Friday, January 25, 2013

Love Aquinasly

Over the holidays I watched one of my favorite romance movies, Love Actually.  I've always felt that it was very well written, directed and acted, with one of the best editing jobs I've seen in a movie.

The theme is that love is all around us.  And the movie does an excellent job of showing us all the different kinds of love that permeate our lives.   It also shows us how complicated these relationships can be when they interact.  The character David finds that his love for Natalie helps him re-discover his love for his country.  But sometimes the loves can be opposed.  We see this in Mark's conflicted feelings for his best friend's wife or Sarah's care for his family interfering with her attraction to Karl.

The movie is not without flaws.  It too much equates love with sex, to the point where one character finds complete fulfillment in meaningless, consequence free hook-ups.  And the sacrificial nature of love is often downplayed in favor of the exhilaration of the passions.

But the biggest problem I have with the movie is what it leaves out.  It is meant to be an exploration of all the different forms and objects of love.  We have romantic love, parental love, love of country, love of friends, etc.  But it strikes me more and more each time I watch it that it leaves out the most important love of all:

The love of God.

Love comes from God.  1 John says that we should love one another because God is love.  It seems strange that the Being whose very nature is Love Itself should be missing in a movie that claims to explore every kind of love.  This would be like doing a book about the Star Wars movies, but never mentioning Luke Skywalker.

This led me to think of St. Augustine.  After St. Paul, there is probably no one else more influential in shaping our understanding of the Christian faith.  His influence on theology and culture is enormous.  Augustine lived a very dramatic life, much of it away from God in darkness and sin.  When he finally converted, he looked to much of the pleasures of the world as vile temptations and distractions away from God.

If what I am doing does not directly relate to my journey closer to God, then Augustine thinks that we should probably avoid it.  There are so many things that I could be doing for the good of my soul and the souls of others.  But I engage in things that don't do that.  I watch a lot of tv.  I just started playing Mass Effect.  I go weekly to the comic book store.

But couldn't I be using that time to do something positive for my soul like prayer, Bible meditation, acts of charity?  If I am not, then Augustine would suggest that I am letting the things of this world distract me.

Bringing it back to Love Actually, I think that Augustine would hate the movie.  People "fall in love" but all it does is draw them more to other fallen creatures rather than elevate them to the high love with the Divine.  In fact, he would probably say that things like romantic love are bad if they aren't directly drawing us towards God.  We become so enamored of amor that we miss out on agape.

But then I think of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Thomas come to prominence many centuries after Augustine. He agreed with the vast majority of what Augustine believed.  But every once and a while he parted company with the great Church Father.  And on this point, he has a different perspective.

It must be remembered that Thomas loved stuff.  By "stuff" I mean the things of this world.  He was a priest in a begging order.  But you don't have to own things in order to appreciate them.  He loved having copies of books.  He liked learning about technology (on his deathbed he asked someone to read to him a file on aqueducts).  He loved food.  He was said to be so fat that they had to cut a hole in the dining table to fit is stomach.

Thomas loved this world of stuff.  He did so because God made stuff.  Thomas concluded that God must like stuff.  He agreed with Augustine that our ultimate destiny is God.  But he disagreed that the primary way we should look at the physical world is as potential distractions.  Instead, he saw the natural world as full of wondrous insights into the Divine.

Take ice cream.  It tastes so delicious.  Augustine might say indulging in ice cream might lead one to the sin of gluttony.  Thomas would say that the intense pleasure of the taste can remind us of the intense pleasure of Heaven.  "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord."

I know that I am oversimplifying.  Augustine did not say that the material world was bad.  And Thomas did not say that material things would never be distractions from God.  But the difference in emphasis is something that we've seen play out throughout the history of western culture.  Do we take the Augustinian view against the frivolous fascinations of our days or do we follow Thomas who said that in those silly things we can find God?

I tend to agree with Thomas.  While I know my life is too full of distractions, I also know that these things which seem silly can bond us closer together.  The things of nature can open the highway to heaven.  How many of us know people who had no real interest in religion until a spouse encouraged them or the birth of a child moved them?  How often do bonds that form of sports and movies and shared lunch times lead to friendships that make us better people.

I think Thomas would very much like the themes of Love Actually (of course not counting the clearly immoral parts mentioned above).  We have several natural loves in us.  All humans naturally gravitate toward love of family, love of friends, romantic love, etc.  And all of these basic natural loves are placed there by God.  Now these loves can be warped and perverted.  But when they work according to their nature, they can help us truly understand the love of God.

The First Letter of John asks how we can love the God whom we have not seen if we hate the brother whom we have seen?  How can we raise our hearts to the supernatural love if we reject natural love?  Thomas would say that things like romance and friendship can give us a concrete foreshadowing of the Divine.  I know that is true in my life.  The joy I take from the love I experience with my family, my friends, and my wife make me desperately desire this delight to continue forever with them in Heaven.

That is why I choose to look at Love Aquinasly.

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