Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 23rd February 2014
23 February 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
In The Four Loves CS Lewis looks at some of the different descriptions of love in Greek thought: ranging from romantic love (eros) to spiritual love (agape). He reflects on the complexities of love and how the Christian Church has come to interpret these distinctions. Though its 'probably impossible' to love any human being too much, we must, says Lewis, make sure we don’t 'love others too much in proportion to our love for God'. For Lewis, its always the smallness of our love for God, not the greatness of our love for others, that puts things out of balance.
This morning, as we recall the Introit ‘O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit into our hearts’ by Thomas Tallis, I shall be talking about Love as a fruit of the Holy Spirit. This, will be mostly about agape, but flavoured with tantalising touches of eros. The philosopher Roger Scruton (who you may have seen on Question Time last Thursday) makes a helpful contribution: In Plato, eros arises in a god-like way - that is to say, as an external and invading force, which overwhelms the psyche. But it ascends like a fire, and carries the subject heavenward, to the realm of the forms which is the kingdom of God. St Paul, by contrast, emphasises agape, which comes to us from God, rather than raising us to him. The downward turning love of the almighty fills us with gratitude, and we reciprocate by spreading it outwards to our neighbours here on earth.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church helps by further defining agape: 'In the New Testament, the word agape took on a special meaning: It was used by the writers to designate a volitional love [in other words a chosen love] as opposed to the purely emotional kind [in other words temporary and reactive]. It is a self-sacrificial love, a kind naturally expressed by God but not so easily by men and women'. This sort of love could also be described as the roots, the tree trunk and the branches that produce all the other fruits. As I’ve said in previous sermons this month, this is the source of peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, joy, and self-control. And yet for the vast majority of people, this type of love is worlds away from their essentially emotional experience of love.
The secular triangular theory of love proposed by the contemporary psychologist Robert Sternberg (which incidentally has nothing to do with the Trinity) tries to explain this in terms of three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. For example, a combination of intimacy and commitment results in compassionate love; while a combination of passion and intimacy leads to passionate love. This reflects the widely held belief that love is essentially an emotion. In order to further develop this – we first need to understand what emotions are all about. For example most people are motivated by doing things that help and feed themselves, and avoid doing things harmful to themselves. To this end, the concept of God, of self-sacrificial love, selfless, altruistic, unconditional love becomes something that’s rather difficult to quantify, something unfamiliar, something rather akin to St Paul’s discovery of an inscription ‘to an unknown God’.
The anthem at Evensong yesterday (from the Song of Songs) bridged this divide: agape was enlivened with eros – words of exulted and beautifully idealistic love – put to music: 'I will seek him whom my soul loves..…I am faint with love….My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among thousands'. Although it would be a mistake to blankly confound eros and agape (pitting desire or even jealousy against self-sacrificial love) the Church does get itself into all kinds of difficulties when it accentuates the divide between eros and agape; citing the ‘good’ against the ‘bad’. Over this last week the House of Bishops have issued pastoral guidance on same sex marriage and commended it to us all. Whichever way you understand marriage, it is difficult to argue against it as a sacrament, which means a union forged in the presence of God. And of course the purpose of the sacrament is to incorporate eros into the world of agape, when the private face of the lover, becomes the public face of the couple.
It is also worth noting that this mellowing of the hard distinction between eros and agape isn’t a modern twenty-first-century invention. If we delve back into Christian spiritual tradition its not that difficult to pick up this thread amongst our great mystics and religious poets. For example, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, when describing the love that the soul has for God, almost always follow Plato’s example and take eros as their analogical base.
The stunning poem, the Dark Night of the Soul, uses imagery taken from the Song of Solomon tradition as a metaphor for the intimate and personal longing of the human soul for God (and vice versa). But it is important for us to understand that it doesn’t all end in tangles of desire, but rather in longing come to rest. How, in the darkest points of life, when all seems hopeless, we’re often very near to God’s love. The writings of St John of the Cross are a great catalyst for us in exploring the love of God. But is it all about a grasping eros searching for a reward? or a pure self-giving agape?
Perhaps we’ll never really know, but it does show us how difficult it is to departmentalise God-given love. Paul Tillich wasn’t that bothered by the intrusion of eros into agape, and I think I’m pretty well with him on that point. The most important thing though is for each of us to want to explore how God’s love touches our minds and hearts – and how we respond to the transformational power of the Holy Spirit. In his first encyclical (on God is love) Benedict XVI said that a human being, created in the image of God, who is love, is able to practise love; to give himself to God and others (i.e. agape) and by receiving and experiencing God’s love in contemplation (i.e. eros). He goes on to say that this sort of love characterises the life of the saints, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Teresa of Calcutta and St John of the Cross, and is the direction Christians take when they believe that God loves them.
I have a sneaking suspicion that if you could put CS Lewis, Plato, Benedict XVI, Paul Tillich, Roger Scruton, and St John of the Cross in the same room to discuss the nature of divine love, they would find rather more in common with each other than any one of them may initially have suspected.