Tillich and Erotic Love for the World
Every day, I get to drive my girl back and forth to her high school in Duluth.
It’s 30 minutes of sacred bliss, that car time with her is, even if we don’t talk.
Just breathing the same air with my E, sometimes, is enough.
(As an aside, it’s fairly impossible to explain to you how cool she is: you just have to experience my girl; some of you even get to!)
Most days, to and fro, though, we talk.
(This is no revelation to those of us who know either one of us at all…)
E and I talk about most everything under the sun: school, firewood, the sun on the Big Lake, friends, God, granola bars, upcoming trips, Bonhoeffer, bear scat, laundry, world religions, and Outlaw Ranch, for example.
And that might be on just one trip.
Because we are both political nerds, the shenanigans of this administration get volleyed all the time. If there were room in the car, and I could drive safely, we’d both have our hands on our hips and/or in the air and/or on our forehead in regular indignation.
So a week ago or so we were bantering about the Stream of Atrociousness (which would be a great name for a band) descending these days out of DC, and we talked about how utterly discouraging, disorienting, and dismaying matters are.
And we both acknowledged a general feeling of irritability circling around our spirits: not at each other, but just in general, an impatience with the rising bigotry, racism, sexism, with indifference and meanness: in short, with the general Malignant Nonsense (aNOTHER great name for a band) of these days.
So we decided that, to guard against chronic crankiness, every day, we would notice something beautiful, something to be savored, something delightful, as a counterweight to the ever-present opposite of each of these.
By no means do we intend to ignore the awful rest, but rather we want to ensure that our essences not be claimed by it.
Exactly round about that time, I got a call from dear friend and retired systematic theologian Don Luck. He’s been a family friend since eons, and has some sure father-figure-esque qualities for me too.
It was he who introduced me to Paul Tillich, back in the day.
So thanks to that conversation with my daughter, and that conversation with Don, I’ve had Tillich on the brain for the last couple of weeks.
Now, I realize that not everyone is a fan of Tillich (I’ll never forget interviewing with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas once, at Duke, before the opportunity to earn my Ph.D. at Regensburg came up; he said, “If you come here, there’s one thing you need to know: the way we say ‘Sonofabitch’ around here is to say, ‘Paul Tillich!’” Allllrighty then….)
But still and even so, Tillich, I think, Tillich has some wisdom for us in these days.
One of the ways he might offer us some perspective comes from an unexpected place, perhaps: his views about erotic love.
I know, I know: eroticism is as close to a taboo word in Christian theology as any (although, particularly with Valentine’s Day around the corner, a re-read and re-appraisal of the Song of Solomon might be timely, if not blush-inspiring…).
But Tillich wanted to reframe and reclaim the notion of erotic love, and I think that his reasons why might help us rediscover beauty and joy in these days that are otherwise dark.
Author Alexander C. Irwin helps a person wrap the head around Tillich here.
In his book Eros Toward the World: Paul Tillich and the Theology of the Erotic, Irwin clears it up right out of the chute how Tillich does not understand erotic love: it’s not just the sexual.
Let’s be clear: the erotic includes the libido, but it is more than that.
Instead, Tillich tries to highlight that a richer, more complete understanding of erotic love has to do with an appreciation of the inherent beauty, truth, or mystery of something or someone. (ETtW 6).
(In fact, theologian Rollo May, who weighs in quite a lot on this theme in Tillich, makes the case that properly understood, temporary and/or commercialized and/or pornographic sexual gratification transforms the Other into an Object, and is therefore precisely not erotic [ETtW 7].)
As far as Tillich is concerned, then, you can have an erotic feeling directed toward a whole range of possibilities, including but not limited to “other humans to ideas, to natural objections and those fashioned by human skill, to the divine source of all being,” (ETtW 13).
In other words, erotic love pulls us into participation with that which is beautiful, in an attempt to bond with it, and to create more of it.
Think, for example, of art. The creation of beautiful art, and the appreciation of it, inspires joy, contentment, and peace.
Think of the delight and thrill of a microbiologist studying a cell under a microscope.
Think of a scholar who has just discovered a new idea.
Think of a canoer floating on the still and quiet waters, settling in to hear the birds, see the moose, catch the fish.
Think of friends, reconnecting over coffee or wine.
Each of these examples has to do with an understanding of the Self, and an understanding of the Other, built on respect, curiosity, and a quest for the creatively beautiful.
See, here’s a great line from Irwin’s book, “Essential eros connects us to the world, rather than cutting us from it,” (52).
That’s not only great; it’s timely.
For any number of reasons, estrangement, retreat, suspicion, and disconnect are the modes of the day.
But erotic love is built on exactly the opposite: the appreciation of relationship and the recognition of beauty in relationship.
The flip side, however, of erotic love jars us into a recognition of that which is not beautiful, or of the absence of it.
That is, aware of the significance and sacredness of beauty in the Other, we are moved to discover and nurture it where it is not found, or where it is endangered.
In this way, erotic love poses, as Irwins says, a ‘threat’ to systems of domination, of exploitation, of injustice.
In fact, in a chapter on “The Erotic in Feminist and Womanist Theologies,” Irwin makes reference to feminist theologians such as Sölle, Lorde, and Heyward, each of whom in their unique way connect the “work of love” with the “power of anger,” (ETtW 135).
He notes how Judith Plaskow sees erotic power as subversive power against politics and patterns that exploit, that demean, that threaten. Nodding to Lorde (as in Audre, the theologian, not the singer!), Plaskow even sees meaningless employment as all the more unbearable when one begins to love oneself, and love one’s true vocational call, erotically. (ETtW 136).
Here’s, then, another angle on the erotic: the more that we appreciate the beauty and the integrity of the other, the more we respect their individuality. Our individual well-being is bound up in our communal well-being, and our communal well-being is bound up in our individual well-being.
That dynamic, however, has to take place on the basis of relationship: not stereotype, not assumption, but invested and cultivated relationship, engagement, openness to the uniqueness of the Other, and to the beauty—perhaps foreign—to be beheld there.
The unexpected (and awfully welcome) byproduct is that by participating in erotic love toward the world, toward nature, and toward people—all different and distinct from oneself, though some more than others—one can’t help but experience tremendous joy.
(As a quick aside to all fellow introverts: Tillich’s notion of erotic love doesn’t mean that you have to be with a lot of people a lot of the time. It means that when you run into something Other, you see the divine there, and treat the Other accordingly. Introvert to introvert, that includes, say, books…)
In Tillich’s thought, explains Irwin, joy is “the manifestation of a healed connection to the created world and to the divine,” (ETtW 87).
In fact, Tillich sees the opposite of joy not as pain, but as detachment, as apathy, as simply not caring.
Erotic love is exactly not that: rather than detachment, it is attachment; rather than apathy, it is investment; rather than not caring, it is compassion.
Certain people (ahem) might see a theology of the cross lurking here: precisely where there is grief, there is the possibility of hope; precisely where there is abandonment, there is the possibility of connection; precisely where there is fear, there is comfort; precisely where there is ugliness, there is beauty to be rediscovered.
Erotic love, then, is protest love, it is engaged love, it is joyful love.
Suddenly, I’m not so cranky anymore, and, come to think of it, I’ve got another great name for a band.
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