Self-Emptying: Erotic Kenosis and Monogamous Relationships

Self-Emptying: Erotic Kenosis and Monogamous Relationships July 23, 2019
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Love is a risk. A risk that will offer no reward if it lacks reciprocity, self-emptying, and desire. If you are reading this however, I believe it is safe to assume that you have found love, despite the risks involved.

You fell into the ocean of uncertainty and found a treasure unparalleled to any other. You took a risk, probably without much thought, and found within another something that made you feel quantified by their presence and companionship.

It’s also safe to assume that within your relationship, you have experienced loss, hurt, and/or pain. Outside forces beyond our control disrupt our homeostasis all-the-time. We bounce back—we go with the flow—and we learn through a coexperience, how to conquer the challenges together.

There are always forces acting either against or with us in our pursuit of love. Some forces impeded on our relationships that cause damage. Other forces act on our relationships that strengthen them, such as the force of eros.

Eros is a force that works its way into our desires and into our hearts. It’s ultimately what connects us to one partner. We share an erotic connection with another. And, if we are willing, we can allow that force to continue to generate space for limitless possibilities.

What may follow is an “erotic kenosis”—an erotic emptying of the self for our beloved. More importantly, this phenomenon can encourage detachment from erotic expectation. More blatantly, such an understanding can help us loosen the grip of erotic limitations between partners. Ergo, understanding kenosis in an erotic sense can provide maximum pleasure in the bridal chambers.


Kenosis is a demonstration of love. It is what love looks like. The most extreme and sacrificial example of kenosis is depicted in a scene that you might already be familiar with.

Paul writes of Jesus demonstrating such an act in his letter to Philippians (verse 2:6-8):

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of servant, being made in human likeness,
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross!

Kenosis is about making yourself nothing, without content, without ego-centric purpose. Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, expounds on this particular passage, by adding that;

Paul so profoundly realizes, self-emptying is the touchstone, the core reality underlying every moment of Jesus’s human journey. Self-emptying is what brings him into human form, and self-emptying is what leads him out, returning him to the mode of glory. The full realization of Jesus’s divine selfhood comes not through the concentration of being, but through a voluntary divestment of it.

It’s a fundamental stepping-stone for Christianity. I believe that it is through kenosis that we fully highlight the intention for creation— to give of ourselves for another— for no other reason than because love called or compelled us to do so. To love others as we love ourselves.

Doing so requires us to step outside of ourselves, to set our ego aside; to allow love to surge within us so greatly that thinking about our actions comes secondary to the act itself. Jesus divests himself, his entire concentration of being, which includes the part of the psyche that guides our thoughts— the ego; so that we could all be saved.

Being without Purpose

So, what is kenosis, exactly? Its etymology lies in the verb kenosein; which means “to empty oneself”, “being without purpose, without truth” But, how does one “empty” themselves? John 15:13 laments;

Greater love has no man that to lay down his life for his friend.

Laying down one’s life is a sacrifice, but not the only sacrifice one needs to make to demonstrate greater love. Less dramatic demonstrations take place every day. Kenosis is a side-stepping of the self. It is a gesture of not only unity, but of self-less-ness. Parents and spouses in particular are all too familiar with this reoccurring act. But of course, all humans have the capacity to empty themselves for another.

It can resemble many acts: a random passer-byer reaching out to grab a child who is about to step into oncoming traffic; A soldier shoving his brother down to the ground and taking a bullet for him. It resembles all things that look like sacrificial love. O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” also depicts kenotical sacrifice, in which two lovers sell their more precious belongings in order to buy one another a Christmas gift.

Kenosis requires empathy. And true empathy requires that we divest from the objective self. Which means that we separate ourselves from perceiving, from judgment, and from emotional reaction. We lose our self-hood. In Beyond Good and Evil (paragraph 207), Nietzsche called it a “self-loss”

Kenosis is beyond objectivity, beyond subjectivity, and beyond any discerning, rational judgment.  

It is a divestment from reason, really. Kenosis is an act that is spontaneously willed from a lack of logical deduction. This echoes similar philosophical presentations offered by Lonergan and Marion; “love is its own logic.”

Reason demands analysis, critical thinking, reflection. Kenosis, similarly to what we know of love, is more of a spontaneous reflex or impulse that it is executed without any in-depth conscious, consideration. It’s hasty in a good way.

When we fall in love, nothing makes sense. When we act out kenotically, we are beyond the thinking and doing reflexes. We enter into a higher realm—an ethereal realm of Oneness— in which we are simply, and perfectly loving the other, without any regard to the Self. The Self is dead. There is only the Other. This is why it is seen as obedience to death—death of the self, death of thought.

A=E x K

There are not many theological scholars (that I am personally aware of) that focus on interweaving the ideas of kenosis with Eros— erotic love, but few have dared, such as Episcopalian priest Cynthia Bourgeault. It is because of her work, most pointedly revealed in her masterful book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity; that I believe the comprehension of eros multiplied by kenosis is of the utmost importance for a successful erotic relationship.

Kenosis is a staple teaching regarding how we are to love one another. Some even say that kenosis is the demonstration of agape love—or God’s love for all. However, when joined with Eros, it becomes even more intense. Bourgeault explains how the energy metastases into a practice that is even sacramental, when coupled with eros, of course.

Kenotic practice takes on a particularly intense and even sacramental character. This is because the root energy it works with is the transformative fire of eros, the energy of desiring. That messy, covetous, passion-ridden quicksilver of all creation is tamed and transformed into a substance of an entirely different order, and the force of the alchemy accounts for both the efficiency of this path and its terrifying intensity.

What do we know of desire, or more specifically, of erotic desire? For one, it’s entirely selfish. We further know that desire, when fostered outside the influence of true eros, and without the discipline of self-giving love, can become perverted and extreme. Accounting for the dangers of desire, Bourgeault offers a sounder theology when merging eros with kenosis:

For the great secret of erotic love—which all true lovers instinctively know and which I believe Jesus also knew—is that agape is in essence transfigured desire. There are not two loves, one agape-based and the other eros-based. Rather, agape is what emerges from the refiner’s fire when that surging desire to cling, possess, consume the object of one’s adoring is subjected to the discipline of kenosis, self-giving love.


It’s not so much that Bourgeault calls for a suppression of the energy of desire, so much as she calls for lovers to “carve a deeper channel in which it can flow, through a meticulous commitment to the daily practice of laying down oneself for the other.” It’s an “exercise in the pure generosity of standing in the other’s place, discovering what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself—not as much as one’s self, as egoic consciousness always appends, but as the intimate expression of one’s own being.”

The concept of utilizing eros with kenosis to reveal agape love brings us back to the idea that erotic kenosis can benefit our monogamous relationships. Kenosis is being without purpose, without truth.

The fullest sense of erotic kenosis, then, requires us to be without truth, more so, without expectation and without limitation. For without such truth, then perhaps nothing can really be forbidden? This widens the scope of possibility for erotic lovers with our erotic expectations as well as erotic exploration.



* This is an excerpt from the current manuscript of Enfleshed: Making Monogamous Relationships Real by Danielle Kingstrom. If you are interested in reading more excerpts, and would like to help support my work, please check out my Patreon page.

** Recorded Conversations is now available!


About Danielle M Kingstrom
Danielle Kingstrom is a writer, podcaster, and leg-warmer aficionado. She is the host of "Recorded Conversations", a podcast dedicated to compassionately considering all perspectives while engaging in connected dialogues about societal issues. Current work includes an upcoming book, "Enfleshed: Making Monogamous Relationships Real". You can read more about the author here.

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