by Antje Jackelén
Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology/ Religion and Science
Love with your whole heart – that's what the worship team has chosen as the theme of this week. It's the whole-heartedness that is the challenge, because on this side of the chapel doors hearts often get remarkably spiritualized and mentalized. So let's try to leave the heart in the body today.
What is love? Following a popular trend for the acquisition of knowledge these days, I decided to google 'love': 472 million hits in 0.09 seconds. Compare this to 488 times in the bible(1) -- that's one million times less. This quantitative disparity suggests that we may not want to ignore the extra-biblical information about love. After all, the internet search reflects issues ranking high on human agendas. Among the most prominent hits I found things like "The love calculator – calculates the chance on a successful relationship between two people," "Love poems and quotes – romantic love poetry and more," "Free love test – love and personality tests," "Locks of love – provides hair prosthetics for children with long-term medical hair loss." A random pick a little further down on the list gives a link to "love radio official website", and lo and behold, the description is in Greek: 24
– obviously, there are unforeseen opportunities of using what you learn in seminary!
The internet search presents love as a mixture of romance, eroticism, altruism and aesthetics. Poetry and songs, longings for a fulfilling relationship, desire for physical love, yearning to reach out in love to a stranger. In that sense it really is about love with your whole heart, with your whole body, with your whole mind. But it is messy; the immoral is mixed with the moral; the untainted is found among the sullied, the wild lives next to the most cultivated. Hormones and horoscopes, sex and sensuality, technique and tantrism, the awesome and the awful – it's all there when we try to get an idea of how love works: the heights of bliss, the intensity of longing and desire, and the depths of anxiety, insecurity, and the experience of loss right next to each other. Feelings and rationality united in blissful harmony in one moment and in fierce disagreement in the next. These are all faces of 'love with your whole heart'.
No wonder love is a serious subject. No wonder we try to keep a tight rein on this wild thing called love. It seems that we need to tame it in order to handle it well. We do so by demanding discernment and discipline and by creating the proper distinctions: between private and public, between love of God and love of people, between mind and body, between Platonic love and physical love, between eros, agape, philia and caritas(2). The church fathers did so and seminaries do so by offering mandatory boundary workshops.
The more physical love gets, the more threatening its force seems to be. This is of course not really true. Misguided love of an idea, of a nation, race or class has the potential of doing far greater harm than illicit sexual relations. Far more sins are committed against the first commandment than against the sixth commandment. In this respect, it is right to point out that Matthew has the commandment to love God precede the commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself.
Nevertheless, talking bodies and sex is difficult, especially in churches. We need to find holistic ways of talking about sexuality in church – that was one of the take-home messages from an LSTC leadership conference a couple of years ago. "The church can't deal with homosexuality because we can't deal with sexuality," claimed Rev. Jeremiah Wright nine months ago standing at this same lectern. He said so at a workshop for medical and religious professionals on HIV/AIDS. The incapacity of dealing with sexual love is not a marginal problem. It costs lives. When homosexual men are forced into heterosexual marriages, they are likely to spread a potential HIV infection to their wives. This happens in the Christian family, with fatal consequences. How can a church proclaim love of God and love of neighbor as the greatest commandments and at the same time sacrifice lives on the altar of the hypocrisy of so-called Christian morality?
How can we love God, neighbor and self with our whole heart when love keeps bursting through the levees of private and public morality? Good examples may be rare.
I don't think Augustine got it right. When he became Christian he sent off the woman who had been his partner for years; neither did he care much for the son they had together – and he honestly thought that this behavior was pleasing to God.
From 12th century France we know the tragic love story of the great theology teacher Abelard and the bright Heloise. Reading the letters the two lovers exchanged nearly 1000 years ago, as they were separated from each other by the walls of a monastery and by the castration of Abelard is moving: Heloise's testimony of her unfulfilled longings, her confession that she longingly thinks of physical love in the middle of holy mass, her struggle with a God whom she cannot love spiritually because she has been bereaved of the experience of human love. Abelard's long and somewhat wooden theological explanations, meant to help her reach a state of sublime harmony, barely conceal his own emotional investment behind a thin veil of male self-composure; he desperately tries to make the case that the tragedy that hit them was just divine punishment for the sake of their salvation. It is hard to present this as an example of excellent pastoral care, though.
