Love—Devotional and Erotic

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Love—Devotional and Erotic

Love in religious poetry modulates through many keys: eros, agape, amor, minne, bhakti, prema, and 'ishq. The biblical author declares, "God is love" (I John 4:16). The cherubic archer of Bernini's Teresa in Ecstasy and the alluring song and dance of Lord Krishna convey intense experiences of devotional love. Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273) is drawn toward God like a moth to the flame: "Let go all your scheming, lover / let yourself go mad / go mad / just step into the heart of fire / make yourself a moth / a moth …" (Lewis 2003, p. 385). Such examples evoke a powerful and pervasive analogy between human love and love of a divine Other.

God's lovers often express their longing in terms of human love relationships. Sufi saint Rabi'a al-Basri (d. 801) refused all offers of marriage due to her all-consuming desire for God, maintaining that "the groaning and the yearning of the lover of God will not be satisfied until it is satisfied in the Beloved" (Smith 2001, p. 122). Men as well as women employ the trope of female submission and dependence for the human-divine relationship. But passion for God transposes into masculine as well as feminine modes. Margaret Malamud has demonstrated that medieval Sufi ghazals and Rumi's poetry about his spiritual master project desire for divinity in homoerotic terms.

These Islamic cases occur at the intersection of East and West. This discussion illuminates cross-cultural dynamics of the eros analogy for devotional love, beginning with Augustine's influential work. Examples from medieval Christian and Hindu contexts test the boundaries of the analogy in the West and the East. Finally, orthodox boundaries dissolve with the contemporary feminist suggestion that the erotic is divine.


The confluence of devotional and erotic love may be at the heart of eros in the West. Eros is an ecstatic movement of the self toward a divine or human Other. Desire for an Other draws one out of egocentric existence; it embraces difference and yearns toward the future. When Psyche of classical Greek mythology abandons herself to the unknown, she finds herself in the arms of Eros, the god of love. "Because Psyche possessed the courage to live in that open space," Wendy Farley explains, "she gave birth to Joy. Desire is this absurdity that holds open the infinity of possibility" (Farley 2005, pp. 15-16). As a type of love that opens toward an Other, eros includes sexual acts but is not reduced to them.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, theologians usually argue that the primary case in the love analogy is divine love, from which all other loves derive: "We love because [God] first loved us" (I John 4:19). Following Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud, however, other theorists view devotional love as a human projection of ideal relation. Conscious of the limited usefulness of human experience for understanding spiritual reality, Saint Augustine elaborated the famous analogy for the Trinity as lover, beloved, and the love between them (Augustine 1991, VIII.5); but he emphatically attested to the shortcomings of such comparisons when applied to divine mystery.

Regardless of the rationale for the eros analogy, several features are salient. A love relationship requires at least two discrete subjects. Confronted with the alterity of the beloved, the lover longs for the intimacy of knowledge and touch. Love implicates particular faculties, typically those related to desire and the will. Certain emotional experiences, such as those associated with the beloved's presence and absence, travel on both sides of the analogy. Furthermore, poetic metaphors (ecstasy, loss of self, madness, and religious devotion) translate the effects of love in both cases. Augustine's early teachings on desire set the stage for the development of these themes.


For the influential bishop Augustine of Hippo (354–430 ce), the Christian life is an ongoing process of the transformation of desire. One trains the faculties to ascend from attachment to lower, material things to the pure love of God. Without denying the goodness of material and human goods, the Christian orders their value in relation to the source of all good. A virtuous circle of action and understanding ensues. In love of neighbor, human beings come to know the love of God, and this knowledge further purifies the practice of love.

