As the wedding season comes to an end, Heidi Epstein reconsiders divine love and the musical metaphors that help to understand it. 


‘Come Down, O Love Divine’: A Sonic Question

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I am finding my feet again after too many years off the organ bench. I lean into Down Ampney’s melodic sighs, that swirl of longing in Bianco da Siena’s imagery and Vaughan Williams’ melodic and harmonic choices. Does the abrupt flat-vii chord beneath ‘within my heart appear’ mark a convulsive moment of surrender? A pang of desperation? Or the moment of rupture/rapture when Spirit pierces flesh? Maybe all of the above. As I perform these pleas, I am struck by the poet’s desire to incinerate his earthly passions. His ascetic zeal complies with the classic Christian dichotomy between Eros and Agape. But Vaughan Williams’ musical idioms, along with the erotics of playing and singing hymns, undo this rigid, ranked binary. Music poses a penetrating question about the cogency of this divide.

 At another keyboard, I’m writing about dissonant musical treatments of the Song of Songs and the ‘timeless’ models of love that they destabilise. Many theologians and laypeople turn the Song‘s inconclusive poetic fragments (and violent episodes) into a love story with a happy ending. The two lovers definitely find each other and get married. (Domesticity integrates Eros and Agape). Or the lovers’ hide n’ seek allegorises the eventual reunion of Church/Soul/Beloved with a Lover-God. (Here, Eros finds its proper love Object.)

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Our models of love–even metaphysical ones–have a history. They are filtered through philosophical and poetic conventions, and built by humans with limited, enculturated perspectives. For example:

1) Medieval models of romantic love drew ‘heavily from the affective spirituality of Augustine and the twelfth-century Cistercians’.[1] The sacred fed the secular. And, ‘sexual desire is an inflection of erotic longing, not its origin or essence’.[2] Medieval physiology shaped this model as well: ‘Before 1650, erotic desire was represented as a process originating in the desirable object (especially the eyes), whose simulacrum enters the erotic subject through his own eyes, traveling thence to the imagination or fantasy and finally dwelling in the heart’.[3] Thus, beatific and romantic visions shared the same circuitry, but ‘romantic love’ travelled further down, into ‘the bowels or liver.’ Shuger concludes: ‘According to the ocular model, there exists no necessary physiological or affective difference between sacred and secular desire. One is not spiritual, the other bodily, but each engenders the same sense of lack, the same longing, constriction of the heart, excited apprehension of beauty, alternation of joy and desolation, desire for presence, and lachrymose pain’.[4] But after the ‘scientific’ remodelling of erotic desire as starting in and moving up from the genitals, excessive religious passion became ‘pathologized’ as ‘a sexual disorder’.[5]

2) Not just early modern science, but also colonial expansion shaped models of love. Anglican priest and poet John Donne (1571/2-1631) harnessed metaphors of map-making, sea-faring discovery, and territorial acquisition to (ap)praise his beloved’s body and articulate his desire for her (e.g. ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’). He thereby exposed the power relations composing love; it offered a mode of conquest and self-mastery for a ‘sovereign subject’.[6]  To express his desire for God, Donne still used erotic/conquest metaphors in his Holy Sonnet (‘Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God’), but now Donne is a ‘usurped town’ desperate for divine liberation via abduction, incarceration, and ravishing, all of which will leave him ‘chaste and free,’ and restore God’s ‘viceroy, Reason.’

3) Today’s model of true love as the sacred erotic seedbed of ‘family values’ only superseded the ‘purer’ ideal of celibacy during the Protestant Reformation.[7] For his part, Jesus repeatedly challenged the amatory primacy of kinship ties. His vision/ethic of love inaugurated a non-household-based community to build God’s kingdom. And Paul only reluctantly authorised marriage as erotic lust’s stopgap (1 Cor. 7.9), before singing Agape’s praises a few chapters later.

4) The metaphors that theologian Sallie McFague uses to build a model of divine love have also been shaped by socio-cultural forces. McFague recognises that the rigid ranked dualism between Eros and Agape enhanced habits of thought that vilified women and colonised peoples; these latter were objectified and reduced to bodies/Flesh that were more prone to erotic excess (vs. white male subjects’ superior rational/spiritual potential). To address such injustices, McFague proposes a more holistic model of love that reunites Eros and Agape, but she goes even further, asking: How shall we articulate God’s ‘radical, surprising love’ in the 20th [now 21st] century, living as we do between two Holocausts–Auschwitz and ecological annihilation? Divine incarnate love surprised humanity, because it was radically ‘inclusive and non-hierarchical’.[8] Jesus the God-Man called his disciples friends, and expanded neighbor-love to include strangers, enemies and social outcasts. He insisted, moreover, that ‘what you do to the least, you do to me’ (Mt. 25.40). He embodied Agape, but also Eros-as-passion–enfleshing God’s ‘passionate attraction’ to intrinsically valuable beloveds, and then suffering the Passion, going to the limit for these beloveds.[9] For McFague, such radical identification and holistic, inclusive love enfolds all suffering bodies in Creation, for bodies have always mattered to God (e.g. Gen. 1, the Incarnation itself, and Christ’s constant feeding, healing, and caring for bodies). All these revelations of agapic-erotic love justify reinstating the metaphor of God-as-Lover; far beyond its evocation of sex as a graphic symbol for intense union, the metaphor conveys relational value beyond measure and intense mutual desire.

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Traditionalists will object that the Lover-Beloved metaphor heretically implies that God needs/desires humanity; instead, ‘He’ must remain ‘radically transcendent,’ an ‘unmoved mover’.[10] Yet McFague cites God’s longing for Israel to be faithful, and Jesus’ longing for he and humanity to be one with God (and, of course, the allegorised Song of Songs). Moreover, the Lover-Beloved metaphor vividly evokes amatory responsiveness. The beloved–embraced and cherished by a Lover-God–lovingly responds by furthering Christ’s impassioned ministry to suffering bodies.[11]

McFague emphasises that her metaphorically grounded model of God-as-Lover is not some eternal ‘dogmatic pronouncement’.[12] All too often Christian models of God become God. Hers is ‘heuristic.’ It seeks to illuminate not only occluded facets of divine love, but also the exclusionary relational violence that our dualistic models facilitate. Perhaps our singing flesh can be another illuminating metaphor for Eros and Agape’s interplay.


Heidi Epstein is Professor Emerita in the Department of Religion and Culture at the University of Saskatchewan.  She has written numerous articles on the politics of love within musical afterlives of the Song of Songs as well as Melting the Venusberg: A Feminist Theology of Music (Continuum, 2004).


As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.


[1] Deborah K. Shuger, ‘Saints and Lovers,’ The Renaissance Bible. University of California Press, 1998, p. 176
[2] Ibid., p. 176 (emphasis added).
[3] Ibid., p. 178.
[4] Ibid., p. 181.
[5] Ibid., p. 180.
[6] Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture, Blackwell, 1994, p. 133ff.
[7] See Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Westminster John Knox, 2006, pp. 103-24.
[8] Sallie McFague, Models of God: A Theology for a Nuclear, Ecological Age. Fortress, 1987, p. 126.
[9] Ibid., p. 131.
[10] Ibid., p. 134.
[11] Ibid., p. 134ff.
[12] Ibid., p. 132.

‘Come Down, O Love Divine’: A Sonic Question
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