The Spirit and the Forms of Love by Daniel Day Williams
Daniel Day Williams was associate professor of Christian theology in the Federated theological Faculty of the University of Chicago and the Chicago Theological Seminary, then Professor of Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Published in 1968 by Harper & Row. This book was prepared for Religion-Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 1: Love in Our History
That love is a mystery all lovers know, all human lovers and all who know the love of God. To discuss the mystery is not to dispel its wonder, but to try to distinguish reality from illusion and truth from sentimentality. Love in all its forms thrives on critical judgment and is starved by evasion. Since all understanding is partial there will always be more to say, and more books on love. The symposium goes on. Since the discussion is so complex this first chapter will be a prospect of the ground to be covered and an outline of the principal ideas to be encountered.
This book has three main contentions. The first is that to understand love in Western culture we have to know its roots in the tradition of Israel and Christianity. The biblical faith has given shape to our culture. Therefore our essay is theological in intention and perspective. We are inquiring after the meaning of the love of God and the loves of men as these have been seen within the faith of the Christian community. Every view of love in our tradition has been shaped by this tradition. This does not mean that we all agree on what love is. One of the dominant marks of present-day discussion is the revolt against traditional conceptions of all the human loves. There are those who with Sartre believe that man cannot really love in spite of his craving to belong with others in a society. There are also the humanists who believe that man can love but needs no God to fulfil his love. It is notable that the ‘Death of God’ theologians have clung to the tradition of love of neighbour, holding that the second commandment is the rule of life even though there is no meaning for the first, the love of God. This humanism is often expressed in psychological terms as by Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. Freedom to learn the art of loving is man’s high destiny. A completely eroticized civilization is possible. Work and play, life and death, are transformed by human love and the meaning of life is fulfilled.1
Here is a critical issue for our culture and for Christian faith: is there a love other than man’s and if so, what difference does it make? In this book therefore we move again over some familiar ground. How does the Bible understand the love of God and the human loves?
Before we go further we must look at one of the perplexities in all discussions of love, the problem of language. English has one word for love. Greek has at least four. In the vocabulary of love we can distinguish between epithemia, desire, often with the connotation of impurity or lust; eros, which is love of the beautiful, the true, and the good, the aspiration for fulfilment of the soul’s yearning; philia, brotherly love, which can mean either the comradely and affectionate love of brother and friends, or the ethical love of neighbour; and agape, which in Greek can be used for most of the loves, but in the New Testament is the redeeming love of God shown in his action of forgiveness and redemption in Jesus Christ.2
Even if we use these terms with the strictest definitions we still find that the mystery of love creates its own difficulties, for the truth is that since the loves are not wholly separate the meanings shade into one another. Is love for the brother absolutely other than love for God? The Bible links them closely together. The ecstatic and loyal union in the love of man and woman suggests the bond of God with his people, and the Old Testament often uses this analogy for the love of God for Israel. Is the agape of the New Testament, the love of God for sinners, utterly different from eros, man’s love of the good and the beautiful as Anders Nygren’s great book, Agape and Eros, holds? Or is Paul Tillich right that: ‘If eros and agape cannot be united, agape toward God is impossible.3 Evidently our language problem is more than a question of dictionary definitions. It is the problem of love itself. We need not belittle the difficulties here but we can be thankful that love never allows itself to be precisely catalogued in a linguistic scheme. Language, however, is our means of communication and we should be as clear as we can. I have adopted a simple device which may contribute some clarity in usage. Whenever the context requires especial precision I distinguish between the ‘human loves’ meaning man’s love for man, other creatures, the world, beauty, all the things which call forth our natural capacities for love, and ‘the love of God’, meaning the gracious love which God gives to man and which takes on the special character of forgiveness and reconciliation. I use the word agape for God’s love which the Bible sees taking form in God’s election of Israel, and which is finally manifest in the story of Jesus.
This leaves ambiguities to be sure. What shall we say about man’s love of God? Surely this is one of the human loves. We accept the intention of St. Thomas’s doctrine that man naturally loves God. Man’s love of God belongs to the human loves which express essential humanity. When we speak of the human loves we mean those which belong to our humanity, and distinguish these from God’s love as agape, that is the new love which God puts into the world through his dealing with man’s sin and unlove. Man’s love of God can be renewed and transformed by agape.
