Is "Christian Love" So Different From Romantic/Sexual Love?
A decade or so ago I was looking for a ring with a poly-heart on it to buy as a gift for Paula. I found a very nice hand made one on DeviantArt. Then I went to the maker’s site and was shocked to see a very aggressive anti-polyamory diatribe by a fellow artist, apparently a young woman. Here are a few excerpts.
Because it's impossible to actually love more than one person, if one wants more it's called lust or worse. Someone who has sex with more, especially for pleasure is called a slut...
Love is very exclusive, most of the population feels jealous when somebody else touches their partner too intimately.
Since I've truly fallen in love, not just a crush, I understand why love is extremely exclusive. When I had crushes, I actually could think of somebody else (e.g. about somebody famous who was physically attractive to me and even imagine myself with him), but when I fell in love with my current partner, I just couldn't look at others anymore. Every single man appeared sexually disgusting to me even though some of them could be arousing to me in the past.
The post was much longer, but in this excerpt you can get the primary argument; true love is exclusive, limited to one person. The writer proposes that “real” love is jealous and possessive and to those who are in love, there is simply no other person in the world.
To be fair to this writer, I know full well that no one is as certain of such things as that young person who is overwhelmed with love for the first time. We have all been there and if this was just the opinion of a single young woman experiencing her first love affair, then I would just pass it off as that. However, the writer’s words do not come from nowhere; they are the expression of a cultural milieu. In this writer’s case, the culture is Eastern European, in that she states she is from Poland. So, this attitude is not just a US puritanism thing.
So, is human love “supposed” to be limited to pair bonding? This is the nearly universal belief within the Evangelical Christian community. I have seen seminars and whole books devoted to showing pair bonding to be God’s universal plan. That is a funny concept because the entire message of Jesus was about universal love. He tried to teach his followers the radical idea that God’s love is universal. He rejected the idea that God loved certain people or groups more than others. According to Jesus God loves each and every human equally. What is more when he was asked about the "greatest commandment" he said it was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Then he went on to tell a parable how that love should not be limited to our friends, or those of our cultural and/or religious group. If one focuses on the words of Jesus, you can't miss that the public mark of a Christian is that we love and are willing to sacrifice for those with whom we have contact in our everyday lives.
Yes, I know conventional teaching is the love of which Jesus spoke is not the same thing as between human “lovers”. However, I am not convinced that that interpretation is consistent with Jesus' intent nor would it have been the way those in the 1st century would have interpreted it, .
Consider the evidence that the two loves are one and the same.
The most common metaphor of Christ and the Christian is the bride and groom. Christians are the bride of Christ, and when one becomes a Christian, He comes into the person and fills them with his Holy Spirit. This metaphor takes physical form in the most basic doctrine of orthodox Christianity, that God came to Mary and impregnated her. If this is not sexual, then what is?
Consider this Passage from St. John’s first epistle.
No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
In this passage, it once again makes explicit that the loving relationship between God and the Christian is best understood as being sexual in nature. Today one would never write that God’s semen is in us, but in the day it was written, the spiritual filling was understood to be a sexual penetration and filling. I can’t see churches selling tee-shirts that say “I know how to love my neighbor because God fucked me bareback.” But not only is it theologically correct, I can’t help but think such an approach would be far more effective than most of the catchy slogans Christians use today.
This sexuality was not a new metaphor, the prophet Ezekiel gave a long narrative of Israel being the bride of God and how she prostituted herself, selling her affection for material goods. Further, the Song of Solomon has long been considered a love story that mirrors God’s love for the Christian and it is very explicitly sexual.
One of the verses I have quoted quite a bit in counseling Christian men is Ephesians 5:25 “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it”, the passage goes on to specifically reference the sexual union of man and woman as the same as God and the Christians.
To suggest that the love of God is something devoid of sexuality is to willfully change the intent of the original texts. We modern people are far more squeamish about sexuality than most people in history have been. This is very much due to the fact we now have houses large enough to have separate rooms for everyone to have sexual privacy, and the fact we are far removed from the normalcy of animals mating. For most of human existence, sexual union, both human and animal was just part of the background of life. Phallic images were ubiquitous in the Greco/Roman world in which Jesus lived and taught. Jesus never once addressed this as being a sign of evil or depravity. It should not seem shocking that ancient writings, including the Bible, don’t desexualize love the way we try to do so.
