The Song of Songs: sex, love and hidden meanings (1)

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1How does a Christian read the Song of Songs?

What to make of it?

How to interpret it?

My guess is the default approach in church is to play safe and ignore it.

As we saw in the last post, it has not been ignored in church history. The overwhelming consensus has been, when faced with startling erotic poetry, to deflect attention to ‘higher’ things via allegorizing the Song of Songs. It started early on in church history and continues to have traction (though less than in the past) today.

The reason to discuss this is it touches on areas of somatology (the theology of the body) :

What is a Christian way of thinking about bodies, sex and love?

How has this shifted over time?

There are few more contentious and ‘hot’ issues that this in contemporary culture and theology. So this is the first is a wee series of short posts on suggested reasons for the popularity of allegorizing the Song of Songs. It will lead on to some posts on love and sex today.

The first reason for allegory is that interpreters see it in the text (or just below the surface of the text):

1. It is there in the text (if you look hard enough)

There are exegetical and theological arguments for allegory within the Song itself. Some are well made. Here are couple of very recent examples:

A Jewish Vision

j10560One such is Jewish scholar Jon Levenson in his recent book The Love of God. He is well aware of the problem of allegory that has nothing to do with the text and exists only in the mind of the allegorizer. He is also aware that the book can be read profitably on its own terms. He acknowledges that identifying the man and woman with Israel and God is ‘not defensible within the plain meaning of the Song’. But, he says, it is far from arbitrary.

He proposes a form of Midrash that brings different texts together to give a deeper unity of Scripture to light (132). And that unity speaks of

‘the longest and most consequential romance ever – the unending romance of God and the people of Israel’ (134).

Israel is ‘wedded’ to God – the background here is Jeremiah and Ezekiel speaking of Israel as his (unfaithful) bride. But here in the Song it is the faithful community of Israel in covenant love with her God. It may not have the reality (witness exile and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem), but it is an ideal, a vision of her true calling.

At the heart of the Torah he says, is love.

A Christian Vision

9781783595396In a recent book on Marriage, Family and Relationships, Rosalind Clarke suggests, like Levenson but from a Christian perspective, that the Songs has different layers of meaning. So, for her, the Song is about THREE layers of meaning:

i. Human sexuality.

This is what I’d call the plain meaning or surface meaning of the text –  ‘The Song of Songs honours human love and human marriage.’ 51.

Her endorsement of this level of meaning is, I think, rather perfunctory. It does not capture the sheer joy and celebration of erotic love that is everywhere in the Song.

2. God and Israel.

The text, she argues, points ‘beyond’ the surface. He is the shepherd-king-bridegroom who embodies the idealised Solomon. The vineyard owner, analogous to YHWH

She is the landscape of Israel – a ‘darling Jerusalem, the promised Land’ (there are a lot of geographical metaphors used of the lovers’s bodies).

Clarke acknowledges the ‘connection between the Song’s male character and YHWH is not made in directly in the Song’ but is suggested by the worship of the male elsewhere. [She does not deal with the fact that there is parallel praise, and even more so, for the woman by the man).

3. Christ and the Church.

Here she goes for the typical allegory of Christ the bridegroom and the woman as the church / bride (Ephesians 5:23-32).

I don’t know about you, but I think it is revealing that Levenson and Clarke both freely acknowledge that the text itself does not clearly point to ‘hidden’ meanings – whether allegorical or a Midrash.

It is, I think, relevant that while Levenson sees levels 1 and 2, Clarke, as a Christian, sees Level 3 as well.

My problem here is that the interpreter sees what he or she wants to see. Getting to the meaning of the text itself and what it says about human love is complicated enough given multiple uncertainties such as the identity of the lovers, the date, whether Solomon is an active participant or whether the two lovers are simply idealised figures etc .

Better to stay at Level 1 is my opinion. The Song is about love, sex, desire, marriage, joy and embodiment. That’s plenty to be getting on with without ‘leaving the text’ and searching for other levels of meaning.

How about you? How have you been taught (or not taught) to view the Songs?

(and regardless of this question, can I recommend that if you have not done so for a long time, dust off that section of your Bible and have a good close read – it is well worth it).

The next post will look at a second reason for allegorizing the Songs (cliffhanger here).

