Conversation about Eros

Below is an email conversation between a friend and me discussion Ascending Love and Descending Love from an article by Peter Leithart linked in my first email. This came up in the context of the two of us reading through Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

FROM ME:

I think I need to make an effort to rein in a mental monster whose creation I enabled. I’m thinking of what you described as “spiritual love” vs. “human love” at Bible study based on what you read in Life Together by Bonhoeffer. I appreciate the point Bonhoeffer was trying to make toward the end of chapter one, and he was attempting to articulate something pure and true. (And I can’t help but suspect Bonhoeffer’s circumstances at Flossenburg Concentration Camp and some other struggles in his life played into this.) But in the grand scheme of things, I’m concerned he ends up clumsily dumping on eros too much so that the reader comes away from the book having a distrust of creaturely eros (rather than a distrust of one’s own heart) that lacks any appreciation for it as the creation of God, a reflection of God’s being, and something to be redeemed and employed in the Christian life.

I’ve been thinking about it lately as I’ve started reading The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. It reminds me of the first chapter where Lewis explores what he calls Gift Love and Need Love. Initially, he was prepared to dump all over Need Love and then realized how misguided that thinking was.

I stumbled on this fairly short and accessible article this morning about eros and agapē.

Ascending Love (eros) and Descending Love (agapē) are both important. Descending Love—the agapē so famous in 1 Corinthians 13—is very much about our humble, self-giving service of others. But it’s Ascending Love—the chastened, refined, harnessed eros—that will keep us transfixed on God and which, in the Eschaton, will fully satisfy us when earthly shadows of entangled eros pass away.

I hope that helps.

FROM HIM:

I’ve never heard or eros as ‘an ascending love.’

Eros is not even used in the New Testament, is it?

Eros may initially be desirous in a self-serving way. As it is disciplined, however, it becomes shaped into agape, love that realizes the grandeur of love because it is focused on a single object of love and because it is permanent. Yet eros is never left behind: “man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift.”

How can agapē only be given? How is it not also received? 

Isn’t it better to say that eros is simply misdirected and immature and that the goal always is a mature agapē love?

FROM ME:

When you mention not ever hearing of eros as an ascending love, I think back on our prior brief conversations about eros. I get the impression you’ve probably never had much interaction with Christian philosophical scholarship surrounding eros. I generally suspect that’s the case for most Christians. And I’m barely any better off. It’s something that’s a relatively recent encounter and experience for me as well. Just a quick internet search, and you can find dozens of pastors telling you silly flippant meanings for eros.

No, eros (noun) and eráō (verb) are not used in the Greek New Testament (other than the root of the name Erastus). However, that word family is used on a number of instances in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament from the second or third century B.C.) which served as the “official” Old Testament of the ancient Christian church and is usually what’s quoted by the New Testament writers. It’s used to translate the Hebrew ’ahavah (noun) or ’ahav (verb) for love, which also gets translated by agapē or philos depending on the context.

There’s actually a good deal of overlap between different love-words. For instance, you’d think “love of the brethren” would be agapē, but it’s not. It’s philadelphia using philos love. Even the passage from our last Bible study lesson shows linguistic fluidity: “Let love [agapē] be without hypocrisy . . . Let your love of the brethren [philadephia] be lovingly affectionate [philostorgos] toward one another” (Romans 12:9-10). It’s got forms of agapē, philos, and storgē all modifying one another.

According to the article and other sources I’m noticing, eros language was so culturally debased (so loaded down with unwanted baggage) by the era of the New Testament, the Christian writers didn’t bother trying to use the language and opted to use other language that they filled up with Christian connotations. It’s not as if the word agapē inherently means spiritual and perfect love. That’s the baggage the New Testament writers loaded on it through their use of it. But we’re not exactly pinned to their language. Nor are we free from it having come before us.

You asked:

Isn’t it better to say that eros is simply misdirected and immature and that the goal always is a mature agapē love?

I hesitate to agree with that for a few reasons. I’m most inclined to agree with something to that effect when it comes to casual conversational encounters with our culture since erotic language is so degraded. But eventually we have to tell our culture that their idea of eroticism is ironically and literally fucked up. I’m agreeable to the last part of what you said about the goal of a mature agapē love as long as the meaning of such a thing was the same thing that the article said, i.e. a stipulated understanding of mature love that subsumed a pure eros as a part of the meaning. And yet in saying that, we’ll still not be able to get away forever with leaving the meaning and purpose of eros unattended. The thing I’d fear or loathe most about it is if the subsumed pure eros was lost or done away with in silence. And I think that’s actually happened to a significant degree. I don’t even need to use the word eros; it’s just convenient to give it a name. But I find the concept to be greatly diminished or deformed.

