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Eros Rescued by Agape: Augustine, Denis De Rougemont, and the Sanctification of Passion

As we continue our thoughts on gay Christianity and “spiritual friendship,” we need to take an important detour. My original plan to was to move from concupiscence to the topic of effeminacy, but as I worked through Augustine’s writings on concupiscence, I was confronted with his peculiar theories about human desire as such. This made me think more deeply about erotic love as a distinctive love, and it reminded me about the very important work of Denis De Rougemont in his great work, Love in the Western World.

This essay will look back at Augustine’s views on concupiscence and passion. It will try to highlight what the precise “problem” is with passionate love in Augustine’s theory. It will then move to Rougemont’s writings on passionate love and the relationship between eros and agape, seeking to show the proper relationship between the two. It will then conclude with some practical thoughts and applications which I hope will further illuminate the categories of our ongoing conversation and demonstrate the appropriate means God has given us to fulfill our desires.

Augustine and Eros

As we saw in an earlier post, the post-Reformation writings on concupiscence do help us talk about it in a way that creates some distance between it and the sex drive as such. For Augustine, however, the Fall of Man had made it so that you could really never talk about one’s sex drive without talking about concupiscence. He could technically distinguish them, but he could not imagine man after the Fall ever engaging in sexual activity without the presence of concupiscence:

…A man turns to use the evil of concupiscence, and is not overcome by it, when he bridles and restrains its rage, as it works in inordinate and indecorous motions; and never relaxes his hold upon it except when intent on offspring, and then controls and applies it to the carnal generation of children to be spiritually regenerated, not to the subjection of the spirit to the flesh in a sordid servitude. (On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.9)

Notice that, in order to have children, man “relaxes his hold upon” the “evil of concupiscence.” He doesn’t renounce it so as to never have anything at all do with it—unless he is celibate, one presumes—but rather learns when to use it and when not to use it.

This leads to the rather unfortunate conclusion that sex, even between lawfully married Christians, is now a sort of necessary evil. Its guilt is removed, but it still has a morally mixed quality:

To escape this evil, even such embraces of husband and wife as have not procreation for their object, but serve an overbearing concupiscence, are permitted, so far as to be within range of forgiveness, though not prescribed by way of commandment: 1 Corinthians 7:6 and the married pair are enjoined not to defraud one the other, lest Satan should tempt them by reason of their incontinence… (ibid, 1.16)

In this section, Augustine says that sex within marriage, if engaged in because of “an overbearing concupiscence” are sin but permitted sin:

Now in a case where permission must be given, it cannot by any means be contended that there is not some amount of sin. Since, however, the cohabitation for the purpose of procreating children, which must be admitted to be the proper end of marriage, is not sinful, what is it which the apostle allows to be permissible, but that married persons, when they have not the gift of continence, may require one from the other the due of the flesh — and that not from a wish for procreation, but for the pleasure of concupiscence? This gratification incurs not the imputation of guilt on account of marriage, but receives permission on account of marriage. This, therefore, must be reckoned among the praises of matrimony; that, on its own account, it makes pardonable that which does not essentially appertain to itself. For the nuptial embrace, which subserves the demands of concupiscence, is so effected as not to impede the child-bearing, which is the end and aim of marriage. (ibid)

Augustine parses this further. Sex within marriage “only for the wish to beget children” is not sinful.  But sex within marriage, if it is done with the desire for “carnal pleasure”– that is, not primarily for the end of procreation–is a venial sin (This is true if there is no added attempt to prevent procreation. If contraception is used, however, then Augustine believes that concupiscence has been allowed to entirely destroy the good of the nuptial union, turning it into fornication; see On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.17).

Let us set the discussion of contraception to the side. That is a conversation worthy of its own. Rather, I’d like look specifically at Augustine’s contention that passionate sex within marriage is now necessarily a venial sin. This is not because he thinks the sexual act as such is immoral. It isn’t a base action, beneath our dignity or anything like that. Rather, it has to do with the way in which passion acts upon our now-fallen will. The “desire” bypasses our will and can even empty our mind of thoughts, particularly the appropriate contemplation of God (see City of God 14.16, 23). Augustine will often speak of the “burning” of concupiscence. It is a boundless energy that will not abide its proper bounds, that will not submit to the mind.

