Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category
Here is a meditation on my children’s future, a subject that intrudes on a multitude of my waking hours. I have been considering what I will tell them about love, and here I present my thoughts. Call it a paean to love if you will, but a paean to the real thing, not to the double-dealing charlatan that pop culture blindly worships like a wooden god.
As a child and connoisseur of American pop cultural output of the last three decades, I think I can paint a largely accurate picture of how media and the arts (often) depict love. Call this popular picture “the folly of sentiment.” Contemporary western culture certainly has an intimate knowledge of the type of sentimentality and emotional connections that play a role in real love, but it often deletes the other components that complete the picture. Like an artist who thinks all he needs for a masterpiece is paint and canvas, stupidly unwilling to see that he must conjoin them in a formal way, contemporary people are taken with the notion that sexual chemistry, strong emotional ties, and the nebulous “right person” can be put into the blender of life without additional ingredients and thereby produce a magical outcome. (Incidentally, for info on recent books that attempt to explain how we arrived at this strange moment in the history of love, see this set of reviews in the Wall Street Journal).
I’ll give you an example. In our house recently an episode of “The Bachelor” was on the idiot’s lantern. As far as TV shows go, there is no greater offender in promoting the folly of sentiment than “The Bachelor,” and the statements about love that issue from the contestants’ mouths are often cringeworthy on a cosmic scale. On this episode, one of the female contestants was being interviewed about her prospects with the titular man of the world. She herself was a divorcee, but she prattled on about how true love happens when you “meet the right person” and “fall in love” and thereby live happily ever after. Stars flickered in her eyes as she spoke, and it was apparent that she walked by an extraordinary faith in that nebulous thing called “true love.”
Only a fool would view love in this way. Consider an idealized picture of love: young, passionate, beautiful, and most-importantly, existence-affirming, for lack of a more elegant term. In pop songs, films, TV shows, perfume ads, and so on, we often see this ideal pictorialized: two young and beautiful people in a passionate embrace, consumed totally with one another. They have found each other: the right people at the right moment! Further, they “complete” each other. All my life I have been waiting for this man/woman, and the problem with all those other people with whom I had sexual flings and similar emotional attachments was that they weren’t this man/woman. Perhaps most importantly, implicit (and often explicit) in this picture is the idea that in “completing” each other, the lovers have found the highest meaning in life and achieved the highest level of human fulfillment. Romantic love is thus portrayed as an almost religious ideal. Authentic spiritual (and thus ultimate) fulfillment comes when one finds this perfect, life-affirming lover.
Love is thus seated on the throne of God, and the wise see that it sits uncomfortably.
No one with a modicum of experience with personal relationships can accept this overly sentimentalized and idealized picture. I assure you that if my wife had any delusions about me completely fulfilling her life when we got married, I dissolved them almost immediately. Investing one’s total happiness in a human being is an exercise in despair. Even the best of humans are not built for that task.
The folly of sentiment thus cheapens love by making it ultimate, like putting your dog on a pedestal and worshiping him, believing he can fulfill all your needs. No. In doing so you violate the purpose of both yourself and the dog. Instead of creating a meaningful relationship you sow the seeds of its destruction. True love is something more.
That is the first fundamental mistake entailed by the folly of sentiment. The second mistake is the notion that love “just happens” and that sexual chemistry, “passion,” infatuation, and emotional connection somehow lead to lasting love. They do not. In fact I would argue that the highly emotional period of being “in love” isn’t even a necessary condition for authentic love, and on its own it can actually deceive people into thinking they’ve found the real thing when they are nowhere in its locale. Passion, chemistry, and emotional highs certainly help, and for the fortunate among us they serve as catalysts for the real thing, but they are poor candidates for being the foundation of a relationship. I will tell my children that every broken heart, every shattered marriage, every Jerry Springer-like outburst of betrayal and hatred, every violent act of romantic revenge, and practically every out of wedlock child was born in the passionate throes of “being in love.” Sentiment is a harsh and vile god: always promising but never granting. Behind the mask of love it wears there is only the husk of rushing chemicals in the brain. Naked passion ends only in tragedy.
