Hermeneutic Labor!

I've often talked and taught about hermeneutics in my role as a pastor, but was pleasantly surprised to see the term appear here in an article on dating, and the coining of a new term "hermeneutic labor"!

P. S.  I can also talk about emotionally stunted men, but we'll save that for another time.

The academic paper on Hermeneutic Labor is worth a perusal too.  

Hermeneutic labor is the burdensome activity of: understanding and coherently expressing one's own feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations; discerning those of others; and inventing solutions for relational issues arising from interpersonal tensions. 

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Related to emotional labor but distinct from it, hermeneutic labor is the burdensome activity of a) understanding one's own feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations, and presenting them in an intelligible fashion to others when deemed appropriate; b) discerning others’ feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations by interpreting their verbal and nonverbal cues, including cases when these are minimally communicative or outright avoidant; and c) comparing and contrasting these multiple sets of feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations for the purposes of conflict resolution. Hermeneutic labor is related to emotional labor because it works on the emotions—and, more broadly, the emotional domain of interpersonal life. Yet it is distinct from emotional labor because it pertains to explicit processes of interpreting emotions (as well as desires, intentions, and motivations) through cognitive processes, such as deliberating and ruminating. 

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According to hermeneutics, the work of interpretation is a complex and learned skill, one element of which is understanding one's own prejudices as one investigates various layers of meaning. This requires skills in self-reflection, as well as nuanced and often intimate acquaintance with the meaning of cues from others. Hermeneutics recognizes that communication happens within a world of interpreters with cognitive biases, and thus encourages actively resisting the illusion that individual expression will be transparently received as intended by the person(s) to whom it is expressed. “A hermeneutically trained consciousness” must be sensitive to alterity (Gadamer Reference Gadamer, Weinsheimer and Marshall2004, 271).

***

The skills involved in emotional labor come into play primarily in rapid responses to dynamic social situations with other people in real time. By contrast, hermeneutic labor primarily involves patient, deliberative reflection, and is generally undertaken in solitary rumination and/or in conversations outside of the situations on which it labors, as in conversations with friends or counselors. Hermeneutic labor reflects on social encounters after they occur, and prepares plans for future encounters. This may include reflecting on how they made one feel—and whether that feeling was appropriate to the situation—as well as reflecting how others may have felt in the situation, and whether one should respond to others differently in similar situations in the future. It also often involves attempts to infer another's mental and emotional state and make judgments about their personality by synthesizing multiple impressions one has received from another person over time. Emotional labor is the nurse extending a warm smile and squeeze of the hand as an elderly patient recounts a story from their past that the nurse has heard many times already; hermeneutic labor is the nurse wondering on the ride home whether her response was appropriate, and whether next time she might be able to tell the patient that she's heard the story before without hurting the patient's feelings.


Empowered by Love

Empowered by Love

Song of Solomon 2:8-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 March 2024

               One of the fun aspects of my work life the last few years has been the Millennial young women on staff who have opened my horizons to new things.  For example, in the ups and downs of my adventures in dating, Lizzie Patterson will send me helpful playlists of Taylor Swift songs.  So, as I’ve been working on this Lenten sermon series on love, I thought she might have some good recommendations, and she did.  Thanks Lizzie for the soundtrack of my sermon preparation.

            The song that resonated with this week’s sermon isn’t a Taylor Swift song, but is instead a Ben Rector song that Lizzie said “always makes me happy.” The song is “Forever Like That” and begins:

Well, I'll be your rainy day lover
Whenever the sunny days end
And whatever the weather we have each other
And that's how the story will end

Well, I'll be your shade tree in summer
If you'll be my fire when it's cold
And whatever the season
Well, we'll keep on breathing
'Cause we'll have each other to hold
And I'll hold you and I'll sing

Well, I wanna love you forever, I do
I wanna spend all of my days with you
I'll carry your burden and be the wind at your back
I wanna spend my forever
Forever like that

            Love songs are some of our favorite songs.  They resonate with our emotions.  They also themselves become part of our life stories, as they were the songs we were listening to at significant moments in our lives.  Sometimes they help us make sense of what we are feeling.  Putting words to the emotions.  Giving us a mantra to repeat over and over.

