Eros in Benedict and Luther

 
 
[1] Lutherans, insofar as they derive their theology from Luther, should welcome Pope Benedict's Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Luther, I think, would find this latest word from the Vatican surprisingly congenial.

[2] Benedict argues from Scripture and presents his ideas pastorally, making the encyclical accessible to those with no formal theological training-both points that should warm the hearts of Lutherans everywhere. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, he begins his statement with God's love for us, just as Luther's Freedom of A Christian presents a view of faith that begins with Christ's marriage to the faithful. Both move directly from a faith that receives to a love that extends outward towards the neighbor. Benedict reminds us that "love can be 'commanded' because it has first been given."[1] "One can become a source from which rivers of living water flow," he writes. "Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ…."[2]

[3] Another key point of agreement with Luther lies in Benedict's emphasis on embodiment-ours and God's. In a move that dramatically challenges any inclination to adopt an Augustinian view of sexuality, Benedict assures us that, despite the fact that "it is quite true that tendencies [towards dualism] have always existed [in the Church],"[3] "Christian faith…has always considered man (sic) a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility."[4]

[4] Pointing to the many meanings associated with the word 'love,' Benedict says that "amid this multiplicity of meanings…one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness."[5] Reflecting his view of God incarnate, totally human and totally divine, human beings are also a "unity in duality" joined ultimately by a love that is likewise two in one.

[5] Key to this encyclical is Benedict's claim that a purified eros is one that rediscovers its ground in self-giving agape. "Fundamentally," he writes, "'love' is a single reality, but with different dimensions. At different times one or [an]other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions [eros and agape] are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love."[6]

[6] This reference to the separation of eros and agape refers us back to a line of thought within the Lutheran tradition, articulated in its most radical form by Anders Nygren in his book Agape and Eros.[7] His reading of Luther opposes every form of self-love (eros), and Benedict couldn't be clearer in his emphatic rejection of Nygren's view: In philosophical and theological debate these distinctions have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them; descending, oblative love-agape-would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love-eros-would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape-ascending love and descending love-can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find their proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized.

[7] Two questions emerge: first, is Benedict's assessment of the created order correct? And second, does Nygren accurately represent Luther? From Benedict's perspective Nygren's proposal is impossible: "Eros and agape can never be separated." This is not a prescriptive statement, but a descriptive one. In his view such a vision misses the mark in its assessment of the created order. Rather than authentically reflecting incarnation, a theology that rejects self-love in every form seems to Benedict to be creation-denying-that is to say, less than fully incarnational.

[8] But does Luther deny creation in this way? Does he categorically reject the kind of self-love that Benedict points to in his use of the term eros? There is much in Luther's work to suggest that he does not. My own reading points to a more Catholic Luther on this matter of eros, particularly in his mature work.

[9] First, in the matter of human sexuality and marriage, Luther affirms along with Benedict a natural drive that brings men and women together in marriage. Both begin with the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Benedict, noting the "solitude of Adam," points to "God's decision to give him a helper." When "Adam finds the helper that he needed," he is drawn to Eve, identifying her as "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh."[8] This desire for Eve, who in marriage will 'complete' Adam-this drawing toward the other to form a relational whole-this desire, says Benedict, "is rooted in man's (sic.) very nature" and it properly directs persons toward marriage, potentially "fulfill(ing) its deepest purpose."[9]

[10] Luther's view of human sexuality moves along similar lines, though with no identification of eros, as such. With Benedict he begins with the Genesis account, noting God's concern for Adam's loneliness and the creation of a "helper." This he takes to be an objective requirement to marry and bear fruit. Indeed, he says, "it is more than a command," nothing less than "divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore." [10] But more to the point Luther also recognizes this command as a subjectively experienced law of one's being. (Indeed, this is what he means when he identifies it as 'estate' rather than 'command.') "We were all created to do as our parents have done," he writes, "to beget and rear children. This is a duty which God has laid upon us, commanded, and implanted in us, as is proved by our bodily members, our daily emotions, and the example of all mankind."[11] Those who insist on forcing a false celibacy are fighting a losing battle. "They want to compel the emotions," writes Luther. "A man [they say] should not feel his masculine nature, nor a woman her feminine nature."[12]

[11] As does Benedict, Luther too recognizes the force of sexual attraction as "natural"-the result of a divine "estate" physically "implanted" in the body. Presumably it is not only useless to try to "compel the emotions" but also unlawful; for it is God's command and therefore good, at least in its theoretical pre-lapsarian form. Marriage, in Luther's view, was instituted for the sake of companionship and children[13] -both clearly natural goods that are generated out of some form of self-regarding love. "If Adam had not fallen, the love of bride and groom would have been the loveliest thing," Luther writes.[14] Thus, insofar as Adam's desire for Eve is rightly ordered, it is hard to see how Luther could not approve of its essential goodness if not in its present manifestation.

