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Bonhoeffer and the Theology of Romantic Love

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is an undisputed classic on the concept of Christian community.  Along with The Rule of Benedict and other similar texts on communal Christian life, Life Together provides an incisive and subversive presence in Christian literature on the church and community.  Personally, I have always found two of Bonhoeffer’s emphases in Life Together most insightful.  One is his discussion of confession and the Lord’s Supper in his final chapter.  The other is his contrastive discussion of what Bonhoeffer calls “spiritual” love and “self-centered” or “emotional” love.  Now, as the editors of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Series relate clearly in the editorial notes, Bonhoeffer does not mean by this that genuine love stemming from the work of Christ lacks feeling or passion, nor does he imply that the base love which he is critiquing is something easily identified as such.  Bonhoeffer borrows Paul’s notion of “spiritual” and “carnal” (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1ff) to describe, in as stark a manner as possible, the different sorts of human communion that can be enacted in the world.  There are essentially two forms of communion that are possible, one is direct, immediate relationship with another person, resulting in a fusion between the self and the other.  The second possibility is communion with the other through Christ, who stands between the self and the other as mediator, denying any possibility of immediacy, domination, or fusion of the self and the other.

Bonhoeffer’s descriptions of the self-centered, dark, and ingnominious nature of natural love corresponds roughly to what people commonly think of as eros.  It is the desire to possess another, to absorb the other into oneself.  “In  the self-centered community there exists a profound, elemental emotional desire for community, for immediate contact with other human souls, just as in the flesh there is a yearning from immediate union with other flesh.  This desire of the human soul seeks the complete intimate fusion of I and You, whether this occurs in the union of love or — what from this self-centered perspective is after all the same thing — in forcing the other into one’s own sphere of power and influence.”

This sort of dominating, possessive love is decried by Bonhoeffer as predatory on genuine Christian love and community.  In the Christian community our communion with one another can never be an expression of the extension of ourself into the other, but rather of receiving the other as gift insofar as Christ sees fit to gift us with one another amidst the concreteness and difficulty of life under the Word of God.  “Because Christ stands between me and an other, I must not long for unmediated community with that person.  As only Christ was able to speak to me in such a way that I was helped, so others too can only be helped by Christ alone.  However, this means that I must release others from all my attempts to control, coerce, and dominate them with my love.  In their freedom from me, other persons want to be loved for who they are, as those for whom Christ became a human being, died, and rose again, as those from whom Christ won the forgiveness of sins and prepared eternal life.”

Bonhoeffer goes on to argue as follows, “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.  That is why self-centered love seeks direct contact with other persons.  It loves them, not as free persons, but as those whom it binds to itself.  It wants to do everything it can to win and conquer; it puts pressure on the other person.  It desires to irresistible, to dominate.  Self-centered love does not think much of truth.  It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the person loved.  Emotional, self-centered love desires other persons, their company.  It wants them to return its love, but it does not serve them.  On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving.”

While some might want to argue against Bonhoeffer that there seems to be a dichotomy between eros and agape in his descriptions, one certainly cannot deny that his diagnosis rightly indicts the destructive and horrific nature of misdirected desire in human life.  As Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux stressed in their writings, the problem of human love involves its misdirection to wrong ends.  Our passions, rather than being ordered to the good through the love of God are directed wrongly and as such lead to sin, death, domination, and suffering.  Moreover, in our sex-obsessed culture in the West, this indictment of the all-consuming eroticization of the self is needed more than ever.

What Bonhoeffer describes as self-centered love in Life Together is strikingly exact as a description of Western attitudes towards romance, love, sex, and personal fulfillment.  The longing to be completed through immediate contact with another is the reigning mythos of romance in our age.  It is the object of voracious, often violent pursuit at all costs, and as Bonhoeffer points out, “Emotional, self-centered love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community.”  The hallmark of the love of our age is that we cannot bear to see it fail (or rather, not succeed in the way we want).  ‘Love conquers all’ has become a sentimental maxim that really just means no one should ever break up with me.  The kind of love that animates our romantic imaginations today, as Bonhoeffer says, “is by its very nature desire, desire for self-centered community.  As long as it can possibly satisfy this desire, it will not give it up, even for the sake of truth, even for the sake of genuine love for others.”  This describes how I have gone after romance in my life if anything does.  And I suspect that I’m not alone in this.

