Sunday, January 29, 2006

Street Prophets: Reading Benedict: Deus Caritas Est Summary and Commentary, Pt 1 --
Cross-posted to Street Prophets

So, I am reading the new encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est by Pope Benedict XVI.  So far, he seems to be, as predicted by a few people in the know, neither a liberal nor a conservative hammer brought down on liberals.  As far as writing goes, he is more lucid and less mystical than his predecessor.

This is a planned series in summarizing the encyclical with a few comments on things that interest me.


1) The First Letter of John is quoted: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."  Benedict says the reason he writes is to counteract a world in which God is associated with vengeance, hatred, and violence.

PART I - The Unity of Love in Creation and in Salvation History

"A problem of language"

2)The term "love" has many different meanings in common usage, so we must first define love.

"Eros" and "Agape" - difference and unity

3)"Eros" is the "love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings."  The word was not at all used in early Greek editions of the New Testament, which favored agape, a less-common Greek word.

4) Christianity is not opposed to eros, only to an irrational, intoxicating, destructive, and dehumanizing form of it.

5) Human beings are created both body and soul.  To favor one of the other is to render the person incomplete.  Eros viewed purely as sex reduces humanity to a view of the body as commodity.

6) The change in usage of the word for love within Song of Songs gives a view of love as the result of maturation and growth, as a sacrificing love and not as a state of happiness.

7) Philosophers and theologians who strive to create a distinction and antithesis between eros and agape are wrong.

8) I'll just quote the entire paragraph:

We have thus come to an initial, albeit still somewhat generic response to the two questions raised earlier. Fundamentally, "love" is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love. And we have also seen, synthetically, that biblical faith does not set up a parallel universe, or one opposed to that primordial human phenomenon which is love, but rather accepts the whole man; it intervenes in his search for love in order to purify it and to reveal new dimensions of it. This newness of biblical faith is shown chiefly in two elements which deserve to be highlighted: the image of God and the image of man.

This seems like a natural break for discussion.

People in the know predicted that Benedict's papacy would be one of steadfast orthodoxy rigorously stated (as opposed to his predecessor, who was more of a mystic) without being the hammer pounding on liberals that conservatives hoped for.  

It is the nature of theologians to first define their concepts before discussing them.  This leads to a tendency to sometimes commit a straw man fallacy. (See for example, some attacks on feminism.  The feminism they define is one worthy of disdain, but also one not espoused by very many people who consider themselves feminists.)  So far, I find the definitions of agape and eros reasonable.

I do find his conception of eros interesting.  I've never been one to believe in the truncated movie version of love at first sight.  If I want to watch a romance, I much prefer two people gradually falling in love before the realization hits them over the head with a hammer; falling madly and instantly in love always seemed unrealistic to me, perhaps because my heart could never work that way.

I also find his perspective of the commoditizing nature of sex to be interesting.  I can't help but be reminded of the Marxist view of capitalism as a dehumanizing and alienating force by way of a commodity fetish that separates a worker from his labor.

As a progressive, I support sexual freedom.  As a Catholic, I understand that some people make poor choices with that freedom in the same way that some people use the freedom of the ballot box to vote Republican.  I've always been a critic of the moral underpinnings of libertarianism despite finding some convergence of goals.  I find a linkage between the hedonism of people who say "it's my body and I'll do what I want" with regards to sex and people who say "it's my money and I'll do what I want" if they buy gas-guzzling SUVs and other assorted sins of conspicuous consumption.

When people complain about the Democratic Party's failure to connect morally with the general populace, it's not a failure to mention Jesus in some effete, Kerry-esque namby-pamby speeches, but a failure to give a sense that there are some things are clearly wrong even if they should be tolerated according to the progressive value of tolerance, a failure to give a sense that something is clearly wrong unless a Republican is attached to its advocacy.

But I digress from my "hedonism is bad and we should say so" rant.

At this point, Benedict has said that there are many possible components to love, but none that totally sum up the nature and experience of love at its fullest.  Coming next is a sense of what Benedict considers to be a fully mature love.

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