‘Two Conceptions of Love in Philosophical Thought’ by Christopher Cordner

(In Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics (University of Melbourne) Vol 50, No 3, Sept 2011, pp.315-329)

Wandering through the library lobby this morning, I got distracted by this piffy little article from the new Journals shelf.  Cordner points out that there are 2 very different ways of thinking about love in the Western ways, of which Platonic and Christian thought have given us the richest formulations. (He also argues that those who have conflated the two misrepresented both!)

Firstly, he argues Plato sees love as needy. “Love is always the Love of something, and…that something is what he lacks.” (p. 316, Corner quoting from Plato’s Symposium.) In this sense it more like the idea of Falling In Love which I have been reading and writing about this year – a projected desire for some aspect of ourselves which we see in another. Can’t quite make out then, why we use the term ‘Platonic Love’ to describe relationships where there is no such projection, or is it just no projection that expresses itself sexually? (Obviously there is etymological history here which I’ll readily admit I’m not abreast of!) For Plato the goal is self-sufficiency but that leads the human person into a state where they have no need of love! Have to admit I’m not at all attracted to that idea.

Second, what Max Scheler calls ‘an act of the spirit,’ and Cordner designates fairly nominally as ‘Christian,’ is a conception of love as expansive. God loves out of the overflowing fullness of God’s being, and so too do/can/should human beings, created in God’s likeness. “This love is experienced by its beneficiary, then, as not alienable by contingencies of what she does, or of the specific qualities she has or lacks, or what she might become.” It is unconditional (p.321).

Cordner points out that in Plato’s conception of love, it is assumed that the person in love is sick, whereas, in the Christian conception, the human person is healthy. On the whole, Western ethical and anthropological discourses flow from the former – human beings are deprived of absolute goodness (i.e. the Platonic category of The Good) but loving actions may offer the prospect of redemption as we find that which we lack in ourselves from others. I desperately want to shout out ‘Love does not have to function that way!’ – though surely sometimes it does.

How is it possible not to prefer this ‘Christian’ Love as Cordner describes it:

“If such love is a spontaneous ‘going out’ towards the other, it is also a very important fact that we can find ourselves affirmed in our deepest being by others’ love… That response to love is a realising, in the one loved, of her own value or worth. But this loving of her is then not an arbitrary creation of anything; it is a creative realising of a value in the one loved that she herself can find affirmed in the way she experiences that love. Putting this slightly differently: if there is reason for calling this deepest kind of love ‘gratuitous’, it is both a marvellous and an important fact that people can find their own deepest being affirmed by it” (p.329).

Bernard Lonergan on Conversion as Falling in Love

In one of my recent essays I drew upon Bernard Lonergan’s conception of conversion as ‘falling in love.’   It’s something that I intend to explore further and, if I have seemed a little preoccupied with sex and romance, is partly responsible for that intellectual adventure.

Lonergan thought that being in love was the best analogy for religious conversion because it described the type of total absorption of the experience.  It’s prompted by something wonderful (God) and draws our whole selves into relationship with that Being.  It’s more than intellectual, more than feelings, more than physical, more than conscious, and in the end, we would give our very lives just to Be With our Beloved.  Being in love inspires us to see the world in a whole new light and we become open to adventure, to wonder, beauty, goodness and the mystery of life!

This is the relevent section from my essay (read the whole essay here) – reads like a MTh essay I must say – big words!!

Lonergan explicated an epistemological method which made very careful distinctions in the process of consciousness.  At the core of his hermeneutical method he describes coming to know something as a type of conversion.  Unrestricted questioning about all that is ‘other’ is “the radical intending that moves us from ignorance to knowledge”(Lonergan 1973, 11).  In other words, we cannot know new information about ourselves as subject or an other as object, without the prompting of our lack of understanding.  We cannot become conscious of what we know, until we are aware that we do not know.  Within Lonergan’s framework, he describes this as a process of objectivising, that is, externalizing, our subjective knowing within which there are three stages of cognition.  He refers to this as experiencing, understanding and judging.  The first is the world of common sense;  the second is the commencement of theories or hermeneutical constructs; and the third is an integration of the two (Lonergan 1973, 93).  The stages are not experienced as distinct but rather the beginnings of the next stage evolve in process with its prior stage as previous knowledge begins to fail the knower as an adequate epistemological tool for their life experience.

