A couple of weeks ago in a sermon I heard in my middle class suburban church, I heard that “God wants to passionately be with us.” Can we participate in, can we share that divine desire, that spiritual passion with and for our friends also?
There is a design, an alignment, a cry of my heart to see
The beauty of love as it was made to be.
Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More
Eros is defined differently by different authors.
Edward Vacek, Love, Human and Divine
There is no escape from such messy entanglement.
Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self
The lives of the saints embody the relationships
that draw out this deep and powerful social desire.
David Matzko McCarthy, Sharing God's Good Company
Let’s explore eros or social desire beyond the bedroom. Is there a healthy and beautiful space for passionate divine desire within friendships? A few weeks ago, I expressed in one of my email communications with one my closest female friends, “I love you fiercely and passionately.” She received it with great joy! She reciprocated the love back to me.
Isn’t that beautiful???
I started to warm up to eros as a social desire few years ago.
It was such an “unorthodox” embodied experience for me back then. .
I was passionately committed to my wife and sexual integrity in our marriage. But my ongoing experience of love toward my single female friend included an ever-deepening desire to know her, an ever-deepening desire to be close with her, to share ongoing deep connection with her, and yes, I was delighting in her particular physical beauty. I was clearly committed to the path of friendship for us. But what did my delight and desire for her mean?
Was it eros as conservative evangelicals understood it? Or, was it a deeper kind of eros?
I felt like I betrayed the evangelical faith when I began to explore “erotic theology” i.e. the musings of eros theologians. In the conservative evangelical tradition I considered home for over two decades eros was always inferior to agape. As a white male evangelical I absorbed the “biblical” view that eros at its best did not have a good reputation--especially when it was contrasted with God’s love—agape. Eros was egocentric, possessive, fickle, disruptive, alarming, and uncontrollable. It was not to be trusted. It was a Greek word used to describe two people “in love” according to C.S. Lewis in his classic book, Four Loves.
Having come out a conservative tradition which loved biblicism, I was working through another layer rethinking something I thought the Bible already had settled. My thirst for wisdom deepened as my desire for deeper connection with my single friend motivated me to go beyond the evangelical tradition. I’ve been led to believe everything was cut-and-dried. Agape was God’s love. Eros had everything to do with sexual love and was “natural” (not supernatural).
I was quite surprised.
For example, Catholic theologian Edward Vacek correctly notes that “Eros is defined differently by different authors.” It turns out that it’s not so clear cut as my first pastor authoritatively proclaimed. What I did learn was the musings of eros theologians are progressing and evolving—like the rest of theological traditions they were the musings of people who loved God. Cristina Traina recently wrote, “Over the past three decades there has been a minor industry in the recovery of the positive theology of interpersonal eros.”
You may not ever feel comfortable in understanding eros to mean something beyond what is intended for the bedroom. We can still be friends. There are friendship theologians who think everything I am going to say about a social Eros can fit nicely under philia love and did pre-Freud. So, I’m totally cool with those of you who see our need for a deeper philia.
But as I mentioned in my first post in this series, the eros community is growing. Respected evangelicals like James K.A. Smith and James Olthuis positively affirm eros. One can love God and be committed to scripture while embracing eros beyond sex as something sacred, good, life-giving, and beautiful—a powerful social desire.
For my purposes on this series I want to highlight just one direction of eros. When I am using it here within this post, I want to use it this way: eros is a desire for connection and/or intimacy with someone who is the other sex at multiple levels: spiritual, emotional, physical, and intellectual. It can include a trajectory of sexual desire but eros is much bigger than that. Now, I’m not eliminating eros in same sex relationships—just focusing on eros in straight relationships for the time being.
What did I find attractive in the eros community?
Eros filled in the missing evangelical gap: the connection between God’s holistic, passionate, redemptive desire and a social desire between men and women.
In exploring eros, I’m convinced evangelicals have an undeveloped social desire between men and women. I have no doubt that even though there may be other reasons for this, the primary reason is the long-lasting Protestant dichotomy between agape and eros.
