Monday, March 12, 2012

Desire and God, who is Love

In the first part his encylical letter, Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI deals with the reality expressed so memorably in film and song, namely that "love is a many splendored thing," even when looked at from the divine perspective, at least to the extent we can grasp it.

Eros enrapturing Psyche

After pointing out that the Greek word eros appears only twice in Sacred Scripture, both times in the Septuagint, which is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and so not all in our uniquely Christian Scriptures, originally written in koine Greek, he takes up Nietzsche's argument, which he set forth in his work Beyond Good and Evil, that "Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice" (par. 3). Sympathetically picking up the thread of Nietzsche's critique, the Holy Father went to state, "Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn't she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?"

It is obvious that the answer to the question posed as a result of Nietzsche's critique is a qualified "No." It is equally obvious that agapé and eros, while clearly distinguishable one from the other, possess "some profound underlying unity." It is also demonstrable that "the message of love proclaimed to us by the Bible and the Church's Tradition" does have "some points of contact with the common human experience of love." Eros and agapé, it is noted, "are often contrasted as 'ascending' love and 'descending' love." All of this leads to what I can only describe as a brilliant synthesis:

In philosophical and theological debate, these distinctions have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love—agape—would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love —eros—would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, 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. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)(par. 7)
I can't help but tie all of this to the two ways human love is corrupted as explicated by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, in his wonderful book What Is the Point of Being a Christian?, which he identifies as lust and infatuation, with lust correlating to eros detached from agapé and infatuation correlating to agapé similarly cut-off from earthly and human reality, something like exaltation of the unrequited love of the troubadour. As with many things "love" is a matter of holding these aspects in tension in order to maintain a balance. This balancing act can never mean an attenuation, or aim at either dissipation or dilution, but completion, perfect, blissful completion.


  1. interesting posting as we approach the conjunction of Jupiter (justice) and Venus (eros).

  2. Fred, yes it is. It honestly had not occurred to me. Flashes of Von Balthasar's forward to Tomberg's Meditations on the Tarot!

  3. Very interesting. Very apologetic :)


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