Sunday, October 19, 2008

Love & the Prosperity Gospel

"What do you fear most in the world?"

"The possibility that love is not enough."

I keep coming back to that issue, you know. People want to make my commitment to a "love ethic" into a kind of Prosperity Gospel.

You know, the nice warm-fuzzy denominations of Christianity that say your wealth, your success, your worldly influence are signs of God's favor. Never mind that Jesus said it was more difficult for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, never mind his constant advocacy for the poor, his own voluntary poverty, his expectation that his disciples give up their possessions to the community. The common preaching of a Prosperity Gospel these days is simply the result of the Christian religion gaining political and social dominance in Western culture (a culture also dominated by capitalist economics emphasizing individual wealth and success over community prosperity). It's just the privileged classes justifying their privilege, while the impoverished and marginalized find comfort and hope in Biblical passages that "flip the script" and promise redemption and prosperity (both material and spiritual) to the meek and downtrodden. There is, of course, nothing evil or necessarily immoral about it. It's completely natural, completely human. People want to believe what they want to believe. That's all.

Certainly, a Prosperity Gospel gives people a reason (or justifies their inclination) to work for material success, while it encourages people who have succeeded financially to see this success to some extent as a "gift" or blessing, a reward for commitment and hard work. Surely sometimes people deserve to be rewarded, right? However, plenty of people still recognize the danger of "denying the Cross" in Christianity--denying the very real and painful fact that even "good" or "innocent" people suffer needlessly, that sometimes the rich haven't earned their prosperity and good fortune, that there is a lot of chaos and chance in the world despite our best efforts to "do good," and that it is a burden (though a necessary one) to face that chaos with courage, integrity and hope.

But when it comes to subscribing to a personal, nonreligious "love ethic", even these otherwise understanding people seem to suddenly slip back into "prosperity indicates success" mode. If you are truly a loving person, then of course you'll land in a happy, stable, mutually-loving relationship, you're friends and colleagues will all love and admire you, and you'll rarely feel isolated, sad or misunderstood. If you're single and lonely, well then--that's just an indication that you must have failed. But isn't this very similar to claiming that God shows signs of his favor by blessing people with material wealth, so if you're poor, well then, you must somehow deserve to be poor?

I admit, I may be biased. I have been single and lonely for quite a while. The evidence of my own life seems to suggest that being loved has only a tangential connection to the work of loving--but it is quite possible that I persist in believing this because I cannot admit to being a bad, unloving, selfish person. I very well may be. Who can tell? It can be very difficult to get an accurate view of one's own motivations sometimes, though this does not excuse the effort to try, of course.

But let's think about this rationally for a moment. Plenty of people will admit that it is possible for a person to love, unrequitedly, without that love being pointless or delusional. For you Christians out there, what better example do you have than Jesus himself? Few people would argue that, if Jesus had really been loving and Godlike, surely he wouldn't have been killed, he could have swayed everyone to appreciate his goodness. Well, I take it back, some people do make that argument as a reason for rejecting Christianity. Fair enough. Hopefully, though, you see my point, or can think of some other mythological hero who suffered unjustly despite his best efforts. Moving on.

What about the reality of love? Is love something "real" that extends beyond physical attraction, shared interests, and personality compatibility? If it is, then a person can choose to make a commitment to love, and allow this commitment to manifest in myriad ways. One can hold fast to a "love ethic" without forfeiting the truth of reality. On the other hand, if love is something that only ever happens to exist within a mutual relationship--if there is no such thing as love which, although real, is not returned in kind--then how can we be sure that love is not merely another name for happy coincidence? After all, there are plenty of reasons why a relationship or friendship might "work," including the pleasant coincidence of mutually-beneficial blind spots about one another's flaws. Is love something real in itself, something that can be committed to as a guide to action, or is it just a name we give to hormones, happy feelings or convenient ignorance?