In his Confessions, Augustine admirably illustrates his process of transformation as a desiring being. Examples as mundane as an infant's hunger reveal desire as the root of human actions. Augustine writes of his childhood theft of a neighbor's pears, "it was not the fruit that gave me pleasure, I must have got it from the crime itself, from the thrill of having partners in sin" (Augustine 1961, II.8). Desire for the approval of his comrades and the initial rush of wrongdoing later give way to other finite objects such as entertainment, friendship, fame, and physical intimacy. Addiction follows the serial of temporary satiation: Augustine famously prays, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet" (VIII.7). Sex is particularly illustrative of a dynamic that applies equally to many objects in his work. Some accuse Augustine of positing sex as the basest desire—its power over him certainly encapsulates the problem of desire and the need for physical and volitional discipline.

"I badly wanted to love something … I felt no need for the food that does not perish, not because I had had my fill of it, but because the more I was starved of it the less palatable it seemed" (III.1). Given his thralldom to misdirected desire, Augustine credits divine providence for the events leading to his conversion. Philosophical and scriptural readings cultivate his scholarly desire for knowledge into longing for the Beauty, Goodness, and Truth beyond all beautiful, good, and true things. Purified of their cloying hold on his will, physical and intellectual pleasures—pears, companionship, sex, and so on—are transmuted into praise for their creator.

The end of the process of Christian formation is uninterrupted enjoyment of God. There can be fleeting tastes of eternity in the present life, as Augustine recounts of a vision he shared with his mother before she died.

As the flame of love burned stronger in us and raised us higher towards the eternal God, our thoughts ranged over the whole compass of material things in their various degrees, up to the heavens…. At length we came to our own souls and passed beyond them…. And while we spoke of the eternal Wisdom, longing for it and straining for it with all the strength of our hearts, for one fleeting instant we reached out and touched it.


Augustine's vision limns the trajectory of desire over the course of the Christian life. As one realizes the insufficiency of material reality, one's longing turns heavenward, gradually ascending through cosmic and intellectual realities, to God. Redirected, desire modulates from concupiscence to the love of God and all things in relation to God as their creator.


Numerous religious traditions address the problem of competing loves: Hindus warn against craving the fruits of action, Buddhists teach that the origin of suffering is attachment, and Martin Luther elucidates the bondage of the will. Desire for liberation or salvation, however, is nearly always salutary. Two examples can be cited as testing the limits of the eros analogy for the divine-human relationship. In both, the other-directed movement of the self strongly resembles the colloquial use of the word "erotic." Images of courtship and sexual union guide the devotional imagination in medieval Christian mystical traditions and Hindu bhakti movements.

Christian Mysticism of the High Middle Ages

Bernard of Clairvaux's (1090–1153) sermons on the biblical Song of Songs amplify traditional bridal imagery for Christ and the Church into an allegory for the relation between God and the soul. His exegesis of the staples of bridal mysticism—the kiss, the bedchamber, and sexual union—leavened the medieval Christian imagination. William of St-Thierry (d. 1148) and Richard of St-Victor (d. 1173) further divided the Christian life into various "ages" or "degrees" of love. Communities of celibate women religious consumed such writings as patterns for their experience of their divine Bridegroom.

Though "only" allegorical, the gendered symbolic operates powerfully at many levels. Latent misogyny shows through explanations of the soul's "female" qualities (its weakness, fickleness, or submission). Ostensibly the pattern is hetero-normative, with a male Christ's betrothal to a female soul; yet even as male devotees perform an imaginative gender reversal, homoerotic overtones persist. When transplanted into women's houses and communities of celibate lay women like the beguines, the implicit sexuality is equally complex. The thirteenth-century Flemish beguine Hadewijch employs conventions from troubadour poetry and styles herself as a knight in pursuit of the divine Lady Love. Barbara Newman (1995, 137-167) has demonstrated that rather than identifying with the female soul as Christ's beloved, Hadewijch performs her own reversal and takes on "virile" qualities toward a feminized divine.

The writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1208–c. 1282) contain some of the most overt allusions to sexual intimacy in orthodox Christian treatments of devotional love. In one exemplary concatenation of biblical motifs with the conventions of courtly love poetry, the bride-soul enters the secret bedchamber of her divine lover.

