God Is Agape & Eros: Pope Benedict XVI's Message for Our Mad Nietzschean World

Feast of St Macarius the Great of Egypt

167. To vigorous men intimacy is a matter of shame—and something precious.
168. Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice.   ~Friedrich Nietzsche

CHRISTIAN mysticism is dependent upon some familiarity with eros, defined by Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est as “that love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.” But for eros to function healthily, it has to be allied to the more profound, self-giving love of agape. The cultural forces of puritanism on the one hand and of libertinism on the other have been struggling for many generations now to completely divorce these loves from one another.

You and I live in a Nietzschean world, friend, and from an opposing, Chestertonian perspective, that means that we live in a mad world. Because we Christians remain largely ignorant of the Nietzschean forces at work in our culture, we find ourselves pre-occupied with the symptomatic grass fires smoldering at arm’s length, unaware of their philosophical source: the blazing inferno encroaching closer and closer to our cultural homes. In matter of fact, to a great degree, the madness has infected us as well.

I have known (and if I want to be honest, I have been) the sort of Christian targeted in the two statements made above: ashamed of intimacy and afraid of eros; attempting to defeat it rather than redeem it. There were plenty of well-meaning but misguided Puritans in my early spiritual formation. I remember, for instance, a camp counselor who warned us of the evils of secular music and film, including the sex-infused lyrics on the radio. An impressionable thirteen-year-old boy, I nodded in agreement and rededicated my life to Christian contemporary music. I surrendered all.

But I now realize that most of my peers did not. Not long after that week of camp, most of my peers fell prey to the Nietzschean account of Christianity’s corruption of eros. The Church was a spoilsport that didn’t want them to have fun. Lessons in youth group about the mysterious “red line” in dating that we were forbidden to cross only strengthened this impression. By the time we were in college, most of us who had remained in the Church (and many of us did!) were just as sexually experimental as our unchurched friends, and the result was shame over the precious intimacies that we had experienced. Eros was poisoned and degraded for us. All that remained was our deeply prized vice.

It is no great surprise that Nietzsche’s accusation of eros-poisoning against Christianity is couched in a work that opens by calling into question our very capability to actually know Truth. Madness! But this madness is a major tributary to the relativism that so defines our culture today. When the inaccessibility of Truth itself is deemed axiomatic, all can be redefined according to our personal whims, including our selves and the forces we find at work in those selves. That encompasses love in all its forms.

One of those forms is eros. It never appears under that name in the New Testament (perhaps because at that time the pagan culture surrounding the early Church had imbued it with so many false notions that any attempt to use the term for a holy purpose would have been liable to create confusion). But it does appear in the text of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament.

There are, of course, the “usual suspects” associated with this Greek root in the Septuagint. Many of the prophets use the plural of erastos and erastes as denominators for Israel’s illicit lovers. Ezekiel couples (no pun intended) erastes and erastos with another word for sexual activity that has no positive connotations at all: porneia. That these words occur in the plural underlines the promiscuous nature of these false religious and political relationships in violation to the exclusive covenant relationship with Israel’s God.

But there are also positive images of eros in the Septuagint. Esther 2:17, in the only literalistic use of the root in the Bible, employs the verbal form to tell us that King Ahasuerus loved Esther. And it is this erotic love that results in their marriage, and consequently, the salvation of the Jewish people.

The two most positive occurrences of the eros root appear in the wisdom literature. In Proverbs 4:6 the narrator instructs his son to love his instruction. In the greater context of this book, I think that it is likely that the teacher’s instruction is meant to be analogous, if not identical, to Lady Wisdom, the unifying figure of the work. In any case, in the next place that we find the verbal form of eros in the wisdom literature, the author is explicitly professing his love for Lady Wisdom. “I loved her and sought her from my youth, and I desired to take her for my bride, and I became enamored of her beauty” (Wisdom 8:2, RSVCE). The word in italics is erastes, literally, “a lover.”

Meditating on passages such as John 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 1:24, the early Church Fathers came to identify Lady Wisdom as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who would come to be hypostatically united with the humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the mystery of the Incarnation. Taking this into account shows what a remarkable text Wisdom 8:2 really is. For in this Old Testament passage the language of erotic love is applied to unmediated union with God’s Word. In other words, the erotic element transforms a straightforward contemplation of God’s wisdom into a mystical text. In fact, a few verses down, in verse 4, Wisdom Herself is granted the title “initiate in the knowledge of God.” The word translated “initiate” by the RSVCE is mystis, i.e., “mystic.”

