In two recent posts, Imagine a Boy, and Yearning, I embarked on a query about what love is, and what it might tell us about the big question: God, or purposeless, mechanistic randomness in the universe? These were posts in more of a story-telling format, than, say, analytic philosophy. Each has its place. We respond to story that relates the big truths about our existence. And we hold to an idea that our intellect is paramount among our truth-discovering tools – that we can rationally arrive at truth.
The subject of love, however, might be better suited to story format. It is so deeply felt and so deeply personal. At the same time, it is a subject that can wrap around our preconceptions handily, making it difficult to arrive at the truth concerning love’s origins.
In the two posts mentioned above, I deliberately started with a father/son relationship, rather than that of man and woman, but then alluded to other kinds of love, as well. The theme of the two posts was that love is characterized by a kind of longing we have, that is so intense that it is akin to a desire for unity – communion – with the object of our feeling. The idea was that we exist in a state of unfulfilled passion. That state results from our separation from God. Our passions remain unfulfilled until filled by Him.
What is the opposing proposition? What is the default explanation of the culture, for the unmistakeable sense of yearning we feel, for those we love and those feelings akin to love, for that which is beautiful or uplifting, and perhaps fleeting?
Well the culture is a mix and mingle of many different beliefs, to be sure, but it has a direction, just as history has a direction; just as movements and crusades and public moods have direction. An obvious moral failing in one generation is seen as a brave, liberating choice in the next. What is the direction of this culture?
To an increasing degree every day it is the presumption that nature explains everything; that belief in super-nature is a curious historical artefact. There is no God, just as there are no leprechauns or Easter bunnies. Therefore all that we observe is explainable by physical mechanisms, responding to physical stimuli, within space-time.
Biology of “Love”
Even powerful emotions like love. To explain the phenomenon of love, one must imagine a ground-up explanation from biology. We are more fit for survival and for survival of our progeny if we live socially; if we mate; if we form strong lasting bonds with our offspring. And beauty? Similar explanation: we are attracted to that which better bonds the tribe. There is no unfulfilled passion; if we sense such a thing we’re merely giving in to melancholy; indulging a failing of our evolved fitness thus far. Better to shake it off and get about the business of life. Consign that haunting sense of incompleteness to some unfortunate eddy in our ancestors’ evolution. Just be happy. Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Leave the brooding to the Christians, who foolishly think something beyond this life will satisfy them. Words like “purpose” and “meaning” might get us through hard times, for peculiar evolved reasons, but there is no such thing. We are the product of seemingly infinite but actually finite movements of atoms, from the moment nothingness inexplicably ceased, and somethingness inexplicably began.
If you’re of a mind to consider a feeling like love to be somehow connected to (or even authored by) some Presence far beyond our comprehension, then you might also be disinclined to see a trend in our culture that says: “not so.” But look around. It’s not just in the science-popularizing books, in which physicists, the new high priests, opine there is nothing beyond the natural, in the course of explaining what is natural. Nor is it even in the newer apologist works by those who soften the “atheist” or “materialist” epithets by describing themselves as “secularists” or “freethinkers.” It’s also in our popular culture, and it’s ever more prevalent.
Materialist Culture and “Love”
I’ve remarked on this many times, in many contexts, but I seldom see it set forth blatantly when the subject is love. When the question is human love, we tend to hold out for some sense of mystery, at least, if not necessarily a supernatural component. But the naturalist conception of love is there, if you’re minded to see it. Sometimes quite explicitly, as in this excerpt from The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.
Why couldn’t you be real?
It isn’t that love died. It’s that we storied it poorly. We tried too hard to contain it and make it something to have and to hold.
Love was never meant to be less than electrical impulse and the energy of matter, but this was no small thing. The Earth’s heartbeat or pulse or telluric current, no small thing. The stuff of life itself. Life in the universe, cosmic or as small as an atom. But we wanted it to be ours. Between us. For us. We made it small and private so that we’d be above all other living things. We made it a word, and then a story, and then a reason to care more about ourselves than anything else on the planet. Our reasons to love more important than any others.
The stars were never there for us – we are not the reason for the night sky.
The stars are us.
We made love stories up so we could believe the night sky was not so vast, so unbearably vast, that we barely matter.
Beautifully written; frighteningly cold in its implications. We are to give ourselves over to the new reality that we have no special place among living things. All life is just a collection of elements in individualized process of respiration, growth, replication, and decay. We are of no greater significance than anything else in the grand but austere cosmos. Even love is meaningless. It is only an emotion that we have heretofore understood too little, willingly shrouding falsehoods in mystery. Today we mourn its passing – “why couldn’t you be real” – tomorrow we accept that love, too, is pointless.