By Chris Matthews
My first experience with the mysterious power of romance came in the sixth grade. There was a girl in my grade who had gone mostly unnoticed by me in previous years. But suddenly and without warning, she began to have a dramatically different effect on me. Close physical proximity caused unexplained physical reactions: sweaty palms, a racing pulse, and an almost complete incapacity of speech. There were also emotional effects. I was excited at the prospect of her presence, anxious and terrified when she was present, and saddened when I expected her to be present and she was not. It went on for more than two years. It had shocking effects on my life. It filled my thoughts and daydreams and it impacted what I wore, who I wanted as friends, where I wanted to be, even what music I enjoyed. All the while, I had little to no relationship with the object of my romantic obsession and just a superficial knowledge of what she was really like.
Almost every post-pubescent human being can recount their own experience with the mysterious power of the romantic impulse. It is something distinct from physical or sexual attraction, fueled by emotion instead of libido. Philosophers and psychologists have labored to explain the origin and purpose of the romantic impulse. In Plato’s Symposium, six Athenian philosophers discuss it while praising the deity Eros. Aristophanes proposes that humans are descended from beings with spherical torsos that were split in two by the gods, and the romantic impulse is a desire to return to the original form. Socrates proposes that the romantic impulse must be a result of a lack of being, specifically the lack of beauty. For much of the 20th century, the Oedipal theories of Sigmund Freud dominated thought about the source of both romantic and sexual impulses among psychologists. Other psychologists, such as René Girard, argued against Freudian theories, proposing the source of the romantic impulse is instead rivalry and jealousy as individuals observe attraction between others. There have also been more utilitarian explanations for romance. Arthur Schopenhauer tracks the romantic impulse to simply the will-to-live impulse that leads to a desire to produce attractive progeny. Still others, such as former Yale professor Robert Sternberg, see the romantic impulse as merely a basic combination of “liking” and the sexual impulse.
As made explicitly clear in the example of Aristophanes, any theory about the origin and purpose of the romantic impulse is highly dependent on one’s understanding of the origin and purpose of human beings as a whole. If human beings are the product of chance, unguided natural processes and there exists no real purpose for human existence other than survival, then the theories of Freud and Girard might seem the most convincing. If each human being establishes their own sense of purpose from their own perspectives and heritage, then the discussion of universal meaning or purpose for the romantic impulse is precluded. In which case the utilitarian and simplistic perspectives of Schopenhauer or Sternberg might be all there is to say. However, if human beings are the purposeful creation of God, then the purpose of the romantic impulse must find its genesis in God’s larger purpose for human beings.
In the book of Genesis, God creates man and woman in His own image. He charges them to be fruitful and multiply, filling, subduing and ruling over the earth. This charge, commonly called the cultural mandate, and this intended state of being in the image of God, combine to establish a basic purpose for human existence – that is to reflect the true nature of God while carrying out the cultural mandate. God’s purpose for human existence cannot be reduced to merely a function, filling and ruling over the earth. The manner in which that function is conducted must display the true expression of God. The purpose also cannot be reduced to just a proper state of being, being in the image of God. That proper state of being must find its expression through the proper function of humanity, filling and ruling over the earth.
If human beings are the purposeful creation of God, everything in human experience can only be rightly understood, and therefore rightly used and enjoyed, when grounded in an understanding of the purpose of God for humanity— which is displaying His glory through fulfilling His mandate. The romantic impulse is no exception. As part of common human experience, the romantic impulse must somehow aid in both knowing and displaying God through fulfilling the cultural mandate. So, how does it do that? First and most obviously, the romantic impulse serves as one of the motivating forces towards a union that produces children when it is directed at its proper object, a person of the opposite sex. Because we live in a world marred by the effects of every person failing to live according to God’s purpose, the romantic impulse is not always directed at its proper object. Producing children is a necessary part of humanity fulfilling the cultural mandate. Our romantic impulse, as our sexual impulses, move us towards that action.
However, if it were only rooted in motivating human reproduction, the romantic impulse would seem superfluous since the sexual impulse would seem a sufficient motivator. The unique purpose for the romantic impulse can only be discovered by also considering how the relationship between a man and woman displays God’s nature or glory. When God created man, He said that it was not good for the man to be alone and the search began for a suitable helper for him in fulfilling His purpose. The search ended through God making the woman who was taken from the man, equally made in God’s image, but made in a distinct way to be a proper compliment to the man in fulfilling God’s purpose. The man and woman were designed to come together, reforming as one whole, the two becoming one flesh in the covenant relationship of marriage.
This unity of two distinct persons serves to display the true nature of God in ways that individual human beings cannot. One way is through marriage as a one flesh union of two distinct persons which reflects the triune nature of God who is also a unity of distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Though a man and a woman can produce children outside marriage, it will not function to reflect the unity of distinct persons in the Trinity without the context of a permanent one flesh union. Marriage also uniquely displays God’s love for human beings. In the complete surrender of themselves to each other and the selfless consideration of the good of the other ahead of their own, a married couple enact a dramatization of the sacrificial love of God for His people that led Him to send His own Son, Jesus Christ, to lay down His life for them. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul identifies this display of God’s loving pursuit of human beings who would become His through covenant relationship as the raison d’être for marriage. The mystery, now revealed through Jesus, is that marriage has always been about displaying Jesus Christ and his love for His bride, the church.
In light of the centrality of marriage in fulfilling God’s purpose for humanity, the romantic impulse provides something that the sexual impulse does not. The sexual impulse seeks sexual fulfillment, but the romantic impulse seeks a person. It serves a unique role in drawing together a man and a woman as distinct persons in a way that sexual desire does not. In some instances, the romantic impulse can even serve to keep the sexual impulse in check, discouraging the pursuit of sexual fulfillment in ways that would disregard the romantic object.
In God’s design, romance always serves marriage, both in drawing human beings towards marriage and as a part of marital satisfaction. For romance is not just an impulse, but also a satisfying reward. If romance ever ceases to serve marriage and becomes an end in itself, its connection to God’s purpose for humanity is severed. It is then likely to become a destructive power instead of an impetus towards meaningful existence. Romance is a useful motivator when used to serve its proper end, but it is a terrible guide. Orphaned from its higher purpose, it becomes mere sentimentality that will never display God’s nature and inspire sacrificial love instead of the pursuit of self-interest.
Twenty years after my first experience with romance, I had my last. There was another girl who began to produce similar emotional and life-altering effects on my life. This time I was caught less unaware and overcame fear to pursue a relationship with her. More importantly, I had learned the proper purpose for these powerful feelings. They were intended to motivate me towards sacrificial love in the covenant of marriage. They were not to be trusted as a guide or pursued for self-fulfillment through indulgent sentimentality or unrequited pining. They were to inspire me to love another so sacrificially, so completely, and so permanently that it would display the greatness of God’s own love for His people and to surrender my own rights so completely to her that we would seem one unified whole. I pursued that girl with those purposes as my goal and romance found its proper end in my life, a marriage that hopes to display God and His love in a world where He is hidden.
Taken from Fall 2013 issue of Logos, Love, Sex, & Christianity