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History of Love II: Religion and Eros

"Love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity even in its most fleshly." Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Mystical spirituality has never been absent a powerful component of eros. I was a reader a few years ago for a delightful doctoral dissertation accepted in 2009 by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Tartu, in Estonia, entitled “Eros and Mysticism: Are Mystical States of Consciousness Evolutionary Byproducts of Sexual Response.,” by Roland Karo. I’m still hoping he eventually publishes this with a reputable press, as it deserves a very wide hearing. I first met Roland at a conference of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology in Iasi, Romania in 2006, to which he drove overland from Estonia, being forced to skirt the Ukraine for political reasons, no small achievement. Dr. Karo would later chair a conference for this group in Estonia in 2012, and is now membership secretary.

He introduces his thesis with a case report by Vera von der Heydt, a noblewoman and a Jungian analyst: “A young Roman Catholic woman of about twenty-two years – to the horror of her family – was suddenly refusing to go to holy Communion, and refused to give a reason. After she had spoken to a priest she came to see me. After a while she admitted to me that she could not go to Communion because every time the Host touched her tongue she had an orgasm. This was for her utterly blasphemous, wicked and terrifying; because she regarded her body and its needs as wicked and terrifying whatever the cause.

There are obvious cases like Teresa of Avila’s burning desire for ecstatic union, a pretty literal understanding of being a “Bride of Christ.” The poetry of her contemporary, St. John of the Cross, though actually directed to God, is marvelous erotic love poetry I once used to delight a lover from Barcelona. From San Juan de la Cruz’ O Living Flame of Love:

“O living flame of love

how tenderly you wound

my soul in her profoundest core!

You are no longer shy.

Do it now, I ask you:

break the membrane of our sweet union.

O soothing cautery!

O wound that is a joy!

O gentle hand! O delicate touch

tasting of eternity

repaying every debt

Killing, you turn my death to life.


How lovingly and soft

you make my breasts recall

where you alone lie secretly

sad with your honeyed breath,

replete with grace and glory

how tenderly you make me love!"

John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God” in which he beseeches God to “ravish” him, is also a wonderful literary trope. But even the mystical theology of Bonaventure (1221-1274) was clear that a monk’s mystical ecstasies may literally include sexual fluid: In spritualibus affectionibus carnalis fluxus liquore maculantur (“with the spiritual affections, they are stained with the liquid of the carnal flow”).

However literal and bodily the love of God can clearly be, the sense that the carnal sexuality of eros and the nurturance of caritas, as well, perhaps just as importantly, as the deep familiarity and respect of philia might be combined into something even more wonderful and powerful, has a surprising advocate in Abelard’s Heloise. The story of Heloise and Abelard is an infamous one. There is an entire chapter of Constantine’s Sword from which I got my first full understanding of this tale, and if its theological relevance. But there is part of this history even more relevant to us here, and that is Heloise’s philosophy of love. There is a segment of the film Being John Malkovich when the puppeteer protagonist enacts the story. Heloise is brilliant, and even at age 18, is a “lady of no mean appearance, while in literary excellence she was the first.”

Peter Abelard is one of the community of geniuses at the cathedral school in Paris that marked the invention of the modern university in the 12th century. Pre-eminent at the Paris school, he is known across the continent as a gifted teacher, and despite being more than twice Heloise’s age, is a “fair and handsome man and not tall.” He develops Anselm’s dialogical method, applying reason to faith, including the method of doubt, by which we “come to question, and by questioning learn truth.” He turns Anselm on his head, and argues that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is not an expiatory payback of a blood debt, pleasing to the Lord. Rather it is an exemplary model of love, the attitude needing changing being not God’s but that of self-hating humans, by an act of love which shows us, like the prodigal son, that God’s love is sacrificial and unchanging and we were never not redeemed, we were already saved. This is ultimately rejected as heresy by Bernard of Clairvaux, who played a role in the Second Crusade, and was the first Christian theoretician of holy war, providing theological justification for killing unbelievers. And the “gossipy cluck of disapproval curls the tongues of Abelard’s critics.” So, back to Heloise.

Though Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum, a kind of “you think you have it bad” letter to a friend, takes the blame for everything, Heloise will hear none of this. She takes Abelard to task as part of a lifelong correspondence between them. She points out that he was a renowned scholar, with a rock-star reputation, also known about town as a troubadour at various local watering holes. She is the one who badgered her uncle to bring Abelard into their home as her personal tutor. This provides the “secret privacy which love desired… There was more kissing than teaching; my hands found themselves at her breasts more often than the book.” Nevertheless, according to Heloise, “whatever you wished, I blindly carried out.” Now, while Abelard’s position required him to be a cleric, it didn’t necessarily require vows of ordination, or celibacy. Aware that marriage could hurt Abelard’s career, Heloise said she’d rather be his whore. But while pregnancy prompts their secret marriage, it is not enough for her uncle, the offended liege Lord, who has his thugs “cut off the organs by which I committed the deed that they deplored.”