I respect those of you are evangelical and want to remain with philia instead of eros. So let’s just talk about this undeveloped social desire among evangelicals in light of divine desire. I have deep respect for my evangelical missional theologian friends, but their popular books cannot celebrate, highlight, or point us to a healthy, passionate flourishing of social desire between men and women.
Social desire or eros? Where is it flourishing?
Remember what I heard in that sermon a couple of weeks ago?
What if we understood that the entire story of creation was for humans (men and women) to participate, experience, and enjoy divine desire, delight, and joy in the presence of God and in each embodied other? That’s really not that farfetched. Many contemporary theologians actually believe this is what will happen in the full manifestation of God’s kingdom.
What several eros theologians did was invite me into the relational space the majority of evangelicals fear to go: the healthy space of powerful social desire between men and women. For those of you who know me well, you know I think the world of Scot McKnight. I love his blog. I love Scot. I love what he has done for women in the evangelical community. I respect him dearly. But in Scot’s books, One.Life and The Blue Parakeet—as good as they are, he never develops what deep interpersonal unity looks like with powerful social desire between men and women even though he addresses relational oneness.
This is true for other rather conservative “missional” books out there by other men, too.
Erostheologians invite you to taste the passionate desire of God (“O taste and see the Lord is good” Ps. 34:8) in human eros/desire in friendship—not just in sexual love.
The turn towards divine desire is itself transformative,
not only of particular human desires
but also of the very capacity to think, feel, and imagine.
What attracts me to erotic theology?
Eros says to us at some level, God’s passionate, holistic delight and desire within God (the triune community of Love), is something we can all (married, single, divorced, widowed) participate in and experience in this life as we become attuned to life-giving joy and desire toward one another—in marriage and friendship.
“Eros is by no means always narrowly, ‘erotic.’
Intensity is another word for conveying this
expanded sense of eroticism.”
Janice Raymond, A Passion for Friends
So developing a powerful social desire between men and women would affirm desire (and/or yearning) for God and the saints of God (“communion of saints”) as something more fundamental for beloved Christians than reductionistic pop-Freudianism which has reduced all yearning and deep desire to sex.
In the evangelical community God has a passionate invitation for men and women who pursue romantic love. There is no invitation for God’s passionate presence between men and women who are not married. Sex and romance. If those two options are not in trajectory, there is this enormous evangelical gap between God’s love/immediate presence and social desire between men and women.
Where did I get the phrase “social desire?” It is not original with me. I did not have the inspiration to come up with it even though I’ve immersed myself in it for several years now. I came across the phrase last year when I stumbled upon a book by Catholic theologian David Matzko McCarthy, Sharing God’s Good Company.
"The saints desire to be near God, and many of us desire to be near the saints. In either case, it is a social desire, a longing to be in good company with God the saints embody connections with a common future that makes its way, time and again, into the present."
I seriously doubt if McCarthy considers himself to be an eros theologian. But this description right here, in its fullness resonates with a deeper eros beyond physical coupling. Social desire fits this deep yearning to experience, participate in and live out this interpersonal unity—from whence we came from and where we are going.
Eros encouraged me not to fear desire for deep wisdom in exploring the connection between divine desire and friendship love between men and women.
My thirst for wisdom as my desire for deeper connection with my single friend deepened did not stop with well-intended evangelical fears, formulas, or silence. Aren’t we all searching for deeper wisdom than formulaic responses to closeness between men and women?
I know there are many who settle for sound bite wisdom—a list of dos and don’ts like everything was settled with the Billy Graham rules sixty years ago. But there is a growing number of us who have this nagging sense that there is something more than fears, formulas, and silence.
I was deeply disappointed when some well-known evangelical leaders in their popular books advocated women in ministry but were virtually silent on deep love between men and women who were not married. How can men and women in ministry flourish side-by-side, face-to-face within a ministry context of underlying fear, ambivalence, and suspicion between the sexes? In fact, that silence from these evangelical theologians compelled me to hunger for God and deeper wisdom beyond the evangelical sub-culture.
