Fifty years ago, T.S. Eliot predicted the death of passion, poetry, fidelity and historical consciousness. Today, tragically, that prediction is coming true. As Christians, we need to recognize that fact and respond, in order to defend passion and challenge people to it. That sounds strange and it is. Passion has, at least so it seems, always been distrusted in religious circles and extolled in secular ones. Indeed, the secular world tended to claim passion as its own, as something irreligious, as the very force which is rebellious against religion and which, if responded to, frees one from the shackles of religion. Preachers, priests, spiritual writers, and church leaders tended to help this idea along. The church, it seemed, was forever lashing out against passion, pointing out its dangers and forbidding people to allow themselves to feel and enjoy the full emotional, psychological, and instinctual force of their eros. Passion was made to seem at odds with religion.
How wrong we were! And, how wrong the secular world has discovered itself to be! There has been a strange and ironic reversal. Today, the secular world is trying to rid itself of all passion and the church is suddenly, much to its own surprise, finding itself in the novel position of having to defend passion. Why this turn of events? Because the secular world has discovered passion to be a very inconvenient thing. Passion, romance, poetry, aesthetics, all these things, challenge infidelity. Thus, our culture has begun to classify passion as it classifies other religious things, namely, as something medieval, the product of naïveté, as something which people need to be freed from. How deliciously ironic! The very force that it had so long claimed as uniquely its own, trumpeted as its victory, has, when given rein, proved to be an inconvenient embarrassment. Passion, in the end, is only for religious persons. Why?
Because our world exalts a false kind of freedom. In our society today we are exhorted daily to hang loose, to run from involvement, to run away from anything that might tie us down. We are invited to live as “free spirits,” soaring, fulfilled, unencumbered. Passion and romance always spell death for that kind of freedom. Passion means involvement, attachment, surrender, a loss of control and freedom, commitment. If sustained, it means fidelity. For this reason, it is no accident that, for the most part, secular wisdom today considers passion in the same way it considers religion – as kid’s stuff, for the naive. Today, passion and romance are seen as things we need therapy from. In his astute and very disturbing book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff, a man who is no friend of religion, points out that in our present culture passion and romance are “archaic and dispensable.” They are what Freud calls “erotic illusions” and, as Rieff goes on to say, it is time we stopped organizing our personalities and our communities around them. Love and hatred, the products of passion, are, in his words, obsolete as organizing modes of personality. In a culture of contacts and infidelity, passion and romance are experienced as tyranny. Bottom line, today romantic love is considered a neurosis, a sickness or, at best, something for the very young or very naive, a hangover from former ages, as is religion.
For this reason it is important that Christians and the Christian churches, rush to the defence of passion and romance. They are part of God’s fire in us, a great gift, to be channelled prudently it is true, but, nonetheless, to be ever perceived precisely as a gift from God. Today they are badly needed. They challenge infidelity. When T.S. Eliot predicted the death of poetry, passion, fidelity and historical consciousness, it is no accident that he placed all of these together. They flow from each other. Passion and poetry, when released and given, bond us to each other and to history in a way that makes infidelity and false freedom much more difficult. In a culture characterized by flightiness, lack of commitment, hanging loose, infidelity, cynicism and programmed boredom, we need fire, passion and romance. They, perhaps more than anything else, can help turn the tide and become the vaccine which immunizes us against the infectious bacteria set loose by the cynicism and infidelity of our age. The fire of passion comes from God. Eros is at the root of human soul and body. In the Hasidic tradition there is a famous parable about a man who wanted to be a blacksmith. So he bought a hammer, an anvil and bellows. But he could not bend any iron. There was no flame, no heat in his forge. He had everything except the thing he most needed – the spark, the fire, the heat that makes things malleable. In a world in which fidelity and historical consciousness are dying and being replace by infidelity and programmed boredom, in a world in which true romance and true sexuality are being replaced by schizophrenic sex and pornography, we need fire in the forge, passion and romance. Christians need to arise in the defence of eros.