            A song like this one expresses the power we experiences in our deepest connections.  We feel our full selves to be awakened, even as we are being attentive to the fullness of another person.  bell hooks writes that in true love “individuals . . . feel in touch with each other’s core identity.  Embarking on such a relationship is frightening precisely because we feel there is no place to hide.  We are known.”

            And what happens when we experience this intoxicating revelation?  hooks says, “All the ecstasy that we feel emerges as this love nurtures us and challenges us to grow and transform.”  True love both reveals our full authentic self and empowers and encourages us to grow and transform.  Here’s bell hooks again:  “True love accepts the person who now is without qualifications, but with a sincere and unwavering commitment to help him to achieve his goals of self-unfoldment.”

            One of the delights of our scriptural tradition is that the Bible includes the Song of Solomon, an unparalleled explosion of erotic poetry.  That has long resisted all efforts to allegorize it to mean something other than the clear initial meaning that can cause us to blush.  Its presence in the canon is a delight, but still a surprise.  What is it doing here?

            I recently read a wonderful book on the formation of the Hebrew Scriptures entitled Why the Bible Began by the professor Jacob L. Wright.  He contends that late in the history of the development of the Hebrew religion, after all the experiences of trauma, exile, and restoration, the focus turned to how ordinary people should respond to all this religious history.  Interestingly he places the Book of Esther as the culmination of this exercise, and I plan to teach an adult ed series on Wright’s book sometime this summer. 

            He contends that the Song of Songs is there to teach us that we aren’t self-sufficient.  That the only way to develop fully is in partnership and collaboration.  That we need each other to heal the traumas of human suffering.  Also that this truth of our personal lives is true in our collective lives.  Society can’t function without loving and nurturing personal relationships.  That should create loving and healthy families.  That can then hopefully come together to create loving and healthy and nurturing societies.  Wright states, “The Song of Songs celebrates the construction of this collaborative self and the kind of partnership that is essential to human flourishing.”

            That this Song is about the healing power of love is echoed in the work of the excellent Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, who writes of this book, that it invites us to play with its meanings and to immerse ourselves in the experience of love so that we might “envision that the deep wounds that have plagued human existence almost from the beginning might yet be healed.”

            The nineteenth century Russian thinker Vladimir Solovyov contended that what was needed to heal humanity was more love, particularly erotic love.  That kind of love can heal us, and can teach us about the sort of human unity that we should strive for socially and politically.  He wrote, “The relation of the one to the other would be a complete and continual exchange, a complete and continual affirmation of oneself in the other, with perfect reciprocity and communion.”  True love at its best teaches us about joy, mutuality, and communion.  It encourages and empowers us to grow and become our best selves. 

            So, this Lent we’ve been exploring the new account of Love developed by the philosopher Simon May.  Who describes love as our joyful response to the promise of feeling rooted.  And that this experience has four facets—love makes us feel alive, that we are at home, that we are empowered, and it calls us to a new self.  Today we are focused on that third idea, how love empowers us.  Here is May’s handy description:

We feel that [the person we love possesses] decisive power to deepen our sense of existing—power to intensify the reality and vitality, and therefore the validity, of our existence, as we experience it.  This is the power—a power that at the limit feels like one of life and death—by which love is always inspired and to which it is unfailingly attracted.

            How have you experienced love as empowering?  As intensifying reality?  As deepening your sense of existing?  Listen to a few love songs, like the one from Ben Rector, or the one in the Bible, and these aspects of love are paramount.

            Simon May writes that this is one reason heartbreak is so devastating, which you can also learn by listen to break-up songs.  May writes that losing this feeling of being empowered “can plunge us into a living death.”  Almost a loss of our sense of being. 

            When I was a youth minister, one of the aspects of pastoral care for teenagers is the depth of heartbreak they feel at the loss of a first love.  It devastates them.  As if the world is coming to an end.  And the world is coming to an end for them in an important way.  Because a first love is an experience of someone who we can be our full selves with for the first time, reveal deep secrets about ourself, find the embrace of our authenticity, and then this exhilarating rush of empowerment.  So when that ends for the first time in our lives, it is crushing.

            How have you experienced this side of love as well?  Sometimes seeing the experience from the other side reveals how powerful the feeling really is. 

