Simon Heans has been reading Pope Benedict’s first encyclical on the nature of love. In it he finds a convincing union between eros and agape as well as the instructive neologism ‘compenetration’

You may have heard that Pope Benedict’s favourite theologian is St Augustine. His declared preference for Augustine over Aquinas has raised eyebrows, even hackles, in conservative circles, but this first encyclical of the new pope is a brilliant vindication of Benedictine Augustinianism.

Caritas is of course Augustine’s word for the love of God which, as Lutheran Bishop Anders Nygren pointed out in his somewhat overwrought critique of 1930, is composed of eros and agape. Nygren was keen we should know this, because his intention was to sever them one from another.

There is no room for eros in theology. Agape is the only properly theocentric concept, the puritan bishop alleged. Benedict himself summarizes Nygren’s argument as follows: ‘descending, oblative love – agape – would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending or positive love – eros – would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture.’

Eros and agape

But far from eros being a residue of pagan religion and philosophy, polluting the waters of biblical faith, it is right there in the experiences of its most prominent believers. Benedict quotes the eros mysticism of Moses ‘who entered the tabernacle time and again, remaining in dialogue with God,’ and Luther’s favourite, St Paul, ‘who was borne aloft to the most exalted mysteries of God.’ Benedict follows the Fathers in seeing Jacob’s dream of the ladder on which the angels ascend and descend as demonstrating this ‘inseparable connection…between eros which seeks God and agape which passes on the gift received.’

There we have the dynamic of caritas, love of God, as experienced from man’s side. But Benedict also deals with that love from God’s side. It too is, pace Nygren, a unity of eros and agape. The Old Testament witness is to the eros of God: ‘The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images.’ Nevertheless it is also ‘totally agape.’ This is not only because it is ‘completely gratuitous’ but also because ‘it is love which forgives.’ This combination of ‘passionate love’ and ‘forgiving love’, eros and agape, is caritas, God’s love.

This ‘new image of God’ is not the only ‘novelty of biblical faith,’ for caritas is also to be ‘found in the image of man.’ Echoing the earliest teaching of John Paul II (his lectures on Genesis 1–3 which became the ‘theology of the body’) Benedict writes of ‘man as somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole.’ Eros makes of Adam ‘a seeker,’ directing him towards marriage in which it is purified and ennobled so as to become one with agape.

Personal love

Like John Paul’s theology, Benedictine Augustinianism is personalist. Benedict’s refusal to allow eros to be detached from agape is at root a defence of the integrity of the human person: ‘it is neither the spirit nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves.’ (This spirit/matter relationship is later described by the word ‘compenetrate’. Think of a soaking wet sponge!) But it is not just the integrity of the human person that is at stake. This becomes clear in the penultimate section of Part 1 entitled Jesus Christ – the incarnate love of God.

God’s agape

Benedict’s subject here is ‘the figure of Christ himself who gives flesh and blood to those concepts’, viz eros and agape. The activity of Christ in the world is the eros of God ‘who goes in search of the “stray sheep”.’ It is also God’s agape for it culminates in the ‘death on the Cross…by which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him.’ And of course that activity is all of a piece: it is the one love of the one God.

Moving in dialectical fashion back to the creature from the creator, Benedict goes on to speak of eros, Nygren’s ascending love, in Christ: ‘sharing in his body and blood…lifts us to far greater heights than anything any human mystical elevation could ever accomplish.’ Yet the Eucharist is also agape because ‘I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own.’ It is agape and eros together, caritas, the one love.

Part 1 of the Encyclical ends with answers to two questions which every Christian must surely have asked herself about Our Lord’s summary of the Law: ‘can we love God without seeing him, and can love be commanded?’

Seeing God

Benedict’s answer to the first is a resounding affirmation of the truth of the Incarnation: ‘God has made himself visible: in Jesus we are able to see the Father.’ And Jesus ‘comes towards us’ in ‘the love story recounted in the Bible…in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist.’ As to the second, Benedict speaks out against the fashionable heresy of our pop music (perhaps that is why he is on record as disapproving of it) that love is just about feelings.

Although contact with ‘the visible manifestations of God’s love can awaken within us a feeling of joy’ it also ‘engages our will and our intellect.’ And he goes on to discuss that ‘community of will and thought’ between God and man which grows and matures throughout life. To express this developing unity between divine and human love which is the Christian life, Benedict paraphrases St Augustine: ‘God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself.’

So there it is: Benedictine Augustinianism. But allow me one final word about that new word, ‘compenetrate.’ The Encyclical ends with a beautiful meditation on caritas in the life of Mary, not just then but now ‘through the unfailing love which she pours out from the depths of her heart.’ Through her the Christian receives an ‘infallible intuition of how such love is possible’ which is ‘as a result of the most intimate union with God, through which the soul is totally pervaded by him.’ In other words, compenetration!