February is here and love is in the air–or maybe that’s packaged chocolates and commercial opportunity. In either case, the subject of love and romance will be coming up again, which is why I must once more bring up my favorite philosopher: Soren Kierkegaard.
For those of you who know a little of his biography, he seems an odd choice to turn to on the subject of love–he was one of my philosophers who failed at it. Tragically he broke off his engagement with the lovely Regine Olsen because he felt his depressive melancholy made him unsuitable as a husband. What could we possibly learn from him about love?
Well, for one thing, he’s experienced at failure, so that gives you some insight. Still, Kierkegaard, for all of his Danish weirdness, has this going for him: he’s easily one of the most biblical, prophetic thinkers of the modern period. Under both his own name, and through pseudonyms, he made it his aim to present Christianity anew, true Christianity, with force to a culture that thought it already understood it.
Works of Love and La Dispute
In his Works of Love he turns his meditations to the biblical concept of love. The first half is an extended exploration of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). The piece that captured my attention was the focus he gives to the “you shall” in Jesus’ command–the fact that Jesus commands love at all. Kierkegaard emphasizes, “You shall love–this, then, is the word of the royal law.” Again, “the mark of Christian love and its distinguishing characteristic is this, that it contains the apparent contradiction: to love is a duty.” (pg. 40) Later he writes, “Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair.” (pg. 44)
Against the popular, romantic “poetic” conception of love that dominated the intellectual scene of his day, Kierkegaard pressed the idea that the highest form of love was not the “spontaneous”, sudden, seizing form of love that sweeps over a couple of lovers, but rather love as duty–love as something secured by the eternal, the command of God. The love of the lovers is beautiful, yes, but it is fleeting–it can change. Even if it lasts, it’s not to be trusted entirely. It can leave. La Dispute gives us one of the best, contemporary expressions of this kind of love on their album, “Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair“, exploring the dynamics of a failed marriage, rent asunder by the wife’s affair.
Speaking in the aftermath, the wife sings, “I know I tore two worlds apart but I can’t change the way I felt./Love swept in like a storm and ripped the hinges from the doors./Love poured in like a flood, I couldn’t stop it anymore. I will not be drowned” (Sad Prayers for Guilty Bodies), or, even more poignantly:
Oh husband, I could not control it
Husband, I could not abstain
One cannot stop the wind from blowing
Nor refuse the falling rain
Love stirred up a storm inside me
Wrapped its arms around my waist
I failed you dear, I’m sorry, oh I’m sorry
There was nothing I could do
No, there was nothing I could
Sure as the rain will fall
Some love just fails without reason
Poetic love is that inherently unstable, emotional chaos that sweeps over us with great passion, and apparently can leave us as quickly. Matt Chandler calls this the “naked angel in a diaper” theory where basically, at any point, cupid can show up and strike you. It has no rhyme or reason, like the blowing of the wind or the falling rain.
Kierkegaard points out that the poets instinctively know this; note how often their lovers swear, make promises, and bind themselves to each other in their love. Still, if they only swear by themselves, it is an insecure promise because humans are changeable, unstable. Only when you swear by something higher, something eternal, duty, God himself, can love be something secure. “The love which simply exists, however fortunate, however blissful, however satisfying, however poetic it is, still must survive the test of the years. But the love which has undergone the transformation of the eternal by becoming duty has won continuity.” (pg. 47)
Kierkegaard, Keller, and Covenant Love
Kierkegaard was pointing his culture to a love “transformed by the eternal”: covenantal love. When we hear the word “covenant” today, we mostly don’t know what we’re dealing with. Contracts are closest thing we can imagine, but that’s far too impersonal for the biblical notion of covenant. The concept and language of covenant in the Bible is that of a legal bond, a union based on promises before God and humans of fidelity, friendship, love, exclusivity, and trust.
Now to us this “legalizing” of the relationship seems to drain all of the emotion, the passion–the love!–out of things. For moderns, it’s either love or law, not both. Tim Keller has recently pointed out that, in fact, the law, the promise, especially the marriage promise, doesn’t kill emotion and intimacy, but actually is a testimony to it and increases it. (The Meaning of Marriage, pp 84-85) Marriage–the public, binding promise–is the ultimate expression of romantic love because its the giving of the whole self. Someone who doesn’t want to eventually get married to the person they’re dating is basically saying, “I don’t love you enough to curtail my freedom for you.” How intimate. Ultimately, only when romantic love is set within the framework of a binding obligation do the lovers truly have space to reveal their true selves, without fear of abandonment or rejection. Until then, you’re still on the performance platform, constantly under pressure to put your best foot forward to make sure the other person doesn’t bolt. Ironically, only when you give up your “freedom”, your romantic autonomy, are you able to be truly free to be with the other.
Love, it turns out, hangs on a promise.
So what does love have to be if it’s something I can promise? How is it different than the poetic love that Kierkegaard is speaking of? In my next post, I’ll lay out more clearly the difference between this covenant love and the poetic love.
Soli Deo Gloria