I was delightfully surprised to have discovered feminist Cheryl Hall’s book, The Trouble with Passion: Political Theory Beyond the Reign of Reason. Like a bold and courageous deep thinking feminist, she dares to name the dichotomy between reason and passion in politics.
In doing so, she is highly critical of classic liberal politics that banned passion from political engagement. She envisions a democratic politics infused with passion. In doing so she turns to thinkers (including feminists) who argue for the value of eros within the political community. Obviously, her vision of eros is not reduced to sexual eros.
With refreshing reflection, she brings together, Plato, Rousseau, and many contemporary feminists to make her case that eros has political and ethical significance.
You know what? I love her boldness in exploring eros in political theory but so much of what she said about political theory fearing eros could be said about the church! Whether it be the classic liberalism found in mainline Protestants or male-centered rationalists in evangelicalism, many contemporary churches fear eros.
I will leave Hall’s desire for political theory for now but she has inspired this post.
In patriarchy, both women and eros are linked together and devalued. Within patriarchal evangelicalism, men (who are rational) have been spiritual heads over women (feminine linked to passion, irrational, dangerous—that is, eros).
We all know eros has faced a fierce resistance within the Christian tradition. In my early years of researching cross-gender friendship I was intrigued but at the same time I resisted it. If you are still uncomfortable with an eros that is not reduced to foreplay and lust, I understand. Here I was trying to make a case for boundless chaste friendships between men and women and I didn’t want create a bigger mess by embracing eros in cross-gender friendship!
That would create more confusion!
Or so I thought.
But gradually, I reached a point of no turning back when I finally understood how eros was/is deeply gendered within Christian tradition and obviously within contemporary evangelicalism.
One strike against eros within the evangelical tradition is that biblical literalists don’t see the word eros anywhere in the New Testament. This was my own position early on, so I get it. I, too, was once a biblical literalist.
It was Thomas Oord though, who made the simple observation that eros is vividly present within the New Testament by its absence. What did he mean by that? Even though the word is not used you will find the meaning of it over and over again in other language. Ponder Phil. 4:8; 1 Cor. 14:1; Ps. 16:11; and Ps. 34:8 among other verses.
If eros is deeply gendered, it goes all the way back to blocking authentic spiritual power of connecting men and women as friends. What is the typical evangelical detached, “rational” objection to male-female friendship? What has been the common patriarchal posture toward eros? What has been the common patriarchal posture toward women’s presence in leadership?
Too overpowering. Too emotional. Too irrational. Too dangerous. Too wild. Too weak. Too selfish.
Bear with me just for one more moment of reflection here for you to ponder how this is so deeply gendered and entangled.
Catholic philosopher Rachel Lu has objections to gay celibates seeking deep spiritual friendships. In arguing against it, she eventually pulls the eros as danger card. She observes, “Eros, as the Church Fathers always understood, is replete with spiritual dangers. As the most intense and beguiling of human loves, it tempts us to use, possess, and idolize others. It runs roughshod over the boundaries of ordinary decorum and common sense. No other love leaves us so vulnerable to self-deception and betrayal.”
What she doesn’t do in that essay is admit how the male-centered tradition fused eros with women. To get close to women was to face spiritual dangers. Women were linked to eros and Eve’s sin.
Everything Lu said about eros in that paragraph, patriarchy—secular or Christian— has asserted about women. How about men (and women who submit to men) who have pushed the modesty guilt trip within the purity culture?
But what if divine eros is at the heart of making friends between men and women? What if desiring friendship--desiring love--between men and women was not irrational? Not too emotional? Not too dangerous? What if the move toward a contemplative eros could be brought out in the public square? What if men and women desiring friendship with God was at the heart of all embodied relationships? Desiring God's presence between us knowing that God desires us?
One of the things that happened to friendship when patriarchy fused Freud with eros was that men deemed "friendship" as rational separated from eros. So, it's not surprising that women's friendship faced the same objections within mainline Protestants and evangelicals as eros did for much of the twentieth century. I'm not talking about cross-sex friendships here, but female friendship.
This is why you see within Christian feminist eros emerging at the end of the twentieth century the urge for us to consider that friendship was so much more than detached, disembodied "masculine" reason. The dichotomy between reason and passion was at the center of all heated conversation as the Western world discovered the shared passion between Oprah and Gayle King in friendship.
There is no limit to life-giving, sacred, unguarded, trustworthy, peacemaking, provocative, desiring friendship when contemplative erotic presence is attended to in the making and nurturing of friends. Perhaps for you, it’s easier to use the language like “the heart of God” instead of God’s eros in making other-sex friends.