So, I pose a very serious question. Is the love we are commanded to both feel and show for others fundamentally different from sexual love?
I say no.
If that were so, the metaphors would not be about brides & grooms (i.e., young hot love); but of mature married people. The love of a couple married for 40 years is very different than the love described in Song of Solomon, or even that written about by St. John. So, I cannot see any way that the love that Jesus preached was being something devoid of sexuality. On the other hand, Jesus also presented a mature love that lacked the bride/groom sexual metaphor. In Jesus’s great example of his vision of Christian love, he describes this kind of quiet love in the parable of the good Samaritan. In that parable love was shown as a man who helps someone he does not know and does not expect anything in return. That is the model of mature love.
Mature compassionate love is just as valid as young sexual love, but importantly it is not more so. Young love is measured by an urgent desire for one’s lover, but mature love is measured in quiet commitment to the other’s well-being. However, these two expressions of Christian love are not mutually exclusive. Even in hot romantic/sexual love the idea of the other’s well-being is present; and in compassionate love, the embers of sexual desire can be fanned and sexual passion can be brought to the fore.
What is important here is that we cannot escape that Jesus and the writers of the Bible texts seem not to differentiate between the sexual love and compassionate love. It appears that the current dichotomy of Christian compassionate love and sexual love is entirely false. Often modern Christians will cite the different Greek words for love, agape, philia and eros, to justify their divisions of love into separate boxes with non-sexual love asserted to be superior to the others. They simply ignore the fact that the Greek translations of the words of Jesus, to which they refer, were not compiled until two hundred years after Jesus and the apostils lived. Jesus and the apostles would not have spoken Greek, but Hebrew or Aramaic. The convenient excuse that the rural semi-literate apostils would write their gospels and epistles in Greek is just plain silly. The Hebrew language does not separate love into these categories, and it is significant that prior to the compiled Greek language Bible, the word Agape had never been recorded in the noun form. The older verb form of agape does not have any hint of the same meaning as it is given in the Greek Bible. The simple fact is the word agape (n) was deliberately coined by the early leaders of the Roman church in order to obscure the fact that Jesus used sexual love and compassionate love interchangeably. This is a very important concept if one really is interested in living by the philosophy that Jesus taught.
So, let us consider the implications of this.
God’s love was most often expressed in sexual terms in the ancient world
Jesus also presented a form of love that was cool and self-less, not as an alternative to passionate physical love, but as a companion to the sexual vision of love.
Jesus rejected the older Jewish notion that God had one special people for his love, but in fact had universal love for all
While universal Christian love can be expressed in a detached manner such as the Good Samaritan, to suggest that it cannot be expressed in a romantic/sexual manner is simply not what Jesus taught.
The idea of sexual love and Christian love being totally different things is not rooted in the philosophy of Jesus; but rather, it is rooted in the later Roman Church’s efforts to distort his teaching to fit their needs and/or beliefs.
For the modern follower of Jesus, the take away of all this is that the idea of exclusive “pair-bonding” for romantic/sexual love has no basis in the religion that Jesus proposed.
Let me suggest that for those interested in living out the philosophy of Jesus, we might express God’s love using both hot romantic/sexual and cool compassionate modes. We might see them as phases in our lives. Phases not by command, but by practical experience.
I could certainly see a young poly having hot sexual love for many people in his or her environment. It is part of being young. As we mature in life and faith, our love for others will broaden as we see a wider field of people who need love. This love will likely look more like the love of a mature couple with commitment to the welfare of others and a shared community being the prime hallmarks. However, even in that mature Christian life, there will be times that the wind of chance fans the embers and some of those loves will burst into hot sexual love, at least for a while. This is how human love evolves over the long haul and this is all well within the scope of living out the ideas that Jesus promoted.
P.S. Paula has worn that infinity heart ring as her wedding band ever since.