Happy Valentine’s Day! There are a lot of takes on love, and your worldview will strongly dictate your perspective on this universal human experience. How should we view, give, and receive it? Below, Contributor R. R. Reno shares his thoughts on love and explains our tendency to love what he calls “strong and weak gods.”
We’re Made to Love
We’re made for love and love seeks to unite itself with that which it loves. So, love always seeks something outside of the self. And so my metaphor of gods are the objects of our love. And they can be—I think in one of my books, I identify what I call the hearth gods of our time and they’re health, wealth and pleasure. And they’re weak. One of the great things about polytheism is what you can play one god off against the other. You can go to the gym in the morning, work your 10-hour day at the law firm and go out to the wine bar in the evening and you’ve served health, wealth and pleasure.
But those things, although they can have a powerful grip on people’s lives, they’re not strong in the sense that I see. Whether it’s patriotic loyalty—or truth is a strong god, justice is a strong god—and that these things really galvanize us and often evoke from us great sacrifice as we serve and honor that love, the thing that we love. And so, as I see in our time, part of what is the dissatisfaction that people feel is that they’re not given these strong gods, the option of strong gods. And they default to these weak ones that ultimately provide very little in the way of satisfaction.
What’s Worthy of Our Love?
If we could just break through to this utopia, and also it’s a kind of, there’s some reason to it, right? If nothing is worth fighting for, then nobody will fight. If nothing is worth judging others about then no one will be judged. If there’s nothing worth sacrificing for, then no one will have to make sacrifices. And so there is a kind of gospel here, a gospel of peace, a gospel of self-acceptance, a gospel of not having to make sacrifices. But as I said before, we’re just not made as human beings for living that way. We are made for love. And so we want to actually organize our lives around things that are worth sacrificing for, and that the strong gods is a metaphor for the things that actually offer themselves as worthy of our sacrifice. Nobody is going to die for diversity, right? But they certainly might die to protect their children.
I mean, the parental love for a child is extremely powerful, or they might die to protect their spouse from being attacked or they’ll die for their country. And obviously, we have the great tradition of Christians who die for their faith. And so we are living in a kind of cultural atmosphere where we’re denied these more powerful loves. And this is kind of underneath the political debates about immigration policy or economic policy or the Iraq war and all those things. Underneath that is I think the seething kind of unease that people have as they’re trying to reach—they want to be given things, or rallied around things that are worthy of their love.
Now, this is a very dangerous situation. And so critics of populism are not mistaken to see this as a very unstable moment. And part of the argument that I make is that if we do not give people strong gods, loves that are noble and worthy of sacrifice, they’re going to latch on to more debasing loves. And I see identity politics, for instance, as example of that. I mean, at least I can be loyal to my race, or I can be loyal to my sexual orientation or whatever it might be. And so this does appeal to people’s desire to have community, to be loyal, to be in solidarity, but it strikes me as it’s kind of rooted in DNA. And that’s, to me, the blood and soil kind of solidarity that we need to avoid—not a more noble one based in ideals and the truths that we share.
The Ladder of Love
There’s a Tower of Babel aspect in our time. I mean, one of the curses of the modern era is our tendency towards utopianism. So what that does is it secularizes the scatological promise of fulfillment and ultimately the consummation of all things in Christ when He returns in glory. So we secularized that and turned that into a political project. And that has, I think, been one of the curses of the modern era and a consequence of secularization, by the way. It’s not that it gets rid of religion, but rather it makes politics often into a religion.
And I think one of the contributions that Christians can and should make to the future of American civic life is to keep the secular, secular. And if you recognized that God is your final end, and that God is the source of our ultimate final happiness, you’re not going to make an idol out of some political candidate or some policy or what have you. And I think that this is something that we desperately need in our time. It’s a great paradox. You would think that an unbelieving population would be… And that was the promise of the open society. If we just take the temperature down, people will be at peace with each other, because they won’t want too much.
And as I say, nothing’s worth fighting for, no one will fight. But we were just not made that way. And so we’re made to, we’re created to give ourselves, and this is, John Paul II often said this, we were created to give ourselves a way in love. And so we’re going to find a way to do this whether we want to or not. And so the ultimate endpoint of the open society project I think is actually to become a factory of idols that bewitch people and they do terrible things to each other in service to these idols. And so it’s my hope that we can restore a proper order of love in our society. Because it works as a general atmosphere, love of your family, those who are near to you, your fellow citizens, and then love of God. There’s a ladder of love, so to speak, that we climb up and also that we descend down from as well, move up and down the ladder of love.
And I think a lot of church leaders and so forth recognize that it’s not the case that love, I mean, obviously people can make an idol of the family and certainly people can make an idol of the nation, but an atmosphere of love and devotion to limited goods that are genuine goods actually prepares the heart for the highest love, which is love of God.
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