What this means for Augustine is that erotic love is itself always something of a moral gray area. Insofar as the love of the beloved is subordinated to and instrumentalized by the desire to beget children, it can be said to be good. But this is only ever really a theoretical possibility in this life. In practice, eros is at least an occasion for venial sin, to be covered by the marriage bed but not actually redeemed.

As intelligible as Augustine’s views are in light of the context of late antique philosophy, they are nevertheless difficult to harmonize with the words of Scripture. The Apostle Paul does prefer singleness in 1 Cor. 7, but his grounding is not in the relationship between passions and the mind, nor even the danger in confusing the ends of marriage. Rather, his argument is about efficiency. He would rather the Christian be “undistracted” by the material duties of a family. When we look to other places that describe marital love, we find high praise.

Hebrews 13:4 says, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled.” The bed is not forgiven or permitted but rather ἀμίαντος: without stain. But perhaps this only refers to the marriage bed in its procreative function. One can anticipate this objection. Are there then passages which emphasize the romantic component of erotic love as such?

Song of Solomon obviously comes to mind, but so does its contentious history of interpretation, so full of the mystical sense. Still, we could ask whether it is proper for a figurative portrayal of pure agape to use otherwise carnal images if those images are necessarily disordered or misguided. It seems unlikely. Further, Psalm 45:11 says that “the king will greatly desire your beauty.” This too is figurative of the Messiah and His bride, and yet the text emphasizes the Messiah’s desire. It is not simply for the (re)creation of the faithful but for the beauty of the redeemed, a desire for the beauty of the bride.

And then there is Proverbs 5:15-20:

Drink water from your own cistern,
And running water from your own well.
Should your fountains be dispersed abroad,
Streams of water in the streets?
Let them be only your own,
And not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
And rejoice with the wife of your youth.
As a loving deer and a graceful doe,
Let her breasts satisfy you at all times;
And always be enraptured with her love.
For why should you, my son, be enraptured by an immoral woman,
And be embraced in the arms of a seductress?

Here Solomon, writing under divine inspiration, prescribes faithful married sexual pleasure as a remedy against adultery. Importantly, it serves as a remedy by satisfying the desires of the lover. “Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love.” This does not sound very much like a reluctant permission for the greater good. It looks like the remedy provides a truly pleasing sensation which is to be celebrated. The NET Bible commentary here is significant: “The verb שָׁגָה (shagah) means ‘to swerve; to meander; to reel’ as in drunkenness; it signifies a staggering gait expressing the ecstatic joy of a captivated lover.” In other words, the Bible praises precisely that which Augustine laments. The problem with passion cannot simply be its sensuality, that it doesn’t perfectly and properly follow the instruction of the mind and the will. And it cannot be, in this life, perpetually sinful. Rather, the sexual desire, within marriage, is a positive good of its own.

Denis De Rougemont and Love in the Western World

If the Bible praises passionate love, if it praises a form of eros, then isn’t that enough to conclude the conversation? In one sense, yes of course. The Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. But Augustine wasn’t simply concocting his fears out of thin air. Passionate eros very often is a danger. Its potential to wreak havoc has been well known throughout human history. Some give in to the havoc and celebrate destruction. Others attempt to shun it totally, though they invariably find this to be impossible.

It is at this point that a truly remarkable book can provide helpful perspective. Denis De Rougemont’s Love in the Western World is not well known to broad Christian audience today, but it became an instant classic shortly after its release in 1940. Both W H Auden and C S Lewis favorably cite Rougemont, and in the introduction to Lewis’ The Four Loves, Rougemont’s immortal line gains a wide distribution— “love ceases to be a demon only when he cease to be a god.”

Rougemont’s central thesis is that passionate or erotic love has consistently expressed the pagan concept of man’s desire for immediate union with god. The beloved is frequently mythologized, a symbol of something greater, and the experience of “being in love” is the true goal—an ecstasy that allows the lover to transcend themselves, often through death, and find union with the divine.

Rougemont finds evidence of this across a wide spectrum of ancient religion and philosophy, including Hinduism, Platonism, and Manichaeism. He then traces its continuing presence through Catharism, mystical variants of Islam, courtly love, Romanticism, and even modern philosophy and psychology.