Christine Roy Yoder reminds us that this is what the first nine chapters of Proverbs passionately awaken us to. She writes, “The characterization of desire for personified wisdom as erotic signals its partiality and intensity.” She adds that these chapters portray “a passion comparable to the erotic desire of a lover for the beloved a passion that wisdom promises to reciprocate (I love the one who loves me. Prov. 8:17; cf. 4:6, 8-9). Also, “Desire for wisdom,” she notes, “engenders a fierce commitment to neighborliness and justice" (Saving Desire).
In the immediate context of friendship love, a healthy sign of thirsting for deep wisdom is when we turn outward to God, spouse (if married), trusted friends, community, other communities, and other important sources of wisdom.
Wendy Wright, a Catholic theologian embraces this social desire and the connection with God’s presence:
God is present in the dynamics of loving not only
as beginning and end but in the very process itself.
God’s own life is experienced in the desire we feel
that propels us to rush passionately toward one
another and to open ourselves to that passionate embrace.
Eros also became attractive to me when I recognized this:
Eros recognizes the reality of “messy entanglement” (Sarah Coakley’s phrase). Eros welcomes partiality and intensity, but calls for vigorous discernment. It requires a more holistic and life-giving ethic than rules oriented wisdom or avoidance strategies.
This is what I mean by a deeper eros.
Can men learn and nurture a social desire beyond uncontrollable sexual urges? Or is masculine Christianity stuck with immature uncontrollable urges? One of the most attractive points for me as I explored eros as a social desire was the passionate call to discernment within the messy entanglement of desire, power, gender, and sexuality.
More and more Christian women are calling for this discernment of desire and power within the bedroom. Eros in the bedroom for many Christian women is not just sexual desire to connect body parts. No, thanks in large part to feminists and the psychotherapeutic community (not to conservative theologians) eros is sounding a lot more like it overlaps with the classic “biblical” view of ….philia!!!
Eros in marriage over the long haul is not focused on body parts. Pardon my language here for a moment. Good, healthy passionate fucking over the years is much more mutual, interpersonal, and holistically discerning than any of the inferior descriptions of eros I have read from evangelical theologians.
We are living in a time when for eros to flourish in marriage over extended years, certain disciplines, skills, and virtues are emerging from theology, philosophy, and psychotherapy.
Differentiation. Attunement. Openness. Contemplative love. Attentiveness. Vulnerability. Desire. Love for God. Deep pleasure. Delight. Community. Prayer. Self-awareness of motives. Mutuality.
Can these virtues, disciplines, and skills also be transferred to the flourishing of social desire between men and women? Perhaps the eros community may boldly invite us to a decisively healthy path toward wholeness, healing, and transformation of desire. Would Christian dentists fire their attractive assistants if these were part of spiritual formation?
Wendy Farley observes:
When we become more attuned to what is destructive and what is healing, we might also acknowledge a wider range of eroticism and love that is life-giving and healing.
Eros for the Other
Cristina Traina on eros as a social desire:
In particular, our sensual desires for others can point to goods we should pursue in and for them; to potentially fruitful relationships; and to goods for ourselves. Self-conscious care with regard to all of these goods, acceptance of struggles that will surely come if we take them on, and simultaneous openness to other people and goods are the conditions of truly wholesome touch and all the pleasure and comfort that it can bring… Because we love and yearn for what is good and beautiful, attraction, desire, and often a degree of sensuality mark all significant human connections.
Erotic Attunement: Parenthood and the Ethics of Sensuality between Unequals
Eros is a “love desiring and delighting in other persons and the world within the horizon of God's all-encompassing love.... opened out toward and disposed to receive the other, attuned to the other's goodness in an attitude of availability."
Toward the Other: Christianity and Buddhism on Desire
Anne Bathhurst Gilson
“We cannot help but care about those with whom we are intimate, and caring about them gives us energy to challenge institutions, social trends, or individuals which threaten them or oppress them.”
Eros Breaking Free
One thing I do know in exploring theories of desire and love in male-female friendship. It’s clearly not “just add women and stir” (Charlotte Bunch) to flourishing friendships.