Thursday, August 18, 2011

AN ONTOLOGY OF LOVE ... march 4, 2006

 Most of my writing efforts have  been an exercise of >thinking= that is connected also to my inner and emotional reality. Obviously this capacity is one of the marks of being human and should be highly valued. It is something that most Western people can identify with and many try their hand at. Most of us >understand= something of normal reality better when we think about it and express it in the human language of our culture.

However, I feel nudged by intellectual need to a place in human thought which  is behind thinking about things and ideas. This area of human insight or intuition is called ontology. Ontology seeks to return to the basis of > being itself=; the kind of realty from which all things have come. I suppose that theologically this pushes us to what can only be called God. The ancient philosophers roamed the areas of ontology or >being itself.= I admit that I am not comfortable as a present day westerner approaching that which lies behind the things, objects, people and words, that impress themselves upon me as practical reality.

I can be criticized in this essay of again only thinking and writing about things and ideas. I prefer to think of this essay as an attempt to explain what has been my own inner experience at some level, as opposed to writing about something I hope to experience or worse, writing about what I have been told someone else experienced. My intellectual entrance into this area is guided nearly entirely by Paul Tillich, especially his little book* A Love, Power and Justice.@ He acknowledges that it is Ahard for the western mind to understand@ the Latin and Greek words that can be translated >being itself= or >being in so far as it is being=. Does this sound familiar to Moses= strange (to our ears) encounter with, >I am who I am.?=

Why does such strange talk interest me? I suspect that the original Christ event was not primarily a >thinking experience=. It was something experienced with the whole being of the person->heart, soul and mind.= Early on writers and speakers for the movement began to >think= about it and write out their thoughtful interpretations and explanations of the actual event(This includes the many gospels, both ones in the Bible and others, that were written in the decades following Jesus' death.) Then throughout the centuries of church history came more of this thinking , defending, writing and speaking about the ongoing ripple effects of the initial reality of the experience with Jesus, which was early on described as a breaking into the world by God.

The initial experience would likely be better described ontologically as that which represented or was perfect>being itself@. All that came to be orthodoxy  has been about things, ideas and beings that have been manifested by >being= but are not >being itself.= This explains why after reading the early church apologists and fathers and even NT documents that I sense many of us get caught up into that which has come from >being itself > but we lose connection with the meaning behind all this which is >being itself.=

An example of such an excursion recently for me was exploring how the church fathers >had= to go to great lengths to fight Gnosticism from being integrated into first century Christian belief. Christianity would have not survived as a superior and powerful religious system in the world had they not been successful. But, as Tillich confesses, the means necessarily used to ward off Gnosticism( I think they closely resemble, but with a spiritual downside,  the elimination means that Jesus is depicted as using in the Temptations.) caused a huge loss to the openness, egalitarianism and creativity by what amounted to the theological censoring of the life of the Spirit. These values, according to the oldest reports, were so essential to the meaning of the original community formed around the Christ event. So the church survived and in a sense thrived but all the time becoming in some ways less than what it originally was. I think I see clearly that if one argues that Christianity has been overall good for humanity one must also be grateful to the Gnosticism of the first and second century for forcing Christianity to become what it is. It was that specific threat that generated a large proportion of the formal doctrines, creeds and authority structures, including the canon and high bishops, of the institutional church. As a >protestant= such discouraging realities of how very early on Christianity progressed in the world leave me with a need to try to honor and connect with the >being itself= that lies behind all of this. I see no way it could have been different but I am not content to accept what it has become is all that can be received from it. So I am still left with a goal to make myself open and attracted to the beginnings, the original Christ event. For what has come from it is no longer able to accomplish what the original accomplished in human life or what it may be able to accomplish in the future for the good of humanity and the glory of God.

Not being capable nor desirous of being a philosopher of ontology, I do want to relate how Tillich=s description of ultimate >being itself= brings forth three concepts: love, power and justice. The one that is turning in my thoughts presently is Love. I read and underlined many of Tillich=s words years ago but return to them now, to express my understanding of some of them.

