Theorizing about romance is risky. Where the sonnets of William Shakespeare or the lyrics of Bob Dylan can exhilarate and wound us, theories of romantic love often leave us cold and bored. Yet philosophers and theologians keep theorizing about romantic love despite the risks, and for good reason. Philosophers and theologians are interested in how human experiences and practices are to be related to the good or to God, and romantic love is a distinctively intense and suggestive kind of human experience. Despite high-minded or cynical attempts to debunk our culture’s preoccupation with “being in love,” it is not easy to shed the suspicion that there is a connection between our search for joy and our desire for romance.
In this essay, I will examine the connection between romance and God. Can romance be sanctified? Can it be a sacrament, a path to God, an intimation of the loving embrace of God that is our destiny? Or, conversely, is romance necessarily a distraction, an obstacle, an alluring counterfeit of authentic love that draws us away from God into narcissistic self-assertion and self-worship?
Such theological questions are typically explored within the categories of eros and agape—for example, “What is the relationship between human erotic love and God’s divine agape?”—but I raise the question in the language of romance to forestall certain Platonist tendencies that, I will try to show, continue to haunt contemporary theological explorations of this theme. Because of its philosophical pedigree, eros is susceptible to theoretical abstraction that eviscerates romantic love of precisely those characteristics that make it, on the one hand, so humanly interesting and, on the other, so challenging to enfold within a theological horizon.
Romance is about particular persons and particular bodies.1 By romance I mean a powerful kind of experience that is difficult to describe yet easy to identify. The experience I aim to isolate is the one we gesture toward today when we speak of falling in love. Stendahl says that “to love is to enjoy seeing, touching, and sensing with all the senses, as closely as possible, a lovable object which loves in return.” Andreas Capellanus says, “Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the [other], which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other.”2 At the center of the phenomenon is abnormally strong desire fastened upon another person. The lover is helplessly distracted by the presence of the beloved; the lover’s heart thrills in the presence of the beloved, aches with longing to see the beloved, to hold the beloved, to be united with the beloved.
Such romantic desire is characterized by a special apprehension of the good of the other as a whole person, including delight in the moral, intellectual, and spiritual beauty of the other. Thus, romance is distinguished from lust. But it also includes a special sensuous apprehension of the other, which expresses itself in the wish to touch and embrace the beloved’s body, the wish to meditate and gaze upon the beauty of the beloved. Thus, romance is distinguished from other forms of love such as parental love, friendship, or patriotism. My theological question is whether or not romance, so understood, can be an experience of grace. Or, conversely, whether romance is an idol of fallen nature.
Many readers will recognize Anders Nygren in the background of such a contrast. Agape and Eros, published in the mid-1930s, is Nygren’s landmark work on the relationship between human and divine love. It is also the most influential Protestant book on love in the twentieth century. Nygren argued that erotic love and agape love are incompatible. Eros is the human form of love. It is motivated by the perception of value in another; it desires the other and seeks to possess the other; thus, it is always finally acquisitive and egocentric. Agape is the divine form of love. It is unmotivated and spontaneous; it creates value where there is none; it is independent of desire and is characterized by unconditional self-sacrifice on behalf of the undeserving other. The two forms of love are irreconcilable: “There cannot actually be any doubt that Eros and Agape belong originally to two entirely separate spiritual worlds, between which no direct communication is possible.”3
Nygren’s work has filtered into the popular Christian imagination. How many sermons have we heard in which God’s agape love is contrasted with our merely human loves? Such an opposition between eros and agape is actually absent from the biblical text, however. In the New Testament every available Greek word for love—agape, eros, filia, and even epithymia—is used to name God’s love.4 Nevertheless, Nygren’s development of the opposition is now read back into the biblical text and looms in the background of many Protestant discussions of love. I suspect that this is part of the contemporary Protestant confusion about sex and marriage. The Reformation tradition, on which Nygren was elaborating, simultaneously disparaged eros and elevated marriage over singleness as the norm for the Christian life, thus leaving us in the odd position of wanting our young people to marry but—given the decoupling of marriage and economic necessity—finding it difficult to say why they should.
