Immerse your soul in love: a manifesto

Immerse your soul in love, sings Thom Yorke at the end of the song Street Spirit (Fade Out).

The line emerged from nowhere during a brainstorming session at Laidlaw College with Jaime Taylor 10 years ago, and subsequently adorned the brick wall of the college foyer, as the institution grappled with the idea that love is foundational to knowing.

The other pithy line that emerged from that time was this: Love to know. The faculty accepted this without really understanding what it meant, until one day a senior lecturer stared at the words on the whiteboard and said, ‘Ah, it works two ways … we love to know things, which is why we’re here studying, and we have to love in order to know …’

Er, yep. That was the idea.

I had been wrestling with a couple of major ideas at the time. The first, from my PhD work using Russian literary philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin as a guide, was the idea that ‘truth’ is dialogical — it emerges from conversational encounter between people, each of whom brings their own distinct voice and experience and story to the dialogue, which then produces a ‘thirdness’ of knowing; a third voice, so to speak, over which the participants of the dialogue have no control. Bakhtin attaches some cool concepts to this core principle — such as ‘outsidedness’, the idea that sight or knowledge arises when my ‘I’ encounters the time and space of the ‘other’ in dialogue, and a new way of seeing is born, one that was not possible prior to the encounter.

The second thing I was wrestling with was the reality of love relationship outside of typical partnerships, such as marriage. It was a wrestle because in my faith tradition ‘love’ had been reduced to something that was without risk, without passion, without feeling and emotion. Our theologians (CS Lewis in particular) had conveniently categorised the different forms of love so that we wouldn’t find ourselves in trouble: eros, or passionate love; philia, or familial love; storge, empathetic love; and agape, divine love. It seemed to me that agape was the most boring love of all, and that the others, save for eros, didn’t feel much like love either. These categories were not designed to inflame love or to explore its possibilities; they were safeguards, rules of engagement, to ensure that ‘love’ didn’t go bad or become destructive. To me, the categories of love that I was brought up with weren’t messy enough, were too restrictive, too regulated, too narrow. Ironically, they also produced the very types of behaviour they were designed to avoid.

At the same time, I had taken on board theologian Karl Barth’s definition of love, as ‘treasuring the otherness of the other’. This fit well with Bakhtin’s explication of self-other as the irreducible unit of knowing. Throw Martin Buber into the mix (with his focus on the ‘between-ness’ and ‘present-ness’ that occurs when people encounter one another) and it isn’t difficult to see that they’re all talking essentially about the same thing: that love encounter between people is a powerful generator of a unique type of knowledge — that something tangible is birthed when people truly encounter one another, particularly in love. The difference Barth makes to the discussion is his insistence that love occurs when the ‘I’ in the encounter moves beyond merely just listening to the ‘other’, and truly begins to treasure that otherness in a way that opens the ‘I’ to a new way of seeing. For Barth, love encounter included emotion, feeling, tenderness, affection. They were essential, in fact. For Barth, there was no way love could be categorised as divine or brotherly or empathetic or erotic. Love was a sliding scale that involved the full spectrum of our human emotional responses to the other.

The connection between these ideas and the Bible, for me, occurred upon reading Tom Wright’s Surprised By Hope, shortly before the brainstorm with Jaime that I referenced above. This passage in particular set me on a wholly other path:

To repeat: the resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world … it is, principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world which is being born with Jesus. If we are even to glimpse this new world, let alone enter it, we will need a different kind of knowing, a knowing which involves us in new ways, an epistemology which draws out from us not just the cool appraisal of detached quasi-scientific research, but that whole-person engagement and involvement for which the best shorthand is ‘love’ …

And then this:

Love is the deepest mode of knowing, because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality …

In other words, ‘love to know’. That was the breakthrough in Tom Wright’s thinking — that love and knowledge were linked. That love produces a unique way of knowing that gives insight into knowledge only love can illuminate. This was a hub around which all the ideas I was wrestling with could converge.

Tom Wright himself never went far enough, in my opinion. He didn’t explain, for example, how love produces knowing. And he still seemed to fall back on the regimented (and safe) idea of agape love — divine love. But I was becoming more convinced by the idea that it is love with all its complexities, all its emotions, all its risks, that unlocks knowing, and that the type of knowing that love unlocks also creates new possibilities, opens our minds to ways of understanding that are not possible outside of genuine love encounter.

There were issues I had to contend with. There always are when love becomes your focus. The first was mockery. I was openly made fun of as Dr Love, or the Love Doctor — by the very people who were confessing to me in private about shame over pornography, or affairs, or fantasies about students. The second issue was more judicial — threats of disciplinary action, termination of employment, etc etc. Every institution needs a scapegoat, said another, and ‘you’re it’, pointing the finger at me.