Heloise and Abelard are banished to separate monasteries, despite being “one flesh by the law of marriage,” and name their son Astralabe, after the pre-Copernican navigational instrument, to whom Abelard later writes “Astralabe, my son, the delight of your father’s life.” But the correspondence with Heloise never stops, and their remains are later interred together in a Paris cemetery where “lovers, believers, and thinkers still come to pay homage.” Their love story is powerful, about which there are innumerable sources, at least going back to Etienne Gibson’s (1960) Heloise & Abelard, The primary source is from seven letters, discovered and published 100 years later, but a “new biography” was published by James Burge in 2003, Abelard and Heloise which draws on an ancient book on epistolary style. This book was constructed out of examples from a much larger set of letters that were almost certainly part of the corpus. Burge makes clear that in the private world of Heloise and Abelard “physical sensations, emotions, and ideas were explored together,” and that outside the bedroom, Heloise was quite able to talk back to her teacher, and uses the opening “from an equal to an equal” more than once. If their erotic intensity did not put a stop to their discussion of ideas, neither did their banishment. In a “special kind of philosophical closeness” they together elaborated a philosophy of intentions, in which the morality of an action is better determined by its intention rather than by what people do or say. Since intentions are a part of ourselves we cannot fake, evil can only originate from “consent to what we believe to be wrongs” so that even those who crucified Christ were forgiven because they “know not what they do.”

Heloise notes, along similar lines, that whatever unlawfulness they committed was surely atoned by an honorable marriage. Moreover, “the tempter did not prevail on me to do wrong with my own consent.” So, in her own eyes she did not sin in the downfall of Abelard because she did not consent to evil. While she did have some sins to expiate for yielding to carnal desire (the least of sins in Dante’s descending circles of hell in The Inferno), she cannot do penance because she does not regret what she has done. Her description reads like a celebration of romantic love. From her second letter:

“In my case the pleasures of lovers that we shared have been too sweet - they can never displeased me, and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts. Wherever I turn, they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep… I can only sigh for what I have lost. Everything we did and also the times and places are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through it all again with you.”

More than once Abelard tries to get Heloise to see her love for him as a route to love for God. She will have none of it. It is Abelard, the man, for whom she feels this love, a love of such great value that she finally does not believe that God himself could be displeased. Heloise herself later articulates the philosophy of love implicit here (a scholarly monograph by Constant K. Mews in 2005, Abelard and Heloise, documents this). This synthesis of Eros and Caritas into “Dilectio” is, to my thinking, one of the earliest descriptions, based on both lived experience and philosophical elaboration, of the modern ideal.

Sadly, I think the hyper-individualism of our era has rendered this ideal all but unattainable. Central to our understandings of a meaningful human life are our relationships with others, including the bodily and the sexual, which extend us into a wider, living community. At the ESSSAT conference in Tartu. Estonia, co-chaired by my colleague, now Dr. Roland Karo, I presented “Faith and Faux Love: The Cognitive Science of Self and Other,” arguing that when we confuse projections of our own inner divinity with actually loving specific, embodied others, it leads to a faux love that produces many of the most painful breakdowns of relationship. It also detracts from understanding the limits of what we can know, as well as our deepest human longings, expressed in genuinely committed and loving relationships.

The first question is whether religious faith is itself a projected form of loving, a quixotic quest for what we cannot have, which can only be made real and whole in the context of natural, incarnate, loving relationships between people in all their limitations and complexities. While such a quixotic quest might be consistent with the “longing system” I talked about in “Anticipation," it might be precisely what Heloise was warning Abelard against in her insistence that she loved him, Peter Abelard, the actual individual, mortal man.

I am not saying that religious faith is merely projection, though it may also be, only that it may only be made real in the context of loving and embodied human relationships. At the time of Heloise and Abelard, in the 12th century, the growth of a sense of individuality had only begun. By our own era, in contemporary Western culture, informed by a conception of mind as internal to the central nervous system, it has produced a bounded and self-contained individual at odds with communal life, and perhaps toxic to it. Happily, scientific and philosophical studies of mind are coming to view the human mind as a construction not limited to the boundaries of the individual organism, and to see mental phenomena as hybrids of events in the head and events in the world to which they are often coupled. Such an externalism has implications for a number of religious themes, most notably the binding of our redemption to our most intimate and loving relationships with others, including our bodies and our sexuality, rather than to private, interior, individual relationships with the sacred. This suggests that religious faith might be better understood not as a lonely, private and quixotic quest, but as constituted within, shaped by, and brought to fruition in our relational lives. Here is the rudder by which we might avoid the rocks of Scylla, the idea that there is an implacable, sacred boundary to the self.

