Office Hours: The Sweet Science, Part 1
Christian love isn’t about sweet feelings. But what about romantic love?
There He taught me the science full of sweetness …
There I promised to be His bride.
— John of the Cross, Spiritual CanticleYou thought “the sweet science” was boxing, didn’t you?
“You again?” I peered at Peter over my glasses. My eyes were burning from grading essays, and he can be exhausting. That’s not an excuse. Just an explanation.
“What?” he said defensively. “I’m not allowed during your office hours? Is there a rule, only one visit a week?”
“You’re allowed,” I grudged him, “but I’m not up for another talk about whether Christianity is girlie.”
“No, no, we finished that subject, Prof. Nothing like that. Don’t worry.”
“Good. You’re here to bring me up to date about your honors thesis? It’s about time you —”
“Not this time.”
I frowned. “To talk about my seminar readings?”
“Not that either.”
He hesitated. “Not that kind of advising.”
“What do you mean, not that kind?”
“Well, like I said, we finished our conversation about that other subject that we, um, finished. But later I was telling my girlfriend about it, and — Professor, I wish you wouldn’t groan like that.”
“How else should I groan?”
“I mean I wish you wouldn’t groan.”
I tried to smile. “Never mind, Peter. It’s not you. I’ve just had a long day.”
“I guess you think it would be nice if your students had legitimate academic questions now and then, huh?”
“As a matter of fact,” I said drily, “most of them do.”
He blithely went on. “So I was telling my girlfriend about our conversation, and she sort of blew a fuse.”
“I don’t know how to fix fuses in girlfriends.”
“You say that,” he smirked, “but you did it once in Groundless.”
“Nounless. If I ever did, which I deny, it must have been during a moment of weakness.”
“I don’t want advice anyway. I just want your opinion. I bet you’ll never guess what she did.”
“Not if I have a choice.”
“I’ll tell you. She cried.”
As St. Paul might have said, I saw another law in my members at war with the law of my mind.Romans 7:23a (RSV) It won. Knowing that it would be wiser not to, I asked “Why?”
“I’ll tell you. See, first she asked what’s wrong with being girlie, because she’s a girl. So I said nothing’s wrong with being girlie, if you’re a girl, but I’m not, OK?”
“Then she said she liked high-pitched sentimental worship music, and I shouldn’t try to impose my male musical preferences on everyone else. So I said this wasn’t about anyone’s musical preferences, but about whether worship is about feelings or about God.”
“Then she said it’s chutzpah to call the word of God girlie, because the line about His banner over me being love is from the Bible. I didn’t know that, but I covered and said sure, it would be chutzpah to criticize God’s words, but I was only criticizing what some songsters did with them.”
“Then she said what’s wrong with love anyway, and I said I’m tryna tellya there’s nothing wrong with love, but love isn’t just feelings, it’s a course of action, like you said, Prof.”
“Then she said, that just shows what you know about love, and I said I’m talkinabout Christian love fer cryinoutloud, and she said even if I was right about Christian love I was all wrong about romantic love, and romantic love is Christian too and the Song of Songs proves it. This time I said I don’t even know what you’re talkinabout anymore. Then she said that’s getting more obvious every second, because if I had even a grain of intelligence or a particle of love I’d understand her perfectly. So that’s when I said the Wrong Thing.” You could have seen it coming from a mile. It had all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. “I said when did I ever say I was in love — and that’s when she cried and dumped her canelloni in my lap.”
We were silent for a few moments.
“We were at Molto Alimento.” That’s where these things always happen.
“Lucky it wasn’t spaghetti.”
“I guess so,” he said.
Again we were silent. Seconds passed.
“What did you want to ask me?”
“Sorry, my mind was wandering. Well, knowing my girlfriend, I had a feeling that Song of Songs was going to come up again between us some time.”
“Besides, I’m a Christian, and if it’s in the Bible, I ought to know about it. So I read it. Turns out, it is all about romantic love. There’s a girl, see, the Shulammite, and she loves a shepherd, but this other guy wants to add her to his harem or something —”
“I’ve read it. You still haven’t told me your question.”
“My question is, was she right?”
“No, my girlfriend.”
“Right to dump her canelloni in your lap?”
“No, right about what she was saying right before that.”
“About how even if I was right about Christian love not being all about the feelings, I was all wrong about romantic love, and romantic love is Christian too.”
“You’re not going to ask how to get your relationship with your girlfriend back on track?”
“No, right after she dumped her canelloni in my lap, I got so confused that I spilled my iced tea in my own lap, and she couldn’t cry any more because she was laughing, and after that everything was OK. You thought I was going to ask you how to make that happen?”
“I thought it was a possibility.”
“I wouldn’t do a thing like that to you.”
I relaxed. “Explain your question to me again.”
“See, it’s like this,” he said. “You were saying the other day about how love isn’t all about sweet feelings. And you convinced me. One thing you said that hit home was how St. Paul says love never ends, but sweet feelings can end, they come and go. You said feelings may come along with love, but love isn’t a feeling, it’s a course of action. Giving yourself up for others.”
“Yes, I said that.”
“And you didn’t say just ‘love of God’ or ‘love of neighbor,’ Professor. You said ‘love.'”
“That means every kind of love.”
“Well, romantic love is a kind of love, isn’t it?”
“But romantic love is all about sweet feelings. So if love isn’t all about sweet feelings, but romantic love is all about sweet feelings, does that mean romantic love isn’t love? Or does it mean love is all about sweet feelings? I just can’t square what we said about love the other day with —”
“Peter, Peter, slow down. Romantic love isn’t all about sweet feelings either.”
“What? Prof, OK, I’ve never been in romantic love. So I don’t have firsthand knowledge. Maybe you have, since you’re married and all. If you haven’t forgotten, I mean. But I did take the time to read the Song of Songs, all right? So we can say I’ve done secondary research.”
I smiled. “I’ll concede that.”
“Now even you have to admit that it’s pretty hard to read a line like ‘kiss me with kisses of your mouth!’ and think to yourself, ‘that isn’t about sweet feelings, it’s about a course of action.’ Unless the course of action is getting a kiss. But I don’t think that’s the course of action you meant.”
I laughed. “I didn’t rule it out.”
“Well, no —”
“But I see your problem. Peter, haven’t we had this conversation before?”
“I don’t think so. You’re not going to go all déjà vu on me, are you, Prof?”
“Not the same conversation, but don’t you remember the time when you and some other students cornered me at the Edge of Night diner? You demanded that I defend the Christian view of sex.”
His face reddened. “Oh, yeah. I was a different person then.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re also a different person now.”
“Well, that’s true.”
“Do you remember the question I asked then about marriage?”
“You must have a lot better memory than mine. What question did you ask?”
“I pointed out that when a man and woman marry they promise to love each other until death. You can’t promise to have a feeling. So I asked, what are they promising?”
He frowned. “I remember now. The answer was supposed to be that it’s a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person.”
I lifted my eyebrows. “Does that answer sound wrong to you now?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “But don’t you see?”
“That only makes the problem worse.”
Copyright 2010 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.