When Lonergan applies this epistemological process he distinguishes between intellectual, moral and religious conversion: knowledge that is cognitive, performative and transcendental respectively.  They are distinct and, yet again, not unrelated.  “To achieve the good, one has to know the real.  To know the real, one has to reach the truth.  To reach the truth, one has to understand, to grasp the intelligible.  To grasp the intelligible, one has to attend to the data” (From a 1969 lecture. In Lonergan 2004, 37).  In most cases, one can expect intellectual conversion to be prior to moral and/or religious conversion, but, Lonergan argues, knowledge of God is a special case because God subverts the process by loving us first (Romans 5).  “As this gift of love animates and subsumes all other forms of loving, it gives intelligence a clouded awareness of a mystery, to provoke its own kind of questions and to lead to its own kind of answers.  The gift of God’s love occurs as something of a holy disruption in the routine flow of life, with religious, moral and intellectual consequences” (Kelly 2008, 11)

In relation to the recent research on sex, romance and long-term love which I’ve been blogging about, I am really intrigued as to how those universal human experiences might continue to play out as analogies for the religious life.  For example, the passionate romance of new love subsides into something much stronger, stable and secure over the longer term.  That certainly describes my own Christian life.  And a marriage that has lost it’s romance and/or it’s sex is dry and monotonous – which seems to describe the spiritual experience of many Christians who are turning up to church but nothing is actually happening in their Spirit anymore.  There is also mature (able to look beyond ourselves) and immature (self absorbed) versions of sex, romance and long-term love so it’s important to distinguish between a teenage crush on Jesus and a gracious love affair.

I’m collecting a list of authors to read on this subject, so if you have suggestions let me know!

If you want a general intro to Lonergan click here to go to Wiki.  Or you can go here for an overview of his philosophical work.

‘The Drive to Love: Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection’ by Helen Fisher

(Chapter 5 in The New Psychology of Love edited by Robert J. Sternberg & Karen Weis, Yale University Press; New Haven, 2006)

Helen Fisher has studied romantic love for 30 years!  Recently she’s moved from studying romantic love in different cultures across time and space, to some more empirical research.  First she conducted a study of 400+ Americans and 400+ Japanese and discovered that romantic love does not vary considerably by age, gender, sexual orientation or ethnic group.  Having been convinced from her social studies that romantic love was a universal human experience, she teemed up with some inter-disciplinary colleagues and conducted a fMRI study of the human brain ‘ in love.’     

“In fact, I have come to believe that romantic love is one of three discrete, interrelated emotion/motivation systems that all birds and mammals have evolved to direct courtship, mating, reproduction, and parenting.  The other two are the sex drive and attachment.  Each brain system is associated with different feelings and behaviors; each is associated with a different (and dynamic) constellation of neural correlates; each evolved to direct a different aspect of reproduction; and each interacts ith the other two in myriad combinations to produce the range of emotions, motivations, and behaviors associated with all types of love.”  

The sex drive is primarily associated with the androgens, particularly testosterone (in both women and men) with brain activity in the hypothalamus and the amygdala.

The attraction drive (romantic love) is primarily associated with elevated activity of dopamine in the reward pathways of the brain.  It is also likely to be associated with elevated activity of central norepinephrine and suppressed activity of central serotonin, as well as other brain systems activing together to produce increased energy, focussed attention, possessiveness, competitiveness, sexual arousal and has many similarities to other addictive neurological maps. 