    "Stay, Lady Soul."
    "What do you bid me, Lord?"
    "Take off your clothes."
    "Lord, what will happen to me then?"
    "Lady Soul, you are so utterly formed to my nature
    That not the slightest thing can be between you and me….
    And so you must cast off from you
    Both fear and shame and all external virtues.
    Rather, those alone that you carry within yourself
    Shall you foster forever.
    These are your noble longing
    And your boundless desire."…
    Then a blessed stillness
    That both desire comes over them.
    He surrenders himself to her,
    And she surrenders herself to him.
    What happens to her then—she knows—
    And that is fine with me.
    But this cannot last long.
    When two lovers meet secretly,
    They must often part from one another inseparably.
                                    (Tobin 1998, i.44)

For Mechthild and many Christians, human nature mirrors the divine: the desiring soul is "utterly formed to [God's] nature." Though this statement may be an innuendo ("nature" refers to body in some medieval conventions), in Mechthild "noble longing" and "boundless desire" belong equally to God and the soul. The deity is no unmoved mover but the creative fount of flowing love. God "surrenders … to her" in the powerlessness of eros. Divinity meets the soul in the mutual self-abandonment of desire.

The Latin editors of Mechthild's book, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, weakened its eroticism, troubled perhaps by the extreme claims of contemporary heretics in the Swabian Ries of southwest Germany to have known Christ physically. Religious ecstasies were becoming increasingly common among women like Mechthild. These intense spiritual experiences blur the line between spirit and body in their physical effects. But Mechthild remains within the fold of orthodoxy by calling upon the analogical nature of theological speech. Her visions are "not of the flesh" but spiritual in nature (VI.36). The Lord takes Lady Soul into the bedchamber "in a manner beyond what is human" (I.44). The above scene teaches that one must "cast off" off all that stands in the way of one's pure desire for God. Mechthild also emphasizes that ecstatic union is fleeting in this life; the lovers remain united in desire while anticipating a permanent embrace after death.

Krishna Bhakti

In Hindu traditions, devotion (bhakti) flourished in various regional movements beginning in the sixth century ce. The Sanskrit root bhaj, from which bhakti derives, connotes sharing, partaking, and even carnal enjoyment. Bhakti, then, is a love relationship to the deity. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna upholds the superiority of bhakti over other paths to God. He declares to his disciple, "Not through sacred lore, / penances, charity, or sacrificial rites /… By devotion alone / can I, as I really am, / be known and seen / and entered" (Miller 1986, 11.53-54). This kernel contains a basic principle of bhakti: love, not good works and asceticism, is the most effective means of reaching God.

John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer (1988) delineate the personal and non-personal dimensions of bhakti. Some great poets including Kabir, Ravidas, and Nanak (fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, North India) loved a deity transcendent of all images and attributes. They exemplify nirguna bhakti, devotion to God without qualities; and their teachings were often iconoclastic and ecumenical. Other devotees name divinity Ram, Krishna, Siva, or the goddess Kali; they explore the mythology and characteristics of their chosen deity in the modalities of saguna (with qualities) bhakti.

In saguna bhakti devoted to Krishna, the vocabulary of eroticism predominates, but not to the exclusion of imagery depicting love between parent and child, servant and master, or close friends. Devotees in Vrindavan, the legendary place of Krishna's childhood, foster the spiritual identities of Krishna's associates in the Bhagavata Purana. Scriptural stories, community singing, temple worship, and service to a guru cultivate the emotional tenor associated with their chosen roles. Many identify with the gopis, the cowherd women who leave their sleeping husbands at home to tryst with the youthful Krishna. The following poem is attributed to a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Bengali, Govinda-dasa.

