Sunday, 8 September 2013

Philosophy and Romantic Love: the Story of an Awkward, Promising Couple

This series is an adaptation of a talk, ‘The Philosophy of Romantic Love’ that I gave at the University of Oxford Socrates Society, May 2013.

Yes that’s right, I want to philosophise about romantic love. Let me relay, though, by way of introduction, a story about an exchange I had while I was preparing this material.

I was reading an especially good book on the topic at hand in the common room of Wycliffe College; there was just me in there and this one girl. She too was reading. But she paused for a moment to ask me what it was I had my head buried in. And I admit, I was happy to be asked. I considered this a stellar opportunity to come across as interesting, thoughtful and generally pretty cool. I replied, “a book on the philosophy of romantic love” and expected this to be the start of an enthralling conversation. “Oh”, she said and returned her attention to the book in her hand. Obviously, as far as I was concerned, she just hadn’t understood quite how exciting my reading project was. So I thought I had to make it more explicit. “It’s just sooo interesting”, I said, “I mean, the philosophy of romantic love.” She, however, still wasn’t taking to the topic. “I can’t think of anything less romantic,” she responded.

I share this story because there is a question mark surrounding the legitimacy of philosophising about love. That girl wasn’t just getting at the fact that a philosophical treatise on love isn’t itself romantic. She was also conveying her sense that analysing love - philosophising about it - does damage to the thing itself. Her sense was that if you’re going to talk about love, you need poetry, metaphor, imagery and the like (she was herself a poet, interestingly). A discourse that resembles philosophy comes across sacrilegious. It’s taking the magic out of something special. 

There are three big questions I want to discuss in this series and the first is this one about whether we should be philosophising about love at all. And, in fact, even if we do decide to, what are we looking for? Even if we gain more knowledge about love, can we gain wisdom to actually be better lovers?

Obviously, I’m writing on the philosophy of love so I must think there are some gains to be had in reflecting philosophically about love. And indeed I do but I am sensitive to this fear that philosophy really isn’t called for here. After all, when you look at what philosophising is like, at least in the contemporary Anglophone tradition, its whole attitude seems starkly opposed to a loving one.

Analysis is the heart of this sort of philosophy. But the love of analytic rationality typical of philosophers is hard to separate from notions of control and self-regulating autonomy. To analyse and comprehend is to break a phenomenon down into its component parts and see how it fits together. We try and achieve full articulacy and clarity about the thing we’re dissecting. This understanding, we hope, potentially allows for the possibility of manipulating the components or regulating our response to them. Such detailed theorising has the attraction of promising that we avoid slipping carelessly into error, leaving us self-possessed and in charge of ourselves.

But love, gloriously, isn’t like that! Love is a position of openness to the beloved where you precisely don’t have full control. You risk yourself - leave yourself vulnerable to the beloved’s response. And the beloved is a person whose response can’t be reduced to calculable formula. Moreover, love defies full articulation. You don’t have reflexive clarity about it precisely because it is so meaningful. The significance of the beloved is too huge to put into words.

When asked about our beloved why we love him/her, the question certainly makes sense. It isn’t that the enquirer has made some sort of category error. And we may spurt out a few things. He’s so kind, she’s so funny, he just has this sparkle in his eye etc. But both we and the other person recognise that we are not giving exhaustive answers. Indeed, the enquirer would be horrified if we specified a few things and said, yup that is precisely and exactly why I’m in love. That would just be evidence that you’re not in love – that whatever you’re experiencing isn’t that profound!  Full articulation is out of reach of those things that matter to us most.

So there are some attitudes of the lover that can create friction with the attitudes of a certain species of philosopher. Those philosophical attitudes, carried over into love, would be disastrous. A lover with those attitudes would be possessive, controlling, disengaged, aloof, uncommitted, uncaring, and comically rigorous in expression. Scarcely a lover at all.

