Shifting the Center of Our Lives
I Corinthians 13:4-7; Genesis 3:19-24
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
25 February 2024
How did you spend St. Valentine’s Day?
Some people really enjoy that holiday, others completely loathe it.
Back in my twenties, when I lived in Shawnee, Oklahoma, I hosted an annual party on Valentine’s Day for folks who didn’t have a date. It became a very popular annual event.
This year I was at home with a sick kid, who was upset to be missing the Valentine’s Day party at school. He had stickers he was going to give out to his friends and was excited to see what he’d get in return. I spent much of the day enjoying the memes on Facebook, particularly those that connected Valentine’s Day with Ash Wednesday. And then in the evening I watched Casablanca for the umpteenth time. It, of course, never disappoints.
The combination of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday makes for a quirky mixture of Love and Death. But, then, those themes are so often combined in the great love literature, from Achilles mourning over the body of Patroclus to Jack freezing in the water beside Rose.
The combination of these days affords fun liturgical exploration. When it happened in 2018, our Ash Wednesday service was decorated with roses and Katie Miller sang the Bette Midler hit “The Rose.” Our Lenten theme that year was “Passion.”
This year, we decided to explore a Lenten theme of “Love.”
The late African American scholar bell hooks, in her marvelous book All About Love, writes “To open our hearts more fully to love’s power and grace we must dare to acknowledge how little we know of love in both theory and practice.”
On the one hand, that claim seems rather surprising. Love, and its close relations, dominate our religious discourse, our popular culture, our classical music, and our greatest literature. And it’s something all of us have at least some experience with, through love of parents, family, friends, a beloved, a child.
But hooks contends, the human track record is pretty clear that we’ve never actually centered love, never created a culture of true, healthy love. Also, so many people have loved and been loved poorly, often leading to serious wounding. She wrote that this occurs, partially, because we don’t actually know what to do when we love.
According to hooks, we settle too often. We settle for affection and care, because those are safe, and don’t really take the risk of actually loving. Seeing her make that distinction may be startling. Affection and care are clearly aspects of love, but she contends those can be present in relationships that aren’t actually loving.
To love, hooks writes, is “the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth.” Of extending ourselves in order to achieve this growth.
So, this Lent, bell hooks will be one of our guides as we explore what love asks of us, if we are truly to make it central to our lives.
Let’s start by exploring what is at the root of love. According to the philosopher Simon May, we can discover that in the story from Genesis when Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and are cast out of the Garden of Eden by God. What, you might be wondering, does this story have to do with it?
Now, the story of Eve, Adam, and the Serpent is probably the most influential in the world. It has shaped our understanding of human nature and God, of sexuality and gender, even our fear of snakes. Last week I read an article in The New Yorker that used this story in order to make a point about humanity’s current relationship with Artificial Intelligence. But why start here, with this ancient story, in an exploration of love?
In the contemporary lesson read earlier, philosopher Simon May writes that the banishment from the garden is what creates the possibility for love. And the possibility that love becomes the central virtue of a well-lived human life.
He points out that love itself doesn’t seem to exist in Eden prior to the Fall. The word never appears. Whatever relationship the characters Adam and Eve have in the story, love is never used to describe it.
And, according to May, that’s because Eden is the place of abundance, where every need is met. Only when the humans are sent into exile, where they must struggle to meet their needs, does the possibility of love actually exist. For then we actually need each other. Need one another for companionship, support, survival, to live well.
Longing, then, is at the root of love. A desire, need, search, to find connection with others that help us to feel rooted and to flourish.
The reason this ancient story resonates is because it describes what May calls a universal human experience of exile. All of us experience forms of exile. The are the rather direct ways, like leaving home, having our heart broken, the grief at the loss of a person significant to us. But Simon May also points out that every newborn child experiences a form of exile. Here’s how he states it: “We are born into a world not of our making at a time not of our choosing. It will gradually dawn on us that we are strangers in the land where we must eventually make our home.”
And, he believes this basic need from infancy stays with us. Even when we aren’t aware of it. He writes that the desire to feel at home “inevitably pervades our lives.” We are always longing and searching for a place to be rooted.
So Simon May defines love as “the joy inspired by whomever or whatever we experience as rooting . . . our life.” Love is “a promise of home in the world.”
