Biblical text: Song of Solomon Ch 1:15-17, 2: 3-7.
The practice of idolatry was universal in biblical times. The prophet Isaiah mocked it, basically a man cuts down a tree, burns half to make bread and “the rest he makes into a god, his idol; and he falls down to it and worships it, he prays to it and says ‘Deliver me, for thou art my god’.” (Isa 44:7). We can smile about all this, we are children of the enlightenment and idols make even less sense to us than they did to the prophet Isaiah. We dismiss idolatry as primitive superstition or as a precursor to monotheism. Centuries later in the New Testament there was a shift to a more spiritual understanding. St Paul said, “There are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’.” (I Cor 8:5).
When we have ‘eyes to see’ we swim in an ocean of idolatry. I believe idolatry is ubiquitous in modern life. In my last sermon I looked at the idolatry of youth in our culture and I proposed an understanding of idolatry as an over-valuing of something less than God. First, my favourite cartoon from the 1980’s. A temporary teacher is taking the roll, “Is Jody McNulty here?” “Yes, teacher.” “I had a Freedom McNulty yesterday.” “Yes, that is my older sister.” Someone in the class asked “What kind of name is that?” The teacher answered, “Freedom was born in the 1960’s and her name reflects the values of that time.” Then a boy said, “Boy am I glad I wasn’t born then.” The teacher continued with the roll, “Megabucks McDermont here?”
I want to use a less obvious example of idolatry than money. Currently, there is a lot of thinking about the financial system in the Catholic Church and articulated by Pope Francis. I know a group of Christian economists who want to think through issues of faith in this context. I could use other examples such as celebrity culture, current ideologies, or nationalism. The list is almost endless. One of my idols has been academic recognition. The challenge is to begin to recognise the spiritual dynamics and to see how idolatry might present roadblocks to spiritual maturity. In this sermon I look at the idea of romantic love.
- Case Study
What about the romantic love? Isn’t it a good thing? Romantic love has been likened to the seraphim in Isaiah, “Each had six wings, with two he covered his face, we two he covered his feet and with two he flew.” (Isa 6:2). How similar is this to the feeling of being in love: You don’t know where you are going, and you can’t see clearly who you are with, but oh do you fly!”
We are constantly bombarded with messages about romantic love. It is woven into our popular culture and reinforced by endless ‘feel good’ romantic films. Let’s think together about a movie you have probably seen: Pretty Woman (1990). It is the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time. There are frequent references to fairy tales, but that is just the icing on the cake, the substance is a strong message about the magic of romantic love.
The story in brief (just in case you were not one of the 42M who paid to see it or later caught it on TV or video). Richard Gere is a corporate pirate, buying vulnerable companies, stripping them of assets, and making millions – maybe billions. He is so used to having a chauffeur that he can hardly drive a borrowed Lotus sports car. Julia Roberts is a sassy sex worker whom he hires for the week he is in LA. Eventually they fall in love. That was inevitable. But, what romantic love achieve? Basically, Richard Gere gets a heart and Julia Roberts gets class. Being Hollywood all this is achieved with no apparent effort. In My Fair Lady Professor Higgins took a number of months and his phonetic skills to transform a flower girl into a princess. Roberts simply went on a shopping excursion down Rodeo Drive. Pygmalion quick and easy. More mythical than the original. So the message is: surrender to romantic love and it will instantly make you a better person. Rich, attractive, sophisticated, even a bit of saint. The curious thing is that we can watch a film like this and not question its assumptions. It simply confirms what everyone believes.
More interesting than the predictable transformation of Julia Roberts is what changes in Richard Gere. If recognizing human feelings and becoming compassionate is not enough of a transformation, he also becomes more psychologically healthy. In the movie he has a fear of heights. He cannot go out on the balcony of the hotel room, but by the end of the film he scales the fire-escape to Julia Robert’s apartment to bring a bouquet of roses to win his beloved. A phobia does not need therapy when you are in love!
Here is a gospel message. All you have to do to be transformed is to fall in love. Surrender to love and you will be saved!
- Romantic Love in History
The Biblical understanding of love is not romantic. The closest we get is the Song of Solomon, from which I took the Old Testament reading. It is astonishing that this book made it into the Old Testament. It is completely secular; there is no mention of God. It is, however, beautiful love poetry and celebrates sexual attraction. Naturally the rabbis saw a spiritual significance in the text and countless sermons were preached on the love of God for Israel. Christian preachers, such as Bernard of Clairvaux in the middle ages, were not to be outdone and preached on the love of Christ for the church. But it is what it is: a wondrous love poem belonging with Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Our modern understanding of romantic love is a relatively recent ‘invention’. It came out of courtly love in the late middle ages. It appealed to the aristocracy who were the only people who had the luxury of leisure. Most people were subsistence farmers and toiled all day, and at sunset would fall exhausted into bed. I am not ruling out sex but any thoughts of romance were unlikely.
