If you’ve ever been part of a Christian youth group, you probably already know that there are four Greek words for love. I’m going to focus on the two which the church has the most interesting relationships with: agape and eros. Agape refers to the kind of noble love-of-all-humanity which leads us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, etc. Eros refers to passionate, yearning love. It’s often linked to sexual love, but it’s not limited to that, it’s the kind of love that burns us up: the kind that makes it hard to think about anything else. Agape represents our duty, eros represents our desire (Check out Sheldrake, 2001, for more on this).
Having been brought up in a caring but conservative church setting, my agape muscle is very well exercised. In most situations – professional and personal – I know what my duty is, I know where my responsibilities lie. My eros muscle (stop sniggering, you two at the back) however, is weak. My church upbringing didn’t encourage me to reflect on what I want. The suggestion was that pursuing one’s own desires was selfish. Our duty was to serve God first, and others next, desire be damned.
It’s only recently, thanks to therapy and having good people around me, and as a result of heading towards an early midlife crisis, that I’ve started to reflect on what I actually want from life. Trying to figure that out with such a weak arm is hard work (you two, I won’t tell you again).
If you haven’t seen Babette’s Feast, be warned, I’m about to spoil it for you. The film takes place is a conservative Protestant village in Denmark, and follows Martine & Philippa, a pair of ageing sisters who had been taught as young women to spurn romance and passion in favour of an austere life. One day, a young woman named Babette arrives at the village, a refugee from the war in France. She offers to cook for the sisters in exchange for lodging.
One day, Babette wins the lottery. Rather than using the money to return home, she uses it to cook a meal for the village: an amazing, decadent, exotic meal, defined by the kind of luxury which the villagers disdained. As they sit around the table, they are appalled by the meal, and refuse to show any kind of delight or pleasure as they eat. The only other non-local at the table is a famous general, who rebukes the puritans in a toast:
“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” I grew up believing that righteousness and bliss, duty and desire, agape and eros, were mutually exclusive. I believed I had to choose between what I wanted to do, and what I ought to do. What I am beginning to learn is that it doesn’t have to be a choice. “And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected.”
Our yearning desires, far from being the enemy of righteousness, are the path towards it. In the Divine Comedy, Dante (the author and protagonist) is led through paradise, and ultimately to God, by Beatrice. Who is Beatrice? A character from the Bible? Some great saint? An angel? No, she’s a woman who Dante fancied in real life. His crush on her was unrequited: she barely knew he existed, and died tragically young. But she was his muse for an entire book of poems (Vita Nuova), and ultimately his desire for her becomes his guide, leading him to The Trinity.
No one is better on this theme than the Swiss mystic Maurice Zundel. The path to God is not an ascetic denial of our desires, it involves listening to, and following those desires.
“Jesus’ lesson … is “my friend, move up higher” (Luke 14:10). Move up higher, it is never enough! Move up higher! Because you will only find fulfilment through the divine, you will not satisfy your desire without going all the way; to the infinite. But the infinite is not what you thought! The infinite isn’t self-exaltation, or being the centre of attention, it is becoming a source, a beginning, a space in which all can breathe, and all can be accomplished” (Maurice Zundel, quoted in Garceau, 1997, p.16, my translation).
If we believe that our desires are given to us from God, then we must follow them. That doesn’t mean becoming hedonists: hedonism is actually just another form of repressing desire: if I just get high, if I just cum, then maybe these desires will stop tormenting me, and I can have some peace. We must follow them to higher places, like the general at the feast, like Dante following Beatrice, like the guest as Jesus’ table, ultimately being lead to God.
If, as youth ministers, we are encouraging young people to repress their desires, however noble our intentions, we’re just fucking them up. I know. I’m the product of that culture. Instead, we need to be empowering young people to pursue their desires, in the faith that they are reflections of something much bigger: a yearning for love, for justice, for a new earth. We need to be helping them to navigate and understand those desires: where do they come from? Where do they lead? In allowing young people to pursue their desires, who knows? We might well end up with more Greta Thunbergs, more Malalas, more Emma Gonzalezes. We might end up with more Dantes, more Babettes, more General Lorenses. It’s not up to us, it’s up to God.
But by prioritising a message that simply says, “drugs are bad, m’kay?”, or sex is bad, or swearing is bad, we create a legalistic religion that bears little reflection to the Kingdom of Heaven, for which tax collectors and prostitutes are the first in line.
Garceau, B., 1997. La Voie du Désir. Quebec: Médiaspaul.