Finally, the attachment drive (long term affection for a particular companion) is primarily associated with oxytocin and vasopressin in the nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum respectively.  The traists include mammalian traits of nest building, mutual feeding and groomin, staying close, shared parental chores and affiliative behaviors plus feelings of calm, security, social comfort, and emotional union with a long term mate. 

“The sex drive evolved to motivate our ancestors to seek coitus with a range of appropriate partners.  Atraction (and its developed human form, romantic love) evolved to motivate individuals to select among potential mates, prefer a particular individual, and focus courtnship attention on this favored mating partner, thereby conserving courtship time and energy.  Attachment evolved primarily to motivate individuals to sustain an affiliative connection with this reproductive partner at least long enough to complete species-specific duties.  Moreover, these three brain systems interact in myriad ways to direct many behaviors, emotions, and motivations associated with human reproduction.”

Whilst I cannot pretend that I understand this science, there does seem to be quite a bit of support for her conclusions in associated literature which I have scanned to my limited capacities.  If you have a capacity for science, I suggest you read the article.  If not, she gave a really accessible 15 min TED lecture  which gives you the gist of it.  You can check out her website for more fascinating research on sex, romance and love.

Fisher’s research leads her to several conclusions about romantic love.  Falling in love can legitimately be described as an addiction alongside food, alcohol, drugs, gambling and nicotine.  Also, those who have higher base levels of dopamine and serotonin in their biology are likely to fall in love more easil, more intensely and more often.  Similarly those with illnesses or circumstances that reduce dopamine levels have a reduced ‘risk’  of falling in love.  

In comparing people who were newly in love, newly rejected in love, and still in love after 30 years together, she believes that romantic love has the capacity to be enduring – dopamine continues to be primarily active, though shifting to different location in jilted lovers; and complimented with high levels of seratonin in long-term lovers. “Changes in cognition and emotion occur as love proceeds.”  There is a complex psychobiological interactions between lust, romantic love and attachment.  Increased dopamine when one is in love, tends to induce the release of testosterone (sexual arousal).  Sexual activity can also produce dopamine, particularly in women, and orgasim produces a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin associated with attachment.

So… why do I care about all this?  Two reasons:

1.  Christian Morality:  How does this inform my ongoing questioning about love and marriage in contemporary society?  If Fisher is correct, falling in love as a precurser to marriage will endure through cultural change.  The potential for falling in love also endures through-out a person’s lifetime, providing a challenge to marriage when one does not fall in love with one’s committed partner, even when that partner is affectionately loved.  Also, if  sex is a seperate issue to the longing for intimacy and the formation of long-term bonds: what are the implications for the GLBT community and for those who have sufferred sexual trauma and find sexual relationships difficult?  What are the implications for pastoral care?

2.  Integrated Spirituality:  The distinction between sex, attraction and affection has some interesting implications for an integrated spirituality.  When a mystic says they are ‘in love’ with Jesus, the desire is first and foremost for wholistic union rather than erotic arousal.  As Fisher says, a person in love longs to sit on the couch together even more than falling into bed.  In one of my recent essays I explored Bernard Lonergan’s image of conversion as falling in love with Jesus.  Fisher’s research provides some wonderful metaphors to further explore and explain what happens in an encounter with the Living Lord.

The Inner Lover: Using passion as a way to self-empowerment by Valerie Harms

(Connecticut; Aslan Publishing, 1999)

One of the biggest issues I have with Modern Dualistic Thought is the loss of imagination as a category associated with, but distinct from, thinking and feeling (or mind and body in another dualism).  Imagination is different to thinking in that it is not entirely rational and has no need to be logical. It is different to feeling in that it is more active than reactive, we have some control over it. Imagination has the capacity to draw in to consciousness that which lies beyond our reach, though we are vaguely aware of its impact upon us. Night dreams are our imagination at work, but it also includes day dreams and all sorts of creative inner work. Imagination produces inspired guesses by scientists, amazing colour combinations by artists and inventive solutions to all manner of problems.

