Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Eros and Agape Like many of you, I'm reading Pope Benedict's encyclical, a process that will take quite a while. After the conclusion of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I'll reduce my posting here to a level more appropriate to both my time and intelligence. But I wanted to post an initial reflection on the first part of the encyclical that might strike an ecumenical chord. Pope Benedict writes, "An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in 'ecstasy' towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns." The Pope is writing against the "divine madness" of the Greek eros and the attempts of moderns to recover an eros that they saw as "poisoned" or turned to "bitterness" by Christianity's prohibitions. The encyclical, then, is consistent with the work of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger who, as Antonio Socci claimed, “more than once developed the idea that Christianity entered the world as the true ‘Enlightenment,’ which disperses the fog of superstition and the claim to divinity on the part of power and violence.” The then-Cardinal wrote about religion in our times, "Its disappearance is no longer anticipated; on the contrary, various new forms of it are growing luxuriantly" - and promising their own ascents, some undoubtedly intoxicated and undisciplined. And, today, "the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence." Christianity's demythologizing task is not finished. In an 1977 article, the Protestant minister and theologian W.A. Visser 't Hooft, the first General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, wrote that "the historic mission of Israel and, following Israel, of the Christian Church is to challenge the gods, to de-sacralize life and so to make the way free for the meeting with the one God who demands exclusive faithfulness." About eros, Visser 't Hooft had this to say: Neo-paganism demands the rehabilitation and emancipation of Eros which has been suppressed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. But we must ask whether Eros by itself is a reliable guide for the creation of deep and permanent human relations. The modern protest against the disqualification of Eros in the tradition of the church and in various forms of moralism is not without justification. In Christian theology and teaching, Eros has seldom been treated as a normal and basic constituent element of human existence, but as a dangerous and evil force. This was, of course, due to the fact that in the ancient pagan world Eros had been the object of worship, and the nature of eros-love was essentially different from the nature of agape-love, the love characteristic of the Christian life. Now in our day, Eros takes its revenge. Eros refuses to be ignored any longer. Some declare that the time has come to combine religion and eroticism, since "both have the same aim: They want to change man and seek his re-birth" (Walter Schubart). Others are convinced that in order to serve Eros we must reject the God of the Bible. In this situation the message of the Christian Church is lacking in clarity. We know that Eros must not be allowed to be in sole charge of human relations. For Eros is finally self-seeking and so its victories are often Pyrrhic; the victor does not reap any fruit of his victory. Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence's friend and himself an apostle of Eros, spoke a true word when he said of Lady Chatterley's Lover that it was "a beautiful, but inexpressibly sad book." The qualification applies even more to the literature by lesser writers of the pan-erotic school. It is, then, clear that Eros needs Agape. The very best we have in our tradition concerning the relations between men and women is inspired by Agape, very especially the definite commitment of two human beings to each other as faithful partners for life. But we have not yet done our homework on the question of what can and must be the place of Eros in the lives of men and women who want to be instruments of the God-given Agape. The debate between Anders Nygren, Karl Barth, Denis de Rougemont and others on Eros and Agape has not led to any conclusion that we can use in our evangelistic approach. Until we have a clear word on this deeper issue, we cannot deal helpfully with the acute moral issues of our time. One wonders why this crucial issue has not been taken more seriously at the ecumenical level.