Certainly Bonhoeffer did not intend to write a treatise on romantic love for twenty-first century Christians who still happen to be single and think that marriage is going to fulfill them somehow.  However, in an age where our longings for friendship and intimacy are ciphered through the ubiquitous notion of romantic self-fulfillment, Bonhoeffer’s critique has a great deal to offer in smashing some key idols that plague us.  The fact is that in our romantic imaginations we seem to remain disturbingly trapped in the zeitgeist of our age, hoping that by journeying deeper into the abyss of our selfishness we will somehow find the community that we long for with the other.  As Bonhoeffer points out however, the only way to find such true communion is the release of the other from our longings for possession and domination.  For the Christian, true love, and indeed true romantic love, must take the shape of kenotically making space for the freedom of the other, rather than seeking to captivate and secure them in relationship to oneself.

And this is truly the challenge, for releasing the other into freedom, not demanding their reciprocation of your service and care is to place oneself in a posture of radical vulnerability.  To love without seeking to possess is to live precariously.  Such a mode of living cannot guarantee the outcome longed for.  Of course, living by possession and domination cannot guarantee it either, though somehow we are easily seduced into thinking it can.  But the truth is that all our strategies for control cannot secure our longings in any lasting way.  These strategies and efforts are the heavy yoke of slavery and death.  The vulnerable way of agape, of cruciform, kenotic love cannot promise the sort of fulfillment we often long for, just as the cross cannot guarantee the resurrection.  However, such an ethic of self-dispossession is the only way for us to live in a manner that is open to receiving the divine gifts of communion that we have tasted in Christ.  

Bonhoeffer is right in his call away from the libidinal drive towards self-at-the-expense-of-the-other.  For those of us caught in a culture of idolatrous romance and false idealizations of relational fulfillment, the call to see the crucified and resurrected Christ standing between oneself and the other is supremely necessary.  If we learn to see anew, in this Christic manner, we will indeed be poised for a new sexual revolution — thought of course, such a revolution would be one of freedom rather than the solipsistic slavery that is omnipresent in our culture.  The world of Sex and the City needs to be invaded by Finkenwalde.  But the line between Carrie Bradshaw and Dietrich Bonhoeffer runs through each one of our hearts.  And that is why other elements of Bonhoeffer’s account in Life Together are deeply relevant to our age, chiefly prayer and confession.

For it is in confession and prayer one to another that the darkness of our lives and inclinations are exposed to the light of the gospel, bringing us into freedom.  And, living as we now do in the sphere of freedom, we are able to love one another without the drive toward possessiveness remaining sovereign.  Lives that eschew the lust for domination that is encoded within the discourse of romantic love today are indeed possible.  And it is only in such lives in which all our loves and longings are reconfigured by the gospel that we can find true freedom from the powers that enslave us in regard to sexuality and romance.

13 Comments

  1. Christopher Greene wrote:

    Excellent Halden. Time to go to confession.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 4:29 am | Permalink
  2. Brilliant Halden. The automatically generated related post that your blog points toward tells the same story from a sadder angle. Supermodel Ruslana Korshunova committed suicide. Leading up to her death she wrote pages of sorrowful prose on her website that love “blinds,” “sets souls afire,” and “is always the answer”. She wrote (presumably about a lost significant other) “It hurts, as if someone took a part of me, tore it out, mercilessly stomped all over and threw it out.”

    misconstrued love is truly tearing our culture apart.

    Kyrie Eleison.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 5:44 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Wow, I didn’t notice that. What a sad irony. She was right, everyone was taking parts of her, tearing them out and throwing them away. Welcome to the desert of the libido dominandi.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 8:39 am | Permalink
  4. Geoff wrote:

    What a useful piece. The discussion about misdirected ends is something that every great devotional writer has sought to establish in writing. I profited from finding it in this context.

    Also, Bonhoeffer’s concept of Christ as the mediator for all our relationships really helped me when I lost an interim ministry position to a more qualified fellow in a large denomination. I had to learn to view things in a way that centers on Jesus, not my fulfillment. Applying this to sexuality makes perfect sense. Thanks for this, you’re not alone in your experience of seeking romance in a cut-throat, destructive manner but I you’re also not alone in finding counsel in Life Together.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  5. Chris Green wrote:

    Halden,

    But is it so easy to separate between “gift love” and “need love”? Certainly, the kind of “love” Ruslana Korshanova describes is demonical, but what of the love b/w David and Jonathan, whose “hearts” were “knit together,” or that eroticism describe in Canticles, where the lover speaks of “eating” his beloved, and one speaks of belonging to the other: “I am my beloved,” etc?

