NEW YORK, February 23, 2013 ― Our world has many cultures, and history has seen many more come and go. From among all the elements that define, reflect, and drive culture, the way we go about love and marriage may be the crown jewel of them all.
The celebrated patterns of love and marriage that dominate in “the West,” and increasingly find expression in ever more world cultures go something like this – you meet someone who “captures your heart,” you “fall” in love, you gradually introduce your relationship to friends, family, and close relations, and if the stars align, perhaps you marry. Those who are guided by religious or moral ideals may reserve the full celebration of unbound sexual intimacy until after marriage.
This pattern for seeking conjugal joy and happiness is considered to have evolved starting in Europe in the late 1800s. It is a young pattern indeed. It has come to be known as romantic love, as opposed to the many other types of love that naturally dwell within us, for example the love child feels for her parents, or the love ten-year-old Sally feels for her puppy.
The birth and unfolding of romantic love in human life has affected the world so radically and monumentally that C.S. Lewis, one of history’s most famous Christians and authors, says that the invention of romantic love was far more momentous and more broadly influential for the development of the West than the Protestant Reformation!
Lewis compares the Reformation to a ripple on the vast ocean of romantic love.
Many now have come to think that romantic love is the central fire of human happiness.
Romantic love is seen as elevating society up from marriages of political or economic convenience, especially arranged marriages. But its evolution and development is not only in tension with these other styles and traditions, but also a battle with itself. Its more fascinating tensions lie with its own inner drive and purpose.
Romantic love aspires to forms so elevated and pure as to scorn mere bodily, erotic, sexual love. It prides itself on being “above” biological love that is satisfied by pornography or by a groping interaction with another human being.
Michael Novak in First Things further highlights the paradox. The natural goal of romantic love is to transform desire into limitless aspiration, into something, which does not serve, in fact operates against, biological ends. In this paradox we may find ourselves more as fools, than as valiant lovers full of true affection and devotion to a soul-mate, not like Udadiah who sings,
As I wrap my arms around you
I press your softness tight
Great passion fills my inner being
I’m captured in your embrace
Your eyes control my very soul
Instead we may be closer to being a goofy soul dreamily committed to self-defeat, so in love with being in love that we ever block its consummation.
Are there many so saddled with an addiction to being in love that we constantly prevent it from ever truly bearing fruit? Romantic love loves the feeling of never being satisfied, of being always caught up in the longing, of dwelling in the sweetness of desire. Its dream is at once its enemy.
When realized too quickly in physical consummation, romance flees, and we find ourselves dealing with clothing in disarray, a mess to clean up, bad breath, hair all disheveled, a meal to fix, its mess then to clean, and always close at hand … bills then to pay.
This arising of romantic love in recent times has unleashed a force of limitless wonder in our world. But we have failed miserably to integrate this wonder into the rest of life in profound, creative, and deliberate ways.
Beyond this wonderful experience of romantic love is the rest of life that happens after two become one. A couple meets the ongoing, complex, multiform, maturing flow of life, filled with limitless potential, not only for ourselves but for those around us. This fullness of life ongoing, has not been wed imaginatively to the thrill, glory, and wonder we feel through romantic love. They are awkwardly hammered on to each other.
We have not been diligent and passionate to see how the captivating powers of romantic love can inform and integrated itself into all parts of life, so that they too may soar in like wonder.
For now, this sweet young development in history collides bluntly with the rest of life including even with marriage to which it is most closely tied. All the rest and related parts of life remain stuck in prior conventions, in old religious thought, old moral conventions, old gender relations, and old versions of marriage, being legal, political, and economic as they always have been.
By experiencing the magnificent and exhilarating throes of romantic love, we are given a glimpse into how all of life can feel.
For now though, that gift lays struggling, mired in the muddy grip of archaic conventions. These unreformed conventions weigh down true love, trying to be dragged skyward on true love’s coat tails, but without themselves breaking through in their own rebirth, and new and daring horizons.
Social and political realities of life have not caught up. They have not been vigorously and creatively thought through and transformed in their own right.
As a result, we live in a world on the threshold freedom, tasting new, elevated, sweet feelings. But the world remains corrupt and unconnected to this gift. Instead of adding more oneness, we find all around us more brokenness, broken love and broken homes, broken cities, and broken lands.
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