A Love Song Playlist
A Theology of Romantic Love
At last my love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song
At last the skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you
I found a dream, that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known
Oh yeah yeah
You smiled, you smiled
Oh and then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
for you are mine...at last.
Romantic love is like youth. It is temporary, poignant, beautiful, painful, and life-altering. It is vivid but not always happy.
Of course sometimes it is happy. Very happy. Sometimes lovers are like islands in a stream, with no one in between, relying on each other, having sailed away to another world. In sublime moments such as these, romantic love is a taste of heaven. Perhaps, compared to the sufferings in the world, it can seem solipsistic and self-focused; but in its intimacy it offers a holy communion, both maddening and delightful, which is inherently ecstatic, opening the heart to a possibility that is cosmic in scope: that of all things being right with the world.
Whitehead puts it well: it is a feeling of what the world would be like if beauty triumphed and suffering ceased, with all tears wiped away. Julian of Norwich felt this emotion in relation to a deep Wellness whom she called God. When we are embraced in the arms of the love, she said, all will be well and all manner of things well. We will have found heaven at last.
Whitehead and Julian of Norwich are on the same page. This sense of rightness -- of a harmony beyond suffering -- is an aspect of what Whitehead calls God, and romantic love is indeed a taste of God. It prefigures a Harmony of Harmony which includes tragedy within its scope, but in which tragedy has been overcome.
Of course, given its transcience, romantic love is not a firm foundation for marriage. Marriage is much deeper. It is two people sharing their stories for a lifetime, for one another and for the sake of adding beauty in the world. The beauty can take the form of parenting, mutual enjoyment, and service to the world. Marriage is not for lovers alone. It belongs to the world.
But romantic love can be part of marriage, and without romance a marriage -- straight or gay -- becomes lifeless and routine. The key to a happy marriage is to take the spirit of romantic love and have it be part of the marriage all the time, in the form of trust and commitment, and also to enjoy the mutual intimacy of romantic love when true to the call of gladness.
The Storms are Raging On the Rolling Sea
Of course gladness is not the whole of romantic love. Sometimes, amid unrequited love and heartbreaking separations, love's loss a taste of hell. The storms are raging on the rolling sea in a highway of regret, over things said and things done, and despair runs deep.
The difficulties are intensified when the circumstances involve betrayal. Built into the very experience of romantic love is a sense of vulnerability and trust, and when the trust is violated, regret is an honest response on the part of the one who has betrayed the trust. He or she must understand the pain that has been caused and share in it. As Hank Williams makes clear in Your Cheatin' Heart, it takes time many a sleepless night to travel the highway of regret.
Something very important is revealed in regret. In a love affair, as in life, we make decisions which could have and should have been otherwise. Whereas some might look back on their lives and say they have made no decisions they regret, the more mature response is to realize that life is never free from regret. We can only hope for forgiveness from the ones we have harmed and from God.
This does not mean that, in situations of betrayal, all should be forgotten or that situations can return to where they had been. It doesn't even mean that the one who has been betrayed likes the other person. He or she may hate the other. Forgiveness means willing the well-being of the other, willing their eventual happiness, even if you hate them. It takes many a sleepless night to forgive, too.
That's How Strong My Love Is
The pain of lost love can make people either very bitter or very creative, or both. It made Adele creative. She wrote Rolling in the Deep out of a bitter breakup. Still, as the song makes clear, she brought the bitterness with her:
The scars of your love remind me of us
(Tears are gonna fall, rolling in the deep)
They keep me thinking that we almost had it all
(You're gonna wish you never had met me)
The scars of your love, they leave me breathless
(Tears are gonna fall, rolling in the deep)
Bitterness is natural if short-lived. But it becomes acidic if it lasts too long. It is a lot like cynicism. It burns the soul and hurts the cynic more than the cynicized.
Process theology points to a better option. It is to face the situation honestly, let natural emotions surface, but also to try not to cling to them when they pass away. It is to trust in the availability of fresh possibilities for growth, for all parties involved.
In process theology these fresh possibilities come from One in whose heart all lovers are embraced, even if they cannot embrace one another. They are possibilities for forgiveness, for moving on, for taking a next step in life, for realizing that no finite loss is worth infinite despair.
When evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years,
To make you feel my love.
God's tear-drying capacities are in our lives, any time and at all times, as a lure toward creative transformation. The highway of regret can be transmuted into a highway of compassion with time and trust. That's how strong God's love is.
The Passionate Desire for Beauty
Maybe Augustine is right. Maybe our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Maybe Rumi is right, too. Maybe the the One whom we seek is seeking us.
Maybe our ultimate fulfillment lies in melting into the heart of a divine Beloved who is wider than anything we can ever understand, but closer to us than our own breathing.
Nevertheless, for most of us, this is is not quite enough. If God is a Light which shines through the eyes of lovers, it is their eyes we seek. God lacks concreteness and intimacy, unless enfleshed in the poignancy, particularity, and preciousness of another person into whose arms we melt. A visitor from another planet, listening to popular music, might quickly conclude that the dominant religion of our world is romantic love.
Our desire for intimacy is partly created by the music and film industries. It is the business of capitalism to manipulate our desires. We buy clothes and cars in hopes that we might become attractive candidates for intimacy, within or outside the parameters of social convention.
But part our focus is on romantic love in life rooted in a desire with which we are born and which is one of the primary ways we find meaning in life. It seems built into our very genes.
Whitehead calls it the Passionate Desire for Beauty. He believes that the desire for beauty is built into the very adventure of the universe as an ongoing journey. Long before there were humans on the planet, there was a desire for beauty, as felt by other animals, by living cells, and by the eros of inorganic matter.
Even God -- even the Adventure of the universe as One -- is filled with an eros for the beauty of felt relationships. Even God seeks intimacy with the world. Even God thirsts for satisfaction. Even God seeks pleasure and wants to be loved -- so the Bible says.
Some philosophers find this talk about intimacy too unsettling. They would rather talk about ultimate reality than intimate reality. Ultimate reality is safe and abstract, an object of the intellect not the heart.
Popular music knows better. It builds upon themes of romantic love by enabling people to experience the moods even if they have never actually been in love, and to relive the moods if they have. It offers a taste of heaven. A theology for the masses.
This kind of theology scares the hell out of some priests. There's too much eros in it. Eros is a free-wheeling and uncontrollable, like the winds of the spirit, and it is also physical and thus a bit too close for comfort. Not knowing what to do with it, they condemn it, or ignore it, or demean it, drawing sharp distinctions between spirituality and sensuality, faith and desire, mind and body.
Thus popular music is left with the task of bringing thing together mind and body, spirituality and sensuality, in its narratives, lyrics, melodies, and tones. It's not bad theology, either.
There is something divine in romantic love and the passion for beauty that lies within and behind it. God is the Adventure of the Universe as One.
At the heart of the divine adventure there is not one-sided, dominating power. That's not love, that's Hitler.
Rather there is a love which, in Whitehead's words, "slowly and in quietness operates by love, finding its purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world." This love "neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the the immediacy of the present."
Doesn't this sound a little bit like the islands in the sea of which Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers sing? Aren't they, too, just a little oblivious as to morals?
Shouldn't we try a little tenderness?