The Meaning of Love: Eros and Agape

Eros in Piccadilly

Eros in Piccadilly

Pictured here is the Statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus in London, at the heart of the entertainment district.  Eros is sending forth his arrows of desire into the people crowding the West End of London in search of love.  But all is not what it seems.  On further research I discovered that the sculptor, Alfred Gilbert, intended the statue to be the Greek god, Anteros, twin brother of Eros.  Anteros was the god of “reflective, selfless and mature love” in contrast with the god of youthful, erotic love, Eros.  The statue sits atop a monument to the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who was known for his works of charity and compassion.  The statue was renamed the Angel of Christian Charity to emphasize the sculptor’s original intent and to be appropriate to the memory of Shaftesbury.  But Eros has proved more popular than his brother and Eros has been the popular name of the statue for a long time.

One line of thought in the Christian Church (following Anders Nygren’s  influential book, Eros and Agape, 1936) has been to deny eros any role in Christian spirituality  because it is self-centered and sexual.   Nygren argues that the writers of the New Testament do not use the word eros for that reason and keep to agape and philia (friendship).  Christian love should be agape, selfless and unconditional, reflecting Christ’s self-giving on the cross.  The distinction is similar to the attempt to separate erotic love and selfless love in the naming of the Piccadilly statue.   But another line of Christian thought has cast doubt on this separation, and says that eros has a positive role to play in Christian spirituality.  Pope Benedict XVI himself championed this argument in his Encyclical on Love (2006), saying that eros and agape are both innately good and are both forms of love.  Eros is ascending, possessive love, which seeks to receive from another.  Agape is descending, selfless love, which gives to another.  They are separate halves of a complete love, unified by both giving and receiving.   Eros is the passion that fires our spiritual desire to be united with God, but it needs the guidance of agape so as not to go astray.

Ronald Rolheiser in his book, Holy Longing (1999) says that we repress eros at the peril of becoming chronically depressed, but he defines eros in a wider sense than the sexual.  Eros is the basic life force or energy, which emerges in romance and sexual bonding, but it also energizes many other passions in life, such as the passion to succeed in a just cause, the “joie de vivre” of artistic expression and music and dance, the desire to be of service and to mentor others, as well as the spiritual desire to be united with God the Beloved.    Both eros and agape are necessary and the Church has been wrong in its condemnation of the former.   The human being is body and soul, a whole person, and needs both the innate urges of love for self-fulfillment as well as the challenge to be selfless in loving.  The Song of Songs portrays how erotic love leads to selfless love (as Shakespeare also does in Romeo and Juliet – see my recent blog).

Rolheiser rightly contends that the Church has divorced eros and agape and in the process has lost the passion of eros.  My spiritual director once advised me “not to be too quick to rein in eros” but instead to look more closely at the passion and ask where it might lead in a creative way.  Rolheiser is right when he says that we may be denying our partnership with God as co-creators when we deny the energy of eros.  Laurence Freeman, the teacher of the World Community for Christian Meditation, agrees:  “We need to be friends with eros: it is far too powerful a force to try to repress or to be antagonistic towards.  If we do, we are war with ourselves and we fall into a divided self” (from “Desire and Love”, a recording of a retreat at Monte  Oliveto, Tuscany, 2006).

Why then does the New Testament steer clear of the word, eros?   Usually the answer given is that New Testament writers wanted to distance Christianity from Greek sexual religious rites.  More positively New Testament writers wanted to put emphasis on the selfless love of God, agape, demonstrated most clearly in the humility and self-sacrifice of Jesus.  We may look to the Hebrew Bible for a more comprehensive view of love, including sexual love (see the article on Love in the Old Testament in the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible).    The New Testament puts the emphasis on the selfless love of God, not because other forms of love are invalid, but because agape can lift and guide those other forms to more compassionate expressions.

We have all seen the results of unrestrained erotic passion: politicians and rulers deposed, academics and business people (and clergy) disgraced, marriages broken and trust destroyed, and the difficulty for people to make trusting, intimate relationships.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s celebrated the gift of sex but lost a healthy respect for the dangers of its raw energy.    Sexual passion needs to be guided by respect, reverence, patience, and compassion.  Indeed, eros needs agape.

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
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