I turned fifty-five this week—the fateful age at which they begin to offer you senior citizen discounts and call you fifty-five years young. As a little compensatory birthday present to myself, and hopefully to you, dear reader, I thought I’d forget about resentment for a week and return to the primary and more pleasurable theme of these columns, love.Love is our private experience of transcendence. There is nothing in our personal relationship with God that cannot be understood as a relationship with the beloved. It is not clear which one of these transcendental experiences has the most to teach the other.
Christianity has recognized this parallel in the equation God is love. God as a person—or three—is equated to love, an interaction. In the language of originary anthropology, God is not merely the central object-victim that brings the human community together, but the interrelationship mediated by this object between the members of this community. When we truly love each other in God, he no longer occupies a “center” that distracts us from each other. Yet to say that God is love is not merely to say, “the center is the periphery,” but to recognize that without the center the periphery would never have existed.
Yet although a reading that appeals to our originary intuition for an explanation of what/who God is is useful anthropologically, it does us little good existentially. Among the modes of love that maintain solidarity in human communities—affection, friendship, sympathy, solidarity, parental love, fraternal love…—there is one that we call just love tout court, “romantic” love, the kind of love we don’t merely feel but are in. Can we take God is love to express the association of this intense feeling of love with God?
Since love, like any transcendental experience, is paradoxical, it is easy to denounce it as illusory. If you read enough social science, you begin to think that transcendence of any kind is an illusion, that there are only things and more complex kinds of things, that even thinking about things is just creating new kinds of things. Social science doesn’t explain transcendental phenomena like religion—or love. But it doesn’t have to explain them; they are just empirically observed behaviors like any others, subject to natural selection. And our very desire to understand why we believe in God, or why we fall in love, is just another behavior, and the discourse that declares it a behavior, still another behavior… When the old metaphysics of Plato and Descartes was faced with the early stages of this kind of thinking, Husserl invented phenomenology, to which Heidegger gave the vocation of thinking the transcendental. And now we have in generative anthropology the means to integrate the transcendental with the empirical —
But I digress (it’s my birthday, after all).
In the days when the Church was a dominant social institution, the emulation of divine love by human love suffered from a disequilibrium. The doctrine of divine love was already fixed by the church fathers; only a few not-always-reputable mystics made it an object of direct experience. Human love alone was virgin territory to be explored. The Neoplatonists saw in the latter little more than an inkling of and an incentive toward divine bliss. Des Grieux’ argument in Manon Lescaut that human love, because it can be conceived in the imagination, is a transcendental goal better suited to us than eternal salvation is perhaps the first expression of open revolt against this institutional priority. (See Chronicles No. 17: “Perfide Manon”.)
Today, when religion is an individual experience and churches have no power beyond the collective will of their members, the experience of human love can teach the unbeliever—and perhaps the believer as well—what it means to love God. God as love is as vulnerable as humanity. The infinity we see in our beloved’s eyes is something the lover of God must supply from imagination, at the risk of adoring an image. I prefer to think of God as the presence in which the two of us are present to each other, the guarantee that each ephemeral look or touch bears its meaning of infinite tenderness for all eternity.