We have to use as best we can the tool of an incomplete language. The question of the relation of God’s love, the agape of the New Testament, to the human loves is the central theme of our inquiry. Before we explore our fundamental question more precisely let us state our second main contention.
The guiding conception which informs our understanding of all love is that love is spirit taking form in history. Love is an expression of spirit. It is spirit seeking the enjoyment of freedom in communion with the other. Spirit is the best word we have to indicate the concrete personal expression of living creative beings. God is spirit. Man, created in God’s image, has spiritual existence, not as something added to his bodily substance, but as the expression of that concrete body-mind unity which he is as a person. The freedom of spirit is the freedom of God as the ultimate form-giving and life-giving reality. The freedom of man is also the freedom of spirit, but within the conditions of finite existence.
Here a complication appears, for while God’s spirit always remains one in the integrity of Holy Love, man’s spirit is subject to the distortions, estrangement and perversity of his finite freedom. Thus we use the term spirit for many kinds of human expression. We speak of a mean spirit, a prideful spirit, an artistic spirit, a courageous spirit, a perverse spirit. Man’s spirit can express love or the opposite of love.
Love is that expression of spirit which has communion in freedom as its goal. The word goal here covers innumerable forms. The Spirit of God at work in the world creates a multitude of forms for its expression. It creates realms of conflict and of reconciliation. So also the human spirit lives within many forms. The presence of love in the spirit’s work may be difficult to locate. There is a classic theological doctrine that every human act has love at work within it, even though it be a misguided or perverse love. This may be so. We may hold the view that man is his loves, or we may regard this as too simple. In any case we need to identify within the working of the human spirit that intention which leads toward the fulfilment of freedom in communion. Where that intention is present in any form we will speak of the presence of love.4 In the divine life, that intention is always present, for God is spirit. Since his being is love itself he is always the Holy Spirit, the spirit of unqualified love.
While therefore the forms of love are in one sense innumerable there are certain archetypal forms which love takes in history which can be distinguished and analysed. They are the forms in which the human loves create communities and which embody man’s response to the creative spirit of God.
When we search for the unity of love amidst those forms we discover that love has a history. The spirit is not a static ideal but a creative power which participates in the life it informs. Here is the key to everything we shall be saying in the discussion of love. We understand love when we see that it creates its own history. It changes form and brings new forms into being. This is true of the human loves and of God’s love, and all the loves are interwoven in history.
There should be nothing strange in this doctrine that love has a history. Test it in the familiar experiences of life. Consider a workman’s love for his tools. This love can only be known in the experience of long usage, the community of skill, the touch of familiarity, the pride of workmanship, the remembered accomplishments, the satisfaction in what the tools do. We learn to love. That is true of us as individuals, and it is true of the human adventure. In the learning we know love in many forms. We crave indeed the vision of love as one. Love drives toward unity, but we cannot grasp its unity by force. We have to explore its depth and mystery in the variety of modes encountered in experience.
We know that forms may hide the spirit and obstruct it. Nicolai Berdyaev felt profoundly the break between the personal reality of love in human life and the demands of finite historical existence. He saw form as the tragedy of spirit.5 We need not take this as a universal principle, but we can recognize its element of validity. All human loves are marked by the estrangement and perversity which invades human existence. That is why we continually seek the meaning of love within our present experience but also in the intention and hope which lives hidden in the human spirit. If we take an historical view of love’s work in the world we know that work is manifested in the brokenness of existence. This leads us to consider three implications of our thesis that love has a history.
Three requirements follow from the doctrine that love has a history. The first is that we retrace the biblical outlook to see it as a history of the love of God moving amidst the human loves. This gives us a sway of interpreting the biblical faith which has been too much neglected. The love of God and the response of man create a new history in which the forms of love’s expression cannot be identified with only one pattern or motif. God reveals his love by reconstructing the relationship between himself and man and between man and man. He opens up new forms of community. God in his creativity and freedom reforms the modes of love’s expression.
