Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ethics: Does lust count as love?

Love the LORD your God. ... Love your neighbor as yourself. -- Jesus

Love is the satisfaction of knowing the good in others and being bonded together with them, sharing what is good. The good of one reflects onto the other and the good is increased. Love contains the opposite of the radical individualism that divides us and isolates us from each other. Love means the end of saying "I will do whatever I want" without giving a thought to the other. Selfishness says "I". Love says "we". The one who loves does not think of himself alone. The one who loves is no longer isolated, can no longer be fully understood apart from those he loves. His thoughts and decisions are always conscious that there is good outside himself, good which he cannot ignore without loss to himself and to those he loves. He belongs, and is part of something larger than himself.

What's love got to do with it? -- Tina Turner

Except when it is a selfish kind of love. Love has an evil twin: lust. Because of the high place given to love in Jesus' teachings, it is natural that any subversion of Christian ethics will include a subversion of love. Lust is not the only selfish thing claiming the name "love", but it is the most common. A selfish kind of love holds on to its radical individualism -- its "right" to do whatever it wants regardless of the effects on anyone else. A selfish love does not love our neighbor as ourselves; it loves our neighbor for ourselves. A selfish love values the other not for who they are, not for companionship or fellowship, not for the shared bond that they are like ourselves in their humanity, but for their usefulness. It is a greedy and self-gratifying desire that uses other people. This selfish love does more harm than good. It divides us further. It widens distrust.

We're most vulnerable to confusion when love is combined with sexual desire. It is a deep bond, a great chance to share what is good. It is a strong desire, a great risk for abusing others for selfish ends. A system of ethics which does not recognize the destructive potential of selfish lust has no right to be taken seriously; yet many people no longer consider using someone for selfish lust to be wrong. They assume lust has a right to be considered love; it does not. The pleasure of hormones is often misnamed love on the basis of its pleasantness to the one who feels it and the intensity of the attachment to the object of its desire. But lust is often impatient and unkind, selfish and self-seeking.

A hormone high is a love potion. Our desire attaches quickly to the next suitable object. The "good" we see in another person is often their usefulness in satisfying our desire. One of my professors in school, a man from another culture, told me that some cultures see romantic love, the hormone high, as an unhealthy mental state somewhat like anger, something that makes people act against their better judgment. I can see his point. Real love is not immune to wisdom and understanding but is informed by it, even in part fueled by it. The hormone high is not properly thought of as love at all. Just as alcohol intoxication is not safe when you need your better judgment to navigate a car, so hormone intoxication is not safe when you need your better judgment to navigate through decisions about other people. The wisest place for something that volatile is in the warm, kind, stable relationship already established on genuine love. Something that volatile simply cannot be the basis for lasting relationships. In order for something to be really love, it has to be about them, and not just insofar as they are useful to us or meet our needs.

Granted that any relationship from friendship to parenting can lend itself to confusion between love for the other and our own desires, still the most common confusion happens in sexuality, where a strong desire easily takes a selfish bent and where deceit is common. Not all things called "love" are really something that Christianity can recognize as the kind of love that Christ had for his people, the kind he enjoined us to have for each other. The kind of love Christ praised -- an commanded -- was a pure one, unmixed with thoughts for its own interests.

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