Christians celebrate Easter and Christmas as religious holidays. In the United States, we find some religious significance in Thanksgiving and even Independence Day. Christianity Today, in its 27 year history, has devoted two dozen articles to the themes of Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving. Valentine's Day (even Saint Valentine's Day) is another matter. The pudgy Cupid, bow and arrow in hand, is obviously pagan. Cute, maybe, but pagan. We can make something religious of prayerful pilgrims or the birth of "one nation, under God." But a naked, overfed, flying imp? Or candy, flowers, and cards? The word "cute" cries to be said again. Valentine's Day is fun and cute: deathly cute. No wonder it is not considered a Christian holiday. No wonder Christian magazines never fail to have Easter essays, but rarely (if ever) rise to the challenge of Valentine's Day.
I am here to break the tradition. Valentine's Day is too, yes, cute for my taste. But I like what's behind it. The idea of that obese baby shooting arrows through hearts never appealed to me. Falling in love did. And does.
I admit at the outset that falling in love is a crazy thing. The kind of love we fall into—romantic love—is a boiling mix of the sensual and the spiritual. It can be ecstatic as well as heartbreaking. It is ardent and particular; that is, we find ourselves intensely attracted to one woman or man but not another. Psychologists say romantic love involves similar basic world views, or "senses of life," and "complementary differences." Not even the scientist fully understands it, though, and is inclined to agree with the sage that the "way of a man with a woman" is one of life's great wonders (Prov. 30:19). This much is clear: the romantic looks at life differently than others. "The proper study of mankind is man," Alexander Pope declared in 'a levelheaded moment. No, "The proper study of mankind is woman," Coventry Patmore corrected in a romantic moment.
Levelheaded or not, romantic love is no joke in our culture. It is the linchpin of a multibillion-dollar advertising industry, the subject of innumerable movies, novels, and television shows, and the personal preoccupation of millions of people on any given day. Christians agree with the cultural consensus of much of the West that romantic love is a desirable base for marriage. Parents do not arrange marriage. Instead, young adults socialize, then pair off in dates or what could be called little experimental romances. Sober and rational counseling may come after a couple has fallen in love and decided to marry, but we mostly agree that it would be a shame for a couple to get married if they had not first fallen in love.
This fact alone ought to move Christians to reflection. What place does romantic love have in our life and thought? Romantic love offers both bliss and turmoil for the unmarried adult. How can the single Christian handle this experience? The married Christian has another set of questions: Can romantic love deepen and strengthen a marriage? And how does the married Christian react if he or she falls in love with someone other than a spouse? British author Harry Blamires has already asked such questions. The church, he laments, has had little to say about "the meaning of youth's keen responsiveness to beauty and love." Christianity "must be presented … as something more exciting than a lot of prohibitions aimed at disinfecting life of its torrential delights." If it is not shown to touch people "at the points of profoundest personal longing and joy, it will indeed be condemned … as being unrelated to real life."
But Christianity, of course, is related to real life. Seen from the Christian perspective, romantic love is far from a chronic and threatening problem. It can, in fact, enhance all relationships—teaching us to treat all persons with the dignity they deserve. Romantic love and dignity? The two have a lot to do with one another. And that leads us to the dignified, if eccentric, world of a man named Charles Williams.
Charles Williams's Theology
Most Christians have done one of two things with romantic love: condemn it out of hand, or sloppily paste it to marriage and then inadequately say no more about it. Charles Williams was one twentieth-century Christian who thought there was more to it than that, and he took the trouble to construct what he called a "theology of romantic love."
As a personal friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Williams was among those Oxford Christians we know as the Inklings. He had a slight build and was, according to Lewis, "ugly as a chimpanzee." His hands, due to a mild nervous affliction, trembled enough that a barber had to shave him. Despite Williams's appearance, Lewis wrote, "he emanates more love than any man I have ever known," and talked in such a way "that he is transfigured and looks like an angel." Lewis observed that "women find him so attractive that if he were a bad man he could do what he liked either as a Don Juan or a charlatan." Not a bad man, Williams was married 28 years until his death at the age of 58.