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Allegorizing the Song of Songs

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1
Aharon April. Song of Songs Last 1. Wikimedia Commons

When was the last time you read the Song of Songs? Or heard a sermon from it?

I’m doing some work on love in the Bible and am on the Song of Songs. For some reason (I have some theories) it tends to be overlooked in treatments of love and marriage in the Bible.

This post comes after reading Duane Garrett’s excellent Word Biblical Commentary. He has a fascinating section on the history of interpretation of the Song of Songs. For centuries the book has been interpreted allegorically – by Jews, by the early Church Fathers, by Roman Catholics and by Protestants.

Pretty well everyone it seems struggles to take the Song of Songs at face value as a lyrical poetic celebration of sexual love between a man and a woman.

Here are some of my favourite examples of how Song of Songs is interpreted (from Garrett). A test text he uses for a lot of this is 4:5. The text reads:

Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.

JEWISH ALLEGORIZING

Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides) 1288-1344 treats it as a study of epistemology (how we know what we know). He argues that the man is really doing some sophisticated philosophy: (the bits in brackets are explanatory notes from Garrett).

Since breasts serve to nurse he compared that which emanates to her breasts. He allegorically compared her to two fawns that are ‘twins of a gazelle’ because of their fleetness. He said this because of her diligence to prepare for him what he needs from her in these sciences [mathematics]. His statement ‘which feed among the lilies’ is clear on the basis of what we said in our introduction [that fragrances symbolize the stimulation of the intellect].

Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac ha-Levi Tamakh (13th Cent) takes a more typical approach. On 4:5 he says

The breasts are the king and high priest. Just as breasts are the woman’s glory and beauty as the source of influence on her babes, so are the former the people’s glory and beauty and the source of the influence upon them of Urim and Tumin, as stated in the Mishnah.

Rabbi Moshe Alshich (c. 1502-1591)

Israel was blessed with another merit, for your two breasts, Moses and Aaron, who sustained you, enabled you to draw nourishment from the heavenly influence.

EARLY CHURCH AND ROMAN CATHOLIC ALLEGORIZING

Among the early Church Fathers we have many examples, few more significant than Jerome. Song of Songs 8:5 reads like this:

‘Under the apple tree I roused you; there your mother conceived you, there she who was in labour gave you birth’

Jerome’s translation is this:

Under the apple tree I raised you up; there your mother was corrupted, there she who bore you was violated.

It was Jerome who in Adversus Jovinanum (against Jovinian) who relegated marriage to a second class status within the church. Celibacy was the religious ideal.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) preached 86 sermons on the first two chapters of the Songs. In general the text is just a starting point for pious meditations on the love between the Christian soul and God.

Gregory of Narek (d. circa 1010) said on 4:5 that the two breasts represent the body and soul of man.

Later Medieval interpreters see Mary in the Song of Songs. The flawless woman in the Song represents the Church. Garrett gives a quote from Honorius Augustodunensis (quite the name)

Therefore, this book is read on the feast of Blessed Mary, for it shows the type of the Church, which is virgin and mother. Virgin, because uncorrupted by all heresy; mother, because through grace it always bears spiritual children. And therefore everything which is said about the Church can also be said about the Virgin, understood as both bride and mother of the bridegroom.

PROTESTANT ALLEGORIZING

Examples could be multiplied, but we’d better move on to Protestant allegorizing. For the vast majority the Song is an allegory of love between Christ and the church / pious soul. Let’s get back to the breasts of 4:5. Here are some fantastically imaginative examples.

For the Scottish divine J. Durham (1622-1658) the two breasts enhance ‘the comeliness of the body’ are ‘useful to give suck’ and ‘signify warmth of affection’. They symbolize believers’ fitness to nurture others as well as their ‘warmliness and kindliness to Christ’ since they have taken him ‘into their bosom’.

John Gill (1697-1771) is the most creative (and entertaining) of all. The two breasts are:

  • first ministers of the Gospel, they nurture the church
  • they are like twin deer in that they are loving and pleasant; sharp-eyed in watching out for truth; swift to spread the gospel
  • Two breasts are indicative that they are sufficient to do what is required of them
  • That they are twins, means they are in harmony
  • They feed among the lilies, meaning they feed on the Scriptures
  • The two breasts are the Old and New Testaments – they are alike in their promises and truths
  • They are also the two ordinance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper

As Garrett says, the two breasts are anything that comes in a pair!