Nygren provides a first (decisively negative) response to the question of whether or not romance might be a sacrament. According to Nygren’s rejection of eros, singleness is the ideal because it is less encumbered by the treachery of eros. However, within this view, there are several ways of defending the institution of marriage. First, marriage is a concession to lust—“better to marry than to be aflame with passion,” as Paul says (1 Cor. 7:9 NRSV). Second, marriage is an ideal means for the perpetuation of the human race. And third, courtesy of Nygren, the institution of marriage may provide a theater for agape love whenever the “weaker” spouse desires sex. Even though the Christian will have left behind eros love in favor of agape love, “the Christian must give up this higher spiritual position out of consideration for his partner; that is what Agape-love requires of him.”5 Thus, strangely, for Nygren sex is most expressive of the love of God when the Christian kindly agrees to have marital sex even though he would rather not. Needless to say, this is a picture of married life and sex devoid of romance.
There is something intuitive in Nygren’s suspicion of all human desire as egocentric; the scope and depth of our narcissism is staggering. But Nygren’s position has been widely criticized. Those in the Catholic tradition see the eros-agape opposition as yet another bruised fruit of the Protestant tendency to pit nature against grace. The previous two popes have both written extensively on erotic love and sex, maintaining that any attempt to erect an absolute opposition between eros and agape ends up condemning human desire and hence denying the goodness of part of God’s creation. If we accept, with Nygren, that all love rooted in desire for the beauty or value of another (eros) is intrinsically idolatrous, we must conclude that our destiny is one bereft of delight, passion and, indeed, love in any recognizable form. For, as Paul Tillich has pointed out, love stripped of desire is not love at all; it is merely obedience.6 Joseph Ratzinger writes that in God, eros and agape are united. “God’s eros for man is also totally agape,”7 meaning that desire is capable of being purified and deployed in non-idolatrous ways as exemplified in God’s perfectly holy and passionate love for Godself, human persons, and all of creation.
This alternative attempt to relate the categories of eros and agape leads to a second possible response to the question of whether or not romance might be a sacrament. I will call this second response the transformation of eros, in contrast to the rejection of eros typified by Nygren. Recognizing, on the one hand, that human desire is implicated in forms of idolatry and narcissism but, on the other hand, that our destiny is a desirous delight in God, this view contends that eros—love rooted in desire for the beauty or value of another—is capable of being transformed in such a way that it is purified of its egocentric tendencies. But how does this transformation take place, and what is being transformed into what?
In the introduction to a collection of readings entitled Theology and Sexuality, Eugene Rogers claims that among theologians committed to the classical Christian tradition “a remarkable convergence is emerging” around such questions as “What is the body for?” “What does marriage mean?” and “What does God want with sex, anyway?” Building on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and finding elegant expression in Rowan Williams’s essay “The Body’s Grace,” this emerging theological consensus has been described as “nuptial theology.”8 The convergence, Rogers argues, is a product of the growing sense that strictly exegetical responses to the issue of homosexuality are insufficient and therefore push us to resolve deeper theological questions about the relationship between erotic desire, sex, and our future in God. Despite their different stances on homosexuality, contributors to Rogers’s volume share a common conviction that all human desire, including erotic desire, is ultimately in quest of God. Because it is such an intense category of human desire, erotic love is an especially fertile field for discipleship and growth in holy love. The question, then, is how to construe the holy potential of eros.
Culling from several of the selections in the volume, Rogers distills a “catechetical” answer to the question of the role of erotic desire in the Christian life:
Sexuality is a sign that we cannot escape of our vulnerability to the neighbor [Thomas Breidenthal] and to God who “penetrates the creature . . . completely naked before Him,” or, if you prefer a feminine metaphor, to Wisdom, who “envelopes all things” [John Paul II]. It is a means God can use to “catch us up into” God’s own life [Rowan Williams], not least because it “ropes us into” commitments and disciplines from which also we cannot easily escape [Robert Jenson]. Sexuality is primarily, therefore, for sanctification, not for satisfaction—or for the consummation that sanctification brings.9
Eros, then, is that lure, that “hook in the flesh”10—to use a phrase from Rogers—by which God captures the human lover and pulls him up into the divine life. We begin as lovers of the enfleshed, human other; we end as lovers of God. How, precisely, does eros serve as this hook in the flesh? Apparently, eros is that human desire that is strong enough to pull us into relationships of vulnerability and to evince from us a commitment to stay with the other even as our own shortcomings are gradually revealed. In such relationships, lovers may become transformed by the perceptions of the other, coming to find that they are still loved even as their frailties are exposed. This process then becomes a clue to the nature of God’s love. In finding himself more consistently affirmed as a source of delight by his human lover, the beloved discovers a “clue”11 that mediates to him the nature of God’s unconditional delight in him. The desirous gaze of the lover shows forth to the beloved his destiny—to be drawn into the affectionate gaze of a God in love.