Love is ontologically, AThe drive toward uniting that which belongs together but has been separated." Words that have been translated or associated with >love= and thought of by most western philosophers and theologians as being different forms or types of love are the Greek Eros, philia, epthymia, stergean and agape and the Latin libido. Usually thinkers have placed a higher meaning and value on some of these than on others. Tillich is saying that ontologically these are all qualities that inform the meaning of love which is the Adrive toward uniting that which has been separated.@

Some of the ideas that seem particularly important to me include the observation that epthymia which means >desire= is traditionally considered the lowest form of love and thought of as the desire for sensual self-fulfillment. It is thus related to the pleasure principle of Freud. Tillich agrees that the fulfillment of love would always be accompanied by great human pleasure. ABut it is not the pleasure as such that is desired, but the union with that which fulfills@ love=s desire. Some theologians have minimized epthymia compared to the >higher= loves with agape being the highest. Secularists have attempted to interpret all the other loves as simply examples of >selfish= epthymia. Both of these directions ignore an ontological understanding of love. The ontological meaning of love does not exclude any of these aspects of love but necessarily includes them all in the >love= that is a part of > being itself.=

Tillich explains that describing the Latin >libido= of Freudian fame as the desire for pleasure is a misunderstanding. This results in a hedonizing of libido which is Abased on wrong psychology which itself is a consequence of wrong ontology.@  The result of this in our culture is a pornography that separates sexuality from spiritually. Unfortunately orthodox Christianity has made the same mistake with human sexuality and contributes indirectly  to unhealthy pornography in the culture. Any love is indeed epthymia in that it is a strong Adesire toward food, movement, growth, participation in group, sexual union etc.@ Love lacking desire is not love at all. For a human to claim to love another but to not strongly desire them (not necessarily or only in a sexual way but desire no less) does not fully love the other. Agape by itself may be able to be present but not full ontological love. I would suggest that when a human hugs, or is available to hug, another with no sexual intent but nonetheless with a rich attracting caring emotion, that is epthymia experienced as a part of love. And with such a human interaction most people >feel= the pleasure of >reuniting that which has been separated=.

Ulterior and repressed motives of course turn love into something quite the opposite. I can recall being hugged by a lady whose reputation was that she was a >hugger=. This was considered by most as positive. But it seems she became obligated , perhaps to uphold her reputation, to not leave anyone out of her hugs. I knew from other behaviors that she did not particularly like me or my work, quite the contrary. So when she would hug me there is no question in my mind that it was without any desire(epthymia) or any sense of >reuniting that which has been separated=. It was more likely a feeling, 'Lets get this over with.' I would assume that many of her hugs were truly hugs of love but not all of them. So forced or contrived expressions of love can be very counter effective and damaging to the true nature of love. To those who have bought that Christian love is primarily Agape, this kind of hypocrisy is seen as a virture for it supposedly 'loves' the other person even if it does not like him.

A sad mistake that much Christian teaching has made in elevating and separating agape from epthymia(and Eros) is that it makes the Alove of God impossible and meaningless@ from the human standpoint. How? When human love of God lacks desire it ceases to be love and diminishes to obedience. Obedience is not love and as Freud has demonstrated can be the very opposite of love. Obedience is not what the ultimate God desires but what any human despot wants from another. God is to be >loved...with all heart , soul and mind.= This is only humanly possible when love includes strong rich desire, when love is seen and lived in its ontological meaning. I=m confident that this is an area that demonstrates the difference in view points that facilitated Jung=s break with Freud. Sadly western culture and orthodox Christianity has inherited this hedonistic understanding of libido and thus of love. So much of >Christian= morality and warning circle like vultures around the >evil and sinfulness= of en=joyed= human sexuality that embraces the epthymia and Eros components of human love. For sure the power of such full love can be wrongly channeled and used it selfish ways but that is not reason to discredit what should be the central value of our Christ-like religion.

It must be kept clear that fundamentally and ontologically love is a drive, not toward pleasure for pleasure=s sake but the drive of a human to reunite(even if the person is not yet conscious of this higher intent) itself with that or whom one has been separated. And as Tillich explains, the human person unlike any other being is capable of being the most separated , or unconscious of the Sacred, of all beings; and thus potentially becomes the Abearer of the most powerful love.@ Or again, Alove manifests its greatest power where it overcomes the greatest separation@. The implications of this are some of the most profound that could be raised for the meaning of human >abundant= living and for the meaning of the original Christ event.