Much of the criticism aimed at me cited the actual life experience of Karl Barth, upon whom much of my thinking admittedly hinged. Karl Barth’s theology of relational encounter between the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’ borrowed heavily from Martin Buber, but also arose in a bizarre sort of menage a trois, in which his theological/dialogical partner was also his lover. Charlotte von Kirschbaum is credited not only with faithfully producing much of Barth’s written work, but of also being his ‘muse’. In fact, she lived in the attic of Barth’s family home. This, from Selinger:

Eberhard Busch thinks that Barth experienced with von Kirschbaum an I-Thou relationship in which each felt understood by the other and fully trusted the other. Frederick Herzog, another student who knew Barth and von Kirschbaum, has suggested that Barth might have seen their relationship as an I-Thou one in an attempt to understand it better. And the mirroring possibility has many modes: it could have been quietly observed by Barth or occasionally discussed by the two, or it could have been “set up” as an experiment by Barth—there is an exploitative character to the latter (Selinger 1998, 91).

I don’t think Barth’s relationship with Charlotte was ‘exploitative’. It wasn’t an experiment — it was love. Make your own judgments as to whether it was right or wrong. I was already aware that their relationship went much further than the Barthians would like to accept. In the past 10 years their love letters have been discovered and it’s very clear it ain’t no agape we’re talking about when it comes to Karl and Charlotte. But no one can deny what Barth had discovered in an actual relationship of love with another: the I-Thou encounter that unlocks the mysteries of creation, the foundation and goal of which is love.

The last words anyone at the college ever said to me were: ‘You just want to be Karl Barth; your problem is you practise what you preach.’

Okee dokee then.

I didn’t do any academic or formal thinking about love after Laidlaw. What was the point? I experienced love in the subsequent years, in many ways and from many surprising sources, but I suppose I was suffering some form of post-traumatic stress with regards actually thinking about it, let alone writing about it. It never ceased to baffle me why love had made so many people so angry, at the very same time they were hiding so many shameful secrets? Did they not want a way out, a way forward, a new way of thinking about love that might also speak to their shame?

Apparently not.

In recent times, I have started to open up to the possibility of going there again in my thinking and writing. There are reasons for this, that are exciting and scary and challenging and weird and sometimes even lovely, but which already seem to have summoned the forces of darkness. Once again, I discover that when someone like me turns their attention to creating things of love and beauty and grace and innocence, in a context where brokenness, misogyny, betrayal, and selfishness normally hold sway, people rise up in opposition, in anger, even in violence. Why are love and beauty so threatening? Why do they shake the trees and rattle the cages? I really don’t know. But I take the Apostle Paul literally when, in 1 Corinthians, he refers to the idea that the ‘power’ of the cross is no more, and no less, than the power of love; and that people will always reject this idea as foolishness.

So, love is ‘foolishness’ to people who don’t understand. This fits with my experience, even in a Christian college. Well, I’ve been called a fool for love before, and I suppose I’ll be called it again. This time it feels worth the fight.

Radiohead’s album The Bends turns 24 today. I didn’t know that when I put the album on this morning; neither was I aware of why I was putting it on. And then the last track played: Street Spirit (Fade Out), a song about life’s futility, and the certainty of death. But then the final lines …

Immerse your soul in love

Immerse your soul in love

So, let’s do just that. Here’s a (I want to say feeble) attempt that I wrote a while ago to describe healthy love encounter as I experience it. This doesn’t discuss how love encounter produces knowledge — that’s for another blog. But the framework is established here, in a description of encounter’s dynamic equilibrium:

In love encounter, my desire to be together with meets your ability to be differentiated … to stand apart and remain yourself. The place where these two forces meet is a place of tension, of friction, and as such it is charged and energised. Although they are opposing forces, they are nevertheless held together by mutual commitment. My longing for togetherness confronts your resistance to fusion. You refuse to accommodate to my perceived needs and you stand against my attempts to make you the person I want or need you to be. The miracle is your ability to be totally committed to this relational dance, this encounter, without any compulsion to see yourself reflected in or defined by it. You are wholly other.

You are entirely comfortable being your self without me, and yet totally committed to presenting that self to me. This keeps my treasuring of your otherness truly about otherness, and not about projecting my self. What I meet in you is not an extension of my self, or an echo of my self. I encounter someone completely other. This mutuality of giving and receiving, togetherness and differentiation, this push and pull of our relational dance, maintains its structural integrity like a suspension bridge.

The place where these forces collide is the between-ness and the present-ness of encounter. Encounter is an event in time and space. In time, encounter is a moment. In space, encounter opens up a place where these forces converge, even as they pull away.

At the same time, any attempt I make to accommodate myself to your otherness, to be anything other than who I am — to fuse with you, or to locate a self that is reflected in you — you stand against. And so, in response to this resistance, or relative to it, I feel more differentiated than before, more authentically me. Your boundariedness helps shape who I am, gives my self contours. All the while you unconditionally accept who I am, even as these contours take shape. I am accepted precisely as my self, not as the person I feel that I should be. Your grace confounds my urge or temptation to be someone else, someone I suspect you want me to be. And so a remarkable reciprocity is created, since I also accept unconditionally your self, the self that is totally other than me. I even accept the otherness that stands against me — I treasure it, celebrate it, and in this way discover an outsidedness that liberates, invites, compels. The more differentiated I discover you to be, the more I treasure it, since in this I also discover my own self, and the freedom to present even more of who I am.

This outsidedness creates a spark, like a dynamic charge, a creative and innovative energy which emerges not from me or from you, but from the dynamic itself. It is a taste, a glimpse, of glory and new creation — sometimes painful, always disruptive, but replete with life and full of promise.