            Simon May’s understanding of love as the joyful response to the feeling of being rooted isn’t limited though to our romantic loves.  He believes this is our experience of love in all its facets—in family, friendship, even the love of God.  And over the last few weeks we’ve touched on these loves as well.  In our relationship with God, we can feel empowered, a deepening of our sense of existence, a renewed vitality.  Our closest friendships make us feel that way too.  My best friend Robyn is currently living at my house as she goes through a divorce.  And we are cherishing this time to grow even closer.

            One idea we haven’t explored yet, but that is central to Simon May’s new understanding of love, is that Western culture is going through a shift in its understanding of the supreme object of love.  The paradigm love has been romantic love for a few centuries now, but he says in the twenty-first century the trend is clearly toward parental love being the supreme form of love.  Excelling as a parent is now one of the most important life goals and viewed as essential to human flourishing by a wide segment of society.

            Obviously this idea has resonated deeply with me and my own experience of love.  As my romantic relationship ended and no other has arisen to take its place, the supreme object of my love has been my son.  And the role of Dad has been the richest, most rewarding part of my life.  Being a father deepens my sense of existence, fills me with vitality, empowers and encourages me to be my best self. 

            We all have different life stories.  Love comes to us in various forms, in various relationships.  Maybe it’s our best friend.  Maybe we find it in romance.  Maybe we experience it from our parents or in being a parent. Maybe our richest, most empowering love is in our religious experience.  Maybe it is in our artistic expression—music or dance or painting.  Maybe the love that empowers us is in our work or service for others.  You can imagine a teacher, for example, who finds the most empowering love in the children she nurtures. 

            The God who is love has given us a great gift.  Love is the source of joy and delight.  Love heals and transforms.  Love opens us up, expanding our horizons.  Love embraces our authentic selves and encourages our growth and transformation. 

            As we head into this Holy Week, preparing to experience the Passion of Christ and awaiting Resurrection, may we be empowered by love.


Promise of Home

Promise of Home

Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 20-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 March 2024

            Through her TED Talk, podcast, and best-selling books, the psychotherapist Esther Perel has become one of America’s most trusted voices on relationships.   Helping us understand how the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives. As she writes, “We magnify the good qualities of those we love, and confer on them almost mythical powers.  We transform them, and we in turn are transformed in their presence.”

A pretty intoxicating experience.  Something we obviously desire and long for.

            The beginning of a new relationship can be so exciting.  Here is her description:

Beginnings are always ripe with possibilities, for they hold the promise of completion.  Through love we imagine a new way of being.  You see me as I’ve never seen myself.  You airbrush my imperfections, and I like what you see.  With you, and through you, I will become that which I long to be.  I will become whole.  Being chosen by the one you chose is one of the glories of falling in love.  It generates a feeling of intense personal importance.  I matter.  You confirm my significance.

            She adds that so much of the beginning of a relationship is filled with dreams and fantasies.  Sometimes the long-term reality fits those hopes, but often it doesn’t. 

            At the core of her approach is a tension she sees in most contemporary American relationships between security and freedom.  When we first fall in love with someone it is because they excite us, there is a sense of adventure, sometimes risk even.  But what we long for in a serious, long-term relationship, particularly in marriage, is security, stability, reliability.  Herein lies the tension.  We want one person to provide both constancy and excitement.  In her practice of counseling couples, she finds that this tension is almost always at the root of whatever problem has brought them into therapy.

            She believes this tension has been exacerbated in the United States by a decline in our friendships and other social relationships.  She writes that “modern life has deprived us of our traditional resources, and has created a situation in which we turn to one person for the protection and emotional connections that a multitude of social networks used to provide.  Adult intimacy has become overburdened with expectations.”  In essence, one person cannot be all things for us.  We need friends, family, work, other outlets and support systems.

            Our need for reliability and constancy also, she says, leads to neutralizing the beloved’s complexity and limiting their ability to grow and change.  She writes, “Our need for constancy limits how much we are willing to know the person who’s next to us.  We are invested in having him or her conform to an image that is often a creation of our own imagination, based on our own set of needs.”

            Esther Perel does believe there are steps we can take to address these tensions and work on the issues that arise.  That is her profession—a relationship therapist.  And her books and talks are filled with ideas on how to heighten curiosity, excitement, play, and adventure within long-term relationships.  For a loving relationship ought to make us feel more alive.