Rougemont writes:

There is… another kind of frenzy or delirium which is neither conceived nor born in a man’s soul except by the inspiration of heaven. It is alien to us, its spell is wrought from without; it is a transport, an infinite rapture away from reason and natural sense. It is therefore to be called enthusiasm, a word which actually means ‘possessed by a god’, for the frenzy not only is of heavenly origin, but culminates at its highest in a new attainment of the divine.

Such is Platonic love. It is a ‘divine delirium’, a transport of the soul, a madness and supreme sanity both. A lover with his beloved becomes ‘as if in heaven’; for love is the way that ascends by degrees of ecstasy to the one source of all that exists, remote from bodies and matter, remote from what divides and distinguishes, and beyond the misfortune of being a self and even in love itself a pair. (Love in the Western World, Pantheon Books 1956, pg. 61-62)

This is, according to Rougemont, the classical understanding of erotic love. The force is initially external and it acts upon the person apart from their will or control. It allows them to violate certain rules which would otherwise be sacrosanct, and it promises its love as an escape from the ordinary world of existence. Given the effects of the fall (especially the pervasive idolatry of man’s heart and the limited but real dominion granted to demons) erotic love is grave spiritual danger. It has its own cult and, as its very name makes plain, its own god.

We should also note that this love is more or less the same thing as what Augustine had identified as concupiscence. Rougemont puts it this way:

Eros is complete Desire, luminous Aspiration, the primitive religious soaring carried to its loftiest pitch, to the extreme exigency of purity which is also the extreme exigency of Unity. But absolute unity must be the negation of the present human being in his suffering multiplicity. The supreme soaring of desire ends in non-desire. The erotic process introduces into life an element foreign to the diastole and systole of sexual attraction—a desire that never relapses, that nothing can satisfy, that even rejects and flees the temptation to obtain its fulfillment in the world, because its demand is to embrace no less than the All. It is infinite transcendence, man’s rise into his god. And this rise is without return.” (ibid, 62)

The goal of erotic love is, underneath its various expressions, union with and absorption by the divine. It is a path, not merely of deification, but of self-transcending deification. It seeks to consume, to be filled, and it always demands the highest allegiance.

This is its desire:

Every known religion tends to sublimate man, and culminates in condemning his ‘finite’ life. Our desires are intensified and sublimated by the god Eros through being embraced in a single Desire whereby they are abolished. The final goal of the process is to attain what is not life—the death of the body. Night and Day being incompatible, and men being deemed creatures of Night, men can only achieve salvation by ceasing to be, by being ‘lost’ in the bosom of the divine. (66)

This is also why erotic love so often climaxes in death. Whether it be violence at the hand of a jealous competitor, consumption by the environmental dangers around the pursuit of the ecstasy, or the highest form of passionate self-abnegation, suicide, erotic love finally grants its escape in and through the death of the lover. Thus the cult of sex is historically also the cult of death. Rougemont points to Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet, Don Juan, and the works of Wagner to illustrate this point. We could add The Great Gatsby, the “free love” of the ‘60s, or the recent case of Anthony Bourdain. Sometimes the lover denies this reality. Other times he embraces it and celebrates it as the only fitting conclusion. Either way, love will tear us apart. Passion consumes the lover. As Rougemont writes, “the intensification of love must be at the same time a lover’s askesis, whereby he will eventually escape out of life” (70).

Why is this the case? It is because fallen erotic love confuses the object of its desire. It is not truly a love of the beloved. It is, rather, a love of love itself:

Tristan and Iseult do not love one another. They say they don’t and everything goes to prove it. What they love is love and being in love. They behave as if aware that whatever obstructs love must ensure and consolidate it in the heart of each and intensify it infinitely in the moment they reach the absolute obstacle, which is death. Tristan loves the awareness that he is loving far more than he loves Iseult the Fair. And Iseult does nothing to hold Tristan. All she needs is her passionate dream. Their need of one another is in order to be aflame, and they do not need one another as they are. What they need is not one another’s presence, but one another’s absence. Thus the partings of the lovers are dictated by their passion itself, and by the love they bestow on their passion rather than on its satisfaction or on its living object. That is why the romance abounds in obstructions, why when mutually encouraging their joint dream in which each remains solitary they show such astounding indifference, and why events work up in a romantic climax to a fatal apotheosis. (41-42)