To understand romantic love, Williams began with the doctrines of the Incarnation and Creation. Since God was flesh in Christ, the body was not and is not intrinsically evil. The body, Williams said, has not fallen "farther than the soul." Second, each person is created in the image of God and thus uniquely reflects some aspect of God's glory. Human beings are not mere mortals. As Lewis said, "the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare."
How does this apply to romantic love? Let me appeal to my experience, which is a common one. I have noticed that romantic love is a sort of vision. Conventional wisdom regards it as a vision, as a way of seeing. We often hear the phrase, "I don't know what she sees in him." Parents frequently cannot understand how sons fall in love with ordinary Janes, or daughters with workaholics. Friends are baffled when someone they care about falls in love with a freeloader, even a criminal. The parents and friends are looking rationally, but only rationally. They see how ordinary our lover is, or how flawed she is. When I am in love, though, I see something different. In the words of an old George and Ira Gershwin song, "She may not be the girl some men think of as pretty, but to my heart she carries the key." I see not how ordinary or how worthless she is, but how extraordinary and priceless she really is. This, of course, accords with the Christian faith. To God, no woman or man is worthless or ordinary.
For Williams, then, the romantic vision was not confused, but illuminated. The lover sees through the beloved's flaws to the image of God. The lover is not blind to pigeon toes and ill manners but, caught up in love, discerns the true creature, the one who, when perfected in heaven, "you would be strongly tempted to worship." It is this truest and deepest self of the person—the person as created and potentially redeemed by God—that Williams called that person's "eternal identity."
Romantic love is a grace, a gift, a reality again shown in the way we casually speak of it. We admit that we "fall" in love. It awaits us and is given to us. The eternal identity of every person (something hinted at in Rev. 2:17?) is always present, but we may become acutely aware of it in the state of romantic love.
Windfalls of Love
Williams proposed that romantic love reveals the true person.' I want to go a step further. Romantic love strengthens and enhances the beloved's eternal identity, her truest and deepest self. Under such love, Robert Farrar Capon writes, the beloved "blossoms into a fullness of being." Her clothes, hair, and skin are more "becoming" than they were. "We all recognize her in a process, not of ceasing to be what she was and becoming some alien thing, but of being called into the fullness of her own being. We see, not a foreign perfection forced upon her from the outside, nor yet some inevitable development built into her bones; we see a creature in pursuit of her own goodness as pronounced by her lover." We don'thave to get overly mystical on this point. French psychiatrist Ignace Lepp can speak psychologically of the dynamic Capon mentions. In friendship, Lepp said, we may not understand why we are attracted to a certain person, but the unconscious "may have divined between him and us mysterious affinities that will perhaps take years to become fully conscious." The unconscious may even sense what the other person is "capable of becoming, perhaps precisely because of our friendship."
Romantic love (and friendship to a lesser degree) not only recognizes the vastly appealing eternal identity in a man or woman, then, but can draw them toward achieving that glory. I remember the high school experience of falling in love and suddenly working harder—but more naturally and comfortably—at everything from studies to football. Being loved, realizing someone sees something uniquely attractive in us, does that. Loving in return, we are drawn out of ourselves to build up another. For the Christian, romantic love cannot begin and end in the lover. No, building up another entails helping him or her to love others and God more intently. We help that one to create what Kierkegaard calls "heart room"—the spaciousness of heart that allows a loving family of five to live in a room cramped by one unloving person.
Heart room is what we need so as to dare to love as indiscriminately as Jesus did. The risk of loving is real and terrible. As Capon says, "What is love if it is not the indulgence of the ultimate risk of giving one's self to another over whom we have no control?" We may be rejected. We may be manipulated, cheated, or used. Still, God commands us to love, to love even our enemies, who are indeed likely to reject and use us in return. Romantic love, with its irresistible power and attraction, compels us to love at least one person. Being romantically loved by another in turn, we are assured of our unique worth. We can then risk being rejected or used in other kinds of love.