May also argues that this way of understanding love is far more beneficial to us than the way we’ve understood it in the last few centuries, because that way has inevitably led to failure and disappointment. What does he mean?
He argues that for a couple of centuries, we humans have been trying to secularize divine love—an effort that, he explains, was always going to fail. We took an image of divine love that is unconditional, perfect, eternal, and needs nothing, and insisted that authentic human love had to aspire to that. Which is to set humanity up for failure. One simple reason—we aren’t God. We can’t love like God does. He says it was hubris, in fact, to think that we could. Hubris that led to disappointment.
We humans can’t love uninterestedly, without need. The very idea is “unintelligible,” he says, and undermines the very thing we value. Instead, we should understand that in love, we are searching for something we need. Love can’t be uninterested. For with love, we are seeking to be rooted, to find a home in the world.
Also tied to the failed notion of love, was the concept that we must sacrifice ourselves for such a love. That too is unintelligible. Instead, when we love, we are trying to find ourselves—to live well, to flourish. Yes, giving of the self is involved in loving, but not sacrificing or giving up the self.
The kind of giving that is involved in genuine love is that the beloved becomes the person we can give our full self too. Or, as May describes it “the loved one can flood their lover with who they are: with the force of their presence.” Genuine love is where we can be our full, authentic, honest selves and still be at home, with each other.
“The meaning and worth of love,” according to the 19th century Russian Vladimir Solovyov, “is that it really forces us, with all our being, to acknowledge” for another person the same significance that we do for ourselves. “Love is important . . . as the transfer of all our interest in life from ourselves to another, as the shifting of the very center of our personal lives.”
How do we begin to do this, then? To pursue this longing for home, to shift the center of our lives, to find ourselves in another?
According to Simon May, love’s primary virtue is “Attentiveness.” Which he describes as “ a resolute and unequivocating openness to the loved one.” We approach another person with our full attention and wonder and give “joyful recognition and affirmation of [their] existence.” With true attentiveness, we are curious about the other and are patient to discover everything we can about them.
This sort of devotion to another is the complete opposite of the sin of pride. Pride closes us off to the full reality of anyone else. But attentiveness is opening ourselves fully to another. And finding there our sense of joy and home.
This sort of attention overcomes our egoism, but it is never “selfless.” As Simon May points out, true attention “demands the fully engaged presence of our self.” Being attentive to another is intentional and willful. Never some passive experience. Attention is animated by desire and longing.
The week of St. Valentine’s Day, the New York Times re-ran an old article “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love.” A scientific study revealed that intimacy can be accelerated by what sorts of questions we ask each other when we are getting to know each other. According to the article,
The idea is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness. To quote the study’s authors, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, so this exercise forces the issue.
Here are a few of the questions:
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- When did you last sing to yourself?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
- What is your most terrible memory?
- How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
- When did you last cry in front of another person?
- What’s the one thing, besides people and pets, that you would save if your house was on fire?
I sent that article with all of its questions to one my friends who is currently in the start of a new relationship, and she said they did explore the questions together.
The impulse behind the exercise fits well with this idea that love is fostered by attention—curiously, and with wonder and vulnerability, exploring another person and sharing ourselves with them at the same time. In doing this we fill our longing, and shift the center of our lives.
Finding home, a person to root us, is what humanity longs for. Love overcomes the universal human experience of exile.
Which is why love became the central virtue of the religious traditions stemming from the ancient Hebrews, because exile was central to their experience of history. Simon May describes it this way:
Were not the Hebrews forced to recognize love as the supreme virtue precisely because they could never take a home in the world for granted, but had to earn it anew again and again? Was it not the depth of their experience of exile, and so the inextinguishable urgency of their search for a promise of ontological rootedness, that made it possible for them to hear the call for love to be not merely one virtue among others, but the highest virtue of all?
And it is the exploration of that highest virtue of all, to which we will turn our focus this Lenten season. Love that begins in exile, in longing, in the search for a home that will root us. And that we find when we give our attention fully and openly to another. We’ll have more to say about these ideas, and how they relate to our spiritual growth. Our goal, as we move toward Easter, is to hear the call to new life. That helps us to shift the center of our lives.
So, spiritual growth to new life through a richer understanding of the central and highest virtue of our lives. A good journey for this season.