Thursday, April 13, 2006

Song of Songs (5): the Pope and the Song

Given that Benedict XVI and I are such chums, it's not surprising that he too should have been giving the Song some thought in recent months. In his first papal encyclical, the Pope explores the idea of God's love. In the process, he deals with the question of the relationship between eros (which he variously defines as 'worldly', 'possessive' or 'ascending' love) and agape ('love grounded in... faith', 'oblative' or 'descending' love). The Pope argues strongly that the biblical tradition affirms the value of eros, but he condemns any use of sex that demeans the body or turns it into just another product to be consumed. Eros has the potential to lead men and women to an unselfish love, towards 'the Divine' - but only through 'a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing'. And this is where he turns his attention to the Song:

"Concretely, what does this path of ascent and purification entail? How might love be experienced so that it can fully realize its human and divine promise? Here we can find a first, important indication in the Song of Songs, an Old Testament book well known to the mystics. According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love. In this context it is highly instructive to note that in the course of the book two different Hebrew words are used to indicate “love”. First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. This comes to be replaced by the word ahabĂ , which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which, as we have seen, becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice."

This is a thoughtful attempt to give eros an honoured place in Christian theology and experience. Two of the many responses to the encyclical, one positive from the theologian John Milbank, another less so from an Anglican priest here in Melbourne, suggest that the church is ready to hear a lot more discussion about the rightful place of eros.


Cynthia Nielsen said...

Great post! I also enjoyed reading Milbank's response.


W. said...

Good summary of the relationship of eros and agape. I like how it leads to the other, how love is not static nor merely an emotion or a feeling: it is an action, a dynamism towards concern and action for an "other."

JoBloggs said...

Thanks for your comments. I think the Pope makes a number of really profound points here, and my post doesn't do the encyclical justice. It is also very accessible for a non-theologically trained reader like myself!