This interpretation owes much to the modern achievement of the historical interpretation of the Bible which is one of the outstanding results of historical scholarship. We are applying the radically historical view of the Bible and its faith to the understanding of love. The forms of love known in the Bible are derived from those events in which men come to knowledge of the meaning of life through what happens in history. The discovery of the love of God is the discovery of his creative power and redemptive action in historical experience.
Thus interpreted the Bible shows God’s love as involving his participation in the history of his creatures. Love is known through the divine action and the divine suffering. Mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not simply formal ideas of what love ideally is. They are the rendering in human terms of what the love of God is doing in human life. This analysis of the biblical doctrine of love and of the Christian claim that we know love decisively through the history which has Jesus of Nazareth at its centre, is dependent upon the view that time, freedom, and historical existence are the central realities of our self-understanding.
The Bible speaks of the love of God and of all the human loves and their involvements: sex, comradeship, love of neighbour, love of self, love of mammon, love of enemies. The Bible affirms the goodness of man’s created life. Man bears the image of God in his responsible existence. Every human love shapes man’s life before God. The Bible never leaves the human loves independent of their origin in God and their service to him. Hence the great ethical question is how the human loves serve God. It is a question of the true ordering of life in the light of the Kingdom of God. Nothing which belongs to man’s need and vitality as man is rejected or disparaged. ‘Our heavenly Father knoweth that you have need of these things,’ Jesus says concerning the goods of this world. Here then the meaning of God’s love in relation to human vitalities becomes a central issue for Christian theology. We have to review carefully the biblical faith about human needs for much in the contemporary search for a new Christian style of life and much of the estrangement between Christian faith and secular man lies just here. As we retrace the development of the biblical view of love we are in search of a point of view from which the concrete relationship of God’s love and the human loves can be understood.
Our second obligation is to say how we see the history of love in the Christian tradition. There have been many theologies of love and many doctrines. A full history of the doctrine of love is still to be written, although there have been notable contributions to it. Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros and Denis De Rougemont’s Love in the Western World are indispensable to an historical understanding. Along with them should be put C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love in the Middle Ages. We are much indebted to these works.
A full historical study of love in the Christian tradition would be a life task in itself. I adopt the alternative of offering a typology of the major forms in which love has been viewed in the tradition. My typology differs from Nygren’s and De Rougemont’s at some decisive points. I see three main types: the first is the Augustinian which is a synthesis of the New Testament faith with the neoplatonic vision of God and the world. This type is the root of all Western philosophical theologies, and of all doctrines of love which seek to bring agape and the human loves into an ordered structure in which the being of God is reflected in all the loves while his redemptive love transforms the whole.
The second type is the Franciscan. It is the free, radical expression of love in a sacrificial way of life. It is the nearest love comes to finding expression as pure spirit, breaking through the normal forms of life and society, and enacting the soul’s joyful self-giving in the world.
The third type is the evangelical. It is clear that something radical happened in the Protestant reformation to the understanding of the freedom of the Gospel and the Christian style of life. What did happen is a complex story. We can approach it through the new way in which the love of God and the loves of men come to be understood within the affirmation of salvation by grace alone. Luther and Calvin united their radical doctrine of sin and of love as grace with a new freedom for the service of God in the secular order. Hence all the human loves and activities: marriage, production, politics — take on a new sense of vocation as they are held within the restraints of God’s law and the ultimate reliance on God’s love as forgiveness.
So far we can go in distinguishing the main doctrines in the history. But obviously these are insufficient, for when we come to the modern period and begin to look for examples of these types we make a discovery. All the types remain, but they undergo a transformation. Put briefly, what we trace in the chapter on the types of love is the way that the existentialist view of life has entered each of the classic types to transform it. Augustinians have come to terms with freedom, diversity and secularity in the world. Here the book which has meant the most to the present writer is Father M. C. D’Arcy’s The Mind and Heart of Love. I interpret D’Arcy as a contemporary Augustinian seeking to incorporate an existentialist doctrine of man. He seeks the relation of the Christian agape to the two root loves in man, the love which seeks to grasp and master, and the love which gives itself away. With the spirit of D’Arcy’s argument I am in fullest sympathy. The structure of my doctrine is different from his because I do not separate the mastering and the self-giving dimensions of love in quite the way he does. But I should be glad to think that my view is akin to Father D’Arcy’s in its spirit and intent, and my indebtedness to him cannot be adequately expressed.
