Benedict, Eros, Agape, and Desire

I hope that by now you've had a chance to read Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, hot off the Vatican presses yesterday. (Printer-friend version here. Latin version here.) If not, you're a bad, bad catholic. (Just kidding.) (But not really.)

It's actually a pretty good piece of theology (shocker, I know, coming from Ratzinger). It also throws a wrench into the ability of the mass media to find something controversial and divisive in the encyclical to make the nightly news. You could hear the frustration in some of the online news headlines ("Pope Calls for Spiritual Love and Charity" [Reuters], "Pope Provides Meditation on Love" [NY Times]). Not to mention the plaintive A.P. headline, "Pope Warns About Loveless Sex". It's as if they were waiting for something vicious and nasty, and instead got "Pope Against the Kicking of Puppies"...

Those most likely to have a difficult time receiving this document are Catholic high school religion teachers, whose lesson plans have just been uprooted by a stroke of Benedict's pen. For many years now, especially post-C.S.Lewis and The Four Loves, distinguishing eros and agape pretty sharply has been a commonplace way of showing the distinctiveness of Christian, self-giving love, and self-seeking, sexual love. While there are many good religion teachers who have appreciated and taught the nuances of this distinction (my friend Brad is, no doubt, one of them), less ambitious minds have found the dichotomy "eros=bad, agape=good" rather helpful in making their point and keeping the 15-year-old hormone factories in their charge in check.

But Benedict breaks that open, bringing to the fore the quite traditional Christian teaching that God not only loves agapically, but erotically. That's right: the Panzercardinal spends time talking about "God's eros for man", bringing back into the discussion the passion of God's desire for people that is a commonplace in Hosea, Ezekiel, the Song of Songs, etc... Part of my current research is questioning the enduring value of imagining Israel and/or the church as the "Bride of Christ", rooted as that image is in troubling conceptions of who a bride is in relation to her husband. But one value of that image that we lose from our theology and ecclesiology at our peril is the intense passion of a God who not only loves us "because God has to", but who actually desires us, wants us, pursues us, with all of the energy of an 18-year-old. In the words of James Alison, God not only "loves" us in the disinterested sense of our attempts to love our annoying neighbors, God also likes us, is fascinated by us, wants us, even, as one skirts the point where anthropomorphism gets dangerous, has the hots for us. If the dirty little secret about opera those blue-haired ladies are hiding is that it's all about sex and violence, but just happens to be in Italian, then the dirty little secret about prayer and the spiritual life that the mystics have shouted and that Benedict rolls out here at the beginning of his pontificate is that the spiritual life is all about being in touch with desire, deep-seated, erotic desire, for God.

Now, this passionate desire, as Benedict, good Augustinian that he is, points out, is joined with agapic, self-giving love; those looking for the "catch" will begin rolling their eyes upon reading that eros must be formed and joined with love that wants the good for the other. But even our popular culture recognizes the eros without a willingness to sacrifice doesn't quite "count" as love in its full sense (go rent "Moulin Rouge" again to see how a love that is willing to sacrifice still remains our romantic ideal). Most of us likely expected Benedict to say something like that about making sure that we temper eros with agape. But a few pages in he states just as clearly that it would be just as wrong to have agape without eros. "Man [sic] cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive." (7) And while I have some reservations about the linkage of this dynamic with exclusively heterosexual relations of eros and agape, this encyclical provides a much more human, much more humble analysis of our abilities to love each other well than, say, John Paul's theology of the body and his impression of married love as a bed of roses cushioning two egos as they stare into each others' eyes for eternity.

I'm particularly attentive right now to the way in which desire forms such a solid foundation for understanding our relationships with God and with each other in part due to my reading of James Alison. Alison suggests that it's the Tridentine affirmation of the goodness of human desire that makes the a priori dismissal of same-sex desire so un-catholic, and the church's teaching on same-sex activity so unstable, both theoretically and in the broader reactions of the faithful to gay and lesbian relations. But I'm also currently blessed to be entering into an "Ignatian Spirituality in Everyday Life" retreat (the 19th annotation, for you Ignatian geeks) right now, which is focusing my prayer life more and more on the desire for God, and the tuning of my desires and will with God's desires and will. (Which Benedict discusses in this way: as our communion of will with God increases, "our will and God's will increasingly coincide: God's will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will..." [17]). In the version of the Exercises I'm using for this prayer, the author describes spiritual freedom as being "seized so completely by the love of God that all the desires of my heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts and decisions which flow from them are directed to God." The secret of Ignatian prayer is rooted in this Tridentine teaching that Alison keeps returning to: our desires aren't a distraction from God, our desires are how we begin to draw closer to God. My eros for life, for enjoyment, for love, and, to be bold, for my partner, are, when flourishing, not divorced from my eros for God but are a sacrament of my eros of God.

We've long talked in the Christian community about agape in this way; that agapic love of neighbor is the way we come to agapic love of God (see, for example, 1 John 4:20). But where we tend to get a little more hesitant is in thinking that erotic love, the love of desire, can be the way we come to erotic love of God. Obviously, this is easily misunderstood, which is why we don't pass out copies of John of the Cross during the first week of catechesis at the R.C.I.A. But Benedict is putting it out there. And you thought this was going to be an entirely conservative pontificate!!!


*Christopher said...

I appreciate the reconnection +++Benedict has made in this encyclical. Holy Writ is replete with examples of metaphor and analogy of God "having the hots for us". James Alison is among a few, William Countryman being another, who have offered reconnections around desire.

Michael said...

I found this a very readable document. I was happy to see that the pope breaks out of the dualistic "eros=bad ;(, agape=good :)" thing, too. After all, there is an unhealthy "self-giving" that is not so much self-sacrifice as it is suicide. We see this in all sorts of destructive relationships -- gay, straight, married, single, parent, child, friends, etc.

Also, my recent reading about marriage in the ancient world has taught me that those nice categories about what agape, eros and philia mean are sometimes constructs retrojected onto the actual usage of the terms in ancient documents. That the church intentionally chose a particular way of ordinarily using the vocabulary makes sense, just as she chose a way of talking about person and substance and so on in Trinitarian and Christological debates. But we need to be careful lest we think that the generally accepted and even "canonized" interpretation of terms means that any appearance anywhere and at any time must be understood only in the presently accepted usage.

I also am disappointed -- though not at all surprised -- that the pope speaks only in terms of heterosexual relationships. My own experience and that of gay and lesbian couples I am privileged to know shows that the sort of sacrificing and enriching desire and giving the pope praises can be part of our committed unions, too, even against social pressures and with legal constraints. These circumstances call forth even more purified love, contrary to the oft-asserted hedonistic selfishness we are accused of.

Finally, I am not so sure it would be a bad idea to pass out some carefully selected passages from John of the Cross at the opening sessions of RCIA. My initial experience of God's consuming love for me is what brought me into the church, and later experiences of that love were instrumental in my re-conversions along the way. How wonderful for those exploring the Catholic community to discover that this love of God for us is at the core of the journey, hidden at times but always there.

As Big Ben says in this document, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."

Fr. B said...

Wow! What a cool posting. I too have found myself intrigued by this encyclical and pleasantly surprised by its accessibility. Your analysis is wonderful as are the insightful comments of your readers.

Fr. B.