Our theology goes astray when we set up God-love against human love and when we separate what Jesus according to Matthew keeps together: Loving God as the greatest and first commandment, and a second like it, love your neighbor as yourself. If God is love and God is to be loved, then love is good. Then love is never wrong. But the circumstances for our loving and the ways of expressing our love can be wrong. That is why it happens that we need to break off relationships of love or that we need to abstain from living them. Yet, even painful or ugly endings do not undo the beauty and richness of love that once was lived and expressed; such endings do not make a fool of the hope that once was there. Therefore, failed or unfulfilled love need not and should not be a source of self-reproach or self-contempt, but a well of new love. We will love and rejoice; we will love and suffer pain, but we will always have reason to love again.
Our theology goes astray also when we set up eros-love and agape-love against each other, as theologian Anders Nygren did in the 1930s in his influential book Agape and Eros. Somewhat simplified, the message is that eros is bad, agape is good. Eros is our desire to reach out for God. Agape is the appropriate attitude of passively receiving God's love. According to Nygren, Luther (who of course got it all right!) has delivered Christian love from the category of desire.(3) Thus "the Christian can be likened to a tube, which by faith is open upwards, and by love downwards … He is merely the tube, the channel through which God's love flows."(4) Do you feel like a passive tube? I don't. Frankly, I think we are more like octopuses – with multiple arms reaching out to hug and to be hugged, to hold and to be held, to reach the neighbor.
Although Nygren in the end gets it so wrong, there is a little something right in his thought. There is a sense in which we can only be passive, only receive from God. There is a sense in which we "suffer" God's grace and love. But it is also true that no love is free from desire. Even God desires. Desire is blended into all forms of love. All love is erotic. Mystics tend to know this. They shouldn't be the only ones to know.
The ambition to have the supernatural supersede the natural has in fact separated what God has joined together (Mt 19.6). Doesn't God love in, with and through nature? Didn't God choose to embody her love in Jesus? Didn't Jesus say: take and eat, drink? Doesn't the psalmist say "taste and see that the Lord is good" (34.8)? If the disembodied were better, it would be more pious just to look at bread and wine and not desire to feel the bread between your teeth and the wine on your tongue. It would be more pious just to look at the water of the baptismal font and not dip your fingers in it. It would be more pious to think of the cross than to sign ourselves or each other with it.
Our theology goes astray also when we set love of others and love of self against each other. Serious Christians are often too afraid of the unruly energies of love and too concerned that their love may be disguised selfishness. Soren Kierkegaard took this fear to its extreme by suggesting that the love of remembering one who is dead is the most unselfish, the freest and the most faithful love. Because obviously, the dead cannot pay back. If this is true, then the less preferential our love, the more Christian it will be. There is only one problem: if this is true, then God is not very Christian, because, according to this definition, God's preferential love of the poor and oppressed would be very unchristian.
The fear of self-love as an expression of sin is one of the neuroses in the shadows of our Christian tradition. The definition of the sinner as a homo in se incurvatus seems to play right into the hands of this neurosis. However, a homo incurvatus in se is a self-absorbed person, literally curved into herself, bound by an egocentrism that is the tip of an iceberg of self-contempt rather than an expression of self-love. Healthy love of oneself is not conceited self-love, because love is always about a relation to an other. Love is the willingness and the act of affirming and embracing the otherness of the other. Love of oneself is to accept and embrace the otherness that resides at the core of oneself – accepting and embracing this otherness, not erasing it. Love is not the suspension of tension, rather its fulfillment – fulfillment even in the sense of a radicalization of the tension.
This is why theologians can say that love is the unity of life and death in favor of life. This is why we can liken the climax of love to death – the letting go without which one cannot receive oneself anew. This is why we can quit setting God's love and human love, eros and agape, and love of self and love of other against each other. This is why love of self is a desired partner in the dance of love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. This is, finally, why we can be brave enough to love, again and again – with our whole heart. Amen.
1) 185 times in the NT, 303 in the OT. Psalms has the highest number for an "individual" book, 149 (NRSV).
2) Or as CS Lewis does in his book "The Four Loves": affection, friendship, eros and charity.
3) Anders Nygren. Agape and Eros. London: SPCK, 1953. 735.