The Concordance of Divine and Erotic Love

Sunday 3rd August 2008
Laurence of Rome (Deacon, Martyr, 258)
St Giles, Shermanbury

The trouble with love of the kind advocated by Jesus and celebrated in 1 Corinthians 13 is that there is not enough of it;

The trouble with the kind of love celebrated in the Song of Solomon is that there is too much of it; far too much of it; so much of it that 2 Peter calls for 'self control'; and you can be sure when people talk about "self control" or about "morality" they are almost invariably referring to erotic love.

From the dawn of time humanity has striven to establish two-way communication with the supernatural and, because we are necessarily competitive, power structures have inevitably developed, including priestly castes to act as intermediaries between the human and the supernatural. Such castes have, also inevitably, used their control of the human/supernatural channel to set conditions for optimal communication and such conditions have, again inevitably, involved exercising control over humanity's two physical preoccupations: the need for food and security; and the need to guarantee the survival of the species.

Unfortunately for us, Christianity has been much more concerned with the second concern than the first; it has been relatively uninterested until recently in socio-economic questions, in security and survival, social justice and economic well-being which it has collectively caricatured in a withering condemnation of materialism, natural among those who lack the imagination to see that the only people who do not worry about money are those who have enough of it; just as racism is not generally a problem if you are white. On the other hand, because of a series of accidents, Christianity has been obsessed with erotic love. The first two factors were combined in St. Paul, the most prolific theologian of the New Testament who, whether or not you believe that certain anti woman passages were later interpolations, had a marked problem with the physical; in spite of his opposition to Gnosticism his hymn to Agape was never matched with a hymn to Eros. You only have to look at his diatribes on virginity, young widows and hatless women to wonder about the nature of the "thorn" in his flesh; but allied to this personality trait, not atypical of New Testament writers, there was the phenomenon of the foreshortening of eschatological time. Paul and his contemporaries thought that the last judgment was only weeks, if not days, away and so the physical was redundant. Over time, Lucan generosity was outflanked by repression and high theology, culminating in the 11th Century church reforms which shut out women from the Threefold Ministry and forced priests to be celibate which, in turn, cast women who might endanger that celibacy as temptresses. Nonetheless, the late Middle Ages classed erotic excess much less grievously than usury.

The next accident of history was the precise coincidence of the Protestant Reformation with the arrival in Europe from Latin America of sexually transmitted diseases which set off a moral panic much worse than that which we experienced with HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s. As a matter of public health, sexual fidelity, or even abstinence, made sense; and so the term "Puritan" became associated overall with the condemnation of erotic love; and, to cap it all, England had the particular additional factor of the death of Prince Albert and Victoria's role modelling of chaste widowhood.

I began by saying of erotic love that there is too much of it. There is, necessarily, too much of it because nature's prodigality and waste are a function of the competition between species; but as humanity has become more secure and as its resources have become more reliable and valuable because of such phenomena as storage, exchange value, money and aesthetics, social organisation has imposed a framework on mating, frequently relegating women to the status of the personal property of men. The history of Christian marriage is a sad example.

Let me, then, say something about a more balanced Christian attitude to erotic love. First of all, and most briefly, it was meant to be, it is part of God's creation. Secondly, in its true form it mirrors the divine love both in being offered unconditionally and in giving pleasure, for just as we were made to please God we were made to please each other. Thirdly, and critically, as we are brothers of Christ as well as in Christ, as we are sisters and brothers of the incarnation, there is no separation or ranking of the physical and the spiritual; to think so is to make the Gnostic mistake of lapsing into dualism which Paul recognised in his head but to which he could not reconcile his heart.

This is not to say that there should not be self restraint in the erotic just as there must be in the economic sphere; but we must be careful how we superimpose any external control to mitigate so-called failures of self control. For two considerations must always be borne in mind: first, each love affair is different and so to judge it is to impose our external experience; secondly, as our social development goes much faster than our genetic evolution, sex is still competitive and where there is competition there is almost inevitably a superimposition of the more powerful on the less powerful. So, for example: the rich have erotic art and the poor have pornography. And, returning to the way power is exercised in religious contexts, we need to be far more concerned with the effect of behaviour on society than behaviour which only affects individuals acting in mutual consent. On that basis we should be much more worried about exploitation than the excesses of young love.

And yet, in our society the joy and the transcendence of the erotic have been tarnished by the exploitation of sexuality as a product in itself and the means for selling products; and, I think, worse, it has been relegated to a loveless pleasure or even a manifestation of a fundamental lack of love. Our country does not have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the Western World because our young people are uncharacteristically sexually rampant but because our children are the unhappiest in the Western World. So when we consider teenage pregnancy, instead of condemning the children we should look to parents and their peers, particularly those in positions of power.

Which brings me finally to the Song of Solomon. I doubt that it, or anything like it, could be written by a self-confessed, serious Christian today; and that is an indictment. With the exception of John Donne, who was as charismatic and erratic as St. Paul himself, all the best love poetry in English has been written by people whom the Christian establishment deeply suspected. We have seen the Christian churches set Agape and Eros, divine and human love, in perpetual conflict with one another when they were intended to be symbiotic if not isomorphic, to be inter dependent and to resemble one another, epitomised in Dante's Comedia Divina. Sex is such a powerful force, literally a life force, that it needs to be contained; but so does the power of religion.