Other interpreters take 4:1-5 with its description of the woman’s eyes, hair, teeth, temples and breasts as a representation of the complete and holy state of the church triumphant at the marriage supper of the Lamb (T Newberry, 19th Century).

In short the rather big problem with allegorizing is that THE TEXT MEANS WHATEVER THE ALLEGORIZER WANTS IT TO MEAN.

This history as told by Garrett raises a couple of interesting questions. Your comments are welcome.

WHY the resort to allegory? I’ll come back to this in the next post. [It must be said that allegory is not limited to the Song of Songs. But this book, I think, is probably the most allegorized in the Bible (with perhaps the exception of Revelation).]

And before we moderns get too amused and patronising about the ignorance of the past, what do you think are some of our culturally ingrained assumptions and beliefs that shape our reading of the Bible without us even noticing? 

An Easter Reflection: 1 John 4, love, life, wrath and the cross

In 1 John 4: 7-10, the apostle writes this:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

That is 9 occurences of the noun or verb for love of [agapē (love) and agapaō (to love)] in 4 verses. I John is easily the most ‘love saturated’ book in the Bible and these verses represent the most ‘love saturated’ section of the epistle.

Famously – and uniquely in Scripture – John states that ‘God is love’. Love ‘comes from God’ because God, in himself, in his essential being, is love. This means everything that he does is loving – whether creating, sustaining, redeeming or judging.

For John, love is never abstract; it is always concrete and practical. God’s love takes the visible and tangible form of sending his one and only Son into the world – in John a realm of sin, death, rebellion and hate. If love is the motive, the result is that we might have life through him.

John thinks in big picture theology rather than systematic details. The ‘sending’ of the Son is shorthand for the whole story of Jesus – his incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection. His focus here is on the cross as verse 10 makes clear.

The Son is sent in love to give us life. But how does this work?

1. Somehow the death of the beloved Son is an ‘atoning sacrifice’ (hilasmos) for our sins – yours and mine. Despite some attempts to evade this, hilasmos has the sense of propitiation – turning away divine wrath against sin and sinners via an acceptable sacrifice. The love of God sits right alongside his anger and judgement against sin. It is at the cross that the love and judgement of God meet. To see Easter and the cross only as a supreme example of divine love and to airbrush atonement for sin out of the picture is to depart from the apostolic gospel.

2. In atoning for our sins, the death of the Son gives believers life. This implies a doctrine of regeneration. To be in the world is to be in a realm of death. Through God’s loving initiative, we are given the gift of eternal life. We no longer are to belong to the realm of the world.

3. Easter is solely dependent on God’s love and is God’s initiative alone – we are utterly unable to deal with our sin or be reborn into new life. It is only God who can  atone for sin and give us life. He does so at supreme cost to himself.

4. If the whole point of Easter is to give us life – what does this life look like? Quite simply it is a life of love. John’s focus is our love for each other. If we do not love, it reveals that we do not actually know the God who is love. Love is the ‘proof’ that we have received new life and our sins have been atoned for in the death of the Son. As we enter this Easter weekend, let’s first and foremost remember that both the motive and the ultimate purpose of the cross is love.

Easter is therefore a good time to reflect on our ‘love lives’ – how well are we loving?

Easter is an appropriate time to pray, repent and ask God to help us love – to be the people that the atoning death of Christ is designed to make us be. Perhaps there is someone we need to act to be reconciled with this Easter.

Easter is most of all a time to rejoice and worship the God who is love and who acts in love so that we might have the privilege and joy to know him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (5) (living gently in marriage)

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter four ECCLESIAL POLITICS, PEACEMAKING, AND THE ESCHATOLOGY OF WORSHIP.

In this chapter the conversation between Brian Brock and Hauerwas delves into familiar Hauerwasian territory of pacifism, gentleness and the church as an eschatologoical community. It’s rich reading.

One theme that gives me much pause for thought is where Brock and Hauerwas discuss how a theological commitment to pacifism needs to be part and parcel of learning to live gently in a violent world. (Echoing themes of Living Gently in a Violent World that Hauerwas wrote with Jean Vanier of L’Arche).