            Which is one of the themes we’ve already explored in this Lenten series on love.  We are using Simon May’s idea that love is the joyful response we have to the promise of finding ourselves rooted in another person.  That sort of love, he says, manifests itself in four experiences—feeling more alive, feeling at home, being empowered, and being called to a new self.  We’ve been taking these points one at a time, and today are focused on the experience of feeling at home in love.

            The first week in this series, I discussed how May believes love arises from our universal human experience of exile.  That because we arrive into a world not of our choosing and have to learn to make our way in it, we long to be rooted and grounded in that effort.  He claimed that this origin of love can be seen in the story of Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden of Eden.  This ancient myth describes the archetypal human experience of feeling uprooted and desiring to find a home.

            And desiring to find a home is key to this biblical text from Deuteronomy and the experience of the ancient Hebrews in the stories of the Exodus and the journey to a Promised Land. 

            According to Simon May this idea that in love we are searching for a home is evident in the core stories of Western Civilization.  In the Bible here in the stories of the Exodus and also of Abraham and Sarah and their journey to a new land to establish a new home.  The other archetypal story he says is the Odyssey, as Odysseus spends decades trying to get back home to Ithaca and his wife Penelope, his efforts constantly thwarted by gods, witches, and monsters. 

            In the Odyssey, May says Odysseus must face a series of challenges, all of which present counterfeits of the true love that awaits him at home.  Odysseus must overcome any temptation to settle.  The story also reveals that finding our true love, our sense of home, can be long endeavor, with dangers faced along the way.

            In the biblical stories of Genesis and Exodus, May says we learn that our home in the world often isn’t found where we start out, but is, instead, something we must journey toward.  It is a new place we must go.  And that our help in getting there is the covenantal God, who inspires us and teaches us how to love. 

            From the biblical stories we also learn that “the way of love is strewn with difficulties, some of them self-inflicted.”  I liked this powerfully written sentence, “Even when an overwhelming promise of love is staring us in the face, golden calves beckon everywhere.”

            Another aspect of love that we learn from the biblical stories is that “rootedness is promised; it isn’t guaranteed.”  May writes, “There is no endpoint at which home is secured once and for all, and so at which love’s orientation to the future ceases.”  Instead, the biblical stories remind us that we are constantly moving forward, looking to the promises of the future.

            Simon May concludes that the biblical stories teach us that “to love well is not a matter of merely celebrating a promise offered by the loved one, or seeking a relationship with him or her of comforting stability, but involves tremendous effort and risk, patience and responsibility.”

            This is because the Bible teaches us that genuine love is with “all your heart, all your soul, all your might.”  A hard and demanding task.

            I feel like May’s discussion of the biblical lessons resonates with Perel’s contemporary psychotherapeutic advice.  For Simon May, the love we learn from God and the Bible is a love that offers us the promise of home, but it is never a boring, settled place.  The sense of home that love provides is “a reliable place in the world,” but which makes us more alive.  For love to flourish and truly provide us a sense of home, we must always be turned toward the future promise and taking the risk of loving fully.  May describes the promise of home as presenting “thrilling new possibilities for your flourishing and freedom.”

            This is not the boring sense of constancy Esther Perel worriedly sees in many marriages.  Instead, the biblical promise of home, provides both safety and excitement, and in that way, evokes our sense of wonder.

            So, if Esther Perel is right about the tension that underlies most relationship problems in the United States today—this tension between security and freedom—then it seems that the idea of love we draw from the Bible and our experience of God offers a healthy response.  To be at home is never to be boringly settled, but to always be journeying together into a future of promise, full of adventure, excitement, wonder, flourishing, and freedom.  And it is precisely because true love offers that aliveness that we find it to be safe, constant, and reliable.


Love Heals

Love Heals

Psalm 18:1-6, 16-19, 35

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

10 March 2024

            Often, the relationships that should have been loving—should have been where we felt at home, fully alive, welcomed, understood, and embraced as our authentic selves—are also the source of our deepest wounds.  Dysfunctional families, neglectful or abusive parents, unhealthy or toxic relationships, betrayal, infidelity, dishonesty, etc.  What should have been loving can be wounding instead.