    Further, I think Bonhoeffer’s critique of eros differs from Augustine’s and Bernard’s. Though this admittedly is something of an oversimplification, these latter critiqued eros because of what it did to the soul of the “lover,” whereas Bonhoeffer is concerned more with what it does to the “beloved.” Their concerns were born of desire to be a properly-ordered self. Bonhoeffer’s concern is for the vitality and health of Christian community. In his Four Loves Lewis (rightly) critiques Augustine on this very score.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  6. Lucy wrote:

    “We [moderns] both slumber in illusions about sexual life and rush blindly after it. The stylishly acted but unintentionally very sad television series Sex and the City was received by an entire American generation as their own story. Yet surely the only appropriate reaction to the doings of these young women was a mixture of the impulse to shake them into some awareness of their lives’ reality, and sheer pity.” Robert Jenson, Song of Songs Commentary, p. 40.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Love the Jenson quote, Lucy! I must have missed his Sex and the City reference. Splendid stuff.

    Chris, I agree that making that distinction is hard, as I tried to hint at in the post. However, I think it is clear that in a great majority of our experience we are able to make that distinction with relative clarity. A lot of the time I just am trying to possess the other out of my own desire for fulfillment and satiation. Gift love is the goal and fulfillment of the impulses of our longings which come to be expressed as the sort of self-centered love that Bonhoeffer critiques. Certainly this does not exclude eros, but rather reconfigures it in the shape of gift and reception. Ultimately I don’t think Bonhoeffer’s argument should be taken as one against eros as such (like Nygren’s for example), but rather as a critique of its perversion in the world under false guises.

    In other words, swearing off the eros of Sex and the City is a far cry from rejecting eros in its genuine agapeic form. Unpacking such issues, would of course take quite a bit more discussion and writing.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Also, Chris I think that the description of David and Jonathan is a perfect example of the kind of non-possessive, releasing love that Bonhoeffer describes. Jonathan gives David his sword, his bow, and his cloak, and willingly and without bitterness recognizes that his hereditary kingdom has been given by God to David.

    Bonhoeffer’s “spiritual love” need not signify a lack of intimacy, connection, or affection, rather the difference is dispositional. In disordered eros, the other is loved out of the longing to possess and absorb the other to complete the self. In authentic Christian love, the other is loved for the sake of Christ who transfigures the self and the other into persons who willingly give themselves to one another in Christ and for his sake.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  9. adamsteward wrote:

    Thanks for this post, and for your other great insights in our conversations on this topic.

    I feel so much affinity with this critique of modern love. Especially this:

    The fact is that in our romantic imaginations we seem to remain disturbingly trapped in the zeitgeist of our age, hoping that by journeying deeper into the abyss of our selfishness we will somehow find the community that we long for with the other.

    I’m still lost for a positive account of trying to go about love or dating. I’ll kick your ass if you ever write a guide to dating (actually, I would probably put it in the wall of shame), but seriously, dating without selfishness would be so very bewildering and difficult. Maybe rightly so. So much of how dating works is based on cultural forms, contextualizing ourselves within familiar types from stories we know. But when our shared cultural story is Sex and the City, what do we draw on to try to make some sense of “dating”?

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    I think we draw on our ecclesial communities and do a bunch of things that are really wierd and awkward. Things like intentionally submitting to disciplines under the leadership of others in the church about the course of a romantic relationship, being extremely public with such relationships in the church, thus inviting other people to be a part of whatever life might develop therein, and perhaps most importantly, to make the activities we engage in in the course of dating to be largely about service to others – and to view that as part of the relationship.