Of course, the language of eros is not foreign to mystical texts. There is a striking example in the fifth chapter of Julian of Norwich’s Showings. “But what the Maker, the Keeper, and the Lover truly are to me I cannot tell, for until I am substantially made one with Him I may never have full rest nor true bliss; that is to say, until I be so fastened to Him that there stands absolutely nothing between my God and me” (my translation). It is amazing to me to discover that there is a precedent for such provocative language in biblical texts that were composed before the Christian era.

Reflecting on this, authentic spiritual experience will be greatly impoverished if it is forced to expunge eroticism from its mystical vocabulary. (This is only one reason why young Christians need to be introduced to the right sort of secular love songs instead of being force-fed second-rate Christian rock and hip-hop). Pope Benedict XVI recognizes the power of eros to beckon us heavenward, acknowledging that it provides a “certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns” (Deus Caritas Est 4). But the converse is true, as well: human erotic relationships that are forced to bear the burden of mystical encounter will inevitably wear down; we will leave each old flame to look for a new one, attempting to rekindle something we remember as a distant memory. It will never be possible to assuage that spiritual nostalgia with new romantic encounters, because what we are haunted with is not anything we have yet personally experienced in this life. We want the intimacy with the Lover of Our Souls that was lost when we were expelled from the Garden.

I have to conclude that the Christianity Nietschze accuses of poisoning eros is not the Christianity of the mystics, but of the half-Gnostic Puritans, who were equally suspicious of bodily sensations and mystical encounters with God. Unfortunately, there are huge swathes of Christians for whom Nietschze’s charge proves damning. Ironically, the sort of Christian who might prove to be easy prey for Nietschze is exactly the sort of Christian that has been wearing himself out against the erotic impulses in his life. Mystics will be largely unaffected, because what Nietschze says, for them personally, has very little basis in reality.

We live in a mad, Nietschzean world. It is Nietschzean in two respects. First of all, we have to admit that Nietschze’s portrayal of puritanical Christianity is in many respects well-deserved; there has been undoubtedly an attempt to poison eros by a good many well-meaning Christians. But the rest of the world, perhaps the majority of it, is Nietschzean in that it has adopted his aggressive stance towards the Church and its teachings on human sexuality. Ultimately, the “liberated” eros of this Nietschzean world will cave in upon itself and degrade into vice just as surely as the poisoned eros of puritanical Christianity. The irony is that for eros to flourish, it has to be subject to careful discipline. Once again, Pope Benedict XVI provides wise counsel in what is, ultimately, a genuinely positive assessment of romantic love: “eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing” (ibid., 5).

In the same encyclical, based on a passage from Pseudo-Dionysius’ The Divine Names, Pope Benedict XVI demonstrates that God’s love is characterized not only by the self-donative love we generally associate with Him, agape, but with the seeking, desiring love of eros. Because both loves have their source in God, both come to humankind as gift, and participating in each of them is in reality a participation in God’s being.

And, though this is not explicitly said in his masterful encyclical, I think the ultimate message for our mad, Nietschzean world is this: for eros to be the exquisite gift that it is meant to be, it must always be embedded in agape. The two go together; they are not opposed. Without agape, eros becomes the pleasure-obsessed hedonist flitting from one tryst to another, always seeking a new and more ultimate, though ultimately transitory experience. Agape tames eros, and makes it a genuine expression of faithfully willing the good of the other, of authentic love. And this is why the Suffering Christ is not only an image of agape, but also of eros, as the powerful icon of Christ the Bridegroom states so eloquently.

I conclude with a bit of frivolity. In the B-52s’ overtly erotic Love Shack, Fred Schneider tells us about his car, “as big as a whale,” headed to the “Love Shack.” I have begun to think about the driver of this car. Eros is a lot of fun, and you obviously want him along for the ride, but only a madman would give him the keys. Agape will get us to our destination safely. Authentic, biblical, orthodox Christianity insists that both eros and agape come on this journey with us. It is madness to choose one in opposition to the other.

*This essay appears in Synaxis 6.1: The Symposium Journal, to be released at the 2019 Symposium.

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Matthew Umbarger is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Newman University who specializes in Old Testament Interpretation.

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