Sunday, March 27, 2011

Recent lessons learned

The dichotomy between feelings and reason is too simplistic. I've paid lip service to this before but I've found concrete evidence of it. That evidence is in love.

In Catholic culture much is made of the fact that true love is not so much an emotion but a choice. I believe this is true. Emotions, as I am fond of saying, are brain chemistry. My intention isn't to belittle emotions but only to point out that, like everything in nature, they are always changing, and are subject to forces beyond our control.

Now here comes the new lesson I've learned: Love is more than emotion, but it can't be less than emotion.

I do not say that occasional dryness bespeaks love's dissipation. Love is no reed blowing in a wind. Love is constant and trustworthy, in a way that feelings, good though they may be, are not.

But neither does true love exist in any kind of vacuum of feeling. In fact, contrary to my previous way of thinking, love doesn't thrive independently of feelings. Absent of emotion, love can subsist meagerly, for a time--perhaps even indefinitely, dormantly, like an animal in hibernation. But such a hibernation is not typical, nor should it be celebrated. In some pairs of lovers, the emotional aspect never flags.

Love without emotion (or very little of it) is a soul without a body. It is an incomplete being; a ghost seeking closure.

Catholic ambivalence about love is that emotional love is a passion. "Passions" is basically another word for emotions, but the formal term "passions" reveals something about them, namely, that they affect us. We are "passive" to them. By calling them passions, we illustrate that they are not so much something we do as they are something that happens to us.

Catholic theology has much to say about the passions. We regard them with a wary celebration--a little like the Red Ryder BB Gun of A Christmas Story: "You'll shoot your eyes out!" They are both wonderful and dangerous. Every passion can be directed toward good or evil. The "seven deadly sins" are corrupted passions; for each of them, we can point out a corresponding virtue. Anger becomes courage for justice; sloth becomes temperance; envy becomes a desire to match others' virtue.

The sanctioned approach is to ensure that our passions are rooted in God. Which, for the scholastics, meant rooting them in Truth, made most explicit in reason.

It sounds a little Vulcan (BTW, just saw the new Star Trek movie... best part of it is Leonard Nimoy).

But it's different than the Vulcans in two important ways. First, unlike the Vulcans, we don't say that our passions are in conflict with reason and truth--only that emotions are best when they are molded by reason and truth.

And second, our natural passions are meant to be understood as faint shadows of something which is supernatural--the ineffable, wordless, mystical aspect of God. Passions and emotions shame the logic's pretensions to know the whole universe. This simple animal function of our organism, this brain chemistry, breaks open our logical deductions into awe, wonder, and speechless gratitude.

Reason and the passions both image God in their own proper way.

Now here's another piece of the puzzle.

We say that God loves, and that God desires (i.e., he desires us). Now, technically, God can't desire because desire is a form of passion. God can't have passions, since God is not passive. This is just jargon for saying that God isn't affected by anything; he's always the one doing the affecting. Since God isn't affected (by nature, by forces, by sad movies), God doesn't have affections.

But if that's true, how can God love? Even more difficult, how can God desire? Desire is not just a passion, but a whole category of passions: the concupiscible passions. So it seems impossible to say that God desires.

A few points in response:

First, to say that God desires is a little bit of an equivocation. God's desire is not a passive desire; it is not a passion; i.e., it is not an appetite. God is not "hungry". Just as we can observe that human love is sometimes "hungry"--self-centered, consumptive, needy--God's love conspicuously lacks this dimension. God's desire is always a desire to give himself away. "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work" (John 4:34).*

Second, in spite of this, we can still say that God's love is attended by yearning. God is not passive (to emotions); and yet, in his very being, he is eager to give himself away.

What I'm finding here is a passion which is not a passion. In love, there is an experience which is "passionate," but unlike the other passions, it does not become corrupted by its extremes. True love is the only emotion that does not become destructive when it is experienced in its absolute form. Yet it is truly an emotion. Or at least, it is attended by an emotion. An eagerness; a yearning.

Perhaps, in psychology, we have here something like evidence of the uniqueness of a certain emotional phenomenon.

And in theology, we may have here evidence for the presence of grace.

As for me, I have learned: love's emotion is as holy as love's solemn choice.


* - To be sure, in natural love there is nothing inherently wrong with concupiscence, i.e., being needy. We believe that God himself experienced neediness in Jesus. "I thirst" (John 19:28). Appetites, needs, passions--these are all the curious byproduct of our creation as finite, limited beings. We are a "new" kind of existence, somewhere between the infinite and nothing. Passions are our unique expression.

1 comment:

zacharenia said...

interesting for thought... :)