Ontologically Love is not primarily emotional, like its typical western cultural description, but it is richly emotional in the sense that it is an anticipation of the reunion that takes place in every love encounter. Anticipation is a very strong exciting emotion and is at the bottom of the meaning of the actual experience of human hope. When one experiences >being in love= the A fulfillment of the desire for reunion is anticipated and the happiness of this reunion is experienced in the imagination@ which is the highest human experience of heart-saving hope. I see this as the root of any healthy religious eschatology whether future or presently realized. (Compare this to the violent end-of-the-world eschatology that is so frequently proposed by numerous Christian groups.)

Ontologically love is also passion. This fundamentally means that love is >passive= in the sense that it is >driven= (by sacred forces) toward reunion. To be driven has a deterministic element to it. Paul speaks of himself being >compelled= and being >predestined= to be reunited with God and others via the >good news=. So one aspect of love is that it comes to us and carries and motivates us rather than being something that we generate or create via human will. This brings to mind the Pauline emphasis of salvation being >by grace , not by works=.

So ontological love is not adequately described by the hedonistic and Freudian conclusion of >avoiding pain-seeking pleasure= principle that reduces human experience to a robotic lower animal activity. This may be the accurate criticism that some Christians refer to as love 'in this sinful world' but it is also a criticism of Christianity when it devalues the role of sensuous sexual love between responsible human partners or fails to accept the goal of the full human happiness that marriage potentially includes. This ontological understanding of love is not information that guides such simple advice as >stay together for the good of the children=. Perhaps there would be less >falling out of love= if the ontological meaning of love were modeled and taught in the first place rather than a somewhat >agape only= (faithfulness without desire or passion)reduction of love. Whenever the negative dynamics described in this paragraph occur Tillich would say, A Life has been corrupted@ and I would say so has the meaning of the original Christ event. Even Freud indicated unintentionally that this restricted meaning of >libido= is from where he derived his doctrine of death-instinct. And this is  true of any doctrine or description of love that does not include all that ontologically belongs to it. This may also be a way to understand the Pauline statement that , AThe letter kills but only the Spirit gives life." It turns out that only Eros can complete the meaning of Sacred/Human love.

As the others, philia and Eros are united as a part of ontological love. Eros, like epthymia, is a strong drive. Not toward pleasure for itself but toward truth, beauty and union with that to which one originally belonged. That target potentially may be another human being and it can certainly be the target  of all humans  for God. 'Philia' has to do with liking the object and enjoying its presence and stresses the mutuality of any full love-relation. Jesus approaches this as he invites and perhaps expresses a need for his disciples to call him and relate to him as >friend= in his darkest hour. Everything I have said of epthymia above I think similarly applies, even more so, to Eros.

The ontological meaning of love also has everything to do with the love of >one another= so frequent in Paul and no doubt the emphasis of Jesus regrading the potential of humans loving others and even the whole world.

I=ve barely mentioned agape here but then agape has had far too much center stage throughout Christian history. Agape is not made to stand alone as the meaning of love but as Tillich states agape, Aenters into the whole of life and into all the qualities of love.@ Agape is the ground which holds all the other qualities of love together. One could say that, Ain agape ultimate reality manifests itself and transforms life and love@. I would add that I suspect the original Christ event was just such a manifestation of full love that did indeed transform the lives and love of those who were there.

This focus on love I do without hesitation because love is undoubtedly, according to all serious religions, what the center of God=s meaning is and is without question the center of the Christian story. Just recall >God is love=, Jesus= greatest command is >to love= and it is by >their love= that the world would know the original disciples. Paul sings, >The greatest of these is love.= It seems so obvious to me that unless Christian teachers try hard to get love right then little else matters. I cannot say that it appears to me that most who speak for the Christian story have made the commitment to the full love to which the scriptures point and what undoubtedly is the single word that best describes the original Christ event. So many for various reasons cannot hear a full dose of love without responding with ...=but...= I believe there is no but when it comes to love, love that is fully and deeply and thus ontologically defined and experienced.

*I have used A...@ to indicate direct quotes from Tillich and >...; for other emphases.

Resources Used: A History of Christian Thought Paul Tillich
                           Love, Power and Justice Paul Tillich

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