The Franciscan type reappears again and again in the history of the Church and beyond the Church. It thrusts its way into the complexity and tragedy of every culture with a spontaneous goodness and a renewing spirit. In our day it has reappeared in many great lives. The one I select for interpretation is Albert Schweitzer. This is not only because of Schweitzer’s ethical stature but also because in his philosophical reflections he shows the perplexity of the Franciscan way as he attempts to meet some of its ultimate dilemmas in facing human necessities.
The evangelical way has given rise to the broad stream of the modern protestant ethic in all its forms — conservative, liberal and radical, idealistic and pragmatic, individualistic and collectivistic. Reinhold Niebuhr’s ethical thought with its profound analysis of love in relation to political justice, and its insight into pride and idolatry, shows how the evangelical view of love undergoes the existentialist transformation in the contemporary scene.
Our typology leaves some blurred edges and unanswered questions as every honest typology should, for the ‘ideal types’ do not exactly fit the reality, and history outruns every classification. Yet the discovery of this inner transformation of the historic types helps to confirm our thesis about the development of the forms of love.
The third obligation which the interpretation of the history of love lays upon us is to interpret what happened to the concept of love in the first centuries when the Christian Gospel met the mind of the hellenistic world. The Church Fathers worked out the synthesis of biblical faith and Greek metaphysics which has been the foundation of most Christian theology to the present day. Whatever view we take of that synthesis there is no question that it made a difference in the way God’s love and the human loves were understood.
We are led straight to St. Augustine’s doctrine of love, for it was he who worked out a theological way of speaking of God as being itself. He united the absolute of neo-platonic metaphysics with the Creator-Redeemer of the New Testament who seeks and saves lost men with mercy and forgiveness. God infuses his spirit into the human soul to draw it back toward its true home. For Augustine all the human loves reflect the love of God. It is constitutive of all being. Love flows into all things from God who is being itself. Yet the human loves are distorted and frustrated except as they are redeemed by the love exhibited in Christ. This is Augustine’s great synthesis of the classical doctrines. What we do with it will be decisive for our view of love.
It is here that Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros helps define our problem for Nygren sees the Augustinian doctrine, which he calls the ‘caritas synthesis’, as a distortion of the agape of the Gospel. Nygren is a profound critic of St. Augustine. He shows clearly how the motif of an eros love which seeks its own fulfilment enters into Augustine’s description of the pilgrimage of the soul toward God. Nygren believes it is only in the Reformers, and especially Luther, that the New Testament theme of love as God’s freely outpoured mercy for the unworthy is set free again. For Nygren the agape of the Gospel is the spontaneous unmotivated grace of God and it is contrasted with all eros love, which seeks its own fulfilment in goodness, truth, and beauty.
Whether Nygren has described fully and accurately the biblical account of love may be questioned. Many critical discussions have been given and I have offered one such criticism.6 In relation to the Augustinian synthesis we must concentrate on one point. Nygren rightly sees that something happens to the conception of God as freely giving his grace to man when this is joined with the metaphysical doctrine of God as absolute being. But Nygren fails, it seems to me, to give sufficient attention to the central point, which is that not only did St. Augustine work out a rational doctrine of God’s being but also he accepted the Greek presuppositions about God’s absolute and timeless being in doing so. Nygren thinks the difficulty lies in trying to achieve any rational synthesis between agape and the human eros, but I hold that the difficulty lies in the particular metaphysical outlook which St. Augustine took over from the neo-platonists. Agape and eros are not necessarily opposed.
This point is central to our discussion. What would it mean to relate the Christian doctrine of God to a metaphysical outlook in which God’s being is conceived in dynamic temporal terms? Suppose God is joined with his world in the adventure of a real history where both God and the creatures have freedom to act and to respond, God supremely, and the creatures within the limitations of their creaturely status?
It is such a reconstruction of a metaphysical theology which is offered here. After a detailed criticism of St. Augustine’s doctrine we go on to show what this metaphysical reconstruction means for the understanding of all the loves. The meaning of love is understood in a doctrine of God’s being and the nature of the world which can be called ‘process metaphysics’.