Because it is often stronger than our fears, romantic love can drill into us a bitter truth, and point to a way beyond it. It can teach us that we are incomplete in ourselves. Christian psychologist William Kirk Kilpatrick says it well. "We are, as Lewis put it, `one vast need.' Our intuitive feeling when we are in love is that we were only half-living up to the moment we fell in love. We realize then how much our wholeness depends on someone outside ourselves. Take away our love, and we feel reduced to almost nothing." This, Kilpatrick believes, is a "peek at the real nature of things." We do need other people. Ultimately, of course, we need God, and are completely dependent on him. In a very basic way, romantic love is concerned with humility. No one can fall in love without facing and admitting humility. The lover's conviction that the romance is "too good to be true" is another way of saying, "This is too good to happen to me."
On a more mundane level, romantic love can help lovers carry out their everyday tasks. An impressive example comes from the letters of President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's first wife died in 1914. America was being sucked into the dark whirlwind of World War I. German submarine warfare had begun in British shipping lanes. In 1915, the Lusitania was sunk and 128 Americans died. At that time, in Winston Churchill's estimation, President Wilson"played a part in the fate of nations incomparably more direct and personal than any other man." And Wilson was falling in love.
During days filled with urgent briefings and nights of sleepless anxiety, Wilson somehow found time to write Edith Gait and tell her he was "absolutely dependent" on her love for the "right and free and most effective use of my powers." With her, he experienced a "new confidence God's in his heaven and all's right with the world. Duty looks simple and the tasks of the day pleasant and easy."
Romantic love, naturally, is better from the inside than the outside. Edith Galt's love certainly lifted Wilson from the depression he suffered after his first wife's death, and was his still point in a chaotically turning world. But it is also true that Wilson's aides worried that the 58-year-old world leader was acting like a smitten college boy. They even concocted an (unsuccessful) plot to break up the couple.
Problems of Romantic Love
Like Wilson's aides, Charles Williams realized that romantic love is not above abuse. Anything experienced by imperfect creatures is bound to be flawed in the process. He saw three principal misperceptions: (1) the assumption that romantic love lasts forever, when in fact it nearly always passes with time; (2) the assumption that the glory we now behold only in particular persons does not reside in all; and (3) the assumption that romantic love is sufficient in itself, while God and God alone is. Williams did not approve a romantic love unchecked by the intellect. "Accuracy, accuracy, and again accuracy! Accuracy of mind and accuracy of emotion," he wrote. Once romantic love occurs, it "desires and demands the full exercise of the intellect for its exploration."
It is indisputably wise, when we fall in love, to back off occasionally and ask sober questions—perhaps in consultation with a friend or pastor. Romantic love can be immature or sick, just as some parents develop a sick love for their children and "smother" them with affection. Rationally examining our feelings and drives can help us determine if they are part of a deep and true romantic love, or something such as masochism or worse. Even here, with a distorted or stunted romantic love, there can be growth in Christianity. Millions of women and men have given up a love for an other for the good of the other. Millions more have done it because they realized their warped romantic love was thwarting their love for God. They have done so despite great pain, and have earnestly followed the example of Christ to give up self and follow God. The very depth and intensity of romantic love can make it a profound arena for living out true spirituality.
Marriage is the ideal instrument for exploring the ramifications of romantic love. Williams called marriage the "great experiment." He did not mean wedlock was tentative, to be abandoned if troubles arise, but that marriage was to be an arena in which to "experiment" how to better love our spouse and all individuals. Romance in marriage passes, Williams wrote, "but the things that have been said and done in the light of that quality remain; vows, if they have been serious vows, remain."
Chesterton considered the wonder of one woman enough for a single lifetime. "Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman," he said. "To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it."
To begin to realize the depth of one woman (or one man) is enough to impress us with the rich depths of all persons. There are hitches. I have been married a short time—only six years but long enough to know that living day in and day out with the same person can be boring (do not think I believe my wife's experience is different). I have gone months, even years, thinking I knew my wife's every habit, every talent, every fault. Then something happens, as it did in the summer of our fourth year.