    … I was alone, a woman; the night was so dark,
    the forest so dense and gloomy,
    and I had so far to go.
    The rain was pouring down—
    which path should I take?
    My feet were muddy
    and burning where thorns had scratched them.
    But I had the hope of seeing you, none of it mattered,
    and now my terror seems far away….
    When the sound of your flute reaches my ears
    it compels me to leave my home, my friends,
    it draws me into the dark toward you.
    I no longer count the pain of coming here,
    says Govinda-dasa.
                       (Dimock and Levertov 1967, p. 21)

He elsewhere writes of listening to the sound of Krishna's flute, gazing at the beauty of his body, and desiring his touch. Bhakti poetry evokes a full range of senses and emotions, from the bliss of union to longing in separation.

Lest the reader misinterpret sensual language as crassly physical, exegetes of bhakti poetry clarify its analogical character. The devotee's intimate knowledge of God is akin to seeing or touching, but is not quite external sensation. Nampillai (thirteenth-century, South India) interpolates one devotee as saying, "You tell me that you give me mental experience which is the same form of perception—but that is not what I want!" (Clooney 1996, p. 137). Theologians also clarify the adulterous character of Krishna lore as a metaphor for the spiritual relationship of the soul to God: that the gopis are married women illustrates the passion and risk inherent in loving God; it does not promote promiscuity in "real" life. Hawley and Juergensmeyer cite explanations "that the Gopis had never consummated their marriages with their husbands [and] that Krishna had by his magical power caused the Gopis to be replaced by likeness of themselves at crucial moments" (p. 78). So complementary are the modalities of erotic love and devotional relation, however, that "[n]one of the poets paid much attention" to these scruples (ibid.).


While the orthodox Christian and Hindu theologians cited above worry about the collapse of the analogy between sexual passion and devotional desire, feminists are more apt to explore the overlap. At its best, the immanence of physical intimacy is a transcendent experience, a mutual opening to the other that touches divinity. Luce Irigaray (1993) posits a "sensible transcendental," in which revelation comes not at the expense of particular bodies but through them. In theological terms, human love participates in the erotic outpouring of divine love for humanity. The incarnation of mutuality and diversity not only resembles but reveals the divine. The theoretical qualification dividing carnal from devotional love proves necessary only insofar as it calls human beings to an ever more expansive openness to alterity.

According to Grace Jantzen and Pamela Sue Anderson, desire is not merely of topical interest to theology and philosophy. Desire is integral to method. Often unacknowledged or even repressed, desire fuels critical reasoning about the divine. Many read Feuerbach's theory of projection as a critique of religion; but in bringing theology's hidden basis into the open, Jantzen encourages feminists to employ their desires for divinity strategically. As faculties of imagination and desire stretch toward the transcendent "horizon" of divinity, women's desires may alter the dominant symbolic. If the divine, "that which is most to be respected and valued," encompassed "mutuality, bodiliness, diversity, and materiality … the implications for our thought and lives would be incalculable" (Jantzen 1999, 269).

Caution is imperative as feminists reconstitute divine and human love, for the openness to the Other inherent in eros can prove even more troubling than any violation of the limits of theological analogy. Gendered constructions of selfless love weigh heavily on women, as when Christian agape is construed as "the gift of the superior to the abject dependent" (Keller 1986, 168). Rarely in "superior" positions, too often women's sense of selfhood dissolves as they exercise "unilaterally self-giving, sacrificial love" (ibid., 214) toward the lovers, dependents, and institutions that make claims on them.

Rita Nakashima Brock clarifies that as an "open, interactive self-expressiveness [eros] is different from either the need to impose our will on the world or the need to lose ourselves in the feelings and needs of others" (Brock 1998, p. 33). As a model for men and women, eros never dissolves the identity of the lover, for in love there must be at least two. Nor does it appropriate the Other—Plato's Socrates advises Phaedrus that the best lover does not to rush in to possess the beloved but holds back in awe.

The boundaries of the confluence of erotic and devotional love shift widely across contexts. From Augustine's cautious assertion of a limited analogy, through imaginative and aesthetic explorations of erotic devotional imagery, to experiments with the collapse of the metaphor, the analogical nature of divine and human love persists due to the inexhaustibility of the divine horizon.


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                                     Michelle Voss Roberts