Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reductionism and Redemption

All newbies in our division have to fill in this "get to know you" questionnaire. Among other things, we were asked to "list the physical and non-physical traits that you want your ideal mate to have."

At first I didn't know what to do with this question because I didn't even agree with its very premise. Granted, the whole questionnaire was deliberately provocative (I think they were also aiming for humorous, but much of that was lost on me) and was not meant to be taken seriously, but I still could not help feeling somewhat saddened by the question itself.

Since when did we start reducing people to commodities?

I found myself very encouraged by some of the answers that my colleagues gave. One chap wrote, "I don't believe in such reductionism. I feel that it diminishes the worth of each individual." This made me want to cheer. Another opted for a more tongue-in-cheek approach. "One head, one body, two arms and two legs. Female." This made me chuckle.

In the end, I settled for "I don't really believe in shopping lists for people. The only "requirement" is that he's Christian." I don't even know if "being Christian" can be considered a trait. I don't really think so, but if deep friendship is the essence of marriage then I think it's crucial that you see reality the same way.

The consumerism that pervades all of society has also coloured the way in which we view our relationships. We are, first and foremost, consumers. How much am I getting in return for what I put in? Am I getting a bad deal? How well does this arrangement meet my needs? If we could, I suspect we would customise relationships the way we customise playlists on our iPods to suit our individual preferences.

Tim Keller draws a distinction between consumer-vendor relationships, in which you relate to the vendor only as long as your needs are being met at an acceptable cost, and covenantal relationships, in which you commit to the good of the other whether your individual needs are being met or not. He notes that in modern culture the marketplace has become so dominant that even personal relationships are now based on the consumer model, but Proverbs tells us that “A friend loves at all times” (17:17). Not just when it suits my needs, not just when I am receiving as much as I put in, not just when I feel deep affection for the other, but all the time.

I used to hold to this warped theory of “reciprocity in friendship.” When I felt that my friend was not being the friend to me that I was to her, I got angry and upset. This is not fair! I deserve better than this! This relationship is not a one-way street! I had absolutely no idea what love is, and what true friendship really means. There was a complete failure on my part to see just how true a friend Jesus was, and is, to us; how unconditionally, and how sacrificially he loved us, and loves us still. We gave him nothing, yet he gave us everything, giving up his rightful riches in heaven to descend into the depths of hell. We turned our backs on him and spurned his love, yet he never gave up on us even though it cost him his life.

Most people think of love and relationships in terms of what they want, but that is just emotional hunger, that’s not love. The real way to know how much you love somebody is how much you’re willing to give, not how much you’re willing to get.

The Bible always speaks of love in strictly covenantal terms: How much you love a person is always defined in terms of what you are willing to give, how much you’re willing to curb your choices to meet the needs of someone else. But the modern world tells you: Don’t you dare ever limit your choices. Keep your options open! Never ever bind yourself and make yourself vulnerable to anybody that way. Never!

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves

If you think, that if you would commit yourself to somebody else like that, that that would really be scary, that that would really be frightening, that you might get hurt – you will be more hurt in the long run if you refuse to submit yourself to anybody that way; if you rule it out, if you take your heart so it will never be broken, if you never commit yourself and never allow yourself to be vulnerable (which is what the definition of marriage is), your heart will become impenetrable, irredeemable. You will experience the alienation and dislocation of the modern society that you are listening to in the news, as it sings to you, and you march to its beat. Society is full of alienated and dislocated people because they are looking out for number one, because they refuse to find love in terms of commitment – in terms of what you will give, and how vulnerable you will be.

Love is not primarily a feeling (feelings go up and down), but an action first. The feelings follow after. The most supremely loving act there ever was, and ever will be, was when the Lord of all creation laid down his life for us, becoming the servant of all, making himself completely vulnerable, not thinking of himself in the least, loving us when we were utterly unlovable.

Now that’s love.

Do we know what love is?


Anonymous said...

I remember this survey too! (also agree with rest of post)

peish said...

Ah yes! The infamous survey... (thanks =)