Romanticism and Experimentalism
I believe in “romantic love.” Even if you take the Song of Songs as allegory, you have to acknowledge that the allegory works only if there is a reality of strong emotional-physical attraction-attachment between a man and a woman. Love is not just commitment and action. Love is desire and feeling.
This kind of love is obsessive and intense. One’s whole life is taken up with the object of affection. You think about her/him all the time. The hours apart are filled with longing. The hours together are prolonged to the limit. All this is natural and good.
But observation teaches us that this kind of consuming feeling and desire is manifested with unbroken intensity in the earlier stages of the relationship. It is most often associated with young love, but new older lovers experience it, too. The intensity is not sustainable 24-7 (speaking literally) throughout the relationship’s day (speaking non-literally as this day can be 50 years or more). We are not able, nor would it be healthy, to live this kind of “distracted life” on a continuing basis. We have to earn livings, feed and change babies, sleep and eat, clean the house and mow the lawn.
That does not mean that the flame of Song of Solomon love is entirely quenched by the many waters of time. But the fire flames up now from time to time, rather than continually. The intensity of feeling and desire is experienced less frequently and often when least expected. Such experiences can be given space to occur and even helped along, as some couples do by “date nights” or “romantic getaways.”
But romantic feelings cannot be counted on, nor can they be relied on, to maintain a relationship day to day, week to week, over a lifetime. Over time the early relationship intensity decreases while the intertwining of two lives increases. She may not meet you at the door in a negligee but she will be beside your hospital bed. He may not bring you flowers, but he will get up with the sick baby so you can get some sleep. It is amidst the realities of life that is often maddeningly boring, sometimes crushingly tragic, and constantly requiring of forgiveness and tolerance that proof is given that love really is strong as death.
It should be acknowledged that some profess to experience an abiding intensity of passionate love. Those whose experience is more mundane should not greet such professions with skepticism and/or cynicism. Nor should passionate lovers judge more mundane lovers as possessing a less authentic or genuine love. There are varieties of romantic experience.
It strikes me that there are similarities between romantic love and what is sometimes called “experimental” spirituality. “Experimental” spirituality inquires about the fervency, intensity, and constancy of one’s feelings. Do you desire God? How much? It assumes intense feelings are usual and sustainable, if one seeks to keep the flame alive.
Sometimes this is expressed crudely. Real Clear Religion recently linked to an article in which Christians are warned not to expect people to “make out with God” too soon. Offensive as that is, I am not sure it is that far from a more Reformed in origin story of a meeting where spouses were asked to share what they most admired about their mates, and a minister’s wife was quoted approvingly as saying her husband was “hot for God” which I guess is a variation on the old evangelical being “on fire for the Lord.” But the language can be less flamboyant while the quest is the same. "I love the Lord" (Psalm 116:1) cannot be translated as "I 'heart' the Lord. "
None of this is meant to deny the place of feelings in religion any more than in marriage. It is rather to call to put feelings in their place, to have realistic expectations about and of them, and to allow for variations of experience of feeling among God’s people and within them. All God’st people have experiences, but not all of them are of the experimentalist variety.
Judging one’s spiritual health by the degree of one’s spiritual fever and fervor is akin to judging the state of one’s marriage by how hot one’s burning and passion.
"We been talkin' 'bout Jackson ever since the fire went out."