We had reached something of a crisis. I wanted to move from Oklahoma to Chicago. She and her parents did not want us to. My mother-in-law said so, and my reaction was one of anger. Sandy's reaction angered me more, because she obviously sympathized with her mother. I considered myself betrayed. It took two weeks of angry (sometimes tearful) conversations before Sandy convinced me she was not betraying me. She was empathizing with me—and with her parents. She was torn by an amazing ability to empathize with and understand everyone concerned. Finally I saw that I had misunderstood not only her but her parents, and all ended well (though I still relish mother-in-law jokes, and my mother-in-law remains adept at converting them into son-in-law jibes). I saw something new then in Sandy, something I had not seen in four years of marriage. Now I trust her uncanny empathy, and I believe that when she has a gray head and wrinkled hands, new treasures of her character will still turn up.
In such ways the lovers' cup fills and overflows. We are humbled for one another, and the humility flows over into other relationships. We are charitable to one another, and charity is engendered for others.
Of course, romantic love is not exclusive to marriage, and may even be felt after marriage. Here, perhaps, is one of its greatest potentials for destruction. If the years can bring boredom with my wife, I meet other women I have never had time to be bored with. I see my wife at her worst as well as her best. But the women in the neighborhood, or at work or church, I see only at their best and it can be a very attractive best. Falling in love, head over heels, would clearly threaten my marriage (something Charles Williams learned the hard way, as Alice Mary Hadfield's new biography shows). But the marriage ceremony does not magically remove all the rich complexities of personality that cause us to fall in love. No Christian affirmation of romantic love can eliminate the hard work or (sometimes) sheer drudgery of staying true to the marriage commitment.
But Williams saw that the romantic vision of a married person does not have to be denied or repressed. On such an occasion, to "observe and adore the glory is not sin, nor to receive the humility and charity shed from the glory." The vision is true: another person is seen in depth, a hint of an eternal identity glimpsed and appreciated. No equivocation: sexual expression must be reserved for marriage. It alone is the great experiment. We are only to "observe and adore the glory," not appropriate it as we do the glory of the one we married. Again, ruthless and rational analysis is necessary. When are feelings getting out of hand, when is innocent appreciation becoming out-and-out temptation? A good rule of thumb is that any feelings or actions we are afraid to discuss with our spouse are probably dangerous.
I would suggest that marriages will differ: some spouses will be more comfortable with cross-sexual friendships than others. "Tenderness," writes Joseph Joubert, "is passion in repose." I suspect there is more space for such tenderness than many Christians have admitted, but the dangers are no less real and can never be ignored. It is imperative that cross-sexual friendships be carefully maintained as friendships (not romances), and that passion remain in repose.
Realization of the Vision
The ideal, of course, would be not to betray marriage and still know all persons as delightfully and completely as our spouse. Could Jesus have had something of the sort in mind when he told the Sadducees, "The men and women of this world marry; but those who have been judged worthy of a place in the other world do not marry" (Luke 20:34-35, NEB)? Howard Marshall comments, "At the resurrection, all relationships will be taken up to such a high level that the exclusiveness of marriage will not be a factor in heaven as it is on earth." It is not that in heaven marriage will be less. Rather, all relationships—husband to wife, lover to lover, parent to child, friend to friend, and yes, enemy to enemy—will be infinitely more joyful than we can now imagine.
Lewis guessed that all earthly experiences (sensory and emotional) might vanish in heaven "not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun." We see reflections of this blazing sun in romantic love. A single reflection bedazzles us and takes our breath away. If we saw the eternal identity of every person we would surely collapse under the overwhelming weight of it, weakened as we are in our fallen condition. Imagine being "in love" 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and "in love" not simply with one person, but with everyone you pass on the street or glance through a revolving door. Only resurrected creatures will be strong enough to endure the weight—indeed, to enjoy it and see in each person a unique aspect of God's beauty. Perhaps in this sense hell is merciful. It may save the selfish one from a weight he could never bear and will not give over to God, may spare his corrupted eyes a light that would burn them more than the fires of hell.
