Wednesday, July 22, 2015

#LoveWins (Part 2): Does Love Always Equal Love?

In my previous post I sought to make a distinction between those who genuinely hate their neighbor (viz. hatred of homosexuals), and those who object- on moral grounds- to the elevation of homosexual partnerships to the status of marriage. Admittedly the following post is a bit more challenging than the former, for I ended the previous one with a very pregnant question; "How can anyone be against two people who are in love getting married; two people who- for all intents and purposes- simply want to memorialize that love?". After all, it is far easier to argue that mere disagreement does not rise to the level of hate, than it is to make the case that someone doesn't love someone they claim to love.

Let me begin by saying that I do not wish at all to suggest that person A does not love person B (or vice versa). If someone tells me they love someone I take them at their word, especially when their actions follow their declaration. I do not doubt for a moment that two homosexuals are capable of loving each other (anymore than anyone else is capable of it), and I think to suggest otherwise is misguided and wrong.

Consequently, the only way that there is even room for debate is if there is anything more than subjectivity involved in defining love. If there isn't, then there really is nothing left to debate at all: Love = Love… The end. Love inevitably has a subjective component, but the real question is, does it also have an objective element as well (i.e. are there moral obligations that transcend personal preferences)?

Part of the difficulty in defining "love" comes down to the fact that the English language is not equipped to make fine distinctions concerning its meaning. It is not equipped to do so because there is only one word in English for "love". For example, I love Vito's pizza, I love my cat Willow, and I also love Agnes, Agatha, Jermaine and Jack... not to mention my wife Lita. Thus, if the word "love" can be thrown around in such a wide variety of ways, then how much more likely will it be then that we might confuse its meaning?

For this reason, I would  like to argue that Greek provides us the best basis by which to distinguish the different types of love. In Greek there are four words for love: 1) Storge - a natural affection or affinity for someone or something; 2) Philia - brotherly love/ friendship; 3) Eros - erotic love/ sexual desire or attraction; 4) Agape - sacrificial love/ divine love. What separates agape love from the rest of the loves is that agape is fundamentally a decision (an act of the will), whereas the others tend to represent more of a natural affinity and/or attraction for someone or something.

A prime example of just how important this distinction is can be observed in the following passage from the Gospel of John (John 21:15-19);
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him,“Follow me!”
If you simply read this passage in the English, all that you are likely to glean from it is the notion that Jesus seems to be reminding Peter of his three-fold denial of him during his Passion. However, in the Greek, the context becomes far more rich, for the passage employs two different forms of the Greek word for "love". Jesus asks Peter if he loves him "agape", Peter responds in the affirmative, but qualifies his response by using the word "philia" ("Yes Lord, you know I love you philia"). This changes the whole connotation of the passage. Indeed, as a result of this linguistic distinction, the reader becomes aware of an entirely new dimension (i.e. the notion that Peter would be wise not to overestimate his own ability to love, especially if he is to remain faithful until death). Obviously there is more to be said about this passage, but hopefully this brief explanation demonstrates just how important the Greek is in helping one to gain greater insight into the meaning of this passage.

Another prime example of just how misleading (and potentially dangerous) an overly simplistic interpretation of this word can be is revealed in the following commercial:

Now if this very effective anti-discrimination ad had been employed in the defense of "philanthropy" (i.e the "brotherly love" of humanity), then I would have said "bravo!" For when you look at it, we are all the same underneath, and discriminating against someone simply because of their race or skin color is completely arbitrary and an irrational distinction. However, what this x-ray machine is employed to justify is not merely the equality of persons, but rather the equality of all forms of romantic love, and in particular to critique the prejudices of those who might oppose them. Here's the problem with the message of this most clever and extremely well produced video: if we were to actually follow the logic of it to its natural end, you would find yourself justifying any number of questionable relationships, relationships that even the freest of spirits might find disturbing.

Imagine we added a little more footage to this commercial, and along with everything else that was presented, we included a mother and a son emerging in a passionate embrace? What if we also did the same with a father and a son? What if a brother and a sister emerged, or a married person engaging in an adulterous kiss with a stranger (it's scary when that's the most acceptable of the choices)? The point is this commercial doesn't make the case for homosexual relationships- rather, it makes the case for eros under any circumstance. Indeed, according to the rationale of this advocacy commercial, as long as a person has a human endoskeleton (which includes every member of the human race), then they are a qualified as a candidate for a hook up. Is that what we mean to say when we argue that "love is love"?

