Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, discussed four kinds of love — storge, philia, eros and agape. Christian love is commonly identified as “agape,” due to its universal and unconditional nature. On the other hand, “eros,” or romantic love, is commonly known as person-specific and conditional. Conventional wisdom has it that only agape is divine. Eros is definitely not.
As I get older (and less Christian), I have become more and more skeptical of this conventional view, which is closely associated with Christianity, which is patriarchal, and not with the Goddess and pagan religions. If God is love as John’s Gospel proclaims, then divinity can be found in all four kinds of love. In the Greek conception of Eros, Eros is definitely much bigger than the erotic love between two mortals. In the pagan view and in Jungian psychology, Eros is more like the primal life force which drives the universe. In some Eastern religions and philosophies also, Eros is closely related to divinity. Tantra, for example, is commonly understood as a kind of sacred sex. In religious Taoism too, the sexual energy is not seen as merely mundane. Rather, it is closely related to the Tao. As opposed to the anti-sex tradition of Christianity, Taoism sees sex as essential to one’s overall health and well-being.
We may even argue that Christianity is not intrinsically anti-sex. The anti-sex tradition might have been invented by the early church fathers. There is an unspoken irony in the Christian attitude towards sex and Eros. Yes, Saint Paul and the early Church fathers tend to be strongly anti-sex. They treat sex as an obstacle on the path to God. Yet, in the gospels, a sexual metaphor is often invoked to describe the relationship between Christ and the Church. Indeed, the relationship between Christ and the Church (and, before Christianity, between God and his people) is often portrayed as a sexual one — as a relationship between husband and wife. The eroticism and sexual images exude in the Song of Solomon. In Matthew 25, there is a parable of the Bridegroom and the Ten Virgins. We can sense the sexual innuendo in that story. Why is one bridegroom mated with ten virgins? Is such polygamy commonly practiced during Jesus’s time? And what is this “marriage feast” all about? If it is one man and ten women at the same time, then it sounds like an orgy or some kind of group sex. There is no hint of the traditional Christian prudishness in this story. Sex is to be consummated and enjoyed, not avoided. The Bridegroom and Virgins story makes us doubt that the ascetic and anti-sex tradition was a later-day invention. Was Jesus really anti-sex? If it is so, then why is there so much discussion about Jesus’s relationship with Mary Magdalene?
It is true that in romantic love relationships tend to be exclusive and not inclusive. It is also true that they often invoke feelings of possessiveness. But does it mean that they are ego-centered relationships? The answer is a definite “Yes” if the beloved is viewed as a mere mortal. But what if the beloved is an incarnation of God or Goddess? In paganism in general and in Tantra in particular, it is customary for the practitioner to visualize one’s beloved as an incarnation of either God or Goddess. In this light, the erotic relationship takes on a cosmic significance.
Erotic love is indeed the model for Sufism. Sufism is the mystical path of divine love, where God becomes the lover and the object of passion. This “God as the Beloved” metaphor is an appropriate one. For Love is often a force we cannot resist. While we sometimes experience ecstasy in our romance, it is also very common to experience humiliation and agony in a love relationship. A romantic relationship is often so all-powerful and all-consuming that we often feel powerless in front of this tremendous life force. We live in an age of rising atheism. More and more young people become atheists because they find no evidence for the existence of God. But what if they have been looking in all the wrong places? What if God comes to us in form of a woman if we are men, and what if God comes to us in form of a men if we are women. What if this source of our immense longing and/or immense torture is Divinity? One seldom escapes a romantic love relationship unscathed. We are always transformed by it. Love learns its marks on us. What then? It is easy to see the religious meaning of erotic love if we take the Sufi’s perspective.
Many religious people see erotic love as purely carnal and devoid of spiritual meaning. But this is probably just a bias. It is in an erotic love relationship that we see our finitude and powerlessness. In face of the beloved, we learn humility. Seeing that things are often out of our control, we learn to surrender and let go. The religious mind tends to associate sex with ego. I also skeptical of that position. in the heat of sex, we return to our animal selves. We LOSE our ego. In fact, the most beautiful part of sex is that it makes us lose ourselves. We give up the need to control. We surrender to passion. These are all aspects of erotic love that are full of spiritual significance.
In the Christian narrative of Creation, God looked at all he had created and said that it is good. Sex and erotic love should not be an exception. I have to conclude that erotic love is not only love, but it is perhaps the most potent form of love. In erotic love, we have an intimate encounter with Divinity, although most of us don’t recognize that.