Still, there is a case to be made for philosophising about love. And actually, though I don’t have the space or competence to argue as such here, the analytic ideal doesn’t just butcher love, it actually distorts what philosophy is truly about too! For insights in this direction, check out Loving to Know by Esther Meek. Anyway, what I really want to say is that, yes, certain intellectual attitudes can be destructive but some form of thinking hard and deep about love is important and can help lovers actually be better lovers. This “thinking hard” is all I shall mean by “philosophy.”

Consider this. Lovers, when they truly care about each other and their relationship, take time to reflect on the state of their relationship. Are we spending quality time together? Are we listening to each other? Why do we fight when we do? Do we not spend enough time with our other friends? Not that lovers should exist in a constant state of relationship analysis (that would be one of the destructive attitudes), but periodically, this sort of reflection is appropriate. This sort of vigilance in up-keeping the relationship is part and parcel of caring about it.

What is also part and parcel of the relationship is some rough sense – hopefully shared to a decent degree – about what romantic love is and what it’s about. We all have a certain narrative about how loves goes and what it should be like. Some features of the narrative contain particular, practical notions, like what constitutes a good, romantic date (candle-lit dinner beats out a monster truck show). Other features are more abstract, possibly implicit, and function as “ideals”. For instance, in our culture, you are likely to think that romantic love is “morally pure.” That is, you are likely to think that actions motivated by romantic love are ultimately good and excusing of otherwise inappropriate action (“all’s fair in love and war”). You probably also have certain emotional expectations about what romantic love will feel like (it will be intense, blissful and, if authentic, ever-lasting).[1] These are narratives we “play-out” as we live love. We imitate the story and make it our own. We trust it to guide us into a healthy relationship.

But our narrative is not universal and unquestionable. That’s why it can be hard to forge a strong relationship with someone culturally distant from you. You are not both drawing from the same narrative. You expect the other person to play the role from your story but they are following a different script. Our cultural narrative does, no doubt, contain a good deal of insight but it’s also quite likely, given that it’s a human culture, that it contains a good deal of distortion too.

Given, then, that reflection on how our relationships are doing is called for by our care for these relationships, it makes sense that we should reflect on the narratives that orchestrate and direct these relationships. Maybe the distortions in the narrative are jarring with your own experience of love. You may not be able to articulate it, but you sense something’s “off”. You know, in a fuzzy sort of way, that something isn’t making sense. Reality keeps failing to deliver what the story promises.

Let’s “think hard and deep” about some features of this narrative. If you’re single like me, this can be part of an anticipatory caring for a potential future relationship. Next time, then, we’ll consider the role of emotion in entering and sustaining a romantic relationship. 

[1] Ben-Ze╩╝ev, Aharon, and Ruhama Goussinsky. In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print. This book was helpful for articulating some of these ideals and for a frank look at how disastrous they can be in certain extreme cases (motivating murder!)

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Disillusionment and Discipleship

Here's a heads-up that this is an intra-Church topic.
I’m concerned that Christians are vulnerable to disillusionment. Particularly, what we might call intellectual disillusionment.

Unrealistic triumphalism is the temptation of many a church but even when the hard realities of life are acknowledged, you still won’t hear much about the harsh realities of intellectual life. We acknowledge, for instance, that your “life dreams” may not come true. You may never marry. You may never have a successful ministry. You may fail in education, etc. We also acknowledge that you might have to confront some hard truths about yourself. You may come to reinterpret attitudes you’ve long held and assumed were innocent as, instead, deeply rooted in sin and emotional damage. You may find that you are not nearly as competent (by a long country mile) a parent, teacher, spouse etc as you thought you’d be. Our honesty in these areas, however, needs to carry over into honesty regarding the possibilities of profound intellectual disappointment in the Christian life.

Quite naturally our theologies, doctrine, worldviews, cultural presuppositions, intellectual sensibilities, and so on, matter a great deal to us. They, in a sense, structure the world we live in. We come to depend on them to navigate reality. In so far as they are stable and firmly in place, we feel secure in our grasp of the world. When they are shaken we, in turn, feel anxious, “at sea”, disorientated, vulnerable, at an interpretive loss as to how to handle the world we are now off-balance in. But insofar as you pursue apologetics, or any field of study where you take seriously its implications for a Christian worldview (and your life), you potentially put yourself in the path of such an experience.