The Song of Solomon
Several overarching biblical truths (Creation, the Incarnation, Redemption, and the Resurrection) contribute to a Christian understanding of romantic love. I have not, however, quoted at great length from the Bible nor shown that it explicitly addresses romantic love. But it does.
The Song of Solomon is the most clearly romantic book, enough so that, even though it is firmly ensconced in the canon, Christians are still hesitant about it and uncertain what to do with it. It starts out steaming: "I will sing the song of all songs to Solomon that he may smother me with kisses" (Song of Sol. 1:1, NEB). Finally there is as unmitigated a declaration of love's power as we may find anywhere in literature. Love is "strong as death, passion cruel as the grave; it blazes up like blazing fire, fiercer than any flame. Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away" (Sol. 8:6-7, NEB).
The book bothered Origen enough that he forbade it for simple, uneducated Christians, fearing they would take the eroticism literally. It was to be interpreted allegorically. Leave the Song to Christians who understood that, Origen said, and feed the simple with milk.
Surely we can agree with Andrew Harper that the Song of Solomon, above all other books in Scripture, can remind men that their "highest moments" of earthly love, when love has become a "pure flame of utter devotion, are typical of what the relation between the soul and God ought to be." But at the same time we cannot forget that the Song exalts physical love. Verse by verse, it unrolls an ardent catalogue of nearly every part of the body: neck, eyes, cheeks, breasts, hair, teeth, lips, stomach, legs, feet, navel, nose, and arms. The Song may be symbolic of spiritual love, but a property of the symbolic object is that it must remain what it literally is even after the symbolic value is attached. Physical love may symbolize spiritual love and remain physical love, just as a wooden crutch can symbolize dependence on God but must first actually support the crippled man's weight when he leans on it.
Do we dare celebrate Valentine's Day in the spirit of the Song of Solomon? Why not? Lived in light of our faith, romantic love can help us to love, to love romantically but also with agape love. It can teach us humility and the reality of our dependence on God and others. It can show us, in a special way, the beauty of God—seen through his image in a person he had made. It provides us an arena for sacrifice and charity; it can draw us toward being better than we are or could be on our own. It reminds us of the wonder of gifts, and so that gift of all gifts, grace.
Romantic love is not a unique road to salvation. It is not even, by itself, at all a road to salvation. It is, I believe, part of God's incredibly rich creation. We, our teenagers, our friends, keep enjoying (sometimes hating) the delicious experience of being "in love." As psychologist Nathaniel Branden puts it, lovers are "moved by a passion they do not understand toward a fulfillment they seldom reach, they are haunted by the vision of a distant possibility that refuses to be extinguished." Can this haunting, this vision, strike us with the lover's real beauty and—by the joy reflected in his or her eyes—with our own? If so, romantic love is not merely a childish infatuation, but a true call—an echo from heaven.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 3, 1984, issue of Christianity Today. At that time Rodney Clapp was CT's editor of arts and sciences. He is now editorial director for Brazos Press.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more information on Valentine's Day and it's history visit Christianity Today's Holiday area and read "Then Again, Maybe Don't Be my Valentine | Does Saint Valentine's Day have its origins in Christian tradition?"
W. H. Auden told Charles Williams that he was "the only writer since Dante who has found a way to make poetry out of theology." Learn more about Williams and his work from the Charles Williams Society.
Read Charles Franklyn Beach's essay about William's concept of "courteous love." Beach examines a wide range of William's works as well as citing ways that Julian of Norwich, Dante, John Donne, St. Augustine, William Law, Blaise Pascal, and Soren Kierkegaard influenced Williams' philosophy.
G.K. Chesterton's writings are available on the web, including his religious essays, fiction, and poems. Some of Chesterton's love poems are particularly expressive, such as "The Strange Music." Chesterton's book on The Superstition of Divorce paints a biblical portrait of the sacrificial love that marriage requires.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more