Religion and Relationship Revisited

The Following is a reaction to the prologue and first chapter of Deus Caritas Est by His holiness Pope Benedict XVI.

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and new direction.” The Holy Father is absolutely correct. This is the dimension that Protestant Christians would call “relationship with God.” Pope Benedict XVI affirms from the beginning that Christianity is an encounter, it is a meeting. When this encounter occurs, it is then that life takes on a new formation a new understanding, a new horizon.

Those who see religion and relationship as mutually exclusive terms do so because they do not conceptualize love properly.

Love when it truly meets us, reorients our lives, our very selves in a new and unfathomable direction. It could not have previously been known, nor could it have been anticipated by anything that has come before, it asserts itself by virtue of its own self-disclosure.

I say all that to say, love shapes our actions. Love is not belief in a feeling or even simply a sense of trust, it is a formation in a new direction. Love is not just an emotional disposition but the corresponding actions that make love more than simple infatuation. If love has no power to shape our actions, it is not love.

When we see religion as the actions of love, and relationship as the interaction between love’s actions and their proper conversation with the Beloved and the active sharing of these actions, we move past the protestant impasse. Religion is the action of love in relation to the Divine. It is incumbent upon us to understand though, that just as love has false apparitions, so too religion has false detractors.

Religion has the false lovers who love in word but not deed, first there are those who perform empty actions apart from the context of dialogue. These are possessed of a lustful play at religion. Their infatuation leads them to perform actions in the direction of the Beloved, but without correspondence, these actions cannot be more than lust. This is manifest in various forms of religion where personal experience trumps all other things and the Divine is seen as a stepping stone in the path of self-transcendence. This may not be explicitly the case, but often this happens in low-church settings where what is implied is that some sort of experience should be taking place and this is prized above all else.

Then there are others who claim to have much correspondence, but they embody another false love. Their correspondence does not alter their actions. They rise to the heights of an ecstasy without demands, they participate in a religion whose love is most often the love of self. They claim to know and speak with the Beloved, but they are lazy in the rigors of love. Their hearts, unchaste pursue various ideas of love’s meaning, pursue a love whose name and face may change on a passing whim, whose hearts are consumed with the idea of being in love.

While sharing a great many infatuations and speaking broadly these are overwhelmed with erotic expression that actually undoes rather than dignifies that orientation of worship in the human person. The flaw in this sort of “relationship” heavy approach to religion is that it is undisciplined, it provides an empty feeling of infatuation but cannot provide meaningful substance. The nature of this type of religion is all feeling, all infatuation and flirtation with no discipline, no love. Such as these are radically opposed to the idea that love should cause them the scandal of sacrifice. Luckily, both of these are false options.

Pope Benedict XVI says in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est (DCE):

An intoxicated and undisciplined eros…is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns. (pg. 7)

The final option is the understanding that love makes demands. To encounter Christ is to encounter this reality without exception or compromise. The entire life and career of the Rabbi of Nazareth is filled with the demands of the love shared between Father and Son. To see the love shared between Father and Son is to see that love is indeed a demanding exercise, a rewarding and redeeming discipline. To be fair, love indeed promises eternity and a type of elevation of the human person, a reality far deeper and more profound than everyday experience(DCE p. 7). However the way to participate in these promises of love is not by submission to pure instinct but rather it is growth in maturity and purification that our “erotic desire”* for God is shaped into a proper love that has been cleansed of selfish desire.

To love is to act, we see this in the life of Christ, and these actions take on certain rigors. To know love is to change onself to suit the lover. To love is to take upon oneself the task of pleasing the Other. To love is to take upon oneself a new set of actions which shape us in a new direction. Religion shapes relationship to its proper end. The two bleed into each other because they are different aspects of a single whole which comprehends that love shapes and forms as much as it allows the freedom and joy to simply enjoy a deep connection.

Eros when reduced to either pure sex in terms of human relationships, or pure experience without renunciation and discipline is empty. Just as love relationships require not just erotic desire but self-control, so too religion corresponds to this. A provisional love without sentiment is empty, but so too is a religion that is all sentiment and no discipline. Religion and relationship are two parts of a larger, more complicated whole. Just as love requires sexuality and renunciation, sacrifice and satisfaction, reception and reciprocation, so too religious love requires both desire and sacrifice, ecstasy with discipline. Being Christian is the result of an encounter which reshapes our love outside ourselves, and invites us into a broader and more fully humanizing expression.

Religion when it is true is the correspondence love takes from man to God. It would be a strange lover who could be loved more, by being loved without the disciplines that make love possible. It would be a very peculiar God who could be known apart from the disciplines of holiness that purify our eyes. It would be a very improper representation of the Divine if we were to say that free access to God means a free-market to the lowest most scurrilous forms of infatuation. It would be a horribly insecure God who could be loved best by being loved least.

Religion then, is not apart from “relationship” but the two are united facets of a single whole that allow us to properly engage in what it means to love God and neighbor.

*erotic here means a desirous love, not a possessive love. An eros warped and sinful desires to possess out of ambition where the proper eros is shaped by desire for the divine and at a certain point reopens to make freedom possible for the Beloved.

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