This is a significant improvement over the rejection of eros. Rogers and others in the school of nuptial theology provide an account of the relationship between human and divine love that institutes a link between the two rather than a severing break. Human love is no longer consigned to the trash heap of a fallen nature but is instead invited to express itself in forms of relationship that allow its created potential to unfold toward a holy love of God and others. Certainly we find here a description of marriage that is more amenable to Christian discipleship and more familiar to those who have found marriage to be conducive to growth in God.
But I am left wondering what happens to romance in this account of the mediating role of erotic love. Rogers’s metaphor of erotic desire as a “hook in the flesh” calls to mind the popular wisdom about marriage according to which marriage is not really about “being in love” even if that is the reason people often give for wanting to get married. Rather, this view holds, marriage is about commitment, even when you no longer “feel it.” Marriage is about discovering the virtues necessary to keep the vows you made to someone for whom you no longer have strong feelings. In such accounts, marriage has been politicized, in the Aristotelian sense, as a community of friends committed to the development of virtue in service of the common good. We hear resonances of this politicized view in the admonition that Christians who wish to marry should ask whether the potential spouse will better enable them to do the Lord’s work. What remains unclear is why one should marry and have sex with another just because that person is a good friend in the Lord. In such a view of marriage, I suggest, romance is being remaindered in favor of virtue, especially the virtues of loyalty and constancy. The category of eros is undergoing some slippage here that I want to explore.
The language of eros as a “hook in the flesh” by which God gets hold of us suggests that on this view erotic desire is a means toward something other than erotic desire; romance—strong bodily desire fastened upon another particular person—is not so much transformed as transcended. Put informally, it sounds as if the experience of falling in love or of being in love is merely a weigh station en route to a more worthy destination. My suspicion is validated when Rogers says, “Both the married and the monastic need somebody who loves them to call them on their faults from whom they cannot easily escape. The transformation is not only, or even primarily, the experience of falling in love (eros), but that is the intensity and the clue to the importance of something else: the experience of living with someone, the neighbor, who won’t leave one alone (agape).”12 Once again, eros and agape are contrasted: eros names the experience of falling in love whereas agape names the development of virtue. The experience of being in love is simply the hook (we might be tempted to say the trap) that lures people into relationships in which they are forced to be better. As Rogers says, “God causes eros to mean covenant. God causes eros to be the energy of virtue. What it signifies is not satisfaction, except incidentally, but sanctification.”13 Eros is transformed into agape, falling in love provides entry to the school of virtue, and in the process, romance is transcended.
This transformation of eros view is a Christianization of Plato’s treatment of erotic love in the Symposium.14 There, Plato argues that although eros begins with physical attraction for another beautiful body and finds expression in the intimacy of embrace, eros ascends a ladder of desire, leaving the physical behind in favor of a higher spiritual attraction to intellectual and moral beauty. Eros thus becomes philosophia—the love of wisdom. This is where we get the notion of a “platonic” (i.e., non-sexual) relationship and it is what is so confusing about the language of eros in our culture. When we say “erotic,” we think of sex. But in its most sophisticated philosophical articulation, eros becomes a decidedly nonbodily, though nevertheless desirous kind of love.
Such a disembodiment of eros may be appropriate, but it runs the risk of being comic. The genius of Plato’s Symposium is that Plato is aware of the way in which philosophical pronouncements on love risk being comically sterile. For in the Symposium, the only person who is utterly unimpressed by Socrates’s deft attempt to connect love with philosophy is Alcibiades, the only one of his hearers who is clearly in love—with Socrates no less! To paraphrase Alcibiades’s response very loosely: “I don’t see what wisdom has to do with it, Socrates, I just know I want to go to bed with you.”
When they give voice to their eros, lovers write poems and compose songs; they do not construct syllogisms. Often, philosophical or theological attempts to clarify the nature of erotic desire in light of higher goods end up addressing the subject of love by changing it. They end up eviscerating the category of eros of that which makes it interesting and wonderful in the first place. When the theologians are finished with eros, we are no longer sure that we want eros.
