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Message Eleven, 2-14-10
By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.

Eros Love

Mark Twain once said that of all the delights in this world, humans care most about sex – yet they have kept it out of heaven!  And, several decades later, the blonde bombshell, social commentator Mae West said, “To err is human sweetie – but it sure feels Divine!”

And these quotes reflect the problem we face in our culture today.  As we considered with great emotion the concept of Agape, sacrificial love last Sunday, I think we somehow felt more holy and pure.  When we think of Eros love, however, we know it is passionate and full of desire but we often think of it as less than holy.

As we consider this topic, therefore, the logical question to ask ourselves is why are we considering such a traditionally sensitive subject in church?  While we sometimes think along the lines of Mae West when she also once said, “I was once Snow White – but then I drifted!”, I don’t want that to be the case for us – on Valentine’s Day or any other day.  I believe Eros and spirituality are inextricably linked.  We cannot have one without the other.  Erotic love is as much Divine as is Agape love.  To put it another way, God celebrates Eros.  It is spiritual, beautiful and holy.

In simple terms, we can understand Eros to mean the love that is passionate, with sensual desire and longing.  This simple definition, though, does not take into account that Eros is also a spiritual form of love.  In our post-fundamentalist world, Eros should not be considered inferior to Agape love.

In traditional and historic Christian thinking – as well as in other world religions – Eros is considered something naughty and shameful.  Indeed, in most traditional religions human sexuality and desire are to be expressed solely within the confines of heterosexual marriage and then ONLY for the purpose of procreation.  Eros and sensuality, in this thinking, have no place in good Christian or Jewish or Islamic or even Atheist homes.  Any pleasure or enjoyment that it provides is merely God’s inducement – his bribe so to speak – for humans to procreate.  Without that holy purpose or possibility, then, Eros is forbidden.   As we shall see, such thinking was and is mistaken and it grossly misinterprets what I believe is the real message of the Jewish and Christian Bible.

One of the most famous erotic love poems of all time is found in the Bible.  The Song of Songs – also called the Song of Solomon – was written around 900 BCE and has traditionally been attributed to be the work of King Solomon.  This is the man, as you may know, who had nearly a thousand wives, who amassed a huge fortune and who built the first Temple in Jerusalem.  He is also the one to who is said to have written the Biblical book of Proverbs containing many pearls of wisdom.  Indeed, Solomon is often synonymous with wisdom – although anyone who would want to try and satisfy a thousand spouses should hardly be considered wise – tired yes, but smart no!

The Song of Songs was written from the perspective of two young lovers – a Prince and a young shepherd lady.  Intermixed between the lustful cries of the two lovers is a chorus of busybody older women who admonish the two lovers to stop stirring up passion.  The book, however, does not condemn the lovers and instead celebrates their unabashed expressions of love and desire.

The book has long been one that Orthodox Jewish youth under the age of 13 are forbidden to read.  Can you imagine part of the Bible being considered X-rated?  Of course, if that is what some fundamentalists would only call it – X-rated – they might realize their goal to have more young people actually read the Bible! – just tell kids that there is a part of the Bible with lots of racy, sexy stuff in it and you’ll have teenage boys rushing to buy it!

But, fasten your seat belts and listen to the following verses from the Song of Songs, taking special note of the imagery and allusions that are used….I quote from the NIV Bible:

A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night between my breasts.  My lover has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to gather lilies.  I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; he browses among the lilies.

I slept but my heart was awake. Listen! My lover is knocking: “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one.  I have taken off my robe— must I put it on again?”  My lover thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him.  I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles of the lock.  And my lover said to me, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.”  May your breasts be like the clusters of the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.    May the wine go straight to my lover, flowing gently over lips and teeth.  Make haste my beloved and be like a stag upon a mountain of spices.  I belong to my lover and his desire is for me.

Whew!!! I don’t know about you, but every time I read this passage I want to quickly take a cold shower!  And I believe that is what the Biblical author of this passage intended when she or he wrote it.  The Song of Songs is love poetry!  It was meant to convey sensuality and to induce desire.  This is a Divine message!  Its words echo that of God.  If agape love is beautiful and spiritual in its sacrificial nature, then Eros is holy with its intention to create relational intimacy between people.

But this is not how many fundamentalists have interpreted the book.  Christianity turned Eros love into the dirty act of fornication because of the early view that the body and spirit are separate.  What is done in the sinful body has nothing to do with one’s Divine spirit or soul.  The ancient 5th Christian Council of Constantinople declared in the fourth century CE that the Song of Songs must always be taught allegorically.  That meant, according to these early church fathers who established Christian thinking on love, the book’s message is only to show God’s love for humans and vice versa.  Any other reading of the book is wrong.

But this view ignores the consistent theme of the Bible – God celebrates love in any form.  Indeed, we can see that God’s creative acts in forming the universe and humankind were expressions of Eros.  It was passion and a desire for intimacy that induced the Divine to create women and men.  This is the essence of such love – to form bonds of relationship that are wonderful, awe inspiring and mutually supportive.

I believe that Eros love is an expression of our deep need for connection, belonging and meaning.  We discover in romantic love for another person what desire means, we gain understanding of the moral imagination to cooperate with others and we learn how to both give love and to receive it.  Eros, I believe, must be taken out of the bedroom and find appropriate expression in all areas of our lives – in our spirituality, in all of our relationships and in our work.  This does not mean that it must always be expressed physically but that we use its Divine motivation – the desire for intimacy and connection – in our daily lives.