What would triumphalism in apologetics look like? Study apologetics; you will find that everything you already believe will be confirmed and you will marshal some killer arguments to defend those beliefs. Or, more modestly: study apologetics; you may find that doing so may refine and change your beliefs but these modifications will always strike you as comfortable and theologically desirable. Of course, sometimes, perhaps quite often, apologetics will be thoroughly enjoyable in those above ways. But sometimes serious intellectual pursuit will knock some cherished beliefs out of you and you won’t be quite sure how to replace them or what possibly could replace them.

You want some examples of this occurring? Well, I have my own experiences. My view of human nature, scripture, religious experience, emotional norms, and science (amongst other things) have all experienced hard shock (even as other prior beliefs have simply enjoyed confirmation.)  But detail in example would here distract us into the issue of whether my particular belief-transitions should have happened or not – whether I have good reasons to make those changes or not. I want instead to focus on broad reasons why we should expect these challenging belief-disruptions to happen.

An obvious reason is our finitude. We have very limited cognitive abilities. We don’t have the life-span to devote serious intellectual attention to much of anything and what we do devote attention to, we, to some extent, distort, misunderstand and misinterpret. We are socially-situated beings participating in a culture where a large number of things that are utterly inarticulate and utterly taken for granted are, utterly unbeknownst to us, totally up for challenge and totally alien to the thought of the majority of human beings that have ever lived.

So yes, that, our finitude. But also, God’s magnitude and the testimony of Scripture to our ability to get it totally wrong. You see this right in the midst of the central gospel events. Picture the disciples before the cross, it so starkly present, so undeniable there in front of them. With maximal cognitive force – the plain-as-day perception of their eyes – their world was broken. God did not molly-coddle the reality of the cross to them. Everything they thought they knew about the messiah and the kingdom was destroyed in that event. There was no gentle easing-in to the realisation of their mistake. It was sudden and brutal. So far as we can tell, God let them bear the brunt of that disorientation for a full three days.

And yet, it was glorious that they were wrong. The event of their disappointment was God’s very plan for salvation. What a lesson there may be in here for us.

Here, though, I risk triumphalism about even this topic! We have to make the typical caveats that plague all our hopes in this now-but-not-yet-full experience of the kingdom. We may have to wait longer than three days to see our confusion, puzzlement, or despair transform into comprehension. We may wait until death. We may need to actively fight to keep faith in God’s plan. And fight bitterness, inaction, and pessimism.

I am concerned that we are not prepared for such fights. I concerned that, in fact, we foster an over-protective intellectual environment that doesn’t prepare people for the bumps and knocks of honest exploration of reality. People who are unprepared for a rocky intellectual journey - people who are taught only to expect ease and triumph - will experience those harsh realities as profoundly disillusioning. Reality can confront us without a sugar-coating and our snug beliefs can be ripped from us in a way that feels, frankly, cruel, as I'm sure Jesus' disciples would testify. But if we, too, are his disciples, why do we consider ourselves immune? Why do we think we will never have our own worldview lay in splinters? Why do we think that, even if he were to do that, he would certainly do it slowly, gently, easily, and will full explanation? 

Acknowledging these hard-knocks as included in the price-tag of Christian discipleship allows us room in our spiritual life to interpret such hardship, when it comes, as fully part and parcel of that spiritual life. We are allowed to interpret it constructively, as something natural and something to grow through and from. Without an understanding of how these experiences fit into Christian life, their occurrence will be some extra-Christian intrusion – some menacing threat finding its way into our spiritual life wholly from outside. It can be a sort of “double disillusionment”, upsetting not only our beliefs but also our belief that our beliefs won’t be upset. And if intellectual upset is something from outside the Christian life, we may be tempted to step outside the Christian life to understand it...

Therein is the true threat. But it need not be so. Deep intellectual overhaul comes as part of being a finite being groping about before a far larger world and a far larger God. Sometimes they are painfully larger realities to confront.

This article was originally posted at