I fear that this may be true of the transformation of eros view. For example, Rogers thinks that his view makes sense of how heterosexual marriage and homosexual marriage and celibacy are all vocations in which eros is sanctified—because they all provide for the kinds of relationships whose constancy gives us time to be transformed by the regard of the other. This placement of celibacy and marriage on a continuum of eros is one of the touchstones of nuptial theology. But surely this indicates that romance, or falling in love, has been left behind. For nuptial theology, the experience of romance is too ephemeral or superficial to be a linchpin of our analysis of eros. Romance may function as a kind of hook that draws some into the sanctifying commitments of marital love, but it has no essential part to play in that sanctification. Thus, nuptial theology denies the sacramental character of romance. Romance is evacuated from the category of eros.
I wish to venture a different response, one that tries to resist the disembodying tendencies of nuptial theology. It is a response indebted primarily to the Russian Orthodox mystical tradition, especially to the thought of Vladimir Solovyov.15 I want to explore the claim that in the experience of romance we come closer to the heart of God than in any other kind of human experience.
At first glance, this seems unlikely. Romance is fleeting; the love of God is enduring. Romance is superficial; God loves the inward man. Romance is passion for the beauty of the other; God loves a wretch like me. But such contrasts are facile. For instance, the biblical text is replete with evocations of God’s passionate love for us. God is described as a jealous lover throughout the scriptures. Yet we elevate the constancy of God’s love over God’s passion. Why? I suspect it is because for us passion is inconstant and, therefore, a threat to constancy. Love rooted in passion is for us, most of the time, inconstant. But why should that be true of God? The question is: Is God’s constancy an expression of God’s passion or is God’s passion merely an adjunct of God’s constancy? What is most fundamental in God, God’s desiring delight in us or God’s steadfast commitment to us?
Romance may provide a clue to the answer here. For in romance we find that passion and desire, while they last, ground and guarantee fidelity, constancy, perseverance, and self-sacrifice. In the thrall of romance, my sacrifice for the beloved is an occasion of joy for me rather than an exercise of duty. The egoistic/altruistic binary is obliterated in the light of romance. This is because, according to Solovyov, the feeling of romantic love (he calls it “sexual love”) “really forces us, with all our being, to acknowledge for another the same absolute central significance which, because of the power of our egoism, we are conscious of only in ourselves.”16 The opposition between what love demands of me and what I wish to do evaporates. My commitment to the beloved is not an exercise of will but of desire. Indeed, this discovery of a release from the perpetual war of will and desire is partly constitutive of the elation of romantic experience. For once, here and now and with respect to this particular beloved, what I most want, what utterly and completely delights me, is the deepest good of the beloved.
This is why we fear the disappearance of romance, because we know that all that is made possible by the energy of romance will be threatened by its decline or disintegration. Thus, constancy comes to name a virtue that sticks with the beloved even when the romance is gone. I do not wish to degrade the moral beauty of constancy, but only an inveterate Kantian would insist that tenderness and care rooted in a principled resoluteness is lovelier than tenderness and care rooted in passionate desire for the other. And if this is so, can we not say that God has no need of moral resolution because God is completely in love with us? God does not work to love us. God’s love is not a dogged love in the face of obstacles; it is the love of romantic longing. For God, passion is never an adjunct of fidelity—something that may or may not accompany it. Rather, for God, fidelity is simply the expression of desirous delight.
In the experience of romance, we get a glimpse of the way we are loved by God and the destiny toward which we are being drawn by that love. In the grip of romance we see the beloved in the way that God sees us, and we experience a foretaste of the way in which we will eventually behold God and every other person. Romance is a clue to the nature of all being, which is suffused with such a beauty and wonder that it elicits the tender desire of the One who sees it as it is. I call this view the intensification of eros, because it holds that ideally romance is not to be transcended or even transformed but rather intensified and broadened so as to include, eschatologically, the love of God and other human persons.
In other words, romance has an infinite horizon. Romantic longing for the particular beloved is an intimation of our eternal destiny as lovers. Agape, rather than naming a kind of love in which romance is either rejected or transformed into something higher, names this infinite horizon of romance. God’s love is agape because it is infinite romance. Put theoretically: eros names romance in its fallen, finite dimension; agape names romance in its eternal, infinite dimension.
