many who profess evangelicalism are mostly connected emotionally and spiritually to their churches, lacking a depth of knowledge about the doctrines. She also argues that second generation Pentecostals often migrate to less intense forms of evangelicalism or mainstream Protestantism.

Gaston Espinosa’s 1128-page tome, Latino Pentecostals in America (Harvard University Press, 2014), is a history of the Spanish-speaking Assemblies of God Church in the mainland U.S. and in Puerto Rico. It is a necessary and important preliminary step in unearthing subaltern histories of Latino Pentecostalism. It is largely un-theorized.

Perhaps closer to my own work is a book entitled God’s Gangs: Barrio Ministry, Masculinity, and Gang Culture (NY: New York University Press, 2013), written by the sociologist Edward Orozco Flores.  In it he studies two religious recovery groups for men in Latino Los Angeles: the Catholic Home Boys Industries, and the Victory Outreach rehabilitation homes. He finds that through both of these programs men can go from “Chicano gang masculinity,” which is negative and destructive, to “reformed barrio masculinity,” in which former gang members cultivate a family life with a wife and children, enabling them to leave the unhealthy gang lifestyle.

My book differs from these others in numerous ways, but principally methodologically. The works on Pentecostalism cited above are from historical and ethnographic approaches. By contrast, my approach is to study Pentecostalism from these men’s autobiographies and other writings as primary sources, allowing their voices to emerge unmediated; my work is phenomenological.

While Orozco’s book focuses on men, he leaves the data largely under theorized, placed within the theoretical context of patterns of migration and economic advancement. My work employs a sophisticated theoretical frame in order to place this phenomenon into a broader scholarly conversation. In addition, these books are written by authors who maintain personal commitments to Pentecostal churches.

Luis Leon is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.  He is the author of La Llorana’s Children:  Religion, Life, and Death, in the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands (University of California Press, 2004) and The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders (University of California Press, 2014).

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[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume Three, trans. by Robert Hurley (NY: Vintage Books, [1984, 1990), 3-4.

[2] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. by Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books [1957] 1986), 69.

[3] Castillo, Massacre of the Dreamers, 103.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (NY: Harcourt, 1960), 154.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, trans. by Joan Riviere (NY: Norton, 1960), 44.

[7] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (NY: Vintage Books [1955] 1962), 193.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Audrey Lorde, Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984), 56.

[10] Carter Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 101.

[11] Castillo, Massacre of the Dreamers, 143.

[12] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 192.

[13] Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros, trans. by Peter Connor (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989), 65.

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