James Nelson, in his book The Intimate Connection, says that the ability to relate on an intimate level is understood best by women.  Most men are taught to be strong and self-sufficient.  At an early age most boys are forcibly weaned from their mother’s soft and caring nurture.  They are told to be men; to be strong; to leave the soft comforts of women.  Men are to be givers only and in that way they exert control.  Most women, on the other hand, are not taught the need to always be in control.  They are comfortable and confident with receiving AND giving intimacy.  They can therefore relate in relationships on a more equal footing.  As we will examine in some detail next week when we discuss friendship love, why is it that many women find it easy to share and be open with friends while many men do not?  This difference finds expression in how men and women express Eros love.  Both desire intimate connection with lovers.  But women typically are able to better express it while men struggle.  That is not to say that men don’t experience the erotic but they often do so in ways that keep them from close, personal, genuine connection.  For them Eros is mostly mechanical and physical.  For women, it is mostly emotional and psychological.

Eros, then, ought to be a combination of physical and emotional expressions.  If it is, then I believe it enters the Divine realm.  We saw in the Song of Songs both an ardent physical desire for the other but also a deep emotional love.  In my own life, I have found that it is only when I am truly open and honest about myself with another person, confessing my needs and my flaws, that I experience the deepest connection.  This has been so with Ed as we have recognized our need to work at open communication and free expression of our thoughts.  As we grow in our love for each other, we find an Eros that is more complex, interesting and mature.  We have hit a few bumps in the road but, each time we do, we often discover the cause.  And frequently that cause has been a failure in genuine intimacy.  We have failed to stay connected by telling the other our thoughts, our frustrations and our needs.  I imagine that those of you who have been or are in long-term relationships, you have discovered the truth of staying connected through honest communication and intimacy.  The almost uncontrollable burning passion when we first fall in love gives way to something lasting, smoldering and genuine – but no less exciting and passionate.

The French philosopher Georges Bataille claims that it is only when we go beyond ourselves and our own needs do we find transcendent Eros.  When we express such love for another person that seeks a full union of soul, body and mind, then we are able to experience the Divine.  And this is the spirituality of Eros love that I advocate.  We can celebrate Eros in our prayers, in our meditations and, indeed, in our worship.  There is no shame in it or in any expression that manifests the human moral force of unity, caring, and support.  What better way to affirm another person than to fully share yourself with him or her?

This is, therefore, a new theology of Eros.  It is a new way to understand human sexuality and to see it in its spiritual context.  The Divine ethos is for human connection with others and with the transcendent.  No longer must we see Eros as strictly for procreation.  It is part of the Divine design for our lives – to live freely and fully in all aspects of giving and receiving love.  As much as we are called to show Agape love to one another without condition and without prejudice – to love, as Pat Lehman said last week, those who are not easy to love – we are also encouraged to love with our romantic, Eros selves.

That includes appreciation for our sexuality in whatever form, for our nurturing impulses and for that side of us that seeks and gives physical pleasure.  And, this new theology of Eros is fully inclusive and rejects any vestiges of patriarchy and male domination.  Freed from the shackles of a procreative purpose, Eros is celebrated wherever it is positively expressed.  In that regard, it cannot be destructive, exploitive or harmful to any person.  Genuine Eros is gentle, life-enriching, awe-inspiring, supportive and mutually acceptable.  Eros is not just a means to achieve purely physical moments of pleasure but, instead, is a way of finding a lifetime of uplifting and intimate connection with others – past, present and future.

As James Nelson writes, the theology of Eros challenges the prevailing thinking that spirituality and sexuality are incompatible.  It is a fresh opening to the reality, he says, that Eros is intrinsic to the experience of God.

Listen once again with me to the words of Eros as expressed by several poets:

Sheryl Walton, an English poet, writes:  Come into my heart dear one, Fill it with the warmth of your love, Brighten my days with your sunny smile, And fill my nights with unbridled passion. Lay with me under the starry skies, Whispering into my ear, Those sweet words of love, That only we two understand.  Gently caress my trembling body, With deliberate, knowing hands, And cover my mouth with passionate kisses, That draw the very soul from my body.  I live to be near you, To feel your gentleness.  My world begins and ends in your arms.  My heart, my wonderful, my secret lover.

And from Robert Browning:

The moment eternal – just that and no more –
When ecstasy’s utmost we clutch at the core
While cheeks burn, arms open, eyes shut, and lips meet!

From the KamaSutra Indian book of love:

Her arms have the beauty of gently moving bamboo.
Her eyes are full of peace. She is faraway,
Her place not easy to reach. My heart is frantic with haste
A ploughman with a single ox, On land all wet and ready for seed.

And one from Emily Dickinson:

Wild nights–wild nights!  Were I with thee, Wild nights should be our luxury!
Futile the winds, To heart in port–Done with the compass, Done with the chart!
Rowing in Eden–As the sea! Might I moor, tonight, In thee!

And finally, once again from the Bible’s Song of Songs:

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick with love.
His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.

My dear friends, love is a language that all humans speak and understand.  It is spoken in several forms, as we have seen over the last two weeks.  Above all, love is a Divine emotion – a gift from God for us to celebrate and enjoy.  In the transient lives we lead, erotic love is one of our greatest delights and, heeding the implied advice from Mark Twain, let us take it into our heaven.  May we celebrate the holy and pure Eros in ourselves.  May we see it, as we do other forms of love, as a way to intimately connect with other persons – physically and emotionally.  And, may we never fail to seek it, to praise it and to regard it as a part of our spiritual world.  I wish all of you a Happy and Eros filled Valentine’s Day!

Now, instead of our normal talk back time, I welcome with all of you, words of love and passion spoken by any of you.  Open your hearts and let the words flow of your verbal Valentine love for someone here or not, for a partner past, present or future………or for a cherished friend or family member.    Let us all share a brief glimpse of your love for someone else…