The paired danger, the whirlpool of Charybdis, is believing that the desacralization of self-boundaries must entail their elimination, either by losing sight of genuine otherness by believing that “we are the world” (or at mystical union with it), or by self-abnegation, surrendering one’s own value to self-destruction. The loss of self or other to the vortex destroys he fragile possibility of opening oneself to what is other, including the “other” within us, which can be made better available to us via the compassionate encouragement of genuine, loving relationships with other human beings. The next question is not so much whether romantic love, in becoming the modern religion par excellence, can be the result of archetypal projections which produce illusion and suffering. It all too obviously can. But might there be a deeper longing that needs to be re-sacralized? Opening ourselves to what is “other,” within ourselves, in our own vulnerable and unknown inner realities, could be part of the imaginal landscape of the sacred, at its transformational best.

The depth psychologist Robert Johnson (not the Blues guitarist) asserts that “Romantic love is the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche. In our culture it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness and ecstasy” (from the preface to his 1983 book We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love). Why then do we spend so much time feeling lonely, alienated and frustrated by the difficulty in forming genuinely loving and committed relationships. Johnson suggests that “falling in love” is the most powerful projection one makes, of our own most noble and valuable aspects, our unacknowledged “golden shadow,” onto another human being. This is a projection of the opposite-sex archetype in each of us, in a man, the female “anima,” also the word for “soul.” But this is quite different from the quieter and more humanly proportioned experience of loving. The intensity of the projection can obliterate the humanity of the beloved, so that while we have loosed the most sublime feeling of which we are capable, we “set ourselves up for the greatest suffering we will ever know” (this from page 66 of Johnson’s 1991 book Owning Your Own Shadow, for which there is also a Study Guide). Johnson calls this “the great wound in the Western psyche.”

Whether or not “romance” is something that only emerged in Western culture as a development of courtly love in the 12th century, empirical research shows evidence of such feelings in 89% of cultures. Nevertheless, it has only been presumed to form the basis for committed, long-term marriages in much more recent Western cultural development. Parent-arranged marriages in India are happier than romance-based ones in the US, though less so in China.

Clearly the romantic love about which we so rhapsodize and the love present in successful, long-term, committed relationships are different. Researchers in psychology regularly distinguish between the “passionate love” of early relationship formation, with its frequent thoughts of the other in uncritical idealization, and the “companionate love” more frequently found in longer-term commitments, which involves mutual care, greater compatibility, and is related to higher satisfaction in life. The intuition that one “can know someone too well to fall in love with them,” suggest a projective component to passionate love less conducive to nurture, stability, or perhaps even companionship,but certainly to brushing teeth together, addressing the quotidian tensions and inevitable peccadilloes of limited and imperfect but complicated individuals.

Thinkers from the theologian Paul Tillich (1957 Dynamics of Faith) to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2012 The Righteous Mind) have argued that self-transcendence is the primary religious impulse. Robert Johnson suggests that this religious impulse has migrated almost entirely into our private interiors where it lives disguised as romantic love. This is why we feel that our lives are so much more meaningful when we are in love, and why romantic love is such a powerful force in our culture. The problem is that when the “world takes on a brightness and meaningfulness that no human being could ever bestow,” we make impossible demands on actual human relationships, and couples end up treating “their friends with so much more kindness, consideration, generosity, and forgiveness than they ever give to one another.” Johnson suggests that we need to learn the difference between the kind of love that can be the basis for the nurture of, and commitment to, another flawed human being, from the projections and inner ideals of romantic love, which need to be acknowledged and, I would argue, resacralized as the religious impulses which they hide. If we do so, we may find that what we needed all along was not so much to be loved, as to love.

After my own lengthy and unrequited love, I finally had an epiphany, and realized that my own love had redeemed me. I wept that I could not return the favor. She said she was moved by my tears. But I realized that what I felt was due to her was in me all along. While I do hope that she someday finds this in herself, my huge love was only wasted by not finding a more loving relationship. After my presentation at the conference in Tartu, I had a long conversation with a Franciscan friar, who would chair the next ESSSAT conference, focused on emotion, in Assisi. Happily, I met someone new. We respect someone for their virtues, but we love them for their flaws, and I had finally married someone who I both loved and respected. Indeed, after the conference in Assisi, Lindsey and I celebrated our honeymoon in Tuscany. You can’t love life, and not love Italy. Walking the Boboli gardens in Florence, with so many sidewalk cafes and mouth watering meals, seeing a flag throwing competition in Lucca, and being amazed at the villages clinging to seaside cliffs in Cinque Terre, were all highlights, but touring the hill towns and the Chianti vineyards of Tuscany was sheer joy. Not a bad way to start a marriage.

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