Love in a Postmodern Age
I asked my five-year-old son to explain love using a story. When he didn't understand the question, I told him to go in his room and pick out a book for me that was about love. He returned empty handed with a big smile. “It was a trick question, wasn't it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You were tricking me. They’re all about love.” We went back to his room where he handed me one book after another.
“This boy loves his dog, this mama cat loved her kittens, I love the earth (he had handed me a science book), Jesus loves me (a Child’s Bible).”
Jane Austen once said there are as many types of love as there are moments in time. As Christians, we define love, true love, as a participation in the loving relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We quote the first letter of John: “God is love!” We also point to the reality of sin, recognizing that love can be separated from God, bringing shame and painful isolation. True love is everlasting, sustaining, and honored in commitment and covenant.
In our postmodern world, students are constantly bombarded with the message that love is the end-all-be-all of life; but it’s a skewed perspective on love. When we separation love from God, we discover that pleasure, intensity, and radical giving and receiving leaves us feeling unfulfilled. We become bored, waiting impatiently through life, insatiable for more pleasure, more intensity, and more radical experiences.
Our role is to help kids learn a Cristocentric approach to love, founded on biblical principles and using the trinitarian nature of God as a model.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:19)
Four high school teens were driving around the strip malls and businesses near the airport, soliciting ads for their high school musical. They approached a business front marked “Dry Cleaning” and tried the front door. Finding it locked, they rang the bell. An oriental woman answered; behind her two young oriental girls peered out. The kids explained their business and were promptly sent on their way.
“I remember now,” one of the boys said on the drive to the next store front. “My brother told me the dry cleaning place is actually a house of prostitutes.”
Three of them laughed uproariously at the thought of a brothel ad in the program for “The Sound of Music.”
A fourth student painfully looked back toward the house. Later, over sundaes, she told them what she knew about child prostitution and the sex trade of children. Commercial sexual exploitation of children is a multi-billion dollar industry drawing one million children worldwide. Most of the children are ages 13 to 18, although some younger than five have been documented. One study found 60 to 70 percent of child prostitutes in Thailand were HIV positive. Poverty, illiteracy, and abuse define their much of lives.
The girls they saw were taken to prayer. News of them went to parents, and finally to police, who admitted frustration that locations would simply move and the girls would be deported back home where little resources were available to provide an alternate life.
Agape. We’re called by God to love our neighbor. A love that’s spiritual (God’s Spirit in us) and selfless. A love revealed by Jesus. A love that acknowledges the distinct reality of what is other than us, and loves it for its sake, not our own. It’s the love of the Good Samaritan and the Ancient Mariner blessing creation unaware. It’s denied when the dignity of life is denied.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
They spent hours together walking the park at the school picnic. He poured his heart out about the pain in his life, a mother who might move, his best friend and girlfriend now in a relationship, and a failing grade in biology. She listened and understood, returning home that night sure a true friendship had begun. The next day in school he didn’t even return a hello.
Postmodern reality includes a painful search to find others who respond as we believe they should. A few become part of a tribe, a group of friends who live by a code of confidentiality and reciprocal kindness. Some find a companion to share life’s sorrows and joys. Many struggle with how to respond to their desires for connection, particularly in a culture that models almost exclusively just the sexual expression of that desire.
Men, with rooms filled with trophies and certificates, often form friendships with teammates, coworkers, and other men equal in ability and achievement. Women, with rooms filled with photos and memories, often form friendships based on the level of emotional confidentiality they can share. But each friendship is unique, growing through a gradual unfolding of self-revelation, and seasoned by culture and time.
Postmodern seekers long for Koinonia, fellowship in community, a relationship with others who (try, yet sometimes fail to) share a common morality of what relationships and friendships mean. We desire to share with others a love of God and mission in the world. We tolerate our differences while sharing in a life of the Spirit. Some of us battle being too large and not being able to name the people with whom we worship. When we form small groups to build community, we can become exclusive and fail in our mission to reach out to the outcast. Only in opening ourselves to the movements of the Holy Spirit can we truly share a Philia love in our midst.
“…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” (John 17:21)
Eros, again returning to ancient Greek, is desire, a power that inclines us to pursue the whole, which we are not. It’s a hunger within us for self-completion in the desired or loved object. While it can be expressed in sexual desire, that’s not the only expression of Eros.
Some Christian writers in history falsely separated Eros and Agape. They described God’s love for us as wholly selfless—God is unchanged whether or not we return it…that part is true. God doesn’t need us to be complete. Human love, on the other hand, always includes a selfish element (even a martyr awaits a heavenly reward). We are incomplete without God. We’re created for community. It’s only when we make a gift of ourselves to another that we come to understand who we are.
Other Christian writers start with God’s love for the Son, the Son’s love for the Father, and the loving relationship of the three persons of the Trinity. With this starting point, God’s love is not selfless, but mutual. In his last supper discourses, Jesus describes his mission of love; “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). It is male and female together (Genesis 1:27), humans in a loving relationship, which are the image of God. Eros is a desire to share in the loving relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. This desire for mutuality impels us to work for justice, solidarity, and a civilization of love, which is indicative of the postmodrn mindset.
One of our teen leaders approached me during an out-of-town conference. She was disillusioned and frustrated. The year before, she’d spent three weeks in the third world on a mission trip. She’d become dramatically aware of the difference even a small amount of money can make in the future of one child, one family, and one village. Her friends were filling conference time with shopping—spending hundreds of dollars on clothes and shoes and music. She felt their desire to consume material goods was blinding them to any benefits of the conference.
The advertising industry has learned to tap into Eros. They profit when people believe they’ll find self-completion or some sense of happiness when their products are used. Much of this manipulation involves the sexual element of Eros.
When this teen leader returned from the third world, she wanted to stay connected with the poor of the world. This desire compelled her to use her money to help them share in good health, a full stomach, and the joys of a God-inspired life. The teens who were shopping wanted a connection to their peers and their community. Both experiences could be described as the wings of Eros lifting them to share in the loving relationship of the Trinity. But Eros only lifts us so high. Prayer, commitment, and living in God’s covenant can carry us into intimate unity with God. Separated from God, Eros becomes twisted, a justification to overpower and subjugate others, or a rationalization to pursue only selfish goals.
“Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine…” (Song of Songs 1:2)
Pope John Paul II has described the ecstasy experienced in the sexual union of a husband and wife as a foretaste of the ecstasy we’ll experience when united with God in eternity. The sexual aspect of love is often given the name Venus. When placed in the context of the love of the Trinity, sexual love becomes ordered. For a Christian, commandment and covenant structure how our sexuality is to be expressed in all our loving relationships.
A sixteen-year-old recently shared: “We were sitting in the movies together, our first date. We had gone to see Matrix Reloaded. Part way through the movie his hand reached out and embraced mine. I was thinking, ‘how romantic’ when Neo and Trinity, the two main characters, left the dance floor and began a nine-minute, very explicit sexual encounter. I didn’t want to seem a prude, but as he held my hand and the scene continued, I started to feel so embarrassed.”
In our postmodern world, the ideal of love is rejected by many; and it’s so very hard to live by, even for Christians. Many people jump into a sexual relationship assuming shared values, then later find that they define a loving relationship very differently from their partners. Others find it impossible to be faithful, giving way to the barrage of sexuality divorced from spirituality.
Love in a postmodern world requires patience and dialogue. Each song, movie, television show, and advertisement is an opportunity to introduce the Triune God. Every discussion of friendship, dating, and love becomes an opportunity to invite the postmodern world to share in the loving relationship with God.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.