In The Inner Lover, Jungian therapist Valerie Harms is not suggesting much more than the healing capacity of imagination. That is, I think it is possible to glean insights from her approach to dealing with passion and love struggles without buying into the whole Jungian soul theory.  There are different levels to which one can take her wisdom.  I myself am not unconvinced about her anatomy of the inner life of human persons within my own explicitly Christian understanding of the human person but I don’t think it’s necessary in order to learn something from this concept of the inner lovers.

Harms suggests that strong attractions, whilst having an outward set of circumstances, also reflect an inner set of relationships within our own selves. These inner relationships are able to be developed as ‘inner lovers’. Passion erupts from our deepest selves, uncontrollable, unstoppable, as potentially violent as a volcano. The strength of that energy should signal to us that there is something very significant happening in those feelings, and that they are just as much about ourselves as they are the object of our desire. All passions, strong feelings and insistent thoughts are invitations from our ‘souls’/ true selves/ deepest parts to do some work towards becoming all we can be – integrated, genuine, healed from past hurts, respectful of our weaknesses and limitations. The creative potential of the inner lover will be immediately grasped by anyone whose love has been thwarted. Not all passion is able to be expressed in an actual, outward relationship. The attraction may not be mutual or the person might be unavailable or inappropriate. We can fall in love with people who are in another relationship, in another country or in a relative position to us which makes it inappropriate like a therapist, teacher or priest. Those who experience the tragedy of losing a loved one know that passion continues beyond the grave or beyond the unwanted end of a relationship.

“Love is indeed a life or death matter, for it can add more life or subtract it. One can choose to surrender to being enlarged by love or else, by thwarting it, to being diminished… In the despair of love, it can sometimes seem there are no possibilities. But if one is attuned to one’s subjective truths, one will be able to have a great adventure with love. For then one will experience the dynamics of love energy in one’s soul. The benefits to one’s outer relationships are enormous if one is in good rapport with one’s Inner Lovers.”(p25)

There is a disappointingly short chapter on celibacy (called ‘Spirit Blossoms’) which adds another dimension to my recent sexuality/spirituality musings. Christian Theology and Church Morality desperately needs this kind of expanded view of passion. For Christian celibates, the inner lover takes on an explicitly religious form. The Beloved is the Greatest Lover, the Divine source of all Love. The sometimes erotic nature of the Mystical imagination of Celibates is merely an expression of the integration of their inner being – sex and all! She quotes a Christian nun who says, “Mysticism is not disguised sex; sex is disguised mysticism.”

“The ideals of love, truth, and beauty are found within ourselves. Dialogues and prayers throughout history have oriented our longings in this direction. Jean Houston, in The Search of the Beloved, elaborates on this theme: ‘In all the great spiritual and mystery traditions, the central theme, the guiding passion, is the deep yearning for the Beloved of the soul.’ The yearning is a memory of a spiritual union that goes very deep and fails to go away, ‘a union that is only partially explained and mirrored through human loving or partnership.”

As I was wondering about celibacy I wondered about all those people who are sexually abstinent by circumstance not by choice. To my mind this includes married couples with whom one or both have medical issues which precludes sexual activity; singles who find themselves unable to enter into a sexual relationship (committed or otherwise); widow[er]s; people traumatized by relationship break-up; single parents (and parents of small children in general in my experience!) There seems to be very little research done in this area, but it is recognised enough for a Wiki article! Check out this interesting Wiki on Involuntary Celibacy which might not be what you expect it to be!

It seems to me that there is a place for Inner Lovers in a mature Christian Spirituality. Not just for celibacy, but perhaps even more importantly for also for those in committed relationships, who find themselves in a position of ‘falling in love’ with someone who is not their spouse/partner.  Nurturing the Inner Lover rather than pursuing an ‘Outer Lover’  neither denies the beauty and intelligence of erotic passion, nor leads to hurtful unfaithfulness in the committed relationship.

‘Romantic Love vs. Marriage: A Psychoanalytic Approach’ by Keelin Lord

(In Essai, vol 5, issue 1, article 30.)