What then should be added to passion, chemistry, and all the rest to get true love? Commitment, sacrifice, a joint moral outlook, and most of all, a shared view of the purpose of life. I cannot speak for all Christian believers but both my wife and I view our relationship as an extension of our Christian faith. It is not primarily an institution for our own mutual benefit but a picture of inter-Trinitarian love and, more specifically, the eternal love of Christ for His church. It is therefore not based merely on emotion or passion. Those things are present, of course, but we view them as extraordinary gifts from God rather than as foundational to our relationship. Neither do we engage in a misguided exaltation of each other as being the answer to all of our problems. My wife is all too aware that putting all her hope for meaning, purpose, and final fulfillment in me would be the same as putting it in a bowl of soup. The irony of a successful marriage is that by demoting passion and chemistry to their proper place, a married couple actually receives the full bounty of their benefits. It is their misuse that makes them cheap and removes their glory.
Consider again love pictorialized. The image of two beautiful young people in a passionate embrace loses some of its teeth when compared against the folly of sentiment that often fuels it. Perhaps a better picture of love is two older people in the golden years of their life, joined not in the sexual image of bodies twisted around one another but in the childlike image of holding hands, their love not symbolized by unrestrained fire but unwavering commitment and the simple enjoyment of the other’s presence. Not the bonfire of passion but the slow burn of a shared eternal vision.
A Song for Simeon
by T. S. Eliot
Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.
According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.
Merry Christmas to all. Biblical context here.
My lovely wife has requested that I explain the tagline of this blog, since she felt that “slouching towards eternity” could be interpreted in a negative way. So here goes.
The tagline itself is a play on a line from a poem by W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.” I was an English major as an undergrad, and I always loved Yeats. Here’s the full text of the poem:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Don’t ask me to give you a detailed explanation of what this poem means, because I can’t. I haven’t seriously read English literature since my college days. Commentators say Yeats meant it to refer to the chaos of Europe after World War I, and that seems about right. At the very least the events of the second stanza represent some terrible power gaining control of the world during a time of great upheaval and ushering in a new age. The last line is particularly famous, and it’s been picked up and used elsewhere, such as in a book by Robert Bork. I don’t hold any affinity for Yeats’ political passions that informed the poem, but I do like the line itself. I actually intended it to have two meanings: one personal and one philosophical.
On the personal side, I liked “slouching towards eternity” because it represents my own struggle in being the type of Christian I want to be. It’s actually a testimony to God’s grace: I don’t approach him by the goodness of my intentions and graciously offer myself to be his loyal servant. At best, on my own power and under my own sinful motivations I throw a few bones in his general direction. I can talk a good talk about seeking the kingdom of God but if it’s left up to me I just don’t do very well. Any desire for God that I find in myself is a desire that was put there by God himself. He draws me to him kicking and screaming, as it were, and that’s grace.
On the philosophical side, most of the posts on this blog will probably be about philosophy of religion and the intersection of philosophy and faith. I have a Ph.D. in Christian philosophy, and it’s one of my passions. However, I also know that as a “route” to God, philosophy is woefully inadequate. By sitting in my chair and pontificating about reality I can approach a hazy notion of God’s existence at best, to say nothing of what he’s like or what he wants out of human beings. To truly know about God, we have to let him define himself, which I think he has done most completely in the person of Jesus Christ and the record we have of him in Scripture. So, theology is superior to philosophy because it deals directly with what God has revealed about himself rather than relying on the imperfections of human reason. Hence philosophy is a discipline that “slouches” toward eternity, as it were.
Now, I know things are much more complicated than this with regard to the relationship between theology and philosophy. Theology, for one, can’t get along at all without the proper use of reason, so in that sense it’s dependent on the philosophical discipline of logic. This is true, but the point remains: I can’t get to God merely by thinking my way to him. He has to reveal himself to me, and he has to draw me to himself since my sinful heart is always trying to run the other direction.
And yes, if you detected the influence of Reformed theology on both of these positions, you’re right. The first reason is informed by the doctrine of irresistible grace, and the second reason is influenced by the reformed objection to natural theology.