In my last Chronicle, I criticized Marcus Borg for reducing Jesus to a “spirit person” and neglecting his fundamental revelatory message: God is love. This week I would like to articulate this message with the minimal hypothesis of Generative Anthropology. How is the imperative of promoting the cause of love over that of resentment derived from the ethic incarnate in the originary sign? If the first sign is the Name-of-God, in what sense is it the sign of love?
We may rely on the experience of human sexual love. The eros-agape distinction is not primary. If we use the word “love” in both cases, it is because we feel the love of God and the love of one’s beloved to be variants of the same experience. Human love is not worship; but love of God is not “worship” either in the sense of the adulation of a superior being. Love defers resentment; where resentment suspects the other’s difference from me as greater proximity to the center of significance and, consequently, as a violation of the principle of human reciprocity, love experiences difference as “horizontal” equidistance from the center. In heterosexual love, this difference–vive la différence!–is the most fundamental biological one. The mutuality of sexual pleasure is a physiological guarantee that difference need not be a zero-sum game.
If the first sign is the Name-of-God, then God is significant difference itself. The love of God is not the worship of his superiority, but the willingness to accept his difference, like the sexual difference of the beloved, as a source of mutuality. The sacred Being we call God is what remains when the central being desired by all and renounced by all is no more. We cannot understand this Being as love unless we replace the traditional substantive notion of God as a supernatural entity with the insight that what stands behind the significance of the central object is not a substance at all but an interaction. The Being that defers our violence through representation is no more than our act of deferral itself.
What is the place of representation in human love? The sine qua non of love is care; he who loves is he who cares for the other, not he who merely represents his love. To love is to sacrifice one’s time and energy for the beloved, one’s life if need be. To say “I love you” and subsequently turn one’s back on the other’s need is not to love. But neither can love be made to consist in the mere act of care. The act of love is inseparable from the promise it fulfills, and which the expression “I love you” conveys. To love is to be faithful to one’s promise, to care in fulfillment of the promise of care. But this necessary condition is not sufficient. I do not love if I act merely to fulfill my original promise. Love requires that I continually renew this promise “in my heart.” By the very fact of this renewal, the promise of love is broader than an obligation of worldly care; the continual renewal of my promise requires that I unceasingly defer the resentment engendered by my perception of the other as the beneficiary of this promise.
This analysis makes clear the difference between GA and René Girard’s “fundamental anthropology” concerning the nature of the deferral of originary violence. Girard attributes what I have been calling love’s deferral of resentment to the designation of a scapegoat as the object of communal violence. The scapegoat-God is first hated, then loved for his presumed role in provoking, then ending collective violence–ending it by being presumed to provoke it. In contrast to the gods of violence, Jesus Christ, the God of love, asks us to love each other in him, to defer mimetic violence not by sacrificing him, but by remembering his sacrifice by and to the old order. Christ substitutes for the scapegoat because he unveils and thereby deconstructs the sacrificial mechanism–this is, in effect, the archetype of historical “deconstruction.”
In Girard’s model, deconstructive knowledge of the scapegoat mechanism is fed back into the triangular structure of desire with which it is ostensibly incompatible. Here the paradoxicality of the relationship between representation and reality as both structural and historic, structural because historic, unengendered because engendered, returns upon the triangular model of desire and subverts it. The scapegoat is “cast out,” not from the community, but from the model of desire; little by little, Jesus’ message erodes sacrificial triangularity.
But the question of what remains cannot easily be answered. Just as Girard’s analysis of Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque [Deceit, Desire, and the Novel] suggests that Julien’s love for Mme de Rênal, in contrast with that for Mathilde de la Mole, is free from metaphysical desire without explaining how this is possible, so in his evocation of Christian agapé, Girard never provides an articulated model of love without mediation. The opposition in Mensonge between the transcendance verticale of religion and the ever-intensifying idolatry of internal mediation would appear to imply that unmediated love must set its mediator at an infinite distance. But Christ, in contrast with the Old-Testament idea of God, is precisely the mediator who insists on inhabiting the same world as the mediated.
