Eros is highly misunderstood. For if we refer to the Bible and all its pragmatic and spiritual advice, eros is mentioned only loosely, and as a pejorative term—according to proper translation. There are limited biblical references and so we have a limited grasp on how we should integrate eros into our lives. In short, eros was never formally introduced, and when it was, it was interrupted.
I have come to realize just how misunderstood this realm of the erotic is through the direct opposition that is aimed at my advances to unveil an expansion of the truth that is readily available.
It is one thing to offer propositions that suggest eros and agape are both equal routes to God and love. It is quite another to assert that eros in fact, can help us better understand how to fully encompass agape. The idea that one would want to line up both modes of expressive love on the same level is for some, blasphemous.
The necessary qualification, however, is that I don’t actually believe agape and eros are equal. Nor do I believe one needs to be superior to the other. I just believe that eros generates more space for the likelihood of agape to unfold. However, it’s not necessary that it’s taken as definitive. I just want you to consider the possibility of what eros can do—especially if put into practice.
Beyond Bible Translations
Nonetheless, for many, it appears as though eros should be discounted, even relegated to irrelevant, thanks to those who esteem the necessity of proper translation. And, so long as we are willing to let the Bible, and only the Bible, be our guidepost to understanding eros, we will stay locked in a limited mindset. But eros, by its very nature, quantifies, multiplies, and expands our experience.
Ostensibly, pursuing a general acceptance of eros defies the traditional dualism that we have come to take comfort in. But prior to 1930, with the injection of Anders Nygren’s problematic concept; that, according to Cynthia Bourgeault, “essentially divided the core energy of love into two separate species.”; earlier generations of Christianity did not problematize the distinct but encompassing modes of love. It was well known that eros was “the transforming force”.
It was John Climacus who wrote in the 6th century:
I have seen impure souls who threw themselves headlong into physical eros to a frenzied degree. It was their very experience of that physical eros that led them to interior conversion. They concentrated their eros on the Lord. Rising above fear, they tried to love God with insatiable desire.
And though this was a commonly held view of eros for the first 1200 years of Christianity, the chance to recapitulate the concept of a holier, more divine, purer, and more focused (maybe chaste?) love could not be ignored. Eros was eradicated and reduced to a set of desires that only led to sin.
Second to One?
Some would argue that eros is secondary; not nearly as fundamentally necessary to understand or practice as agape. Anders Nygren created a haphazard distinction that perpetuated a separation and demanded division for this new hierarchical conception of primary, objective love- agape, and the secondary, infantile, and subjective love, eros.
Agape love is said to be spontaneous and unmotivated. Agape is an ego-less equanimity. In some instances, agape is considered a logical love, whereas eros is at times irrational, uncontrollable, and temperamental.
But again, this further demonstrates that eros is highly misunderstood. It has been viewed under the same lens as sin, as selfish desire, and as lust. Make no mistake, eros, just as any other phenomenological approach to love (charity, affection, friendship), without the ruling authority of the absolute Goodness that we all strive for, is just as capable of becoming a demon. Assuredly, eros, if allowed to roam freely unguided to operate in its own justifiable law, can manifest into adultery and worse.
Eros has the power to take unbridled desires— to reorganize selfish desire— and tame it. Eros is the love that refines lust. It is the fire of eros that refines desire such as the way God refines us—melting away our imperfections.It is by the force and fire of eros that we humans act out the metaphorical practice that is necessary for the kenotic path; as Cynthia Bourgeault reveals in The Meaning of Mary Magdalene:
Stripping oneself and standing naked: this is the essence of the kenotic path.
Where else are we afforded such practice then by the relationship that creates the space for us to strip naked—literally—for our beloved and reveal ourselves? It is the energy of eros that generates the courage to reveal, and it is through this practice and understanding of this practice that allows us to not only refine our lust and selfish desires, but it allows us to tame our explosive emotions and see the Other as worthy of that same intensity of love.
Lewis and Eros
Merely 3 decades later, C.S. Lewis expounded on eros in such a way that it seemingly contradicted Nygren’s premise, and paved the way for others to consider eros in a new light. It was through the work of The Four Loves that Lewis framed eros as the vehicle that “transforms a Need-pleasure into the most Appreciative of all pleasures.”
It is the nature of a Need-pleasure to show us the object solely in relation to our need, even our momentary need. But in Eros, a Need, at its most intense, sees the object more intensely as a thing admirable in herself, important far beyond her relation to the lover’s need.
Eros encourages other-oriented desire, Lewis laments:
Without Eros sexual desire, like every other desire, is a fact about ourselves. Within Eros it is rather about the Beloved. It becomes almost a mode of perception, entirely a mode of expression. It feels objective; something outside us, in the real world. That is why Eros, though the king of pleasures, always (at his height) has the air of regarding pleasure as a by-product. To think about it would plunge us back in ourselves, in our own nervous system. It would kill Eros, as you can ‘kill’ the finest mountain prospect by locating it all in your own retina and optic nerves. Anyway, whose pleasure? For one of the first things Eros does is to obliterate the distinction between giving and receiving.
Perhaps some cautious theologians were right: eros does grow from the animal sexuality referred to as Venus. But the unsophisticated continuance of this cautious approach leads to reducing Venus, or sex, to a minimum.
Lewis noticed that “this is not the Scriptural approach.”
St. Paul, dissuading his converts from marriage, says nothing about that side of the matter except to discourage prolonged abstinence from Venus (1 Cor. 7:5). What he fears is pre-occupation, the need of constantly ‘pleasing’—that is, considering—one’s partner, the multiple distractions of domesticity. It is marriage itself, not the marriage bed, that will be likely to hinder us from waiting uninterruptedly on God.
But lest we forget, so many of the influential spiritual guides of our past, even though they provided so much insight for a greater understanding of God and love, were celibates.
And probably did not know what Eros does to our sexuality; how, far from aggravating, he reduces the nagging and addictive character of mere appetite.
It is my contention that eros has been interrupted and it is time we learn how to integrate this fiery phenomenon. Agape is the love—the thirst—for the Uncreated, and eros is the approach to quenching the resemblance of that love.