In 2011, the Anglican Theological Review published arguments for and against same-sex marriage. “A Theology of Marriage including Same-Sex Couples: A View from the Liberals,” co-written by Deirdre Good, Cynthia Kittredge, Eugene Rogers, and Willis Jenkins, presents a rationale for same-sex marriage that is surprisingly traditional, grounded in scripture and doctrine, understood and interpreted “in the company of patristic interpreters as well as in the company of readers long silenced by the tradition.” Part of the liberal view explores the relationship between eros and caritas, and how the marriage vows, which “mark marriage as an arduous form of training in virtue,” teach us to love and “offer a means by which God may turn eros into charity.”
As someone for whom eros is both a modality of intimate communion and manifest expression of divine love, the idea that it would need to be transformed into something less sensual, more socially acceptable, seems an arbitrary sanitization that positions eros as untamed and dangerous, in need of redemption by sexless ideals of Christian charity. Admittedly, my aversion to scrubbing eros of its rawness likely comes from my own understanding of the word, which might differ from that of traditional Christian theology, and which is inherently tied to the ways in which I’ve known the divine more deeply through expansive, mystical, erotic experiences that engaged my every sense in the coolness of rivers and grazing touch of mountain breezes.
We know through the body; we sense through our skin and parts and cells and perceive through nerves and fibers and tissue – seismic shocks of color and sound reverberating through our beings in the abstract, or the specific, deep, and warming awareness of divine love washing over our grief, fear, or loneliness. Each of these teaches us about the nature of the universe and of love, about bodies and subjectivity, and (by extension) about God and God’s action in the cosmos. My experience of eros – of the sensual explosion of erotic energy that makes me tremble, lays gooseflesh across every inch of me, and takes my breath as it rises inside my chest and belly – is not limited to sexuality, but comes through nature, art, song, movement, and touch. It is my primary way of experiencing divine love, and needs no purification.
“A View from the Liberals” presents marriage as beginning in eros and ending in caritas, suggesting marriage’s beginning from the intentional, committed desire to join bodies into “one flesh” and its progression into “loving the other as one loves oneself” through continual self-giving between partners. This model suggests a linear progression with eros and caritas at opposite poles – one a lesser expression of connection and union; the other its perfected ideal. This understanding subtly privileges the mind and spirit over the body as it privileges non-erotic experience over embodied, making it less relevant to non-dualist understandings of body and spirit.
While caritas, learned and practiced intentionally, leads to a shift in worldview that embraces self-donation and an ethic of caring, presenting it as the end goal of partnership presumes a Western starting point in which self-donation, caring, and community webs of unconditional support are not the fundamental, ecological nature of the cosmos or its inhabitants. It begins with individualism and moves toward communitarianism, with marriage as both catalyst and laboratory. The alternative argument might be made that reclaiming our intentional practice of communitarian interdependence, using caritas as our catalyst and community as our laboratory, could prepare and heal the hearts of individuals such that they might more fully experience the blessings of erotic partnership, which solidify commitment and themselves can become a discipline.
Those whose everyday realities of interpersonal connection exist on a foundation of mutual care and reciprocity of emotional investment will expect their romantic and sexual partnerships to mirror the respect, devotion, and tenderness they experience in their social systems. Those whose communities are built on interdependence and extended family and family-like networks, rather than radical Western individualism, will have the kinds of support that lessen the power of loneliness to steer decisions about intimacy and sexuality. Those who experience compassionate self-giving even outside the bounds of the nuclear family will seek out romantic partnerships in which mutual self-giving is the norm, and will enter those partnerships prepared to receive and offer genuine, loving intimacy.
I am an idealist and an optimist, but I’m not naïve. I realize the seeming insurmountability of upturning hundreds of years of Western, colonial disruption and prevention of communitarian, interdependent, egalitarian social networks. I realize how powerfully capitalist exploitation of sexuality has shaped our cultural norms, limiting and twisting our experience of the erotic. I know that in proposing a broad understanding of eros, lifted from social dysfunction and imbued with sacred, unsullied meaning, I am both challenging the Platonic duality that seeks to maintain a clear line between vulgar and divine love, and opening the door to an eroticism that resists clear, consistent moral judgment. Maybe these concepts aren’t yet ready for global prime time, and to the extent that we practice them only in small, quirky, intentional communities whose members have the privilege and power to set their own realities – communities like my local ecstatic dance community, for example – they lose much of the radical power to decenter Western individualism and capitalist exploitation of bodies that I so desperately want them to have.
There doesn’t seem to be a perfect answer.
But in pushing forward with imperfect challenges to imperfect models, we create and shape dialogues that dislodge assumptions, making space for new cultural, social, and spiritual possibilities for relationship and community, inching ever toward less imperfect understanding.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She is a graduate student whose current liberal studies program has focused on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.