The background and meaning of ‘process metaphysics’, whose primary modern source is Alfred North Whitehead, is sketched briefly in Chapter V. It is necessary to say something here about the place of metaphysical analysis in the discussion of love because the very possibility of metaphysical knowledge is a matter of considerable debate at the present time. Why not just describe love in its biblical roots and human expressions? Why this concern with ‘being’?
Our answer can be put quite simply — it is beings who love. If we do not develop our notion of what it means to be we leave the meaning of love more obscure than it needs to be. We must keep clear the nature and limits of our metaphysics, that is, our ideas about what it means to be. I mean by metaphysics the search for a coherent scheme of those general ideas which are necessary for the description of every aspect of experience. Familiar terms appear: time and space, structure and process, form and matter, freedom and law, individuality and community, body and spirit. The precise statement of our scheme of ‘categories’ and the analysis of how they go together in the make-up of the world is metaphysical inquiry. It is my view that all serious thought has an implicit metaphysical dimension. The question is whether or not we are going to get our categories into the open and criticize them.
Metaphysics then is not a search for being beyond all existence and experience. it is not a speculation about remote causes. It is as Whitehead has said, ‘a description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practise’.7 This statement, I hope, takes away from the term ‘metaphysics’ some of the fog of esoteric suggestion which often surrounds it. The inquiry is difficult enough, and it does lead us into the ultimate mysteries. But what we are doing is to inquire about what it means to grow, to love, to create, to remember, to become, to hope, to die, and in short, to be.
We shall not attempt here to establish the case for metaphysics against the critical attack which has been directed against it. Our possible contribution to that philosophical discussion would be to show the consequences of metaphysical analysis for the understanding of love. In this way we can demonstrate that metaphysical analysis has its relevance to a crucial area of human experience. There is this further point, one suspects much of the contemporary criticism of metaphysics ought to be directed, not at the inquiry into being, but against aspects of our inheritance from the Greek way of conceiving that inquiry. Much contemporary thought is trying to get rid of ‘metaphysics’, meaning by that trying to get rid of timeless, static, being. It is especially common in contemporary theology to find metaphysics identified with such a doctrine. But why not get rid of ‘timeless metaphysics’ by exploring a temporalistic doctrine of being? This is what process philosophy proposes to do. We explore its radical consequences for the doctrine of love. Contemporary thought is in process of making some discoveries here about love which are hopeful and exciting. We discover that love presupposes beings who can both give and receive in relation to one another, and that therefore God must have ways of receiving and responding to what happens in the world. We discover that suffering in its ontological sense of ‘being acted upon’ is a requirement of all love, and thus a new way is opened to reflection on the suffering of God. We discover that love implies communication so that the language of love is a constituent of love itself, and this opens the way to a reconception of the human loves and of sexuality.
A metaphysical system is an instrument of vision, not a dogmatic statement of final truth. We elaborate our temporalistic doctrine of being knowing that it is an abstraction from the full concreteness of experience. God is ‘more than we can think’.8 We reject the very respectable classic view of God which makes love all but unintelligible. If love has a history, then the categories through which we understand the structure of love have their history. Process philosophy wants to show that our categories must reflect the creative becoming which is exhibited in the world. God as the ground and source of the world’s life really participates in that life and history.
Our metaphysical analysis is not a detour around theology. It is an indispensable element in theological analysis; but metaphysics is not the interpretation of the faith of the Christian community. That is the work of theology which interprets the faith which appears in the history which produced the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. In the Christian faith love is disclosed as the centre and spirit of that history. To say what love is in the Christian way means to say what we believe about God and man as known in Jesus Christ. Love is not an idea which we add to our beliefs about God and his self-revelation. Love is what God’s spirit is in his action in history, as he deals with human loves and lovelessness, and opens the way to a new community of life whose spirit is informed by love.
If we fulfil our three obligations, to interpret the biblical witness, to analyse the historical development of Christian doctrine, and to show the relation of the new metaphysics to the classical synthesis, we are ready for the theological task of trying to see the meaning of the way of God with man as the disclosure of what love is and what it does in history. This discussion leads us to the themes of God and man, the Incarnation, and the Atonement. We restate theological doctrine from the standpoint of our interpretation of the meaning of love.
