January 16, 2005
The order of beneficence

One more point that came up in the cult-of-Eros discussion was about the balance between love owed to intimates and love owed to humanity in general. Alex Tsai put it well:

Would a simplistic reading of this account discard the moral complexities of the "order of beneficence"? (Stephen Post used that term in a paper he wrote entitled "Love and the Order of Beneficence", published in I-Forget-Which-Obscure-Journal.) We tend to care more about our husbands and wives more than our college roommates, and we tend to care more about our drinking buddies more than the random bum on the street. Christ's preaching of love for enemies was (and is) a radical teaching -- a radical expansion of love from mere blood ties and friendships to include "neighbor" (i.e., everyone). But does it set aside as unworthy the concentric spheres of love that we have all been culturally conditioned to accept?

I don't know for sure, but my own feeling is that it doesn't. Or more precisely, it doesn't regard them as unworthy but it does regard them as temporary. Jesus said there is no marriage in heaven, but that didn't stop him from opining on marital morality on earth; clearly God is interested in the married state even though it is not destined to last forever. If you follow Yoder's take on the household instructions in the Epistles, Christians are to be subject to those basic structures but wear them lightly, as it were, because the old world is passing away.

Another point that might be relevant here is another theory I learned about in my Family Sociology class, about the "feminization of love." A couple of researchers who studied married couples noticed that men and women tended to have somewhat different ideas about how to show your love for someone: men lean toward "instrumental help" (doing things for people, in other words), while women tend toward "verbal self-disclosure" (talking about intimate matters). The authors argued that society in general thinks of love more in the "female" terms of emotive intimacy, which means women are regarded as being better at love, which has negative consequences for both sexes.

Now, I'm sure sociologists and psychologists and whatnot can argue about whether this is an innate difference between the sexes or not, but another thing that strikes me about the two forms of love is this: only one of them can really be scaled up successfully. That is, emotional intimacy is necessarily limited to a close group, while instrumental help can be raised to a mass level. That is probably why the love that Jesus talked about most of the time was of the "male" variety -- his famous love-your-neighbor example of the Good Samaritan, for instance.

So it seems likely to me that the feminization of love happened along with the privatization of love that I described before, where love belongs to the family but social Darwinism reigns outside it. Historically there was a tendency to err the other way -- to understand intimate relations like marriage entirely instrumentally, in terms of reproduction and what it gains the family or tribe, and ignore people's emotions. So while I've been speaking in broad strokes here in critiquing society's attitudes toward love, I do think a balance is necessary.

Finally (and this is the last I'll say on this subject -- then back to Yoder) Lee and Christopher both pointed out that the divide between the classic "three loves" -- eros, agape and philia -- may not be as tidy as all that. Dwight, in fact, made the same point recently in an unrelated post. That's an interesting point, and it's also worth pointing out that the classic Greek definition of Eros was "desiring love," which may or may not mean sexually desiring.

Still, when it comes to human love, sex is a pretty clear dividing point: either you're going to have it, or you aren't. And of course while sex may express love, it is also a thing unto itself, the biological process by which human beings reproduce. As such, I understand why heterosexual unions have a special place in society, and however much celibacy or gay unions may be accepted, they probably always will.

So my proposition here isn't so much that romantic love should be melted away in some undifferentiated good will toward humanity, but that it should be put in its place. It is not the whole of love or the main guiding force in human relationships; it exists within an "order of beneficence" and within a larger realm of love of which it is but one manifestation.

Posted by Camassia at January 16, 2005 03:33 PM | TrackBack

This was a great discussion. Thank you.

Posted by: Adam on January 21, 2005 06:40 PM
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