March 1st, 2012The Unity of Loveby Kevin O'Brien | http://www.thewordinc.org

It has long been a teaching in the Catholic Faith, as well as something recognizable in natural philosophy, that there is only one Truth. There is not a truth for you and a truth for me; a truth for science and a truth for religion, a truth for Monday and a truth for Tuesday.

But the Church now teaches, with the authority of the Magisterium, according to D. C. Schindler in a brilliant essay on Pope Benedict's papal encyclical Deus Caritas Est, that there is only one love - that eros (passionate and affective love) and agape (disinterested love of neighbor) are really two aspects of the same thing - or really, two faces of the same God.

This cuts right to the heart of our troubled world today.

Schindler notes:

Allan Bloom describes the boredom, the self-protectiveness, the banality, the absence of a sense of mystery and adventure, and the general disenchantment, that characterize a “de-eroticized” world such as that of contemporary America.

Now hold on a minute, I can hear you saying. America is many things but it's certainly not "de-eroticized"! If anything, the erotic runs through every pore of our popular culture and tends to poison marriage and the family.

But this is a mistaken understanding of what eros is.

Eros is not "the erotic" in modern parlance. Eros in the tradition of Plato and others is a love that desires, and anyone who's been in love with anything - either a person or a thing or a vocation - knows that the desire of eros is a desire to possess the good and is at best marginally sexual. Indeed, lust, which is abandonment to sexual desire, is but an itch and the more you habitually scratch it, the more it itches. An itch you scratch has nothing really to do with a person you desire with love.

But the Puritans get this all wrong. Notice how this particular sedevacantist rad-trad condemns our Holy Father for daring to say that eros has value in our lives. He reads "eros" and thinks sex. He thinks Benedict is saying, "Sex and love of neighbor are the same thing!"

And while this misreading of Deus Caritas Est is laughable, it is the same kind of misreading Christopher West, anti-Puritan extraordinaire, falls into. As Paul Stilwell points out, West picks up a sermon by Fr. Cantalamessa on the unity of eros and agape and runs it into the ground. West, who opposes nothing more than Puritanism, like the Puritans, sees sex where he should be seeing love.

(Parenthetically, for those of you new to this, Christopher West and his defenders say that the Easter Candle is a phallic symbol which performs coitus with the baptismal waters at the Easter Vigil Mass - an interpretation that is supported by no theologian or Church Father in history; he claims that we should meditate on the Virgin Mother's voluptuous breasts; and he claims quite bluntly that the "spiritually mature" need not practice custody of the eyes, but may stare at naked ladies at will.)

But back to eros.

Schindler argues that the Holy Father makes a case for the unity of love in that "desire is not truly desire unless it is also generous, and generosity is not truly generous unless it is also filled with desire."

For more on this, see my post on the odd squeamishness about love and about approaching God in prayer that many devout Catholics have, entitled Love and Sex and Keeping your Mouth Shut. There has developed in this world a divorce between eros and agape, making eros into lust and making agape into something shifting and coy that is a condescending philanthropy on the one hand and Marty Haugen / David Haas gay guitar tunes played to distract us from the Eucharist on the other.

But when united, the two aspects of love bear fruit, with the union of this apparent paradox of love held together by the wisdom of the Church and by God's grace. For the Church teaches us that if we have lost our eros, we are not to find it in adultery or fornication or pornography - for these can not really fulfill the fullness of our eros. Likewise, she teaches that if we have lost our agape, we can not find it in empty "service projects" that teens use to mark time in order to get Confirmed (see also Schindler on how "selfless" love is really a very self-centered thing, once it is emasculated of its regard for the other).

This is why it's so important that West and his followers start getting things right - not only to correct the bizarre fruits his teaching is bearing, but also because West is engaging us on a crucially important subject.

Our problem is how to love - and how to love as God does. West seems to have set off on this course, he seems to have begun with the intention of addressing this central problem of our day, but he gets off track when he lets "the body" dominate his "Theology of the Body" or his gonads dominate his approach to eros. As St. Paul says, for some men their gods are their bellies; for others (I would add) their gods are a few inches lower.

For look at how God loves, look at what we are to imitate. Before you ever get to the New Testament, you learn that the God of the Jews LOVED, loved with a love of eros, a love of desire, a jealous love, a love that brooks no nonsense, a love of passion - a Passion that is only fully revealed at Calvary.

As Schindler points out, we can only speak of the desire of God for us by way of analogy, since strictly speaking God is ultimately sufficient in and of Himself and has no need to desire anything. But He shows us throughout Scripture, and throughout out daily lives if we let Him, the most powerful burning love, a love that wants us for Himself and wants us for our own sakes, a love that is everything St. Paul tells us love is in 1 Cor. 13 - and more, for it is indeed (as Christopher West says) the desire of the bridegroom for His beloved in Song of Songs and the desire of the bridegroom for His beloved at the End of Time, as articulated most clearly in the book of Revelations.

It is a love of agape and eros - for love is one; and our nature is to love both for the unselfconscious sake of the other and out of a desire for the other - a desire which is something far more profound than sex could ever be.

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  • March 2 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    Dear Kevin,
    This is a critically important topic. Despite all the superficial arguments of our time, the real argument is here: What is love?
    Our culture says that love is God.
    Our faith says that God is love.
    There is a difference, and that difference is critical to all of us, believers and non-believers alike. The first statement justifies all manner of things, even the most vile; the second contains a commandment that even the most devout among us have trouble following.
    People who deny religion are far too ready to adhere to that first statement. It gives them a feeling of of moral superiority to Christians. They often say that they're not "religious," but that they are "spiritual." The statement--which is an inversion--inverts moraltiy, inverts truth. And because it does, it is a profound supernatural evil. It deceives.
    If our culture is to survive, to avoid a descent into a morass of self-justifying moral depravity, we must begin with a bald, unadorned, flat statement of negation that sounds like cultural blasphemy: Love is NOT God. It's only then, when we fall back, pull out of that very wide gate that leads to destruction, that we are able to we ask, What, then, IS love? That question, if we follow it in real commitment to the truth, will lead inevitably to the discovery that God is love, so very narrow as that gate is.