Importantly, Rougemont notes that this pursuit of love can and does take place by those people who are externally—that is to say, physically—chaste. Celibates have been some of history’s great lovers. This is, arguably, the love of Plato’s Symposium. Rougemont shows that it reappears in nearly identical terms in the Banu Ohdri Arab tribe, “whose members died of love owing to their persistent exaltation of chaste desire” (106). Indian Tantrism also offered up techniques for channeling the energy of chastity into mystical euphoria, and those familiar with the more unseemly elements of Gandhi’s personal life in the 20th century understand how such strange customs linger on.

Erotic-but-chaste love was particularly pronounced in twelfth century Europe. Rougemont writes, “epithalamian mysticism is to be found in Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of Saint Victor, and Abelard…” (110). In Europe “there appeared cortezia, a literary ‘religion’ of chaste Love, of idealized woman and her particular ‘piety’, joy d’amor… Thereupon we behold this religion of ennobling love extolled by the same men who persisted in holding sexuality for ‘ugly’ and ‘low’” (113). Ascetism is fully capable of being eroticized and frequently is.

Indeed, erotic aescetism—passionate chastity— is not necessarily different in nature from the forbidden loves of adultery or even homosexuality. It is a love of that which it cannot have, a self-denial of the object of pursuit. The obstacles intensify the love. Thus it is quite dangerous to look to religion to satisfy a passion. In so doing, the risk of idolatry is great. The love for God becomes a love of love, a love of itself.

Eros Rescued By Agape

For Rougemont, the great answer to eros was agape, and this could only be found in Christ. Agape is a kind of “being in action” (311), a renunciation of this life precisely in order to regain the proper use of it, for the service of God and the good of our neighbor. This love is, importantly, not a love that breaks all barriers and taboos in its own service, but rather an obedient love that respects the law and restrictions of something higher:

Thereupon to love is no longer to flee and persistently to reject the act of love. Love now still begins beyond death, but from that beyond it returns to life. And, in being thus converted, love brings forth our neighbour. Eros had treated a fellow-creature as but an illusory excuse and occasion for taking fire; and forthwith this creature had had to be given up, for the intention was ever to burn more fiercely, to burn to death! …But the Christian God has not forsaken us. He alone, among all gods known to us, has not turned away. Quite the contrary, ‘He first loved us’—loved us as we are and with our limitations; and these He even went so far as to put on, making Himself as one of us. In thus putting on, though without sin and without self-division, the garment of sinful and manifold men, the Love of God has opened an entirely new way to us—the way of holiness. And the way is the contrary of the sublimation that had been an illusory flight out of the concreteness of life. To love according to this new way is a positive act and an act of transformation. Eros had pursued infinite becoming. Christian love is obedience in the present. For to love God is to obey God, Who has commanded us to love one another. To love your enemies is to shed selfishness and the desirous and anxious self; it means the death of the solitary human being, but it also means the birth of our neighbor. (68)

This love does not seek exclusivity. To the contrary, this love is productive. It creates others. It sees others, not as objects, but as neighbors, and it knows that it must serve their good.

In fact, Rougemont says that agape rescues eros. It allows it to not merely renounce and reject its passion but to control it and use it intentionally and over time:

The god Eros is the slave of death because he wishes to elevate life above our finite and limited creature state. Hence the same impulse that leads us to adore life thrusts us into its negation. There lies the profound woe and despair characterizing Eros, his inexpressible bondage; and in making this bondage evident Agape has delivered Eros from it. Agape is aware that our terrestrial and temporal life is unworthy of adoration and even of being killed, but that it can be accepted in obedience to the Eternal. For, after all, it is here below that our fate is being decided. It is on earth that we must love. In the next world, we shall meet, not divinizing Night, but the forgiveness of our Creator and Judge. (311).