Our theological perspective stands in a close relation to the movement of modern theology which was initiated by Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, and which has had a broad influence upon all contemporary theological thought. What Karl Barth has shown is that Christian thought moves from within the action of God in Christ outward toward the understanding of life. In Christian thought we do not first get an idea of love which is then illustrated by the history of Jesus. We come to the Christian understanding of love through the history of Jesus. This insistence of Barth’s on the centrality of Christology, an insistence which continues the insight of Schleiermacher, is of especial importance in relation to our thesis that love has a history. Christian faith sees in the story of Jesus the spirit of God reshaping human existence and opening the way to new forms of understanding of what that existence is. We understand Christianity in the light of our conception of love; but we derive that new conception from the history which has Jesus Christ as its centre. I accept this situation fully, and what is offered here is a theological reflection on the meaning of the Incarnation and the Atonement. What I shall argue against Karl Barth is that we should not eliminate metaphysics from theology, but that traditional doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement have failed precisely because they have never fully incorporated the historical, temporalistic aspect of the Christian revelation. The new metaphysics of social relationship can help to set free the theological insight which the Bible sustains. If this seems a large claim, it is offered in no spirit of Hegelian imperiousness, but as a proposal for critical discussion. Where the meaning of love, and therefore of human life is at stake, we need a radical attack on the fundamental problems.
This point of view is relevant to the recent ‘Death of God’ theologies.9 It is possible that the new humanism and the declaration of the absence of God reflects a deep dissatisfaction with the traditional conceptions of God. None of the prominent ‘Death of God’ theologians seems to have considered a temporalistic doctrine of God as a possible alternative to traditional doctrine. The theological position of process thought does offer such an alternative. It preserves the freedom, creativity, and concern with the secular realms which the ‘Death of God’ theologians rightly hold. It is noteworthy that the ‘Death of God’ theologians want to hold to the Christian community with Jesus as its centre as the context of ultimate loyalty. They see more clearly than the liberal humanists that human devotion is shaped in communities of faith and life. Our doctrine of love asserts that all the freedom, creativity and risk which the new humanism asks for really obtains in God’s life with man. When the history of Jesus is set free from the traditional kind of metaphysics, theology can recognize man’s life with God and his neighbour in the authentic forms of freedom.
Theological interpretations have their ultimate validation in their power to illustrate human experience. A doctrine of love cannot be proved as a theorem, it must show that it can give intelligibility to the human loves. Therefore the final part of our book is concerned with the relation of Christian faith to four areas of human living:
the nature of self-sacrifice; sexuality and love; social justice; and the intellectual life. Here are four realms of ethical decision, creative experience, and moral perplexity. The Christian Gospel declares that the love of God judges, fulfils and redeems these human realms from their futilities, confusion and despair. We require a point of view from which we can see how divine love and the human loves move against, toward and through one another. This is the most difficult part of our task, and it brings us into the concrete struggles of life today.
Among the many issues we follow one clue to the relation of the divine and the human loves. This is that all the loves work within the history of the self’s becoming. No love, whether it be the ethical love of neighbour, or the love in the sexual life, or the love of God for man, is a ‘thing’, a static pattern or form. It is a spirit at work in life and taking form in the process of becoming. Therefore we have to understand love as history, and we are concerned with its origins, development and fruition.
In this point of view some new perspectives emerge. There is the question of the multiplicity of human loves and whether they are in any sense one. From one point of view the human loves are many and diverse; but from the dynamic point of view they may grow together and inform one another. When we look at them in process we ask how they inform, obstruct, and fulfil each other. There is the theological question of the relation of the agape of the Gospel to the human love of neighbour and all the forms of human eros. Looked at from one point of view these are utterly different loves. The human loves may be present without any reference whatever to the love of God. This is what humanists keep saying. Theologians agree that divine love breaks in upon the human loves with a radically new judgment and demand.
But when we look at agape and eros in the self’s becoming we see that the important question is how and where the human loves discover that they cannot fulfil themselves, and how they are transformed by agape so that they remain human and yet are fulfilled from beyond themselves.