The great romances were among the elites. This included the unrequited love of Dante for Beatrice, the doomed relationship of theologian Abelard with the nun Heloise and troubadours sang about the romance of Tristan, a fictional Cornish knight and the Irish princess Iseult. He was to bring her back for King Mark but in one version they both take a love potent with predictable, if tragic, results.
Allow me to take a ‘cold look’ at romantic love. Originally it was associated with infidelity not marriage. Marriage especially among the rich was for property reasons, sometimes among royalty for political alliances, so it was a rare married couple who ‘fell in love’ before marriage. Later, the renaissance brought back the classical Greek notion of individual rights. This led to a profound shift in the concept of marriage. People thought that they could decide their own destiny, which included the right to marry someone of their own choice. We see this shift in the plays of Shakespeare, who offered one of the earliest critiques of romantic love, “reason and love keep little company together nowadays: the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends”. What we saw 500 years ago was the change in marriage from a socio-political institution to a psychological, even spiritual, one.
- Path to Salvation
So why is all this a problem? What makes romantic love idolatry? It is the expectation that being in love saves. How many people have you heard say that they will only be happy when they find their ‘soul mate’? Only then will his or her life have meaning. Or purpose. Too much is expected of love, it has become what Tillich called an “ultimate concern”.
The idea of being saved through romantic love is the identifying mark of idolatry. The pagan for Isaiah fashioned a god out of wood, we expect romantic love to deliver spiritual fulfilment and eternal happiness.
Now to be clear, I think sexual attraction is wonderful. I don’t think I have a puritan bone in my body! Being romantic is a very good thing if you are dating, in a relationship or married. I bring flowers home to Ann, she loved a red rose that lasted weeks. I think about gifts to celebrate special events, we go out and enjoy fine dining, sharing a bottle of good wine. I’m happy for the mood to be enhanced with classical music. Anything to make a romantic encounter more intense, all this is wonderful – it is just that I don’t expect my love for anyone but God to save me.
The concept of idolatry is very important for spiritual maturity. In part the quest is to discern illusion from reality. This was the point of Plato’s allegory of the cave in his Republic. Prisoners are bound by chains, with a fire behind them and all they see are shadows cast on the wall. How do we distinguish what is a shadow on the wall and what is of substance?
The concept of idolatry helps us to understand that there is something terribly wrong with the love formula. It is shadows, not reality. The shadows include what psychologists call ‘projection’ seeing the beloved in the light of our needs. How we need the person to be. Of course, initially this feels wonderful. We believe the beloved is the ‘bearer of all good gifts’. And we don’t see our own neediness. We try to appear more ‘together’ than we are, less neurotic, less dominated by bad habits and more psychologically healthy. At some point in this unreality, a ‘switch is thrown’ and both people in the relationship become more relaxed, becoming their true selves. The ‘smoke and mirrors’ ends. And the problems begin. The difficulty is not that we are bad people or that love must end, it is a mistake of shadows for substance. It is idolatry. Ultimately what Tillich called “the ground of being”, his expression for God, is traded for an idol. The result is a crisis in relationships. As a couple therapist, I have spent thousands of clinical hours with distressed couples, I have seen the emotional destruction of romantic love. I am still an expert to the family court, where I assessed the damage of unresolved conflict on children.
Perhaps the most sobering thought I can leave with you is the following: How much disappointment in committed relationships is because of unrealistic expectations that no human love could possibly deliver? I have looked at romantic love as a spiritual case study in idolatry. I could have used metaphors of counterfeit money or pursuing ‘fool’s gold.’ But you get the point. It is up to us, guided by the Spirit of God, to discern what is real. When we get it wrong we must end up disappointed, unhappy and despairing ? that is just the way things are. The spiritual journey is towards God, the divine source of everything of any substance or lasting beyond a brief honeymoon.
Professor Bruce Stevens had the Wicking Chair of Ageing and Practical Theology at Charles Sturt University (2015-2019). He is a clinical psychologist and has written four books on couple relationships. He was ordained in the Anglican Church in 1980 and is the supply minister at Gungahlin Uniting Church.