Brock notes at one point that

It’s at moments like these that it’s clear that you are aware of the danger that your work is easily subverted when people receive it as a challenge and a crusade to establish pacifism, rather than as a sign in the wilderness pointing to intangible practices of living gently in a violent world (106)

And Brock adds later,

In so far as people read you as pacifist and think that somehow excuses them if they are not being gentle, I’d like to insist that is not a venial sin but a complete falsification of your work. (107)

In other words, it is easy to be committed to pacifism / non-violence in an aggressive and violent way – I guess a bit like the evangelist who tells people ‘God loves you’ in a hostile or threatening tone.

Rather, Hauerwas is proposing (against his own instincts to fight and win against his enemies) that gentleness needs to be a virtue that characterises all of life.  Responding to Brock, he gives the example of marriage:

… What is one of the most frightening aspects of marriage? The person we are married to learns to know us better than we know ourselves. That’s why they are able to hurt us the most; they know our vulnerabilities. I think that there’s a certain sense in which it is very important that there be a gentleness between people who are married. It is a learned virtue. (108)

OK – so let’s go off on a Hauerwas inspired marriage tangent here ….

As someone who can seem reasonably agreeable to most people most of the time, who believes that following Jesus means a commitment to non-violence, and is researching and writing about love –  this chapter hit home. For it is possible to present that face and to believe those things – but not live or think or act gently.

What do you think it means to live gently in relationships? In marriage?

If gentleness, as Hauerwas says, is a learned virtue, then the tongue needs to be controlled to speak gently as a way of life. James does not mess about on this – see 3:1-12 and this:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. James 1:26

I have much learning and repenting to do for sure on how and what I speak.

On gentleness or kindness in marriage as a learned virtue see this important and practical article in The Atlantic on research into successful and failed marriages. Successful marriages the researchers found flourish on kindness – expressed a thousand ways. (The Atlantic article describes different examples of kind or unkind interactions).

There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters [those with happy enduring marriages] tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

That love and relationships need sustained hard work is the language of learned virtue. The disposition of kindness (or gentleness or love) needs to be practiced and reinforced every day – it unlocks and releases potential kindness and love in return.

Kindness [as opposed to contempt] glues couples together. Research … has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

A lack of kindness, in other words the presence of aggression, hostility and especially contempt are signs that the marriage is in deep trouble. The researchers could predict with 94% success whether couples would stay together from observing their interactions around kindness (or the lack of it).

This all makes perfect sense. But, as the Brock / Hauerwas interaction reminded me, it is one thing to know something in your head, it is quite another thing to practice that virtue.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

C. S. Lewis on love and grief

The love sonnets in the previous post were written by the American Joy Davidman to C. S. Lewis.

A series of 45 Sonnets were only discovered in 2010 by Douglas Gresham (the younger of Davidman’s two sons) and have been published in 2015. Don W. King, The Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and other Poems by Joy Davidman.

davidman-lewisDavidman and Lewis’s relationship has been well told of course – not least by the 1993 film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

They started corresponding in 1950, she first met him in 1952. She was divorced in 1954 from a long troubled marriage to William Gresham. Davidman and Lewis were  married in a civil ceremony in 1956, apparently on his side more to help her stay in the UK when her visa ran out. It was only really when she fell fatally ill with cancer that Lewis finally realised he had fallen in love for the first time in his life.

His subsequent and deeply moving book  A Grief Observed, (in which he called her H) recounts his own honest cries of the heart following her death in 1960 (Lewis himself would only live until 1963).  While that work has been in the public domain since 1961, Joy Davidman’s poems remained hidden away, undiscovered, in an attic.

What’s fascinating is the question of just how much his wife’s passionate honesty and uninhibited love changed Lewis. The sonnets show how infuriatingly passionless she found the confirmed bachelor academic!

In utter contrast to the platonic friend that she wished would shoot her dead rather than kill her with his kindness is his own description of marriage in A Grief Observed. How Joy Davidman’s love eventually broke through his English reserve!

For those few years H. and I feasted on love; every mode of it — solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.

And this on the physical embodiment of love:

There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it is a place I can’t avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of H’s lover. Now it’s like an empty house.