            And, yet, we maintain the belief that love itself is the power of healing.  True love, genuine love, healthy love, divine love.  That sort of love does set us free, make us feel at home, enliven and empower us, in order that we might flourish.

            bell hooks argues in her book All About Love that we humans are bad at loving because we don’t understand how to do it well.  I mentioned that a couple of weeks ago as one of the motivating factors behind our Lenten exploration of the topic.

            But, despite that concern, hooks is convinced of the healing and redemptive powers of love. 

            She does write about her own experiences of being wounded in the family she grew up in, and the struggles that resulted.  She write about how her “self-destructive, self-betraying behavior” trapped her.  She continues:

We could not choose healing because we were not sure we could ever mend, that the broken bits and pieces could ever be put together again.  We comforted ourselves by acting out.  But this comfort did not last.  It was usually followed by depression and overwhelming grief.  We longed to be rescued because we did not know how to save ourselves.  More often than not we became addicted to living dangerously.  Clinging to this addiction made it impossible for us to be well in our souls.  As with all other addiction, letting go and choosing wellness was our only way of rescue and recovery.

            In her vulnerable honesty about the effects of her family of origin upon her adult lack of wellbeing and unhealthy living, hooks points us to an important reality about love and its relationship to healing.  One of the most important things we can do as people is to provide children a loving childhood.  Providing healthiness from the get-go can alleviate so much of the need for healing later in life.

            One of the best books I, as a parent, read about childhood was Allison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby.  The book is written for a general audience, though it’s obvious why I as a philosopher engaged with it so.  I’ve talked and written about the book numerous times before, but one of its most important contributions is the discussion of how love is vital to healthy childhood development.  And how love is then cultivated in children through the way they are raised. 

            She summarizes all the scientific data that shows lifelong damage done to people with unhealthy, unloving childhoods.  They generally grow up with poorer physical and mental health, are less happy, are more depressed, more like to experience addiction and dangerous behaviors, and even more likely to have worse economic outcomes.  The evidence is overwhelming that getting the first few years of life right is the most important thing we can do for any human being.  Gopnik concludes:

You would think that if there is anything in the world that we can all agree is an unequivocal good, a moral absolute, an end in itself, it is the happiness and health of children.  You would think everyone would agree that a sick, or miserable, or abused child is an unequivocal evil if anything is.

            She also writes about how babies learn morality through the affection and attachment they receive from their caregivers.  Babies deprived of touch, support, or intimacy, are very unlikely to develop empathy or compassion or an understanding of fundamental moral practices.  She writes that babies are actually capable of empathy and morality from the beginning of life.  It’s not that they have to learn it from a blank slate.  But that their instincts in that direction need to be affirmed and then modeled off of the adults caregivers in their lives. 

            Adults must be aware of these realities and so intentional in the encouraging, supportive, and loving ways they interact with children.  Because we know that some jerk who says or does something critical, inappropriate, or shaming can have lasting negative effects.

            So the first and most vital way for love to be healing, is for us to do our best to provide loving and supportive childhoods for all human beings.

            But, what if we carry some wound through life?  How does love then heal us?  And bell hooks provides lots of helpful advice.  She says it begins by taking responsibility for our own healing.  Healing is not a passive thing.  It does to occur without our participation.  It cannot be done for us by someone else.  She says we must open our hearts and do the work.

            Though she does add that it isn’t work we do alone.  We must be the agents of our healing, but we can’t do it as individuals.  “Healing is an act of communion,” she writes.  And the most power healing relationships are those of healthy, genuine love, that promote our spiritual growth and well-being.

            She does suggest some specific things to do.  One is to pray.  Prayer, she says, strengthens our soul.  It stretches us and opens us up, and brings comfort and hope. 

            She also recommends practices of waiting and surrender, of learning to let go, such as in Buddhist contemplation.  These spiritual practices create space for compassion, for both ourselves and others, and then awaken us to the power of service on behalf of others.

            And service to others can itself be one of the most healing things we do.  As it draws us outside of ourselves into engagement with others in ways that honors and respects them and their worth and well-being. 

            She believes that these spiritual practices can aid us in releasing all the baggage that we carry.  Including learning to let go of shame and practice forgiveness and reconciliation.

            Another spiritual practice of healing she recommends is living simply.  She writes that so much of the clutter and busy-ness of our lives distracts us from the spiritual journey.  And if we learned to live more simply, then we would be likely to experience delight, and “engage the sensual world around us with . . . pleasure.”