Such a view raises several pressing questions, two of which I want to quickly touch on. First, if romance is the ideal form of love, why make such a fuss about commitment, constancy, and self-sacrifice? If romance is the ideal, why make marriage vows at all? This, I think, is partly what drives the transformation of eros view—the felt need to defend institutions of vowed fidelity. We must vow commitment because romance is not enough. Here, realism asserts that the success of long-term commitments will be secure only when we recognize that romance is a fleeting and accidental foam on the sea of commitment. But I think this gets it wrong. For on this view, were romance to persist down through the long years of a marriage, it would simply be a happy accident. But we do not really believe this (unless we are in the grips of a theory). Rather, we believe that such rare marriages, in which a kindled romance has lent grace and ease to lifelong fidelity, represent an ideal. As Solovyov writes, “For good reason sexual relations are not merely termed love, but are also generally acknowledged to represent love par excellence, being the type and ideal of all other kinds of love (cf. the Song of Songs and the Apocalypse).”17
In this fallen world, romance is transient. But when we take marriage vows we testify to the deep meaning that is contained within romance. The phenomenological aura of romance includes within it the conviction of eternal endurance. Thus the frequent refrain of love songs: “I will always love you.” That our experience of romance so often peters out and fails to live up to the message that it portends does not change the fact that eternal endurance is the ideal of romance. Marriage vows express this ideal, and fidelity in marriage in the absence of romance should nevertheless be seen as a testament to the conviction that romance is the telos of the relationship.
Romance is grace because it discloses to us something about our destiny as lovers. In the end, all will be romance. This certainly provides a different interpretative lens for thinking about Jesus’s response to the question about who will be married to whom in heaven: “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). With my Nygren-colored lenses, I have always thought there will be no marriage in heaven because there will be no romance; it will be agape all the way down. But now I am considering the reverse. In heaven, there will be no marriage because it will be romance all the way down. We will all be in love with one another.
And this raises a second, more difficult, question: What are we to say about the Christian commitment to the exclusivity of romance, in short about the commitment to monogamy? After all, the upshot of what I have been arguing is that God is polyamorous—he is in the grips of a love affair with each one of us that is moving toward consummation—and that, moreover, we are all destined for an eternal wedding day of passion, felicity, and rapture. It certainly seems like a line of thought that could get a person in trouble. I am not sure how to respond except to say that the exclusivity of marriage is a concession to our limitation as lovers. In any event, I can’t see how this is much less of a problem for those like Rogers committed to a transformation of eros nuptial theology. After all, if monastic vows and marital vows are equally contexts for the transformation of eros, it remains unclear why polygamous marriage might not also be such a context.
I have argued that romance can be an experience of grace. More than that, I have argued that romance may be the human experience that most deeply intimates our graced future. Romance has an infinite horizon, such that what I undergo in the thrall of romance will not be overcome through sanctification but rather intensified, extended infinitely to God and others throughout eternity. This allows us to locate the significance of one of the most profound types of human experience and emotion. It tells us that in the experience of romance we may discover the freedom in which our most rapturous desires align with our deepest goodness, and it tells us that this freedom is a sacramental foretaste of the freedom that we will discover in full at the eternal wedding day.
1. This essay will sidestep questions about the social construction of romance. I am going to assume—perhaps naively—that there is something perennial and universal about the kind of experience we describe today as falling in love.
2. Stendahl and Capellanus quoted in Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins, eds., The Philosophy of (Erotic) Love (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1991), 135 and 57, respectively.
3. Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip Watson (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1953), 31.
4. See Werner G. Jeanrond, A Theology of Love (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2010), ch. 2.
5. Nygren, Agape and Eros, 131–2. In his 760-page book on love, this is the only comment Nygren makes on marriage.
6. Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1954), 30.
7. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005), 10.
8. Rogers, ed., Theology and Sexuality (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2002), xviii; John Paul II, Theology of the Body (St. Louis, MO: Pauline Books, 1997); and Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” in Rogers, Theology and Sexuality, available online at http://www.igreens.org.uk/bodys_grace.htm.
9. Ibid., xix.
10. Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999), 232.
11. Ibid., 83.
13. Ibid., 226.
14. Plato, Symposium, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 457–505.
15. Solovyov, The Meaning of Love (Aurora, CO: Lindisfarne, 1995).
16. Ibid., 51. Italics in original.
17. Ibid., 42.