Sometimes love actually means not entering into (or engaging in) a romantic/sexual relationship at all- even when our passions might suggest otherwise (see Plato and Aristotle). Sometimes the four loves are indeed in conflict, yet if we truly love that other person, we are obliged to defer to a more challenging and chaste form of love. What if a father is sexually attracted to his long lost daughter? Woody Allen once famously retorted when seeking to justify his impending marriage to his step-daughter; "the heart wants what it wants". What if an uncle is attracted to his nephew? What about a teacher and a student hooking up (think Mary Kay Letourneau)? What if a married man falls in love with his therapist, and what if a senior in high school is attracted to an eighth grader, same sex or not, and so on?

I bring these relationships up not necessarily to compare them to same sex relationships, but rather to point out that there is more to the rules of sexual love than feeling amorous towards another person (coupled with their consent). In other words, there are objective norms for sex, even if we don't look at it that way. The question is: why are those rules there in the first place? What most fail to consider with these unsavory relationships is why we oppose them in the first place. And why is the public conscience formed in such a way so as to feel a general sense of disgust when discussing them?

We fundamentally reject these practices today only because the early Church fought so vigorously to make them taboo. And why did they fight so tirelessly to make them so? Because Christians came to the understandable conclusion, based on faith and reason, that it was the best way to safeguard the purity and stability of the family. Get rid of those taboos and constraints and you get rid of what they were there to protect.

These are primarily negative/disturbing examples of what can happen when love is purely defined by eros. However, there are plenty examples of what can happen when eros is placed in the service agape. For example, priests and religious take vows in order to devote themselves and their passions to the service of the poor and the most needy. I know a man whose wife had a terrible car accident early on in their marriage. The woman suffered such severe brain damage that she and her husband could no longer carry on a typical married relationship. The husband nevertheless remained faithful to his vow. Sexual love is a beautiful thing, but it is not necessarily the highest thing, nor is it to be regarded as an act of love simply by virtue of its function. In order for sexual love to regarded as "love" in the deepest sense it must be at the service of agape.

Whatever one's position on this topic, one thing is absolutely certain- the way that "love" is being defined today is at best inadequate, and at worst, destructive. As stated before, the aim here is not to deny one person's loves of another, but rather to ask this basic question: in what context is a sexual act to be regarded as loving? For instance, can sodomy ever be considered an act of love, or is it intrinsically damaging to a genuine friendship?

What is indisputable is that most people ultimately agree that there are some sexual acts that must be regarded as objectively immoral (e.g. incest or pederasty), the question is where, when, and why do we draw the line where we do?

There are many ways that we can dehumanize one another, and homosexuality is only part of the equation. However, if nothing else, hopefully what is gleaned from this particular discussion is that sexual love, if it is to be regarded as love at all, must not involve anything degrading or dehumanizing. And if we are to love one another in the deepest sense of the word (agape), we must discover other forms of affection beyond those of eros alone, or rather learn to employ eros in a more constructive fashion.

However, perhaps the greatest irony of all in this whole discussion concerning love and hate, comes down to the fact that it was the Christian Faith in the first place that commanded us to love our neighbors and bless our enemies. It was the Christian Faith that initially revealed to us our high destiny as children of God. And it was the Christian Faith that told us that "God is love", and that of all things, "He so loved the world that He gave us his only begotten Son..."

Nevertheless, the plough share has been turned into a sword, and the pruning hook into a spear. The gift has been turned into a weapon to be used against the Father in order to condemn him as cruel and inhumane. The Prodigal Son strikes back, employing a most cynical tactic, a sleight of hand whereby the lesser loves are substituted for the greater- and the greatest love of all is to be regarded as the most negligible. Interestingly, it was the Christian Faith that initially gave us chivalry, romantic love, and a divine Son falling prostrate at the feet of an earthly bride- that self-same religion (and God) that is now being scolded as the true enemy of love and marriage.

The last point that I want to address on this subject is the question of where to draw the line as it relates to sexual intimacy. In other words, what type of relationship needs to be present in order to claim that a sexual act is in fact an act of true love (i.e. when does sexual love = Love). I will attempt to answer this question in the following post.

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