Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth
Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
Part 79: Love, part 4: Human Love Versus Divine Love
Rene Girard began his career in comparative literature, and he sought to determine what makes some novels “classics” and while others enjoyed only brief popularity. He found that “classic” novels offered more profound insight into the nature of desire. Many novels focus on love. Girard noted that, in popular romance novels, people are often attracted to each other because they each have wonderful qualities. In contrast, “classic” novels often describe desire as “mimetic,” that is, the characters derive their desires from regarding what other people seem to desire. So, when it comes to love, “classic” novels often portray desire for a specific object of love as inspired by other people. According to mimetic theory, cultural factors determine the specific attributes that people come to regard as attractive. For example, depending on the culture, attributes relating to body shape, skin color, kindness, aggressiveness, etc. may or may not be seen as attractive and desirable.
Popular novels frequently portray love in “romantic” terms, that is, characters love each other because they are attracted to the others’ good qualities. Girard has argued that people like to think of “pure” love in such romantic terms, partly because they like to think that their own affections are based on the attributes of the beloved. However, novels that characterize love in such “romantic” terms rarely become classics. “Great,” classic novels describe human relationships in ways that strike people as more true and accurate. When it comes to love, intuitively people have recognized that the desirability of an object of love is grounded not in the love object’s actual attributes (romantic desire), but in the fact that others (for whatever reason) desire that person (mimetic desire).
A common theme in classic novels (and classic movies) is that those seeking the loved person’s affections fall into rivalry with each other, and frequently the stories’ conflicts involve the rivalry(ies). In novels in which love is a major theme, there are almost always obstacles. In classic novels, mimetic rivalries generate the obstacles. In contrast, the obstacles in romantic novels typically involve rigid cultural barriers or people who, for no obvious reason, are evil. Frequently, the obstacles to love in classic novels are inevitable consequences of human nature. In romantic novels, the author often erects obstacles in order to generate interest, but the obstacles are not inevitable consequences of romantic desire. Classic novels often end with the death or banishment of one or more protagonists; otherwise, the conflict and rivalry would persist and the novel would seem to lack a proper “ending.” In romantic novels, a peaceful ending sometimes involves death, but it may result from clarification of misunderstandings or a willingness of a character to accept the tragic fate of living without the object of love.
Why is this important? If love were romantic (i.e., were grounded in romantic desire rather than mimetic desire), then it would not necessarily cause conflict. However, if the classic novels are correct, and I think their lasting power is testimony to their accuracy about human desires and relationships, then love is typically generated by mimetic desire, and therefore it invariably leads to conflict and violence.
If the love humans typically experience generates conflict and violence, what kind of love does God desire? I think God desires “agape” love, which is what Jesus manifested. It accords with God’s desire for peace and harmony throughout Creation. Agape love is complete, unconditional love. It is grounded in neither the specific attributes of the beloved nor others’ desires. While the mediator of mimetic desire for an object of love is one or more people, the mediator of agape love is the creator/God. Regardless of the loved person’s faults, God loves that person. Consequently, in agape love, one’s love for another is grounded in one’s love for God. Since God cannot be our rival, God’s love for a person does not generate envy, resentment, or hostility.
Next week, we will explore the implications of agape love for committed relationships.
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Part 80: Love, part 5: Committed Relationships
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