I. On Starting Love, Power, and Justice
On reading Tillich’s description of love, one can only come back to a definition that emphasizes a reunion of the estranged, which is not really the estranged at all but that to which we ultimately belong. In making his case, Tillich turns to Aristotle and his definition of eros which for the Greek philosopher was seeking that a thing may obtain its highest form. Before he gets to Aristotle though, he puts an objective truth on the table….love is ontological and has to do with being itself more than any of the emotions and sentiment we may attach to the word. These things may be present, but even if they are not, love cannot be dismissed from our nature or the nature of our world….it simply is.
In doing this Tillich takes aim at both Freudians and Puritans. Both have worldviews that misunderstand libido in the classic sense of the word and turn love into the pleasure and pain that arises from love rather than love itself. Classically understood libido is our drive to attain reunion to that which we know we ultimately belong. Pleasure and pain are products of love, but not love itself. What these modern corruptions of love have done is reduce it to an individualism that is centered on the person as the subject of love while ignoring the person to also be the object. By appealing to Christianity as the place where love is most perfected, Tillich dismisses any weltanschaung that would make love into anything other than a reunion that acknowledges the self, but is not centered on the self.
When love is understood as that which removes the self from the center, it becomes about the reunion of which Tillich speaks. If there is pleasure and pain involved it is from the recognition of that union or the apartness experienced when we keep ourselves from that to which we belong. This is certainly true of our relationship with God. And it is true of the manifestations of love seen on this good earth, which come from the divine. Tillich is quick to acknowledge that nature and the truest parts of culture are the gifts of God and keeping ourselves from these is nothing other than the sickness of despair, which tells us we have no need for grace. (All the more despairing, if with Tillich, you acknowledge that in any given time grace “may or may not” happen.)
With the modern mind’s corruption of love come implications for theology and psychology. Theologically the Puritan corruption of love has reduced our relationship to God to be about mere obedience at the expense of grace, whereas the Freudian corruption has made the individual the center of the world and rooted only in an immoral drive for pleasure. In contrast, Christianity and the Greek philosophers see obedience and pleasure as that which accompany love, but do not replace love as central to their worldviews.
As I make my way through Love, Power, and Justice, it will be interesting to see how power and justice are also central ontological tenets and where they become about reunion with that which is ultimate. Still any work on Christian ontology must start with love. I am sure I will have reason to post on these other ontological ideas when I come to them.
II. More on Love
I would now like to say a little about my use of the word Christian and Puritan. It must seem like what I am saying is that Puritanism is something other than Christianity, but that is not my intent. It is just concerning love, Christians can get it very wrong and the way they do so is they succumb to a Puritan way of thought absent in much older church teaching. I will also say here that when I say “Puritan” I am not talking about the likes of Winthrop and Edwards, but the Protestant ethic that replaced caritas with agape. I will also add that that this ethic is not adhered to by all Protestants and certainly has its followers elsewhere in Christianity.
My own thought has been very influenced by Tillich, who went back to the more affirming Catholic and Greek understandings of love. The Puritan view was most espoused by another Lutheran , Bishop Anders Nygren who sought to call on Augustine and Luther to make a sharp distinction between agape and eros. As to how these views differ, I will not go into, but I will say they have implications for understanding love and the ethics of love.
For Tillich talking about types of love was pointless. When we do this we take away its ontological power and reduce it to several different things such as sexuality, friendship, worship etc., all of which may involve love, but is not love itself. One could use words like eros, libido, philia, and agape when talking about love (the Greeks certainly did) but when any of this language becomes love or a type of love, it takes away from a deeper understanding of the word. It also leads to ethics which become legalistic or libertine. Ethics involves obedience and liberty, but they cannot be the totality of ethics. This is where the Puritans and Freudians get it wrong for both lead us to understand love as a thing attained without true union to the divine and to other people.
Society is lovesick because we cannot understand the striving to be reunited to that which we belong. In moments of grace we understand this, but we are quick to return to our ignorance once the moment has left. And it does not take philosophical language to understand these things. Anyone who knows love inherently knows this to be the case. Who has not stood in the grandeur of nature and not felt pulled in by the love God has for creation and who has not known the love of another person and known that it is more than the physical? It is at these times we know we belong in a union that is more than its parts, that we know the eros of a beauty that seeks union and the agape of the union attained. As a final example, I will point to worship where we strive to attain a union with who is Wholly Other and having attained that union, we participate in that which makes us not only the worshiper but the subject and object of divine love.
