The History of Romance

Over the past few years the church I attend has made a point of making marriages central to our congregational life, as well making the theme of marriage crucial to our interpretation of the Scriptures.  When discussing this recently, a friend of mine cast doubt on this approach.  After all,

  • No model of a good marriage (in the lives of real people) exists in the Bible
  • Nowhere do we see any developed teaching about marriage
  • Earthly marriage is not eternal, thus, not central to our life in Christ.

All good points, but overall I agree with the emphasis our church has placed on marriage, or better put, a “Nuptial Theology,” (for those married or single).  True, Scripture does not develop a full theology of marriage, but I think the most profound truths are often those that need hidden, or get barely hinted at.  “Such things are too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to understand.”  The communal life of the Trinity, for example, eternally pulsates all meaning and existence, yet we get the only the barest hints about it.  Jesus, in regards to His identity, drops only brief statements and never sermonizes on who He is.  With marriage, we get more than that, but not too much.  We see Creation cap-stoned with a wedding in Genesis 2, and History ended and renewed with the “marriage supper of the lamb” in Revelation.

Our culture has been saturated with the idea of romance that we may not realize that historically, “romantic love” appeared late on the scene.  No evidence exists that the ancient world knew nothing of it. Plato’s Symposium talks off an ascending ladder to the divine of which human love plays a part.  So far, so good, but the object of ideal male love for Plato is not a woman, and as C.S. Lewis points out, “[The human aspect] of love has simply fallen out of sight before the soul reaches its spiritual object.”

So that won’t do.

Ovid wrote The Art of Love, but as satire on the ridiculous things to which infatuation and lust drive us.  The “absurd conduct” (Lewis again) that Ovid recommends should be taken in the spirit of his advice not to “visit [your lover] on her birthday.  It costs too much.”  For a Roman man to pursue a woman would have been unmanly, shameful, ridiculous.  Such a Roman stands ripe for mockery for Ovid.*

In his The Allegory of Love (from which I quoted snippets above) Lewis makes the striking point that “Romantic” literature,9780198115625 and the idea of romance as a central part of life, doesn’t appear on the scene until the 12th century.  Can it be mere coincidence that this is precisely the moment when the last of the barbarians has been Christianized and European culture had the opportunity to be “fully Christian?”  I cannot believe it so.  Obviously 12-13th century Europe got things wrong as any society will do, but I think we should take it as a possible witness of the Spirit of God in History that when “Christian” culture arrived for the first time in history, so too did romance.  It think it a strong indication of the importance of “Nuptial Theology.”

Lewis briefly traces the journey of the Church as it relates to sexual love.  It took centuries for the Church to escape the vibe of both the hedonistic side of paganism, and the spirit vs. flesh dichotomy of the Platonic school.  This might surprise but should comfort us also — God is patient with our infirmities and does not demand we solve everything today.   In this case He appears to have been patient enough to wait centuries.  So we have St. Gregory in the 6th century say that while the act of marriage remained innocent, the desire accompanying it was evil.  In the early Middle Ages we see a tremendous shift in Hugo of St. Victor.  He boldly (for his time) states that physical attraction has a part to play in Christian marriage.  On the other hand, he also states that had mankind never fallen, children would have been born “sine carnis incentivo,” i.e. “without sex.”

If jump ahead a few generations we see bolder and greater insight.  Albert the Great dismisses the idea that pleasure is evil or a result of the Fall, arguing that our pleasure would have been greater had we not fallen.  The problem with fallen man is not the strength of pleasure but for Albert, the weakness of our reason.  Unfallen man could have enjoyed any pleasure without the diminishing of his reason or losing sight of the First Good, God Himself.  A little later St. Thomas Aquinas goes further in affirming the nature of friendship in marriage (but also backwards by talking about the pleasure of marital love — though not a sin for Aquinas — in the midst of a passage about incest).

Alas that the medievals did not combine these important theological insights into the totality of their practice.  The whole tradition of “Courtly Love” is riddled with both a lingering Platonic idealism and adultery.  Medieval culture just couldn’t quite decide about the place of the romantic impulse.  So in his Death of Arthur Malory can call Lancelot the greatest of all knights and  simultaneously show how his relationship with Guinivere destroyed a kingdom.  He includes no examples of healthy marital love that I can recall.  The division between soul and body, between our earthly and spiritual lives, still seems to remain right up until the end of the medieval period.

But let us not dismiss the medievals too easily.  For the first time in history, I think, they allowed “manly” men to pursue women.  And with their love of allegory, they had no problems connecting the pursuit of the male to God’s pursuit of us.  Many in our churches today, I think, would be uncomfortable with the “physical” implications of this.  We do not connect the romantic impulse to our theology.  Perhaps guys particularly have problems with the whole idea of marriage and salvation, but it should help us realize the totality and intensity of God’s pursuit of us.^  I’ve heard some say that “The Song of Solomon” is about God’s love for his Church.  I’ve heard others say, “Get real, it’s about pleasure, it’s about sex.”  Might it be about both?  I think the best of the medieval tradition would have been comfortable with that.

*I don’t mean to suggest that comedy is wrong when it comes to sex.  As Lewis points out in The Four Loves, without a sense of humor and even silliness, the god Eros will quickly become a demon.

^This truth can help both our culture in general, and guys in particular, understand that sex itself is best understood as a sign, or even a ceremony of something greater.  Again, the best way to ensure genuine appreciation of a thing is to understand exactly how it should be appreciated.