The example of human sexual love usefully problematizes the question of mediation: in the dyad of lovers, there is no third party to expel. In a familiar vision of masculine love, the female qua spirit mediates herself qua flesh to male desire by displaying her “narcissistic” indifference to this desire. The man’s response in what used to be called, and still remains, the battle of the sexes requires him to practice what Girard calls l’ascèse pour le désir [askesis for the sake of desire], feigning indifference in order to make his desire itself the object of his rival’s desire. In Stendhal’s novel, Julien seduces a noble lady by sending her a set of prefabricated love-letters, then treats her with indifference. When the latter’s “narcissistic” mediation of her desirability fails because she is treated as undesirable, not only she but Mathilde find Julien irresistible.
This analysis does not provide a place for “true love.” Even if we eliminate gender asymmetry, to consider each lover as a subject mediating him/herself as object of desire is to dissolve the unity of God-as-love. To love the Other as mistress or master of his/her inaccessible body is to fall into idolatry, and the idol, as we know, is a sacrificial figure, a reification of violence. By analogy with Girard’s own polarity between the religion of love and that of violence, in order for human love to furnish a model of God-as-love, it must diminish the sacrificial, the idolatrous. This does not imply “spiritualizing” the body away, but rather investing with spirit its very desirability, so that the potential resentment inspired in each by the other’s self-possession is continually dispelled by the other’s gift of self. The self as subject exists apart from the other only in order to give up possession of itself as an object, that is, as a source of physical energy and of anything in any way appropriable. The promise of love is to perpetuate this process.
The lover is both active and passive, a self that gives itself. The independently self-sufficient God who gives his substance in a one-way gift is not the God of love; such gifts arouse resentment. God-as-love is substantive Being caught in the process of its generation from human desire. Indeed, to say that God “is” love is to reify the process that the rhetoric of the sentence “God is love” realizes. The equation expressed by the copula is in the general case “false” in that the two things it equates cannot be identical for us if they have different names. (This is true only of cultural phenomena; in an astronomical model, for example, it may be simply true that the “morning star” is identical to the “evening star.”) In the sentence “God is love,” we witness the generation of substance from process: God as a named “someone,” a substantive subject, a user of language, is equated with love, the essence of human interaction insofar as it cannot be reduced from process to substance. We may “deconstruct” the former to the latter, but the subversive glee that accompanies the operation fails to comprehend its incorporation “always-already” in the cultural construction that preceded it. (Paul de Man‘s version of deconstruction understood this ironic always-already, but only as an attribute of “texts,” thereby fetishizing textuality as an “unconscious” wiser than the culture within which it operates.)
If we understand the standing-against of Being as the institution of a hierarchy in which we can only re-present what is no longer present and remains substantively “elsewhere,” then love is not simply the cessation of rivalry among desirers and representers of this Being; the relationship between lovers each case assimilates the other to the desired Being itself. Our “realistic” age purports to understand the analogy between divine revelation and sexual ecstasy from the sexual perspective, but it can only be understood from the divine.
The gift of self in sexuality is only an exemplary moment of love, not its totality. The self as Being acknowledges its dependence on the desire of the other by acting at each moment to desacralize itself for the other. The implicit triangularity of desire is annulled in the confidence that it will be instantly reformed, creating a local sacred that perpetually abolishes itself and its attendant resentment. This operation implies “works” as well as “faith”: the other’s faith in my transcendence must be repaid within the world.
Which returns us to the sine qua non of love: the implicit promise of care. Love can never be exhausted by a specific promise. As the process by which Being is continually recycled into the desire from which it originated, it is the very faculty of promising, of being-there for the other. But thus defined, the faculty of love depends in turn on the “eternal” “self-identical” permanence of Being–on all the attributes inseparable from our idea of God.