Response, Part II
Jan 16, 2012
[Note: Since yesterday, when I wrote this post, a lot of good discussion, including some by the original commenter, has been going on in the comboxes for Part I.]
This post is a continuation of Response, Part I, in which I have a few words to say to a commenter who found me because of a tag involving whom else but that magnificent agent of providence, badassery, and freon-grade coolness, Keanu Reeves.1 Excerpts from the original comment continue below.
This isn’t like struggling with regular sin, where doing so actively improves your life and makes you a better person. You’re actively denying yourself a form of love — not even talking about gay sex here, just the kind of deep love one shares with a romantic partner — which is something that no other sin involves, and it seems to be hurting you, which would seem a natural effect of shutting off one of the best, most meaningful things about being human.
My first instinct was to talk about asceticism and self-renunciation, practices which are more or less defined by “actively denying yourself…one of the best, most meaningful things about being human.” Asceticism has always been understood in Christianity as a means of drawing closer to God, even though the secular world invariably calls such things “unhealthy.”
I’m also reminded of Matthew 5:30: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Your right hand is, arguably, one of the fairly nice (not to mention meaningful) parts about being human — but there are more important things.
So. All of that is perfectly true, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter here. The commenter believe I’ve cut myself off from romantic love. In a sense that is true, but in another sense, romantic love isn’t something that I deny myself; it’s something that I’ve never experienced.
I don’t mean I’ve never experienced what’s called “being in love”: delighting in another person, wanting to give yourself to him in some way, feeling more alive when he’s around. But is that “romantic love”? One of the particular confusions that goes along with SSA is a confusion between philia and eros, between (approximately) friendship and romantic love.
The experience of “being in love” as described above is partly eros and partly philios, even though the culture at large ascribes it solely to eros. This is still something I’m struggling to understand, but this quotation by (O strange serendipity!) Andrew Sullivan sheds a lot of light:
The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship. And I don’t mean what Saint Paul meant by love, the Christian notion of indiscriminate and universal agape or caritas, which is based on the universal love of the Christian God. I mean love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture…We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired all the hallmarks of a cult. It has become our civil religion.2
I’ll leave you to chew on that — it’s very chewy! — and move on to the next reason to say that I haven’t, properly speaking, ever experienced romantic love.
It’s this: romantic love is not an isolated experience. It’s part of a larger whole, and when it’s removed from that whole, it becomes no longer itself — the way that (speaking of cutting off hands) if you remove a hand from a human body, it isn’t a hand anymore at all. It’s just a lump of flesh.
The “larger whole” has to do with marriage, family, and at least the possibility of procreation. It has to do with the deep complementarity that exists by nature, physically and symbolically, between a man and a woman, and does not exist in the same way between two men. If you remove romantic love from this context, it isn’t romantic love anymore, but something else.3
But I’ve come to the part in this post where (1) I’m talking about things I haven’t fully understood yet, and (2) Whoa, it got long again! Maybe we need a Part III. On the other hand, maybe Part III happens in the comboxes.
2 The excerpt is from Sullivan’s Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival. I haven’t read it, so I can’t recommend it, but it’s on my list, and I think this quotation is really wonderful. I first heard about it from Wesley Hill, whose Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality is also on my to-read-very-soon list.
3 Here, although it’s not perfectly apropos, I have to reference that bit in C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy where he talks about what happens when you remove Joy from its proper context.