And this desperately sad passage revealing how she had shaken him out of his old life and opened him up to a life that perhaps he had not even suspected existed :

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant — in a word, real. Is all that work to be undone? Is what I shall still call H. to sink back horribly into being not much more than one of my old bachelor pipe-dreams? Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back — to be sucked back — into it?

I guess King and many other Lewis scholars will be reassessing how his wife’s many previously unknown poems, which he almost certainly read, may have shaped his own writing in A Grief Observed and elsewhere.

One thing is sure, her love profoundly changed his understanding of love – for love cannot be understood in theory, but only in the experience of loving others and being loved.

Yet all love has an end. Lewis wrote about the end of his unexpected, dazzling and yet all too brief love affair in typically compelling prose:

And then one or other dies. And we think of this as love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid career or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off — something truncated and therefore, lacking its due shape. I wonder. If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.

And this to close.

Does H. now see exactly how much froth or tinsel there was in what she called, and I call, my love? So be it. Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock, forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives — to both, but perhaps especially to the woman — a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.

To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Eros and unrequited love – who is this in love with whom?

As part of a writing project I’m reading and researching on love and came across these love poems. They are remarkable.

Can you guess the author? And to whom they were written?*

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out she is a woman – she’s madly in love with someone very famous.

What do you think of them? Of her? Of him?

What lines grab your attention? Why?

She wrote many more of these poems – a few below are selected around her earthy, passionate love for a man who seems to know of love only in the abstract.

There are powerful theological questions here:

What is a Christian view of sex, the body, and physical desire?

Do you find her erotic love disturbing, ‘unspiritual’? Too frank and ‘needy’? Or is her transparency beautiful in its heartfelt humanity?

Does his aloofness represent almost a sort of gnostic detachment from the material world? Is he perhaps afraid of real flesh and blood life and love, despite knowing much about it theoretically?

Or is he rightly focused on ‘higher’ things, a sort of modern Saint Paul in his resolute commitunrequited-lovement to singleness and a God-given mission?

One thing is sure, they show the risky ‘dark-side’ of love – love cannot be forced. You can’t make someone love you, however much you love them. Loving another makes you vulnerable to the agony of unrequited passion.

Don’t cheat by googling!

XVIII. You think you know something about kindness and pity. But you only
know these things in your head. Yes, yes, it is all well and good for you
to say “God loves you.” That is not the point. I do not want that kind
of love, as if I was an angel. I am flesh and so are you (whatever else you
may say). You run from passionate love and unwillingly play into your
enemies’s hands. What you call love — platonic, affection, friendship—
does nothing to whet the flesh. And I almost hate you when you give
me that passionless smile. I am left cold. I do not want your kindness or your pity. I think you know I want more.

XX. Yes, you are kind, sorry you cannot give me the kind of love I want.
You say you love my sharp wit and my courage. What is more, you say
you have warm feelings of friendship for me (are not those just the
kind of things a man gives a woman who longs for so much more!).
But you say you cannot love me the way I want. And then you have
the audacity to tell me that I am not exactly “plain”- in fact, you say,
someone else might even find me attractive (do you not know this cuts
out my heart!). “But I,” you say, “really do not care for brunettes.” Dear
Christ! I did not lose out because of his love of God. No, I have lost out because I am not a blonde!

XXII. Can I really blame him for not loving me? I guess he cannot help
not knowing what to say that would soothe my bitterness. But neither
can I help my loving him. If I was a fair hair and fair skinned lass, I
might win him and avoid falling into my self-imposed pit of pain. Who
should be blamed then? If it is God he wants, so be it. I, on the other
hand, stand stricken, numb and mute. And I confess, as my heart
breaks, that I cannot forgive God for my pain.

XXV. You are pathetic. Stop it. No amount of crying will bring him back. He
was never meant for you. It does not matter if you lie awake all night
in silent agony or whether you cry your eyes out. In fact, when you
weep, he just “prays harder.” It would not matter if you could break
the bars of hell and ascend the walls of heaven. He does not want you.
He is “with God,” probably in his prayer closet. Dear Christ, can you
not just leave him alone to his Lord and his “spiritual calling?” No, I
cannot. One day he may need me to salve his wounds.

