“We are made for love -- and in vain we strive to pour forth the streams of our affection by the narrow channels which the world can give -- and well is it if, stagnated in our hearts, they turn not to bitterness. The religion of Jesus Christ is intended to bring us back to our real natural condition: for all the world is in an unnatural state”
While reading for my dissertation, I found this quote in one of George MacDonald’s letters. MacDonald’s lines resonated with a difficulty I’ve pondered since leaving college, if not before, and I decided that it would make an excellent--and hopefully provocative--motto for this year’s Valentine’s greetings to friends and family. In one of my first entries, I discussed one of contemporary Christianity’s “failures of the imagination”--the failure to celebrate and bless stages of life that don’t fall into tidy “marriage, missions, or babies” categories. I also gave thanks for all the new relationships and “fridge worthy” moments life in spiritual community has given me. With this entry, I risk repeating myself because I am convinced that the very idea of the “Church” -- individuals participating as members of Christ’s body--challenges our world’s very narrow ideas of whom and how we should love.
I once thought that not being loved by someone would be the saddest condition for a human life. As I grow older, I realize that lacking others to love can strike just as deeply at our roots. Single adults often feel this lack most keenly because the channels the world provides are, as MacDonald realized in 1848, painfully narrow. Here is an example of what I mean. A few days ago, while browsing through a really cool data visualization site, Information is Beautiful, I found this visual presentation of “The Varieties of Intimate Relationship.” The graphic, with its careful symmetries and graceful lines, is nearly beautiful. However, the more I studied it, the more I realized that I was reading a very pretty map of the world’s very narrow channels for our love. First, while the chart purports to present “The Varieties of Intimate Relationship,” what it actually shows are varieties of sexual behaviors. (Admittedly, most readers would probably guess this before looking at the chart; but I have what my mother calls “the spiritual gift of oblivion,” and I expected a much broader array). The use of “intimate” as a synonym for “sexual” is in itself enough to annoy me; not only does its function as a euphemism suggest a strange uneasiness in a culture increasingly open to discussions about sex, but the reduction of “intimacy” to a physical action is downright dangerous.
The content of the chart reinforces how narrow the world’s channels for love are. No mention of familial relations, though surely the bond between a parent and child, among others is intimate. No mention of relationships that are not, in some way, contingent upon eroticized understandings of self and other. Although “celibacy” is included, comparing its gentle pink orbs to the “monogamy” and “non-monogamy” groups reveals something even more troubling than the intimacy/sexual synonymy of the title: the monogamy and non-monogamy options name (for better or for worse), varieties of relationships (e.g. “marriage,” polyamory,” “co-dependent” and so on). The celibacy bubbles, however, only name various reasons and modes of celibacy: “ascetic,” “involuntary (for physical and emotional reasons),” “spiritual,” and a few others. Vows “to God” do make the list, but in all other cases, the modes of celibacy have only to do with the celibate person -- not with anyone else.
Does anyone else see the problem with this?
Based on “The Varieties of Intimate Relationship” chart, it appears that monogamous and non-monogamous people are involved with other people, however dysfunctionally, while the “intimate relationships” celibate people have are either with God or with themselves, singly. Sexual behavior aside, the potential for emotional and even spiritual self-involvement is very real for many single adults.
Now, I could rant for a long time about how frustrating I find this chart, but what really breaks my heart is that Christians spend so little time thinking deeply about wider, richer, divine channels for our affections and energy. These channels do exist--I have seen them, been swept into them--while mopping floors with other summer missionaries, while eating a meal with a church lifegroup, while worshipping with believers whose language I don’t even know, while teaching classes--but I have yet to hear a sermon on friendship, and most “relationships” sessions at Christian conferences are only about dating and marriage. The world’s chart has names for all kinds of unnecessary romantic configurations--why do we have so few names for the far more important ways in which we love each other?
Some people, including many Christians, may have the luxury of considering this question secondary to the love they owe spouses, children, parents, boyfriends or girlfriends. As an adult who is not married, I no longer have an excuse for claiming such a luxury, though in the past I did. I have always been rather narrow in my love; as a child and college student, I would select a few worthy people (usually my parents plus a few intimate friends) and lavish my time, affection, patience, energy, prayer, money, and skill on them. Since leaving college, that kind of focus has been impossible. This is not to say I have not made good friends; on the contrary, I have been humbled and loved and given love in a thousand beautiful ways. But not by one person. Or by two. Or even by a consistent group.
This state of love-limbo strains me. I dislike the weekly crisis of deciding where to sit each week in church, even though I know I would be welcome in any pew I chose. I dislike the constant uncertainties about how much attention is too much, too little. My life would be much easier if I could pour out all my love on one person within some sort of clearly defined relationship. Narrow channels, you see, are much easier to navigate.
My weariness of having such a wide web of people to love (rather than a tiny, manageable few) is largely a matter of temperament, and perhaps the more important danger is that if we do not have persons to love (persons, not “causes” or even ideals), it is so easy to spill our affection in less worthy places--not necessarily wicked channels (though that is possible), but things such as pets, hobbies, school or work.
I’m trying to take courage and to challenge my imagination, but the wide channels of God’s love can be frightening and can, ironically, feel very lonely. If churches want young adults to feel at home within their congregations, we need to talk about how one develops depth, intimacy, accountability, and joy into relationships that are bound by no vows. We need to name, study, excavate, and plunge into deeper and wider channels for our love. Not work-for-the-abstract-good-of-humanity channels, not tide-you-over-until-you-are-married channels, not anything-goes channels, but varieties of communion and kinship so strange and beautiful that the worldlings join us, abandoning their pitiful polyamory and their empty fidelities.
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. Psalm 107:23-24, KJV
What are some of the ways in which we (as individuals and churches) do, can, or should pour out our love when the world’s channels are too narrow? What names do we have (or should we have) for these wider channels, these un-charted intimacies?