[12] On the other hand Luther remains reluctant openly to affirm as good any degree of sexual appetite. "Now [married] love is not pure either," he writes, "for admittedly a married partner desires to have the other, yet each seeks to satisfy his desire with the other, and the married state is now no longer pure and free from sin. The marriage may be likened to a hospital for incurables which prevents inmates from falling into graver sin."[15] It is satisfying one's own desires by 'using' the other that taints an otherwise good, companionable relationship. Nor does this "hospital for incurables" change the sinful nature of these acts (though within the context of marriage the sin is forgiven). "[T]he wicked lust of the flesh, which nobody is without, is a conjugal obligation," writes Luther, "[but] is not reprehensible when expressed within marriage."[16]

[13] What Luther rejects here is not a relational yearning that is generated by self-regard, but a love that uses the other, strictly for the sake of one's personal pleasure. This bears some similarity to Benedict's concern about a lust that "commodifies" the body for the sake of sex. Both focus on the strictly physical appetite for sexual pleasure; Benedict describes this as a sin against one's own nature. "[H]e now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless."[17] An important and predictable distinction here is Luther's focus on the relational costs while Benedict, observing the same manifestation of lust, focuses on the ontological.

[14] But both Benedict and Luther find the objective command for marriage in the story of Adam and Eve, and the subjective command in that human experience which attracts persons to one another. Both take account of Adam's loneliness and his yearning for companionship, (a notably self-regarding consideration). Both reject self-love that ignores relational concern for the other. Thus a longing for 'companionship' is celebrated, while the inclination to 'objectify' and/or 'commodify' ourselves and others is rejected-and for similar reasons. In both cases one finds a proper form of self-regard to celebrate and an improper, or fallen, form of self-destroying selfishness.

[15] But does self-love find broader expression in Luther's theology than the role it plays in marriage? I think it does. According to Nygren's reading of Luther, however, it should play none at all. "Luther," writes Nygren, "has departed so far from the traditional idea, which discovers a commandment of self-love in the commandment of love to one's neighbor, that he finds this latter to contain a direct prohibition of every kind of self-love. Love to one's neighbor, he holds, has the task of completely dispossessing and annihilating self-love."[18]

[16] This often repeated remark of Nygren's is not groundless. It finds its source in Luther's Lectures on Romans from 1516-18 where he takes a novel approach to the 'double love command,' suggesting its real goal is to reveal to us the depth of our own sin. "Man is not commanded to love himself," he writes, "but rather is shown the sinful love with which he does in fact love himself, as if to say: 'you are completely curved in upon yourself and pointed toward love of yourself, a condition from which you will not be delivered unless you altogether cease loving yourself and, forgetting yourself, love your neighbor'."[19]

[17] Now this obviously provides some solid ground for Nygren's analysis, but it does not take into account the fact that this rendering of the 'double love command' is an early expression of Luther's still-developing "two kingdom" theology. What we have here is a description of the 'inner man' and the whole/whole anthropology associated with its 'coram Deo' perspective (along with all the associated dualisms that this implies.) By 1521 however, in his work, Against Latomus,[20] Luther displays his fully developed theology of the two realms, which then included a double anthropology. The 'inner man' still remains wholly righteous or sinful, turned toward or away from God, but the 'outer man' (expressing the temporal dimension of human existence, 'coram hominibus') possesses a part/part anthropology. Thus Luther can now speak of a person who is wholly righteous (coram Deo) and simultaneously sinful (coram hominibus). Residual sin still exists in the temporal realm, but faith brings it under the guidance of the Spirit who synergistically transforms it incrementally into a proper righteousness. Meanwhile, the faithful walk in the freedom of an alien righteousness established by way of their coram Deo relationship.

