Saturday, September 03, 2005

Love: An Intimation of a Deeper Spiritual Reality?

In a comment on my post on the evidentiary value of spiritual experiences, Mike wondered if love is an example of a category of truth, a “deeper spiritual reality,” whose discernment requires trust in feelings.

In terms of whether it is the evidence or the target knowledge that is ‘concrete’ or ‘ethereal,’ knowing the gospel is true and knowing someone loves you are more opposite than alike. In trying to discern via the Holy Ghost if the gospel is true, we interpret ethereal perceptions (our own thoughts and feelings) as evidence of a concrete reality (e.g. God’s existence) to which we don’t have direct access. In trying to discern if someone loves us, clues from observable expressions, behavior, and speech allow us to make inferences about something ethereal—someone else’s thoughts and feelings. (Such inferences are less that perfect, of course, as in the proverbial conundrum faced by women: ‘Is that a just a banana in his pocket, or does he actually feel glad to see me?’)

Now, if we want to get hard-nosed about it, we can talk about love in strictly concrete, empirical terms. (By the way, here and here are two relevant definitions of “hard-nosed”—I have an insatiable curiosity about the origin and usage of words and expressions.) For example, this news story in Science that discusses different patterns of brain activation in (1) early, consuming, obsessive infatuation, (2) longer term relationships, and (3) orgasm itself, for both men and women. (Subscription required—not, thankfully, to experience these forms and facets of love, but to read the article. For those bereft of institutional subscriptions to academic journals, contact me by email and I’ll send it to you.) I also remember reading an intriguing review in Nature of a recent book by Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History: Why We Love : The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. At first it sounds like Ms. Fisher fell in love with her brain scans:
When I first looked at those brain scans, with the active brain regions lit up in bright yellow and deep orange, I felt the way I feel on a summer night when I gaze at the sparkling universe: overwhelming awe.
But overwhelming as brain scans might be, apparently the book also contains a healthy sprinkling of real-world quotations reminding us that brain scans cannot compete with living the subjective experience, as evidenced by Richard Burton’s observation of 19-year-old Elizabeth Taylor:
She was so extraordinarily beautiful I nearly laughed out loud. She... was famine, fire, destruction and plague... Her breasts were apocalyptic, they would topple empires before they withered... those huge violet eyes... had an odd glint... Aeons passed, civilizations came and went while these cosmic headlights examined my flawed personality. Every pockmark on my face became a crater of the moon.
(Note: Fisher’s book is now available at in paperback, at a discount. I’ve placed it on my wish list, to make it easy for appreciative and generous readers to make their love for me concrete and observable. ;-> )

Of course, Richard Burton’s initial reaction to Elizabeth Taylor was probably not the sort of “deeper spiritual reality” to which Mike referred. Along the same lines as Mike, my mother has also expressed a similar idea:
Aren’t the really transcendent moments of life, those of true connection in love with another human being or with “nature,” spirit-to-spirit, that are life-giving and life-changing a reflection and intimation of the Eternal World? What, strictly by human effort alone, can compare with those moments?
My response is something like Ada’s response to her father’s otherworldly philosophy in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain:
Monroe had commented that, like all elements of nature, the features of this magnificent topography were simply tokens of some other world, some deeper life with a whole other existence toward which we ought aim all our yearning. And Ada had then agreed.

But now, as she looked out at the view, she held the opinion that what she saw was no token but all the life there is. It was a position in most ways contrary to Monroe’s; nevertheless, it did not rule out its own denomination of sharp yearning, though Ada could not entirely set a name to its direction.
Does the existence of love imply, as Mike and my mother suggest, the existence of a “deeper spiritual reality”? Obviously I cannot prove this proposition false, but I confess I find a mortal origin and destiny of this phenomenon reasonably persuasive.

Whatever its origins, it is clear that love is a mystery of sufficient potency to have inspired longings for another world, and spawned the construction of powerful social structures—structures that define and control the ways in which we are by turns commanded, and forbidden, to acquiesce to its allure and nourish its growth and perpetuation. I cannot help wondering, however, if the long, otherworldly shadow cast by the perception of divine origin and eternal dictates over love hasn’t, in many cases, hamstrung the possible fullness of its mortal expression.