It is at this point, I believe, that the traditional Christian doctrine of love is in the deepest trouble with sensitive and critical minds in modern culture. The humanists suspect, and rightly, that the Christian view of love has become repressive, negates the full valuation of sexuality, sentimentalizes charity and neglects justice. I accept these criticisms; but I do not believe the way out is through the kind of humanism proposed by such thinkers as Erich Fromm, or the completely eroticized civilization envisioned by Herbert Marcuse, or through man’s assertion of his autonomy without God as in the ‘Death of God’ theologies. The answer lies in an examination of where the traditional Christian doctrine has failed to grasp the real life of the human loves in their creativity and their power, and in their tendency to reach their own limits. We shall try to discover the point at which agape becomes the one viable answer to the blocking of the human eros.
Our doctrine of love then looks toward a Christian humanism which accepts the worth and creative power of all the human loves in both sacred and secular contexts. The self-destructive restlessness in modern culture will not be cured by the Nietzschean Superman. It will be healed when man discovers that his loves in sex, family, nation, work and art participate in the working of a reality which lends final significance to his broken efforts and which in forgiveness and mercy can restore his shattered spirit.
Arguments about love are often unseemly, yet love needs the purging and redirection which critical analysis can give. The present essay is aimed at getting our bearings about love in a world where the voices are strident and the noise of conflict shattering. The problems of war and survival are so pressing that it requires an act of inner redirection to give attention to the life of the spirit. But such an inner re-orientation is necessary if we are to speak about the truths which ultimately matter. Every writer is grateful for the qualities of patience and charity on the part of the reader. We finally depend upon the miracle of personal communication. Only love can do the work of reflection about love.
It is difficult to speak about this deeper level of communication, and often it is better to remain silent about it. It may help the reader, however, to sense the general direction of what is here written if I indicate one aspect of what has happened in my reflections about love through several years. I have come to believe that there is a kind of double vision necessary in the effort to see love clearly. On one hand we see it as the consummation of life. The goal of love is communion. The experiences of love are experiences of joyful ecstasy, delightful companionship and reconciliation. The power of love is the security which it gives in our relations to one another, a security which in the New Testament is marvellously affirmed by Paul’s word, ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God’. Without this consummatory experience we would not be able to speak about love at all. It is the reality to which we cling in a broken, confused and threatening existence. It is the root of life, and its binding power.
But if we look only at love’s consummation we do not see it whole. Love has another mode, of faithful, courageous waiting for a consummation not yet realized. Love lives not only from the ecstasy of fulfilment, but from a loyalty not yet fulfilled. Love realizes itself, not only in the enjoyment of completion but in the suffering of the Not-yet.
Our culture is grasping for immediate possession. We need to learn that God waits and bears with his world. In no previous culture have the forms of love been so unresolved, so difficult to exhibit with clarity and precision. Therefore that form of love which is sustained loyalty to a humanity yet-to-be is most important for us. It is the love which Josiah Royce described in his philosophy of loyalty, a love which remains faithful to the on-going community of interpretation in spite of its brokenness. It is the love which sustains those who bear the heavy burdens of political decisions with all their ambiguity. It is the love which refuses to give up faith in reconciliation in spite of the abysses of prejudice and hatred which divide men. It is the mode of love which does not look for salvation through overriding power, but which allows itself to be ‘edged out of the world’ on a cross, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw.
Our search for the forms of love begins now with a look at the Bible with its witness that God has disclosed who he is and what love is through what he has done in history.
1. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1957). Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956).
2. James Moffatt, Love in the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1929), is the classic analysis.
3. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, p. 281, and London: James Nisbet & Co.).
4. In human living intentions are not always consciously defined of course.
5. N. Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935), pp. 31-3.
6. Daniel Day Williams, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 67-73.
7. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 19.
8. The phrase is Henry Nelson Wieman’s.
9. I have given a brief account of this theological development in the 3rd edition of What Present Day Theologians are Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). An admirably balanced and critical estimate of the ‘Death of God’ theme is W. Richard Comstock’s, ‘Theology After the Death of God,’ Cross Currents, Summer, 1966.