The Divinity of Human Love

by Vigen Guroian

Trellis in Guroian's Garden (Photo by Vigen Guroian)
Trellis in Guroian's Garden (Photo by Vigen Guroian)

"God is love," wrote St. John (1 John 4:8 RSV). So the question arises: "What then is man?" Perhaps we need not look to the theologians alone for the answer. Was it not the argument of Fyodor Dostoevsky, speaking out of the spiritual riches of Russian Orthodoxy, and Flannery O'Connor, calling out from the heart of a transplanted Roman Catholicism, that the human being is defined by his or her eros? "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:21 RSV). Dostoevsky and O'Connor went on to argue that the fulifiliment or goal of our humanity is divine love — agape. Agape and eros are, as Martin D'Arcy skillfully pointed out, both united and distinct. This conclusion is based upon the Incarnation. In the words of Augustine: "The very same person is at once God and man, God our end, man our way." Eros without agape degenerates into carnal desire and finally a God — and man denying narcissism. Agape absent eros is itself replaced by a benevolent self-interestedness and finally a God — and man denying egotism. Two characters of modern literature in whom one finds a radical disjunction of agape and eros are Flannery O'Connor's Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov. Both suffer from similar spiritual maladies. Both are haunted by a yearning for a transfigured world against which their reason rebels. Both, persuaded that an active present concern for the improvement of this world is threatened by this yearning for a transfigured world, reject their irrational love and decide for the immediate good that might be accomplished by the complete rationalization of human affairs. Rayber, the schoolteacher and secular humanist, is distraught and terrified by the "outrageous" love aroused within him by his idiot son, Bishop. "He was not afraid of love in general. He knew the value of it and how it could be used." But this love was not a controllable and reasonable benevolence. "It could not be used for the child's improvement or his own." This love had no reason to be, no utility or predictable end. "It was completely irrational and abnormal. … It appeared to exist only to be itself, imperious and all demanding." Rayber senses that this love has no limits. "He could control his terrifying love as long as it had its focus in Bishop, but if anything happened to the child, he would have to face it in itself. Then the whole world would become his idiot child." Rayber's love culminates in a yearning for his great-uncle, Mason Tarwater, with his hunger for the Bread of Life and his "vision of a world transfigured." "The longing was like an undertow in his blood dragging him backwards to what he knew to be madness." Rayber practices "a rigid ascetic discipline," vigilantly guarding his reason against this love and keeping "himself upright on a very narrow line between madness and emptiness, and when the time came for him to lose his balance, he intended to lurch toward emptiness and fall on the side of his choice." Ivan Karamazov is a more complex character than Rayber. More acutely than Rayber, Ivan senses that the way beyond this present tragic human lot is a "love" which defies "the rules of logic" of his "earthly Euclidean brain." During a conversation with his younger brother, Alyosha, Ivan exclaims:

Alyosha, my boy, so I want to live and go on living, even if it's contrary to the rules of logic. Even if I do not believe in the divine order of things, the sticky young leaves emerging from their buds in the spring are dear to my heart; so is the blue sky and so are some human beings, even though I often don't know why I like them. … I'll get drunk on my own emotion. I love those sticky little leaves and the blue sky, that's what! You don't love those things with reason, with logic, you love them with your innards, with your belly.

This eros is the source of Ivan's intuitive non-Euclidean sensibility and his recognition of the transcendent worth of every human being. Ivan's "rebellion" originates in a heart mortified by the offense of human suffering and ends in an intellectual hubris which will not trust in the mystery of divine love and its promise of universal reconciliation. Speaking to Alyosha in the chapter entitled "Rebellion," Ivan states:

I believe in justice and I want to see justice done with my own eyes; if I should be dead by that time, I want to be brought back to life, because the idea that, when justice finally does triumph, I won't even be there to witness it is too abhorrent to me. Why, I certainly haven't borne it all so that my crimes and my sufferings would be used as manure to nurture the harmony that will appear in some remote future to be enjoyed by some unknown creatures. … I can imagine what a universal upheaval there will be when everything up in heaven and down in the entrails of the earth come together to sing one single hymn of praise and when every creature who has lived joins in, intoning, "You were right, 0 Lord, for Your way has now been reavealed to us! The day the mother embraces the man who had her son torn to pieces by the hounds, the day those three stand side by side and say "You were right, 0 Lord," that day we will at last have attained the supreme knowledge and everything will be explained and accounted for. But that's just the hurdle I can't get over, because I can't agree that it makes everything right. And while I am on this earth, I must act in my own way. … No, I want no part of any harmony; I don't want it out of love for mankind. I prefer to remain with my unavenged suffering and my unappeased anger—even if I happen to be wrong. I feel, moreover, that such harmony is rather overpriced. We cannot afford to pay so much for a ticket. And so I hasten to return the ticket I've been sent.

Ivan's refusal of a transcendent world transfigured by agape and the ticket to that world has the unhappy consequence of also leaving him unable to believe that agape is a possibility even in this world. "In my opinion," says Ivan to Alyosha, "Christ's love for human beings was an impossible miracle on earth. But he was God. And we are no gods. … The idea of loving one's neighbor is possible only as an abstraction: it may be conceivable to love one's fellow man at a distance, but it is almost never possible to love him at close quarters." Both Rayber and Ivan are characters unable to accept the God-man who is the coincidence of agape and eros. Rayber mocks the faith of old Tarwater even in his thoughts about Bishop, whom he looks upon "as an x signifying the general hideousness of fate. He did not believe that he himself was formed in the image and likeness of God, but that Bishop was he had no doubt. The little boy was part of a simple equation that required no further solution, except at the moments when with little or no warning he would feel himself overwhelmed by the horrifying love." Yet this very love that Rayber resists is the key that would unlock for him the legitimate status of Bishop's humanity. It is this love that testifies to the true image and likeness of God not only in Bishop but in Rayber as well. Through this love Rayber, if he would allow himself, could affirm Bishop in his personhood and eternal value. Through it Rayber could discover within himself and others a potentiality for good uncharted by any of the psychological theories he has learned and beyond the measure of any of the educational tests he has contrived or administered in his job at the high school. Eros united with agape belongs to the original image of God in humanity. "God," wrote the Byzantine theologian Nicholas Cabasilas, "has emplanted the desire into our souls by which every need should lead to the attainment of that which is good, every thought to the attainment of truth. … For those who have tasted of the Savior, the Object of desire is present. From the beginning human desire was made to be gauged and measured by the desire for Him, and is a treasury so great, so ample, that it is able to encompass God." Eros' repose is Christ, in whom it is translated into a universal love. "Those, therefore, who attain to Him are hindered by nothing from loving to the extent that love was implanted into our souls from the beginning." In Christ the creature's inner "movement" toward the Godhead is completed and humankind's capacity to reciprocate God's love is perfected. The christic human being is characterized by a "burning love of his charity for God" and, in Christ, for fellow human beings—even all creation. Such love is not a grace infused from without. Rather it is the original image of God restored from within by the express Image of God himself, Jesus Christ.

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is professor of religious studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia. His books include The Fragrance of God and Inheriting Paradise.