[18] All of this is to say that Luther, by 1521, had integrated a temporal dimension into his anthropology. Over the ensuing years, it continued to emerge in the context of his ongoing pastoral challenges. Part of this development entailed his growing appreciation of the temporal realm and the correlative importance he began to place on a proper self-regard.

[19] Luther's response to the plague that hit Wittenberg in August of 1527 illustrates this mature perspective. During the plague the university took up temporary residence nearby at Jena. Most of Luther's colleagues and students fled the city. He and his friend Bugenhagen stayed on to minister to the people, turning Luther's home into a kind of hospital where the two families moved in together so as to provide support for one another; but it is clear that this was the exception. In remaining behind Luther defied the elector's order to protect himself by fleeing the contagion. In his writing on this subject, however, there is no hint of disappointment or rebuke towards the many who did flee. In fact, in his piece Whether One Should Flee the Deadly Plague, Luther offers many reassurances to those who, driven by a self-regarding fear, left Wittenberg in haste: If someone is weak and fearful,let him flee in God's name as long as he does not neglect his duty toward his neighbor but has made adequate provision….To flee from death and to save one's life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 4, "No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it." It is even commanded that every man should as much as possible preserve body and life and not neglect them.[21]

[20] Here we see the very interesting conflation between caring for others on the one hand, and preserving one's own life on the other. No longer does the earlier "either/or" duality define the character of an action. No longer a matter of either self or neighbor, now both neighbor and self are addressed in God's command to protect life.[22]

[21] Luther does not refute those who say that the plague is a sign of God's punishment on the afflicted, but he rejects absolutely the logical corollary that one should, therefore, simply resign oneself to suffering and death in "obedience" to divine wrath. Pointing to prior examples of faithful self-regard, Luther notes Paul's escape in a basket, and St. Athanasius' flight from his church. In the latter case Paul's presence (and the attendant "risk of danger") was "not essential," while in the former there were "others there to administer [Athanasius'] office." Thus, suggests Luther, their escapes were not only licit, but even laudatory.[23] Both neighbor and self were served.

[22] In Luther's response to the plague one finds a firm affirmation of the duty to protect one's own life. Reason demands it. Those who foolishly put themselves in danger as a proof of their faith are, Luther says, "tempting God." Indeed, he is suspicious of those who exhibit their faith by staying on in the plague ridden city. I hear people say, "If war or the Turks come, one should not flee from his village or town but stay and await God's punishment by the sword." That is quite true; let him who has a strong faith wait for his death, but he should not condemn those who take flight. By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also a punishment from God. Anyone who falls into deep water dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to the water as to a divine punishment. Very well, do so if you can but do not tempt God, and allow others to do as much as they are capable of doing. [24]

[23] Luther's warning here is clear: "Do not tempt God." "While some may sin in their fearful unbelief," Luther explains, "others sin on the right hand." "They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague….This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines," Luther writes, "and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health. If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God's eyes." Indeed, anyone who irresponsibly fails to protect himself against the plague and thereby falls ill, only to "infect and poison others" is "responsible before God for his neighbor's death and is a murderer many times over." [25]

[24] Luther's early world-denying resignation, long since abandoned, has been replaced with his theology of vocation-a view of the Christian life as world-sustaining service to the neighbor which still takes the self into account.. The matrix of human relationships in which we find ourselves calls us into specific God-pleasing relations with one another. Insofar as our relationally defined responsibilities are met, we are free, Luther says, to focus on a prudential self-protection (which in the case of the plague also served the common good).

[25] When we compare Luther's early analysis of the double love command from his Romans lectures (see above) with a later interpretation from 1535, his growing approval of self-regard is striking. Self-love has become now the "loveliest and best of books." "If you want to know how the neighbor is to be loved," he writes, "and want to have an outstanding pattern of this, consider carefully how you love yourself. In need or in danger you would certainly want desperately to be loved and assisted with all the counsels, resources, and powers not only of all men but of all creation. And so," Luther concludes, "you do not need any book to instruct and admonish you how you should love your neighbor, for you have the loveliest and best of books about all laws right in your own heart."

