Sunday, 12 April 2009
Eros and Agape
Pope Benedict reflects on eros and agape in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (DCE). Eros is the love that is sexual yearning or an intense desire, which is experienced between man and woman. It is a love between two humans and its appearance can be mysterious, unexpected and sudden. Eros is an intense madness, leading to supreme happiness. According to Greek culture, eros offered fellowship with the divine, through ecstasy.
Erotic love is most fully and adequately expressed in marriage according to Christian tradition. For love to mature past searching it must be exclusive and eternal. In this way, eros should direct man towards marriage. Eros calls us towards the divine because it calls us to make a gift of ourselves to others. If eros is improperly used it leads to using other people for the sake of gratification. Benedict mentions that “Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex’, has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity.” (DCE 5). A strictly hedonistic understanding of eros strips humanity of its dignity, as it enslaves us to our passions, only following our instincts and desires.
Benedict states that eros should be subject to purification, growth, renunciation and healing. (DCE 5). By having a healthy sense of self control, purity and dignity, erotic love can be restored to its full grandeur. This is because purity does not annihilate erotic desire, it perfects it. God is what man yearns for and the Song of Songs perfectly exemplifies the desire that man has in his search for union with God.
The Church has been accused of reducing and distorting eros, at certain times unhealthy attitudes towards eros have existed. Benedict quotes Nietzsche who accused the Christianity of having poisoned eros. (DCE 3-4). A true Christian understanding of sexuality maintains eros can bring the human spirit towards what is true, good and beautiful. The notion that the body is bad is a heresy. Our bodies reflect the image and likeness of God. We cover our bodies because of the need to protect their goodness and from the squalor of lust. Our bodies are something that are intrinsically good. Tertullian said that the body is the hinge of salvation. We cannot fully express love without the body. A full understanding of eros calls us to rise above and beyond ourselves and not to seek pleasure purely for self gratification. Christianity does not worship sexual union, but turns it into something that is worship (Heaven’s song, Christopher West, p130). Eros is something that God invented, in order to bring mankind to himself. His very first commandment to man in the Bible is that we should be ‘fruitful and multiply.’ (Genesis 1:28). God blessed this and saw that it was good. Therefore what is erotic is also true, good and beautiful.
Agape is love that is based on faith. It expresses love that is unconditional, self sacrificing and active. Love is expressed in its fullest manifestation when given and received. Agape can be caring for others, empathising and understanding. Agape is also fully willing and capable of forgiveness, because of its intensity and compassion. This form of love is fully lived out in self giving and a search and encounter with God. Jesus is a source of agape which we must embrace, imitate and become one with. Agape is seen in the Eucharist because it is how God comes to us sacramentally and bodily so he can continue to be with us and work in us. Agape is fully lived through the gift of oneself to others.
Overall, love is not divided up into different definitions but is a united force. Benedict states that “We have seen that God's eros for man is also totally agape.” (DCE 10). Essentially Agape and eros are not exclusive but complementary. But God is not sexual (CCC 42, 239, 370). Our love can be diminished if we only experience one dimension of it. The Bible shows the different types of human love, and our love must be uncorrupted, authentic and innocent in order for us to be able to love God and love man.
God loves us intensely and our love can only come as a response. God forgives humanity when we trespass his commandments. Through the crucifixion and resurrection, God shows the intensity of his love for mankind. In this relationship of gift, both man and God are fully themselves, but through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God is united to man. Both eros and agape are lived through the acceptance of love through our own will and the joy of being loved by God. Both eros and agape are not sterile but part of a journey of development and the contagious nature of love means that we must spread it to others.