My biggest qualm is saying “eros is simply misdirected and immature”. Putting it that way says eros is inherently misdirected and immature by its nature, i.e. it’s a species of idolatry. Now, if you’re saying that about the eroticism our culture practices, then I agree. But I think it’s a twisted understanding. It’s not that eros is misdirected and immature; it’s that misdirected and immature people are exercising a misdirected and immature deformation of eros. And in many cases, it’s not even eros at all, yet it’s named the erotic.

I just keep going back to what uncontaminated eros is supposed to mean. It’s a recognition of the beauty of the thing which stirs a strong desire to live in relation to the thing and which stirs up imaginings of the Good Life lived in necessary relation to the thing. Our being “captivated by the beauty” of God in our worship, etc. is an instance of pure eros. File that implicitly under agapē if you wish, but a long history of Christian scholarship has done lots of work elucidating and naming that distinguishable aspect of eros. I find it useful and valuable.

When I think about it, it’s humorously ironic that we’re parsing the meanings intended by Greek words while our modern English words “love” and “friendship” right now are about as culturally nightmarish and bastardized for us as contemporary Christians as eros and other terms that come to my mind must have been for our ancient brethren. As early as the second century, our private and reclusive “love [agapē] feasts” (the Lord’s Supper and fellowship meals), as ancient Christians referred to them, where proclaimed by Roman outsiders to be incestuous orgies where we slept with all of our “brothers” and “sisters” as we call each other. Never underestimate the ability of a depraved culture to hideously misconstrue and ruin words for us! Even philia terms in English today are tortured by cryptosexual connotations.

I find myself saying it more and more these days: This isn’t playing silly games with words; this is going to war with words and waging war over words, because words become either our jailers or our liberators. I see some of our toughest cultural warfare being won or lost by words. And I see a deep pattern in Scripture for the importance of words and for naming things truthfully.

“When words lose their meaning, people lose their grip/footing [on reality].” (Confucius)

But I digress.

Not sure if you read this article about eros beyond sex when I sent it previously.

FROM HIM:

You said:

When I think about it, it’s humorously ironic that we’re parsing the meanings intended by Greek words while our modern English words “love” and “friendship” right now are about as culturally nightmarish and bastardized for us as contemporary Christians as eros and other terms that come to my mind must have been for our ancient brethren.

I also wonder if there is irony in taking ‘love’ from Hebrew and fitting it neatly into the four Greek boxes. Are we trying to create deeper / different meaning where it was never intended?

FROM ME:

Oh, some people are probably trying (unintentionally or otherwise) to create deeper or different meanings where it was never intended. Other people are also probably trying (unintentionally or otherwise) to avoid having to deal with the uncomfortable consequences of deeper and different meanings where they do exist. Examples of each come readily to mind. But generally, I believe our thinkers/teachers and their longstanding legacies are trying to give use verbal tools to parse and navigate issues that are ambiguous and multifaceted.

  • I love a good IPA.
  • I love a good book.
  • I love this country.
  • I love my neighbor.
  • I love my sales job.
  • I love my dog Rover.
  • I love my friend Bob.
  • I love my son Timmy.
  • I love my wife Jane.
  • I love my Lord Jesus.

I just used “love” ten times, and no two instances there mean exactly the same thing for a variety of reasons. And (not) knowing the individual, it’s still possible to not be certain what he means in some of those uses. Parsing our meanings is important, and good verbal boxes can help. But bad verbal boxes can unduly constrain and deform.

I know I’m certainly inclined to believe (for good evidential reason) that it’s much more common for people to be insufficiently reflective than it is for people to be excessively reflective. A pastor-friend told me once that the struggle a lot of people have with me is that to them it seems like I want to make fine distinctions on the the edge of a knife, and that’s because what’s actually a roadway or even a field of considerable breadth (at least it genuinely is for me and some others) is just a knife blade of experience for a lot of people.

P.S. Because it keeps coming to mind, but I have nowhere great to stick it, I’ll add it here. That first article I sent mentioned two Hebrew words for love—’ahavah and dōwd (often used in the plural form dōwdiym). Why in the world is it the case that everywhere dōwd is used in the Old Testament, it means “uncle” except for Solomon who used it as “beloved” in the Song of Songs?!? What’s the deal with uncle-nephew love cf. the Song of Songs? Seems like even ancient Hebrew needs parsing (and it does). 😛

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