XXVII. A torturer could hardly have done more-stripped me to pay off
debts, thrown me into a blaze to keep him warm, drank my blood for
drink, ate my flesh for food, or shattered my fingers for pegs. Or he
could have sired his children of lust on me. Instead, you kill me with
kindness-speak softly, invite me to live on sighs, and teach me to lie
through my smiles. You have always said you wanted nothing, that all
you want is to help me. I would rather you shot me dead.

XXXV. Tut, tut, my love. You thought you could rely on your love of God—
your wonder at His creation and your service to Him as His prophet—
as if they would be a magic circle around you. You failed to account
for feelings and emotions, especially those awakened in a woman like
me. You saw your mistake and tried to retreat. Too bad. It is not that
easy. Now a hollow-eyed female wraith haunts you, its head bobbing in
a frightening fashion, its bones clacking, its voice whispering venom.
Poor child. You should have known better than raising the dead.

XXXVI. Your naivety astounds me! It is as high as a mountain of ice. I could
have tamed a herd of fire-breathing dragons or scaled the burning wall
of a citadel. But your mountain office was too much. It was your childlike innocence—not your sexual purity-that thwarted me. Surely you know that hell is thought by some to be a lake of ice. _______, you are my
Antarctica, my Newfoundland, my continent of ice! If only I could
come to you at night, slip into your bed, and press my lips to you!
Then, I believe, you would not care about the colour of my hair.

XXXIX. Do not scorn me for what follows. Because I am a woman, I long to
kiss your lips, and I long for your hands to caress my breasts. Such
desires are only natural, including my desire to lie next to you, skin to
skin. And don’t scorn me for calling your name in the darkness, for
reaching out for you blindly hoping to find you in my arms. My body
was made for you and yours for me. Blame God for my desires, not me.
I have spent the last three years of my life bloodying my fists against a
bolted door. These same bruised and bleeding hands could do much
to teach you how to love me tenderly, certainly much more than what you have learned from praying.

* In the next post I’ll reference the source where these are published

Contested Love (4) idealistic optimists versus pesky pessimists

Some questions about love.

What sort of characteristics or virtues are necessary for love to take root and grow? Do you see love as that which requires discipline and hard work? What does such work look like in practice?

Or is love natural, easy, automatic and instantly available to all? Add a bit of passion and voilà! Love is in the air!

Are you an optimist or a pessimist concerning love?

These are the sorts of questions raised by reading Simon May’s excellent Love: a History.

Today, optimism rules regarding love.  In the West love is:

  • like God, eternal, overcoming death, as that which lives on after us
  • gives meaning to ordinary life
  • sacred – it connects us to a higher realm
  • the source and measure of true happiness

May says this modern idea of love as the grounding of meaning has no grounding itself – it has become an object of faith.

As we saw last time, historically Christian love has had two dimensions: love as divine and love as humility.

To love in Christian theology is to be recipients of God’s love and grace. Grace is gift which leads to a deep sense of humility. May does not really develop this, but love is primarily a work of the Spirit. The believer is empowered to love. Love does not come easily or naturally. It takes the discipline to ‘walk in the Spirit’ and ‘keep in step with the Spirit’.

Modern love has become detached from classical Christian love – the two sides of love (love as divine and humility necessary to love) have become ‘unstuck’.

Now we have love as divine – but without the humility.

“Without an all-powerful God to hold them together and serve as a standing reminder of how severely hard love is, as well as fundamentally beyond our control, they have simply gone their own separate ways, producing extremes of optimism and pessimism about love, both of which have damaged it.” 93

The optimists are in the majority: we all want to believe in love don’t we? But this is a love that is easy, romantic, lovely, and that which brings happiness. This is the radically democratic, universally available love that is celebrated, sought after, idolised, worshipped and pursued.

But with little sense of the need for the humility / obedience / discipline and the sheer hard work and stubborn covenant commitment required for love to last.

This makes much modern love superficial and thin. Everybody has a right to love and can love instantly. (And cease to love just as quickly) ‘Love’ can be emptied out to mean virtually anything.

But those pesky pessimists are a significant minority, throwing all sorts of dark and complicated spanners in the bright sparkly world of optimistic love:

The pessimists are those who have set about deconstructing the fantasies of optimists. So to the deep cynicism and pessimism about love in prophets of doom concerning love: atheists like Nietzsche and psychoanalysts like Freud (of more anon).