[26] Benedict points to the traditional interpretation of 'Jacob's ladder' as a model of multifaceted love at work in the Christian life, with eros receiving God's love on the one hand and agape reflecting it towards the neighbor on the other. While this general pattern surely does parallel Luther's understanding of a faith active in love, the inner workings of this dynamic remain a highly contested topic among Lutherans. The role of eros as it is related to the volitional self is central to this discussion, and begs further exploration. Women, in particular, have something to gain from this debate; and feminist insights have made important and ongoing contributions to the discussion. I believe the parallels between Benedict and Luther on this matter of a multi-faceted love are present in Luther's work. An interpretation which takes full account of his ongoing theological development will bear this out.

Endnotes 

[1] Pope Benedict XVI (2006) Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est. To the Bishops, and Deacons, Men and Women Religious, and All the Lay Faithful, on Christian Love (Ed.), Liberia Editrice Vaticana/Pauline Books and Media, Citta del Vaticano/Boston. 19.

[2] Ibid 11.

[3] Ibid 7.

[4] Ibid 7.

[5] Ibid 4.

[6] Ibid 12.

[7] Nygren, A. (1982): Agape and Eros. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. ADDIN EN.CITE Nygren 1982 4 4 6 Anders Nygren Philip S. Watson Agape and Eros agapeagencyaction theoryeros 1982 Chicago University of Chicago Press PHiladelphia: Westminster Press, 19530-226-61078-0.

[8] Pope Benedict XVI, B. P. (2006): Encyclical Letter: Deus Caritas Est. In P. To the Bishops, and Deacons, Man and Women Religious, and All the lay Faithful, on Christian Love (Ed.), Liberia Editrice Vaticana/ Pauline Books and Media, Citta del Vaticano/Boston.; 16 ADDIN EN.CITE XVI 2006 123 123 26 Benedict Pope XVI To the Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, Man and Women Religious, and All the lay Faithful, on Christian Love Encyclical Letter: Deus Caritas Est Deus Caritas Est 2006 December 25, 2005 Citta del Vaticano/Boston Liberia Editrice Vaticana/ Pauline Books and Media.

[9] Ibid.; 16 ADDIN EN.CITE XVI 2006 123 123 26 Benedict Pope XVI To the Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, Man and Women Religious, and All the lay Faithful, on Christian Love Encyclical Letter: Deus Caritas Est Deus Caritas Est 2006 December 25, 2005 Citta del Vaticano/Boston Liberia Editrice Vaticana/ Pauline Books and Media

[10]: "For this word which God speaks, 'Be fruitful and multiply,' is not a command. It is more than a command, namely, a divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore. Rather, it is just as necessary as the fact that I am a man, and more necessary than sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, and emptying the bowels and bladder. It is a nature and disposition just as innate as the organs involved in it. Therefore, just as God does not command anyone to be a man or a woman but creates them the way they have to be, so he does not command them to multiply but creates them so that they have to multiply. And wherever men try to resist this, it remains irresistible nonetheless and goes its way through fornication, adultery, and secret sins, for this is a matter of nature and not of choice." Luther, M. (1962a): The Estate of Marriage, pp. 11-50. In W. I. Brandt (Ed.): The Christian in Society II, Fortress, Philadelphia.. 18 ADDIN EN.CITE Luther 1962 124 124 5 Martin Luther Walther I. Brandt Helmut Lehmann Walther I Brandt The Estate of Marriage The Christian in Society IILuther's WorksEstate of Marriage 11-5045 55 American Edition 1962 Philadelphia Fortress 1522

[11] Luther, M. (1962b): An Exhortation to the Knights of the Teitonic Order That They Lay Aside False Chastity and Assume the True Chastity of Wedlock, 1523, pp. 131-158. In W. Brandt (Ed.): The Christian in Society II, Fortress, Philadelphia. 155 ADDIN EN.CITE Luther 1962 125 125 5 Martin Luther Walther Brandt Helmut Lehmann W. A. Lambert An Exhortation to the Knights of the Teitonic Order That They Lay Aside False Chastity and Assume the True Chastity of Wedlock, 1523 The Christian in Society IILuther's WorksExhortation to the Knights 131-158Vol. 45 55 American Edition 1962 Philadelphia Fortress

[12] Ibid. ADDIN EN.CITE Luther 1962 125 125 5 Martin Luther Walther Brandt Helmut Lehmann W. A. Lambert An Exhortation to the Knights of the Teitonic Order That They Lay Aside False Chastity and Assume the True Chastity of Wedlock, 1523 The Christian in Society IILuther's WorksExhortation to the Knights 131-158Vol. 45 55 American Edition 1962 Philadelphia Fortress

[13] Luther, M. (1962a): The Estate of Marriage, pp. 11-50. In W. I. Brandt (Ed.): The Christian in Society II, Fortress, Philadelphia. 8 ADDIN EN.CITE Luther 1962 124 124 5 Martin Luther Walther I. Brandt Helmut Lehmann Walther I Brandt The Estate of Marriage The Christian in Society IILuther's WorksEstate of Marriage 11-5045 55 American Edition 1962 Philadelphia Fortress 1522

[14] Ibid 9.

