Another Theology of the Body, Part III--The Dangers of "Loving" in the Abstract

Parable of the Good Samaritan, by Jan Wijnants (1670)
At some point, I will get to talking about specific moral rules, but I wanted to take a quick detour to talk about one consequence of Rowan Williams's framing of love (including sexual love) in terms of vulnerability.  Looking at love this way takes it out of the abstract and grounds it firmly in the personal and the concrete.

As discussed in the last post, the act of being vulnerable, of showing another person who I am in an unfiltered way, can be thought of as the engine that powers the "good stuff" about love.  If the other person doesn't see me as I am, and I in turn don't see them as they really are, I will be skeptical of the love I am receiving in return.  That "breaks the spell" and short-circuits the power of the experience of being loved.

This experience of vulnerability does not necessarily have to be binary, especially if you zoom out from a strict focus on sex.  For example, I come from a family of six people (now seven, with the addition of my sister's husband).  In a very real way, we are all vulnerable to each other--the time of living together and being together has exposed everyone to each other.  My parents, brother, and sisters see as close to the "real" me as anyone does, and so the response I get from them is as close to the total acceptance as one can get without the sexual component being present.  The love between and among the members of my family is "real love" in the way Williams is talking about.

But the love among the members of my family is grounded in the individual relationships between the various members.  It may be the case that the whole is greater than the some of the parts, but the parts are an enormous component of the whole.  And even if there was no whole, the individual parts would endure.  It may be the case that I came to love the individual members of my family due to the "close quarters" of being together, but it remains true that I now have an individual, concrete loving relationship with each of them that is separate from this abstraction called "the Boyle family."  As a result, it doesn't really matter if I love "the Boyle family" in the abstract, or whether that concept means anything at all, because I love (and am loved by) the individual people that make up "the Boyle family."

The problem comes when all there is is the abstraction, without any concrete people being involved.

For example, it is easy for me to say something like "I love the people who live in Tanzania."  But what does that actually mean?  I don't know anyone who lives in Tanzania, so "people who live in Tanzania" is a complete abstraction.  I do not in any way have to reckon with the individual problems and flaws that "people in Tanzania" have, so it is costless for me to "love" them on that level.  I am not vulnerable to "people in Tanzania," nor are the vulnerable to me in any way.  My "love" for the people of Tanzania is empty sentiment, but importantly it is easy empty sentiment.

Because loving a group is so much easier than loving an actual person, moving discussions of love to the abstract is a way of taking ourselves off the hook.  Take for example Jesus's famous statement (which he quotes from Deuteronomy) that we are to "love our neighbor as ourselves."  (e.g. Luke 10:27).  In Luke's Gospel, that quotation is immediately followed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  For those not familiar with the parable, it is a story of a man who is injured on the side of the road, and is ignored by the important religious and political figures of the time.  But the Samaritan, a political and religious outcast who was not supposed to having anything to do with a Jewish man, takes care of the injured party.  "Who was loving their neighbor?" Jesus asks, and the answer is clearly "the Samaritan."

The problem with that parable is that it is often taught with the take-away that "everyone is our neighbor."  In doing so, it makes "loving your neighbor" into a sentimental abstraction, and we are back to the "loving people in Tanzania" problem.  If everyone is your neighbor, than no one is your neighbor.

But I don't think that's what the parable means.  What I think the parable means is that everyone is potentially your neighbor.  The Samaritan did not know he was going to encounter a naked, wounded Jewish man on the road, but there he was.  There was an actual, concrete person from a tribe that completely rejected him and his people, and the Samaritan was required to love him.  Not "Jewish people" in general, or "everyone," but this dude.  The lesson of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that loving your neighbor makes tangible demands on us in relation to the specific people that happen to be around us, and we don't get to invoke out-clauses based on what categories we are able to put them in.  To broaden the idea of "our neighbor" to include everyone in the world is to give ourselves an out-clause, an opportunity to retreat into abstraction.  When we love "our neighbor" in the abstract, it can give us an excuse for failing to love this particular person who happens to be right next to us.

Or, let's take a more current example, one that is more directly tied to sexuality.  It is a standard move among traditionalists when talking about LGBT issues to say things like "we are called to love homosexuals." (or whatever construction is fashionable in those circles--I think "same sex attracted" is the current buzzword).  "Homosexuals" are just as much of an abstraction as "people from Tanzania," and subject to the same problems.  In fact, the problem is probably worse here, since repeating that one "loves homosexuals" in the abstract can be used as self-justification for doing and saying terrible things with regard to some particular person who is LGBT.  "I'm not a bigot for saying that gay sex is a 'sin that cries out to heaven,' because after all I love homosexuals in the abstract."  But since no one can really love an abstraction like "homosexuals," the scale doesn't remotely balance.

To really love "the homosexual," we would have to be become vulnerable to a particular LGBT person and allow them to be vulnerable with us.  As it turns out, when people actually do this, when people actually get to know an LGBT person, it is often the case that their objections to the abstraction melt away, as demonstrated in poll after poll.  This shouldn't be all that surprising, since it represents replacing the pseudo love for an abstraction with actual love for an actual person.  Real love has very profound effects, something that Christianity has taught from the beginning.  We shouldn't be surprised that it is true in this case.

The take-away from all of this for me is that, when we talk about sexuality, we must have a laser-like focus on the concrete experiences that people have, and avoid getting sucked into the vortex of abstractions.  To talk about love as an abstraction is to distort its true nature, and to allow us to contort it into a tool to get us off the hook from the hard work of real loving.  Love is love only when it is an encounter with an actual person.


Anonymous said…
You have a really good point about "loving" in the abstract. I feel that many men in the Church (especially celibate men) love women in the abstract. I feel that this is one of the dangers of the cult of the Virgin Mary. It is so easy to love the Virgin Mother (the epitome of femininity who does not provoke any troubling sexual desires) and so difficult to love the actual, every day women with whom they may be confronted.
Michael Boyle said…
That's a great example. It would add that, in addition to not provoking sexual desire, the Virgin Mary can be constructed as a version of femininity that have sexual desire of her own. That's often the really problematic element in actual women for these types of guys.

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