I made a lot of Kierkegaard’s distinction between emotional love and commanded love in this post and so must now do what everyone must do who draws on Kierkegaard, no matter how ignorantly, which is to ask “Do I really want to do that?” In this case, do I really want to advocate such a bled-dry, passionless, only-because-I-have-to idea of the love we’re to have for each other? Is there a greater virtue or a more faithful discipleship in that direction? And is love for the anonymous next-person-I-see sustainable without passion of some sort? No, it is not, and to attempt it would be a faithful reflection of neither the passionately loving God of the Bible or, for that matter, of Kierkegaard as a whole.
The passion of erotic love can distract from neighbor-love, from real (active) love: if I am in love, that might mean that I am more focused on what is to my benefit than on what benefits the one I love. Still, there is passion in neighbor-love. How we can understand that passion is by beginning with passionate love for God and proceeding from there to love for neighbor — for the next human I encounter whether I mean to or not — which is a natural outcome of love for God.
In this way we proceed from “the first great commandment” to the second, understanding the second as an extension of the first:
An expert in the Law asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ That is the great and first commandment. And the second is similar: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39)
Some Christians of the past portrayed the passion of love for God — so that it would be understood as something quite real in human experience — in terms of erotic love. An example is the brief poem that is the basis of the best-known of the works of John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul, a poem he called in one place “Stanzas of the Soul.”
In this poem a young woman, the “I” of the poem, goes out at night to be with her lover. This was before electricity, when going outside at night, even in a large city, was necessarily entering a darkness darker than most of us today can imagine. Darkness gives safety for sneaking out unseen (“oh, happy chance!” the poem says). The young woman is “kindled in love with yearnings,” and I leave that steamy bit to be translated into modern speech by each reader. The rest of the poem does not stray from the direction it suggests.
The young woman is directed from within, “without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.”
This light guided me more surely than the light of noonday to the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me.
All that she has left at home has been hindering her from love. To reach her lover she needs to enter the darkness of night, which now, in place of everybody left at home — and one can picture mom and dad, teachers, older siblings, and governesses snoozing away — is her guide. To some degree she is like self-centered Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, in her blind-to-all-else devotion to her passion.
But in John’s reading of his own poem, going into the darkness is, in fact, leaving care of self behind. The passion of love brings recklessness and less regard for rules, but this includes not only the rules imposed by others but also the self-protective rules that the young woman has made for herself, or that the soul makes for itself. The opportunity brought by darkness is the chance to stretch out beyond cautious self-regard. In its passion for God the lover, the soul rejoices in freedom from oversight by self-centered concerns, which constantly, like parents and other protectors at home, look after what they take to be the safety and best interests of the soul.
Any degree of freedom from fussing over the safety of my body, psyche, or possessions can be experienced as a joyous opportunity to love God better. The soul gives itself up to what love brings, which is separation from ordinary life, from reliance on the senses, and from self-reliance:
My face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
We are hasty beings nowadays, and I hasten to say how this sort of love for God comes to expression also in neighbor-love. But something, perhaps the place of this poem at the center of John’s two leisurely books on love for God, has to slow me down, to make sure I really get it about passionate love for God. And perhaps the problem is, in fact, my desire to have things figured out, to have a rational account of passion.
But I must always come back to 1 John 4:20-21:
If anyone says “I love God” and then hates his brother, he is a liar. Whoever doesn’t love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he hasn’t seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
- John of the Cross was a sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite priest. For his works and more information see this page at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.