[15] Ibid.9.

[16] Ibid10.

[17] XVI, B. P. (2006): Encyclical Letter: Deus Caritas Est. In P. To the Bishops, and Deacons, Man and Women Religious, and All the lay Faithful, on Christian Love (Ed.), Liberia Editrice Vaticana/ Pauline Books and Media, Citta del Vaticano/Boston. 7 ADDIN EN.CITE XVI 2006 123 123 26 Benedict Pope XVI To the Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, Man and Women Religious, and All the lay Faithful, on Christian Love Encyclical Letter: Deus Caritas Est Deus Caritas Est 2006 December 25, 2005 Citta del Vaticano/Boston Liberia Editrice Vaticana/ Pauline Books and Media

[18] Nygren, A. (1982): Agape and Eros. University of Chicago Press. Chicago.713 ADDIN EN.CITE Nygren 1982 4 4 6 Anders Nygren Philip S. Watson Agape and Eros agapeagencyaction theoryeros 1982 Chicago University of Chicago Press Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 19530-226-61078-0

[19] Luther, M. (1972): Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia, 1516-1518. Concordia. Saint Louis.26 ADDIN EN.CITE Luther 1972 54 54 6 Luther, Martin Helmut Lehmann and Jaroslav Pelikan Helmut Lehmann and Jaroslav Pelikan Walter Tillmanns (Chapts.1-2) and Jacob Preus (Chapts. 3-16) Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia, 1516-1518 Luther's WorksLuther's WorksRomans, 1516-1518 25 55 1972 Saint Louis Concordia

[20] Luther, M. (1964): Lectures on Galatians, 1519 (1-6); 1535 (5-6). Concordia. Saint Louis.26 ADDIN EN.CITE Luther 1964 55 55 6 Luther, Martin Jaroslav Pelikan Jaroslav Pelikan Jaroslav Pelikan Lectures on Galatians, 1519 (1-6); 1535 (5-6) Luther's WorksLuther's WorksGalatians, 1519, 1535 27 55 1964 Saint Louis Concordia

[21] Luther, M. (1968): Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague, 1527, pp. 113-138. In G. K. Wiencke (Ed.): Devotional Writings (2), Fortress, Philadelphia.123 ADDIN EN.CITE Luther 1968 67 67 5 Luther, Martin Gustav K. Wiencke Helmut Lehmann and Jaroslav Pelikan Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague, 1527 Devotional Writings (2)Luther's WorksPlague, 1527 113-13843 55 1968 Philadelphia Fortress

[22] "It is not forbidden but rather commanded that by the sweat of our brow we should seek our daily food, clothing, and all we need and avoid destruction and disaster whenever we can, as long as we do so without detracting from our love and duty toward our neighbor. How much more appropriate it is therefore to seek to preserve life and avoid death if this can be done without harm to our neighbor…. Examples in Holy Scripture abundantly prove that to flee from death is not wrong in itself. Abraham was a great saint but he feared death and escaped it by pretending that his wife, Sarah, was his sister. Because he did so without neglecting or adversely affecting his neighbor, it was not counted as a sin against him….Ibid. ADDIN EN.CITE Luther 1968 67 67 5 Luther, Martin Gustav K. Wiencke Helmut Lehmann and Jaroslav Pelikan Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague, 1527 Devotional Writings (2)Luther's WorksPlague, 1527 113-13843 55 1968 Philadelphia Fortress Luther 1968 67 67 5 Luther, Martin Gustav K. Wiencke Helmut Lehmann and Jaroslav Pelikan Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague, 1527 Devotional Writings (2)Luther's WorksPlague, 1527 113-13843 55 1968 Philadelphia Fortress

[23] Ibid.121.

[24] Ibid.124f.

[25]Ibid. 131.

 


© September 2006
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 6, Issue 9