            If we do engage in these healing spiritual practices, then the awakening that results, hooks writes, “is a resurrection.”  Which, of course, is precisely what we are aiming for this Lenten season, as we move toward Easter Sunday.

            bell hooks writes, “Despite all the lovelessness that surrounds us, nothing has been able to block our longing for love, the intensity of our yearning.”  For her, this is the most hopeful thing.  Despite all of humanity’s failures to center love and to love well, we humans are still longing, still searching, still desiring, still striving to get it right.  “The persistence of this call,” she writes, “give us reason to hope.” 

            For our very yearning, the idea that we still haven’t achieved the love we aim for, is what creates the opportunity, the possibility, for healing and growth.

            And what we Christians encounter in our tradition is a God who loves us, who hears our cries, and saves us.  God delivers us, heals us, restores us, and transforms us. 

            The connection between love and healing and deep in our religious tradition.  Recently I read a book about Mary Magdalene that emphasized her leadership in the early Christian community as an apostle of wisdom, love, and healing.  And the book talked about how anointing is tied to Mary Magdalene, and the role of anointing in the healing traditions of the church.  The book encouraged that we do more anointing, as a sacred ritual, maybe even a sacrament, to lift up the role of healing.

            We have done that in our worship, though it’s been a while.  I think I’ll do some anointing as part of our Holy Week services this year.  Of course, there is an aspect of anointing on Ash Wednesday.  When we mark the forehead with ashes to remind us of our mortality, the ashes have been mixed with oil.  Otherwise they wouldn’t stick well.  But it isn’t just a practical reason oil is mixed with the ashes.  The ritual is an anointing.  It is a reminder of healing.  Particularly that open and honest discussion of our mortality and death is part of spiritual and emotional health and well-being.

            I’m currently teaching an adult forum series on God in contemporary theology, and as I was preparing for this week’s class, I was reviewing one of the more recent books of the greatest living theologian, the German Jurgen Moltmann.  And in that book he writes about how if we better grasped the ways that God is present to us, it would help us to answer our existential questions and live better during this time of crisis for humanity. 

            And what is it about God that we should grasp?  These are the three bullet points we highlights:

  • In the eternal yes of the living God, we affirm our fragile and vulnerable humanity in spite of death.
  • In the eternal love of God, we love life and resist its devastations.
  • In the ungraspable nearness of God, we trust in what is saving, even if the dangers are growing.

Despite all that might wound us and harm us—in our presents, our pasts, or even the future coming to humanity—we can continue to say yes to life, to hope, to delight, to trust that we can be healed, because we experience and believe in the amazing grace and love of God.


Why the Bible Began

Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and its OriginsWhy the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and its Origins by Jacob L. Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read numerous books on the Hebrew Scriptures over the decades, and this may be the very best. A summary of the current state of scholarship (and archaeological research), he presents the best understanding of ancient Israelite history, the development of the religion, and the writing, editing, and formation of the canon. Here was synthesized bits and pieces I'd encountered in recent years in various places, but never all put together. And some of it was also new to me. The picture presented is radically different from what I learned in my Old Testament classes thirty years ago.

View all my reviews

Shifting the Center of Our Lives

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. 


Emerson's Essays

Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo EmersonSelected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Ralph Waldo Emerson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read a few of these essays when I was a sophomore, which seems like the perfect age to do so. When life is full of newness and potential, and we are making choices as to who we are going to become.

I read a little Emerson again a few years later during one of the anniversaries, when there was some Emerson focused events go on.

This reading comes in my very long project of re-reading through the canon in chronological order. And, this time, some resonated and some didn't. You can't accuse him of consistency. Some ideas seemed immature or disproven by the subsequent centuries, while others remain intoxicating. Clearly reading Emerson is still essential to understanding the American character.

One line that really resonated in my reading today was that there are always folks who think they know better how to do your job. Since he was clergy, that really connected with my own experience.

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The Deep Blue Good-By

The Deep Blue Good-By (Travis McGee, #1)The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

MacDonald was recommended to me by a new friend. Not my usual reading, but I did enjoy it. I did not expect the intense ending. So the story held some surprises that made me respect it more. I really loved his descriptions of various things. For instance, the scene when Lois crawls into Travis's bed was SO well written. And sexy.

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