Book Review: The Four Loves

My anticipated involvement with my church polity’s effort to reach young adults is at this point focused on providing book reviews.  On a monthly basis they’ll publish a book review for some book that should or is supposed to be appealing to young adults, as determined hopefully by the young adults themselves, but probably with some input from market research as well. 

The stated goal of the web site where these reviews and other sorts of tidbits will be published is twofold – to encourage young adults to participate actively in congregational life, and to prepare and equip congregations in regards to how to integrate this missing demographic into active congregational life.  Those are pretty big goals for a denomination that, like others, is greying and shrinking.  But it’s a good goal.  Perhaps part of the reason that young adults are noticeably absent from our congregations is that they haven’t been shown how they can – or should – participate in them. 

So I’ll be tweaking my book reviews a little bit, with these intended goals in mind.  This is a fair approach, since the idea that a book exists in a vacuum without some sort of practical application – particularly books with theological topics or approaches – is rather unrealistic.  The point of writing – and reading – is impact, and impact has repercussions, so to speak.  Impact can change someone’s trajectory. 

It’s with these particular filters that I review C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves.

It’s refreshing to read a theological book that doesn’t make our experience of reality and emotion and life the baseline for reality and actuality.  C.S. Lewis firmly belongs to another age of thought that still expected that our perceptions and experiences ought to be conformed and shaped by God, rather than assuming that our perceptions and experiences are first of all accurate, and second of all proper.  Lewis assumes neither, and in fact assumes that left to our own devices, our experiences and perceptions cannot possibly be either accurate or proper. 

Lewis discusses the four classical forms of friendship, which are somewhat referred to scripturally through four different Greek words alternately used to describe love.  While I’m not convinced that in all instances, the word chosen in the New Testament is meant to imply some far deeper division of love, that’s a matter that Lewis is unconcerned with.  He simply seeks to discuss our four experiences of love – affection, friendship, romantic love, and charity.  These are roughly and occasionally correlated to the Greek terms storge, philia, eros, and agape

Since culturally there is very little emphasis or attention paid to the loves of affection and friendship, I found these very helpful.  Not that I haven’t experienced them, but it gave me a good way of describing them and understanding the sometimes subtle distinctions between the two.  Likewise, agape has no real cultural focus or attention.  But because our culture is so obsessed with eros, this discussion is also helpful.  Useful is Lewis’ careful distinction between the physical aspect of eros (which is what our culture tends to focus on) and the emotional state as a whole. 

I was rather perturbed by Lewis’ reliance on pagan mythology in his treatment of eros, emphasizing the re-enactment of pagan ideas such as the Sky-Father and the Earth-Mother.  I can understand how these would come so readily to his mind based on his education and focus as a professor, but they seem very incongruous within the general Christian context.  The assertion that intimacy is a subconscious re-enactment of this deep myths is very strange.  I would have thought a discussion of the New Testament description of the Church as the bride of Christ would be more helpful, or Paul’s linking of marriage itself to a representation of this more profound relationship between Christ and his Church.

Equally important is Lewis’ consistent emphasis on the distinction between the emotions themselves and their proper experience and expression in submission to the Lord that created and enabled them in the first place.  Lewis firmly places the emotions in the role of tools which are intended by our creator for very specific things – and when we elevate the tools to the position of the tool master, we inevitably run into disaster (hey, that rhymes!).  For Lewis, the loves are not experienced against or in lieu of  God’s love, but are intended to be enjoyed as tools guided and wielded in the wisdom and grace of our creator.

Lewis’ observations and insights are much needed in our day and age.  In a culture obsessed with sexuality and not with the emotional commitments that it was designed to be enjoyed within, all of our love relationships become skewed and twisted.  Why is it that we’re drawn to certain people inexplicably or perhaps even counter-intuitively (affection), and others seem to leap into our lives in sudden and amazing ways (friendship)?  What is the difference between these two forms of love, and why is it that when we attempt to transmute their qualities, things often go awry?  For that matter, why is it that sexuality is discovered to be so empty by some who have attempted to enjoy it without the proper eros love or relationship?  And what is the nature of our instinct to help and be helped by those around us? 

In congregational life (and any other environment where people are around each other in some sort of intense form) these various loves can become confused.  What begins appropriately as friendship can be mistaken for eros.  What one assumes to be affection can be interpreted by another as friendship or even charity.  Feelings are easily hurt whenever we are interacting with someone else. 

Congregational life is often obsessed with the proper experience and enjoyment of eros as within the marital relationship.  And this is certainly a valid concern.  However in my experience, far more attention could be paid to the proper experience and understanding of friendship.  How people conduct themselves when they discover someone else in the congregation that shares some mutual appreciation or understanding.  The importance of avoiding the negative aspects of friendship that turn a common interest or experience into an exclusionary and condescending barrier to others.  The understanding that certain relationships of affection simply arise, and are not calculated efforts to exclude others, or a form of favoritism.  We need to understand that our need to give and to receive are equally valid and healthy and need to find suitable expression within congregational life, or congregational life should provide the background and education for people to utilize this love in their life as a whole.  All manner of hurts and injuries are easily given and received because of misunderstandings of these various forms of love, and particularly in bitterness as people become jealous or feel excluded or neglected.  Cliques can be deadly in congregations, and they seem to run rampant. 

The nature of these loves is to focus on ourselves, or on ourselves and the other person(s) involved to the exclusion or blindness of everyone else.  However, Biblically we’re called to be an inclusive bunch, always welcoming, always open to others.  Not that we won’t have some people that we’re closer to than others.  But we need to be aware that people watch how we conduct ourselves every bit as much as we watch how they conduct themselves.  And Satan is always looking for any excuse to drive a wedge between a group of people, to break off one or two or
twenty from the whole, to drive them in what they think is righteous indignation and disgust from one congregation to another – never committing anywhere, and always finding human nature in all it’s sinful glory regardless of where they go.  If we are wiser about the fact that we will love in different ways, and what the blessings and pitfalls of each of those ways are, we will hopefully be better about guarding the boundaries of our relationships against inappropriate expressions, and better about genuinely welcoming people into our lives and our communities just as our Lord did.  Not because we’re so good on our own, but because our Lord can be good through us. 

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