Fall 2006

Why Begin With Love? Eros, Agape, and the Problem of Secularism

Rodney Howsare

“Benedict’s particular construal of the eros-agape relationship is uniquely suited to provide a Christian response to secularism that neither preserves Christian distinctiveness at the cost of its worldly mission, nor emphasizes the Church’s worldly mission at the expense of its identity as Christian.”

There has been some surprise that Benedict XVI’s first encyclical should be about, of all things, love. The topic certainly does not fit the stereotypes of Benedict so often encountered in the media, and there has even been some talk of Ratzinger becoming “soft” now that he is pope. Of course, anybody who has followed Ratzinger’s theological writings over the years knows that such a theme is far from out of keeping with his concerns. However, such a beginning is not without danger, a fact that Benedict himself seems to be aware of in the opening sentences of the encyclical. After all, who is not in favor of love these days? And is not the love that is now in favor so banal, so bereft of content, that it is almost singularly unhelpful as a concept? What, if anything, are we saying when we say that God is love? This becomes even more problematic if one thinks about the fact that the typical model of love—in late, democratic-capitalist societies—is caught up with the romance of youth, beauty, and fame. As Alexander Schmemann puts it: “In movies and magazines the ‘icon’ of marriage is always the youthful couple,”1 unencumbered, one could add, with the responsibilities of children and housework. Again, Benedict is well aware of this danger, as the encyclical makes clear, and so we are left with the question, “Why begin with love?"

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1. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 90.