Agape brings eros down from the heaven and sets it in its proper station, on earth in a limited but charitable vocation:

…a man who believes the revelation of Agape suddenly beholds the circle broken: faith delivers him from natural religion. Now he may hope for something; he is aware that there is some other release from sin. And thereupon Eros in turn has been relieved of his fatal office and delivered from his fate. In ceasing to be a god, he ceases to be a demon. And he finds his proper place in the provisional economy of Creation and of what is human. (312)

Importantly, this means that the ultimate symbol of love is not the passionate affair but rather the institution of marriage:

…The symbol of Love is no longer the infinite passion of a soul in quest of light, but the marriage of Christ and the Church… Whereas, according to the doctrines of mystical paganism, human love was sublimated so thoroughly as to be made into a god even while it was being dedicated to death, Christianity has restored human love to its proper status, and in this status has hallowed it by means of marriage. Such a love, being understood according to the image of Christ’s love for His Church (Ephesians, v. 25), is able to be truly mutual. For its object, from having been the actual notion of love and the exquisite and fatal branding of love (‘It is better’, Saint Paul says, ‘to marry than to burn’), has become the other as he or she really is. And, in spite of the hindrance of sin, human love is a happy love, since already here below it can by obedience attain to the fullness of its own status. (69)

Marriage is the proper way for humans to enjoy eros. “Married love is the end of anguish, the acceptance of a limited being whom I love because he or she is a summons to be created, and that in order to witness to our alliance this being turns with me towards day” (310). Marriage is “the institution in which passion is ‘contained’, not by morals, but by love” (315). Rougemont says that passion “attains its true future state and salvation thanks only to that act of obedience which is a life steadfast and true” (322).

Thus Christians can love erotically but only as they allow eros to be rescued and transformed by agape. The passion must be harnessed and directed towards another, and it must be held within a lifelong commitment to fidelity. The practical outlet for erotic love is marriage, and this marriage should be a union between man and woman which produces more people over a lifetime.

Concluding Practical Applications

There are a few important conclusions to be drawn from this. We need not, as Augustine appears to have done, reject passionate or erotic love as necessarily a sort of concupiscence. This seems to be an overreaction inconsistent with the teaching of the Scriptures. At the same time, we must not be naïve. On its own, erotic love is not a good thing. Left to itself, it is self-destructive. In this life, due to our sin, eros will exist as concupiscence unless it meets the love of God. Eros must be “rescued” by agape, united with God through an act of divine condescension and grace—through the humiliation of Jesus Christ for us. We then love in the same way, by making ourselves low and serving others.

When we do this, our erotic love does not attempt to use the beloved to get to love, but uses love to serve the beloved and help them move towards the good. Christian eros limits itself. It sets boundaries and promises to exist only within an institution.

Importantly, celibacy does not subdue passionate desires. Indeed, it can and does invigorate them, sending the celibate on new quests for fulfillment. When celibacy has this effect, it is unchaste.

Friendship is also not a remedy for lust. Directing erotic passions towards friendship will not fulfill them. Neither will it quench or eliminate them. It can just as easily inflame the passions along the lines of erotic aescetism. It can intensify the problem rather than solving it. This is the anguish of the man trapped in “the friend zone,” and it moves quickly from humor to melancholy.

This is why neither celibacy nor friendship is a remedy for lust. The Apostle Paul does not tell the one burning with passion to simply quench the passion or to make new friends. He tells him to get married. The true redemption of eros is agape, and the earthly redemption of passionate love is marriage. We understand and acknowledge that passion is wild, not waiting for its direction from the mind. And so we bind passion within an institution. We grant it a source of release and fulfillment, but we also place firm boundaries around it to keep it from getting out of control.

Marriage ensures that eros is productive rather than destructive. It quite literally creates new people—new neighbors. But marriage also ensures that eros is disciplined, that it will not separate itself and rush perpetually towards nonexistence, but that it will endure for a lifetime. Marriage ensures that passion serves the other person. Marriage makes passion obedient. Marriage is the concrete instrument God gives man to sanctify eros.

This does not mean that marriage must be extolled as the highest vocation for all Christians. It certainly does not mean that it must be said to be the only legitimate vocation for Christians. But it does mean that marriage is the practical means of controlling passion. For the one with continence, a single celibate life in the service of God is good. But for the one without continence—that is, the one burning with passion—marriage is a gift from God to use that passion in the appropriate way.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.