Must We Give Up Romantic Love to Love God?
Romantic Love is a passionate desire for immediate access to an intimate relationship with a person of the opposite gender, with or without sexual relations.
- Some believe Romantic Love is far removed from love of God in modern society. Since birth control, Romantic Love has been separated from reproduction and associated with sexual relationships. Love of God must therefore be sharply different from Romantic Love.
- Some Christians believe that Romantic Love is not a good basis for marriage. The church defends lifelong marriage of one man to one woman. Romantic attraction between individuals seems expendable in light of the obligation to marital fidelity.
- Rising rates of singleness suggest celibate lifestyles are an alternative to Romantic Love for many people.
- C. S. Lewis suggested that Romantic Love could be idolatrous if it takes the place of God. In the Four Loves, he writes, “The couple whose marriage will certainly be endangered by [lapses in intense feeling], and possibly ruined, are those who have idolized Eros.”
In contrast, Solomon writes: “Love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord (Song of Solomon 8:6 ESV).” The following are my responses to the arguments above.
- Birth Control. Birth control pushed Christian teaching on marriage in the direction of the physical side of the marital union and away from Romantic Love. Romantic Love arose in Christianity during the Middle Ages to show loyalty to King and Queen. Courtly love was actually a code of manners. (Remember the sweet Dulcinea in Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote?) The nineteenth century version of Romantic Love applied romantic love to courtship depicted in romantic novels. Charlotte Brontë contrasted duty to God with Romantic Love in her novel Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre raised the character of Mr. Rochester to virtue, while rejecting the terms of marriage offered by Mr. Rivers, a missionary, because it lacked Romantic Love. Christians should not discard Romantic Love in reaction to the separation of sexuality and childbirth after the pill.
- Romantic Love in Marriage. Immediately preceding the instruction to become one-flesh is Adam’s cry: “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Self-recognition through the woman forms the basis of one-flesh unity. It’s the relationship not the gender that inspires Adam’s naming of Woman: “She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23). When God created mankind in his image, generic terms for male and female were used that also apply to animals. Adam named woman in relation to himself, using Hebrew terms roughly equivalent to dude and dudette. Adam's identity is incomplete until the creation of woman as a ‘êzer ki-nḛgēdō, literally “a helper opposite to him” (Gen 2:18). Relational identity forms the basis for one-flesh union, as shown by the conjunction “therefore” in Genesis 2:24. One-flesh union is the goal—not the foundation of marriage. Reproduction is commanded in Genesis 1:27 as part of the cultural obligation to subdue the earth, but childbirth is not commanded in Genesis 2. In addition, childbirth does not appear in the Song of Solomon, but Romantic Love is highly praised. After God takes on human flesh in the Incarnation, Paul links the one-flesh union in marriage to membership in the body of Christ. Whereas “therefore” in Genesis 2:24 relates back to Adam’s recognition of the woman, Paul relates marriage back to membership in Christ’s body in Ephesians 5:21. Romantic Love is equated to the relationship of Christ to his church. Full realization of this union awaits the future marriage feast when Christ returns to claim his bride, the church.
- Singleness. The desire to share life in a romantic relationship is overpowering for everyone, including unmarried, single, celibate individuals of either gender. Indeed, for many singles, new forms or personal identity must be created, and social pressure to marry and raise a family makes this task harder. However, it is often overlooked that our Lord added a new foundation to the one-flesh unity in his teaching on marriage (Matt 5:31; 19:3-12). In what was obviously a retort to his earlier teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful to divorce. Jesus combined Gen 1:27 with Gen 2:24 in his reply. However, for this synthesis Jesus supplied a new foundation. “Therefore,” he says, “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Gone is the cry of recognition as the basis for unity. The basis for unity is God. God is the between in the identity of difference between man and woman. God is the real other in the unity of man and woman. God commands marriage because it expresses the one-flesh unity He produces. A new reality also dawns when Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God. With the presence of the Kingdom in the person of Jesus, singleness is an option alongside marriage, whereas it was a curse before the Incarnation. The other in the discovery of personal identity is God in Jesus Christ, a real, flesh-and-blood single man, whose physical presence is perpetuated through the church. To be a eunuch is a gift in the new realm Jesus proclaimed (Matthew 19:11-12). Singleness reminds married couples the real other in Romantic Love is God in Jesus Christ, and it is a bold venture on the threshold of the new age for those who receive that calling.
- Idolizing Romantic Love. As a general truth about the possibility of idolizing Romantic Love, Lewis’ comment is misplaced. Romantic Love, as stated above, is a desire for immediate intimacy in relation to a member of the opposite gender. Gender differences between male and female lie at opposite extremes in the human species, and therefore their union provides the broadest measure of human intimacy. Lewis delineated two ways to experience closeness: joy or pleasure. Joy must be conferred, while pleasure is self-regulated. Adam’s cry of recognition expressed joy bestowed on him because he was no longer alone but in relationship to his “helper opposite to him. “ Thereafter, he was commanded to consummate Romantic Love by becoming one-flesh. The order is important. Idolatry reverses this order by placing pleasure before joy. Idolatry is the exaltation of self above God in the form of greed, lust and sexual immorality (Eph 5:5; Col 3:5). To that extent, anyone can be an idolater within and outside marriage, but that is not equivalent to idolizing marriage or Romantic Love.
Lewis’ warning is true in a very narrow sense. Because one-flesh identity requires bodies, it is vulnerable to death. Death transforms Romantic Love into something more than grief or sorrow. It becomes a stinging joy where both loss and memory are pallid reflections of the unity that once was. Those who have experienced the death of a lover may be tempted to suppose that such strong passion lasts beyond death in a purely spiritual form. A purely spiritual love runs counter to the central truth of the resurrection of the body. Resurrected bodies are incorruptible, meaning that procreation is no longer necessary to preserve creation. What this entails is inconceivable, yet the sting of death is removed and boundless joy takes its place.
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (HBJ:Orlando, FL, 1960), p. 159.