Back on 4th April , when reflecting on Joseph Campbell‘s mythological wisdom on love, I voiced some questions and concerns about romance and marriage in western culture.  It’s always great to meet others on the same journey as ourselves, especially when they validate our own perspective!  This article articulates the same social concern about the disconnect between romance and marriage.

First, Lord references recent neuroscience research which has begun to map some of the brain activity associated with ‘being in love.’  Helen Fisher is primarily responsible for bringing this research into being, by sticking 40 people who were ‘in love’ under an MRI scan.  As a biological-anthropologist she proposes an evolutionary theory to explain the existence of different brain behaviour for the sex drive, romantic attraction, and long-term affection.  The human brain evolved a sex drive to get people out there looking to re-create themselves, the attraction drive to narrow down the field to a suitable mating partner, and the affection drive to keep the partnership together long enough to have children.  I think Fisher’s distinction between these three basic human drives that function in intimate relationships is particularly helpful – sexual arousal, romantic attraction and committed affection exist separately before they sometimes exist together and I recommend the TED lecture by Fisher if you interested to know more.

Lord then maps the evolution of marriage and romance as social constructs in the last 500 years, singling out the industrial revolution as the most influential development which shifted the need for a social and economic basis for marriage.  Taking contemporary American cinema as evidence for the current perpetuating myths of romance and marriage, Lord shows how the former is seen as the exclusive entry into the later.

This is where Lord turns back to neuro-psychology to explain why ‘falling in love’ is a particularly unstable grounds for the establishment of long term relationships.  Psychologists consider falling in love to be an addiction: it triggers the same chemical reactions as cocaine and stimulates the brain areas which stimulate obsession, craving, physical dependence, personality change, distorted perspective and loss of self-control!

Interestingly, Helen Fisher’s research included couples who were still in love after 30 years of marriage which revealed that some of this brain activity was still present, whilst the anxiety producing activity had been replaced by seratonin inducing calmness and security – so staying in love long term is possible – it just doesn’t happen very often.  (Dr. Earl Henslin reckons in about 8-9% of couples!)

Lord’s response is to suggest that we return to a story about love as an art form.  That loving well needs to be learn, practiced, discovered.  A bit like a 12 step program for transitioning from the addiction of romance to a healthy integration of sex, attraction and affection!  This sounds pretty much exactly where I ended up in my own musings, but with a bit of brain science thrown in with the social anthropology.  She writes:

In conclusion, Americans need to realize that although our country allows us more freedom for individual happiness, those freedoms do not necessarily serve a practical function. We are culturally free to marry for love, yet our highly demanding social structure weakens our opportunity to focus on and obtain that romance. While we no longer need extended family support systems, we still need to realize that only focusing on our individual selves can breed lack of self discipline, resulting in such things as romantic affairs. Our strongly individualistic country needs to regain the value of having utmost concern for those we love. Only then will we gain individual satisfaction.  This includes the ability and our own willingness to see our beloved as they are, imperfections and merit, rather than continuing a Hollywood romance based on fantasy. This flaw in our country’s values supports Harriet Hawkins idea that society is to blame for the failure of romance (Hawkins 115). While she speaks of Shakespeare’s lovers being situated in a conflict opposed by war and feudal impulses, Fromm speaks of lovers being situated in an economy too demanding for love’s
commitment. This social control, along with the ability of romance to cloud one’s judgment, explains why Othello took not only Desdemona’s life, but his own as well. They were in a situation with no extended support system and Othello’s obligation was to commit himself as a general, while Desdemona was put second. Considering his duty to the state was expected to come first, Othello had reason to put his trust in his men. This took precedence over his duty to Desdemona and her words. Othello’s service to the state caused strain and failure in his marriage. In short, our social system needs to change, while we need to grasp the knowledge and essentials for the success of romantic love, or marriage will continue to suffer.

You can read the whole article here.