Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Loves Me Loves Me Not

I just realized that I typed out a post for this long ago and never actually posted it. The reason being that the book is so very good and provokes much thought in so many directions I was having a hard time feeling satisfied with what I had written. I still feel as though something is missing, but perhaps you all could help me out with that. I would love to hear from you.
I really appreciate and highly recommend Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love by Laura Smit. Right away, the subtitle lets you know this book is special because while there are countless books on mutual love and our moral responsibilities as Christian lovers, no one writes about our responsibility towards virtue when feelings are not mutual. Smit begins with a “theology of romance” in which she details God’s nature (as love), God’s creational plan (Eden), God’s plan for the new creation (New Earth), sin’s effect on those plans, and finally, virtuous and vicious romance – that is, how sin twists God’s intentions for love and how we can be virtuous by shaping our romantic lives to God’s plans (primarily for the new earth). Smit has some very powerful exhortations for the church that I appreciate on two levels: one, she forces readers to think seriously about New Testament teachings on marriage, family, and singleness (something I’ve been successfully avoiding up to now) and two, she gives singles in the church a voice.
If we believe that it is no longer the nation of Israel but the Church in Christ who is now the elect among the world through whom God chooses to reveal himself to the world, what are the familial implications of this new kingdom? Smit comments on the importance of pouring a new kingdom understanding of marriage and family into new wineskins:
Our primary loyalties shift when we come into contact with Jesus. Whereas in the Old Testament the family was one’s primary loyalty [for procreation was the means by which the message of God through his people propagated], Jesus redefines this, saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50). Jesus is our family now and the community of faith is our primary social commitment. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son and daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37-39). Jesus insists that his followers live sacrificial lives that will make little sense in the eyes of the world. (65)
So, what are the implications? Think for a moment about the political implications for the Religious Right. Not that marriage and family concerns would cease to exist, but would rather exist within a broader context, under a farther-reaching banner. Smit plays with the possible implications a bit; she says,
… if all Christians everywhere were to take this teaching seriously, stop getting married, and stop having children, perhaps the church would start to grow through evangelism rather than through procreation. In this case, the church would be a blessing to the nations, just as we are supposed to be, with most of our nurturing energy going outside our own community. Finally, if we actually converted everyone in the world, and everyone in the world then embraced continent singleness so that no children were being born (a rather unlikely scenario), wouldn’t that mean it was time for Jesus to come again? All Christians are supposed to be longing for his second coming and doing everything possible to bring it about. (71)
Wow! What a thought, eh? Don’t worry, right after that she says,
I do not believe that all Christians need to be single, but all Christians must come to terms with Jesus’ teaching that marriage is not ultimate. Taking the teaching seriously will change how we think about the possibility of marriage in our own life and how we treat people around us – particularly within the church – who are single.(71)
Smit never once devalues marriage and family -- particularly within the church.
But I stray a bit. The meat of the book focuses on how to behave virtuously in loving someone who does not return your romantic love, as well as being virtuous towards someone who cares romantically for you, when you desire only friendship for him or her. Smit encourages her readers to consider true Christian charity in these situations and whether or not charity supports or rejects society's scripts for such roles. From films and literature alike we know how to behave if we find our love rejected, especially if the one in this position is male. He will hold on to his rejected love in one way or another by continuing to pursue until resignation is absolutely necessary; in which case, he must martyr himself upon the cross of love, sometimes quite literally, leaving his legacy behind on the suicide note. As women, we are to move on. It is his loss, and undoubtedly there is someone out there who is more deserving of ourselves. And certainly both can be true: sometimes we ought to continue to pursue and not give up too quickly; sometimes our love is misplaced upon someone undeserving and we must recognize the fact and move on.
But motives matter. That is Smit's point. I do think she errs a bit in overcorrecting: if society prescribes one mode of behavior which is supposedly appropriate for every case of unrequited love, Smit does too in some ways. However, her exhortation to consider what motivates our behavior is key. Are we responding lovingly or selfishly? And while motives cannot be wholly separated or distinguished, I am convinced that an honest observation of our unbalanced scales is quite enough to make an accurate judgment. For myself, honest observation into my heart nearly always requires the eyes of a faith-full friend.
So, if my review has sparked your interest, and if you want the specific, and I think rather good suggestions Smit makes as to how we can pursue loving virtue in our relationships, buy the book.