For many Christians, eros stands in stark opposition to agape forms of love. Eros is viewed from many pulpits as a natural, selfish drive that must be carefully managed and is only rightly satisfied (or better tolerated) in marriage, while agape is seen as the spiritual, higher, sacrificial giving love that all Christians are to uphold.
Part of the opposition is due to eros being reduced to a desire for sexual pleasure and orgasmic release. While including these physical desires, eros involves much more than this.
Classical literature deemed eros as a type of love, which suggests it has some redeeming qualities.
In reflecting on the writings of Paul Tillich, author Alexander Irwin explains that the action of love is one that drives toward the unity of the separated; this is true for both eros and agape.
Concerning eros he writes:
Eros is revealed as a powerful uniting principle that urges human being toward connection with persons, objects, or ideas that are “bearers of values.” The erotic drives us “toward union with the forms of nature and culture and with the divine sources of both.”
Erotic desire is the desire to be reconciled to the true, the good, and the beautiful in one’s self, others, the world, and the Ultimate Reality — God. As such, it is not a bad desire by itself, and only becomes so when it fails to honor this drive toward union.
It is the grace of agape that keeps eros from being distorted into selfishness or limited to managing physical desires. Agape does not deny or replace eros. Rather, agape enters and transforms eros to bring it to its full excellence, its completion.
Agape reshapes and elevates eros to be centered on the Divine and not merely the Self.
Theologian Lewis Smedes goes on to emphasize the grace of agape as the redeeming work of Christ, believing Christ liberates eros for agape.
The gospel of Christ is good news for the whole person, including the hope for a better sexual life. Therefore, it cannot mean salvation from sexuality, as if sexuality is not part of the redeemed life for Christians.
According to Smedes,
Grace does not put sexuality down; it raises sexuality up into the service of spirit. For this reason the grace of God must be the grace that liberates our sexuality as a power for love.
While agape elevates, corrects, transforms, and enriches eros, allowing it to participate in the reconciling ministry of Christ, it is not the same as eros and, therefore, cannot replace eros.
Eros keeps life from becoming too serious and dull, a mere obligatory keeping of agape, while agape keeps eros from becoming an aimless pursuit of fleeting pleasures and entertainment.
God has designed eros and agape to work in harmony with each other, not stand in opposition.
Love in action includes the erotic. Here, willing the good and providing what is needed, is using sexual energy to fuel the movement toward unity: with self, others, the world, and God.
Editor’s Note: This is a modified excerpt from Dr. Corey’s dissertation