That we have, in our modernity, reduced love to the like of the pleasure principle while ignoring true libido which pushes us toward union is the cause for all sort of poor understanding of love. One has to look no further than the self-centeredness of modern psychology or the joyless existence of too many of the religious to see this. How many, having been raised on mere obedience, revolt against God and God’s love to live a life of excess that puts them at the center of things where they delude themselves into thinking they have a life of joy and openness which is really only shallowness? And how many have left their perceived liberty behind to find comfort in religion that is only a moral code lacking grace and its beauty pushing them to believe that if enough is sacrificed they can atone for their past? Now I understand these examples immediately take one to the sensual, but they do exist in other areas as well. Besides no discussion of love, no matter how ontological or esoteric, evades this place where our lives know their greatest beauty.
III. Beauty and Grace
This brings me to the nature of beauty and of Christianity’s greatest concept, the one by which we know love and have our longing with that to which we belong fulfilled. I am speaking of grace. Grace is the vehicle of love, the giftedness of being made beautiful, which is really the state of being loved and loving in return. It is the arena of great fortitude born outside ourselves and pushing us to union with God and others.
In her book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, Cathleen Falsani states, “Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you absolutely don’t deserve. “ Tillich calls grace that which happens “in spite of ourselves.” And Paul Hewson (that’s Bono to most of the world) says “grace makes beauty out of ugly things.” These quotes show us where Christianity informs love more than any other theology or philosophy and what makes love central to its worldview.
The Greeks rightly understood the fallen nature of the world, even if they did not call it this. They knew the world could be ugly but they also knew of the libido and eros, the striving for higher things. They knew that it was in human nature to attain the good and truth in spite of the world’s ugliness. (Christians to this day can’t seem to get a synthesis between the two.) They also knew that beauty pointed the way to this. What they lacked was a developed idea of grace that was to be later found in Christianity. In short, the Greeks could get the ascending part of eros right, but they could not get a developed idea of agape that allowed for truth and goodness to come down to the ordinary and not always very beautiful world to make this world and its creatures beautiful. Christianity would make this central to its belief…..”for God so loved the world….” That Pagans performed this so poorly led some Christians to be dismissive of eros and its emphasis on the beautiful altogether. That led to a very poor understanding of love and even made some Christians very poor in understanding grace. (Individuals like Tillich and Pope Benedict XVI have sought to correct this, but the selfish worldview of the Freudians and legalistic one of the Puritans continues to exist.)
In God’s redemptive act, grace receives its greatest testimony. In the Christian proclamation, God out of an agapic love comes to earth to make beautiful his creation made ugly by sin which is really nothing other than an apartness from God, to who we ultimately belong and the estrangement we have with others to whom we also belong. That we too must in eros strive for it points us to the way of seeking after love that requires a courage born in grace.
IV. The Courage to Love and Be Loved
I want to conclude with the human endeavor of what to do with grace when experienced. Now grace is undeserved. We are all creatures of sin, but having received grace, we are called to a greater thing….the participation in the beauty that redeemed our ugliness. For the Christian, that the world can be so ugly is all the more reason for evangelical action and prayer. God’s destiny of collective grace overriding individual fate, once realized, must stand up to every profane and ugly action that is practiced on the planet. No better way exists to do this than to preach Christ crucified. That we will have to continue to live and even participate in the world’s ugliness is no excuse for this. And that we may have few palpable moments of grace does not mean God has not shared with all humanity the greatest act of grace fulfilled on the Cross.
And as persons we too must not allow timidity to override our striving for the true and good. We are meant for certain things, perhaps not all things, though more than a few. How much uglier would my own life had been if I had not met the youth who gave me cause to reread Tillich, or fallen in love, stayed up late hours holding someone at the close of her life or come to work with those with cognitive disabilities? And I have run from these things at times as certainly as I have run from God’s grace, but those times were only moments of cowardice…. the empty promise that I am better when I do not strive for love or remain open to it.
This cowardice though not always blameworthy is always sinful, however. We are not meant for estrangement, but reunion with that and to those to whom we belong. Life does belong to life. Love, which has descended to us, calls that we should ascend to it. We cannot do this without the courage to love or to be loved in return. That we should say “Yes!” in the face of this love is our courage just as having been offered such love is our grace.