    I also think that its really important to be very clear about it being ok for relationships not to “work out”. I think in some ways we have to view dating with as little seriousness as possible, in the sense that we need to rob it of the sort of absolute status is claims and the sort of desperation it breeds. Getting to know another person in a romantic setting through long-term social interaction is certainly the creation of the post-Victorian West, and as such it will always be something of a problematic animal for Christians to engage. However, I think we can engage it, and shame the powers in doing so, by refusing to allow ourselves to get swept up in the desperation and lust that we so easily unleash in those settings. But doing so will just take a hell of a lot of work, confession, transparency, and rigorous attention to making sure things don’t get left on autopilot. Because as soon as our way of being in romance goes into autopilot we run into the fucking mountain pretty fast. At least I do.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    One other thing, the reason that dating without selfishness would be so bewildering and difficult lies in the fact that dating is generally so imbued with notions of striving for “success” (whether that be measured by scoring or by scoring a wife) through calculation and control that to even open oneself up to pursing a romance that holds on lightly, if you will, is just downright terrifying for most people. We are captivated by this idea that if we do not securely possess the heart of the other, we will undoubtedly lose that person to someone more assertive than ourselves.

    For us to pursue romance unselfishly we need to be so grasped by the meaningfulness of participation in God’s kingdom that we are free from the desire to fulfill ourselves through romance and sex. Of course THAT is no easy matter and requires commitment to all sorts of disciplines and practices before, during, and after romance. Most notably it brings us back to prayer and confession, I think.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  12. adamsteward wrote:

    So I suspected.

    It seems to me that there should be a fine line between being motivated by trying to convince a someone to like you and trying to not act like a goon (I won’t let on that either of us are capable of being “smooth”). The former should be ruled out, but the latter, I think, can be motivated by love for the other, believing she deserves it. I think, if one were capable of it in the first place, one could be charming in the service of the other.

    I like the idea of making dating public.

    Awkwardness is something we have to accept if were going to attempt faithfulness in anything, of course. But I still think there are problems with dispensing wholesale with the Victorian cultural form of dating. Namely that it would be extremely difficult to make any sense of what is going on, what certain gestures or lengths of phone calls, etc. even mean without a typology to appeal to. Awkwardness is something we have to accept if were going to attempt faithfulness in anything, of course.

    Wednesday, July 9, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I think dispensing with the apparatus of dating as a whole is not likely to be a possibility for most of us. That’s why I think that making it awkward at various interstices is important. At key points our innate interpretive typologies can be reimagined if we give ourselves to such reimagination. Of course this presupposes a few things. Most centrally that the people dating are of the same mind about what they are trying to do/be and secondly that the church or churches of which the couple is a part are actively participating in informing the course of the relationship for the sake of each person’s discipleship.

    Wednesday, July 9, 2008 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] What Every Single Christian Needs To Hear Filed under: Holiness, Idolatry, Meta, Metanoia, Personal, Prayer, Sexuality, Sin, The Cross, Truth — hilaron @ 6:50 pm Certainly Bonhoeffer did not intend to write a treatise on romantic love for twenty-first century Christians who still happen to be single and think that marriage is going to fulfill them somehow.  However, in an age where our longings for friendship and intimacy are ciphered through the ubiquitous notion of romantic self-fulfillment, Bonhoeffer’s critique has a great deal to offer in smashing some key idols that plague us. [...] These strategies and efforts are the heavy yoke of slavery and death.  The vulnerable way of agape, of cruciform, kenotic love cannot promise the sort of fulfillment we often long for, just as the cross cannot guarantee the resurrection.  However, such an ethic of self-dispossession is the only way for us to live in a manner that is open to receiving the divine gifts of communion that we have tasted in Christ. (Halden, Bonhoeffer and the Theology of Romantic Love) [...]

  2. Sivin Kit’s Garden » Random Links 269 on Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 1:11 am

    [...] Bonhoeffer and the Theology of Romantic Love [...]

  3. Two Important Theo-blogical Discussions « Theology Forum on Monday, July 14, 2008 at 3:03 am

    [...] Blog Conference which focuses on Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. Moreover, he has reflected on Bonhoeffer’s theology of romantic love and he points out the apocalyptic shape of Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought which begins with [...]

  4. [...] might also read Halden’s treatment of Bonhoeffer’s “theology of romantic love” and Ben’s application of that [...]

  5. Halden does it again « PeaceableZealot on Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    [...] July 8, 2008 by Stephen I will be getting back to posting something of significance very soon, but I wanted to point you all to a stunningly brilliant post by Halden over at Inhabitatio Dei. Bonhoeffer and the Theology of Romantic Love [...]

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