Another way to look at this question is to think about arguments against God or gods. Some people make the argument that gods only exist because we need them to exist--we essentially create them or imagine them. Now, this might be true--either in every sense including the literal, or perhaps only as a description of the psychological mechanism that predisposes a person to believe in gods or God (after all, a person might have a tendency to believe the country they live in is a truly wonderful place to live--merely because holding this belief serves a psychological purpose doesn't mean the belief is always wrong). But can a person really believe in and worship a god that he secretly suspects might be a figment of his imagination? Let's assume, of course, that we're talking in the most common, uninspired way about this subject (leaving off the more subtle theological implications regarding imagination and worship for the time being). Few people can maintain this dual (or "ironic") perspective effectively. Either a person really suspects that his gods are imagined and so develops a kind of ambivalence about them, OR, though he may admit to the possibility that he's wrong, he still holds to a belief in their "external", "objective" realness, i.e. he believes they have a real existence independent of his desire for them to exist. Obviously, language is beginning to complicate and obscure this matter a bit (hence all the scare quotes). But hopefully, you can see what I'm getting at.

So the question is: does love have a "realness" beyond our need to believe in it, or is it merely something that happy couples like to credit for the circumstances of their happiness? While I admit that I might be wrong, like the believer in his gods, I still think that love is something real in and of itself. Evidence and experiences in my life have led me to this belief.

But then, if love is something real and not merely a label for some other coincidentally emerging quality--why shouldn't we respect unrequited love as much as we respect mutually-returned love? Why should the latter be more believable or considered more wise and "right" than the former? If love is something real, shouldn't the commitment to love be more important than whether or not others are able to recognize and thus return or reward that commitment?

There are all sorts of reasons people feel uncomfortable about the prospect that sometimes love is not "rewarded" or returned, why they seek to demean, dismiss or otherwise ignore people who may be suffering and lonely despite all their best efforts to be loving of others. Most of those reasons are similar to the reasons for believing in a "Prosperity Gospel." People who have success, either in finances or in love, want to believe they have, in some way, earned that success, that they helped to bring it into being, that they have some power over their own circumstances. They want to believe that, though there may be those less fortunate in the world, they are not in any way responsible for or connected to that misfortune and, really, "anyone can make it" if only they try hard enough. They also tend to rely on widely agreed-up definitions for what success looks like (either the stable monogamous relationship, or the salaried job and house with a white picket fence and a two-car garage). Anyone who claims to have a "success" that looks unfamiliar or idiosyncratic--especially when that success more closely resembles the look of agreed-upon failure--is derided as delusional, misinformed or just plain lying (probably from repressed jealousy).

Now, of course, despite Jesus' preoccupation with fat camels and sewing instruments, there's no real reason why a wealthy person can't have just as rich and well-developed a spiritual life as a poor person. (I do think it is more difficult to develop spiritually when one is preoccupied with material concerns, but this distraction can stem either from too much money, or from too little.) Naturally, it depends on the circumstances and the individual involved. Likewise, there is no reason why a commitment to a love ethic should exclude someone from a traditional romantic relationship. However, just because a person might admit, when she is lonely or sad, that she longs for such a relationship, doesn't mean that she is merely incapable of doing what it takes to make it happen and must therefore be a "failure," particularly a failure at love itself. There are many ways to begin and then maintain a stable relationship that have absolutely nothing to do with love. The self-help section of any bookstore is full of advice on crafting the artifice and social skills necessary to "land a man" (or woman, or whoever). Often times, this type of cultivated personality has much more to do with forming social bonds, especially because an honest commitment to love must confront and accept the fact that love is not always easy or obvious, let alone warm-fuzzy feel-good appealing.

Which brings me back to the quote at the beginning of this post: facing the fear that love is not enough.

Enough for what?

Just as I have had a great number of experiences that confirm for me the reality of love as something beyond psychological justification or mislabeling social contracts--I have also been confronted with a great deal of evidence that love does not always lead to traditional, agreed-upon visions of happy, permanent relationships. Almost everyone I have loved in my life has "left me" in one way or another. Though it might be useful to describe these relationships as the kind of teacher-student bond that dissolves naturally when the period of learning has run its course, I have just as often been student as teacher, and often I wonder how much more we could have learned and shared together if the bond had lasted, had not dissolved so soon. People who have been in romantic relationships with me have described me as "intense," while friends have said that I am, at times, too much prone to solitude rather than social engagement (though I have always tried to be there for a friend who sought me out for comfort and support).

So I am, for the most part, alone. Does this mean I have failed? Does it mean that love is not "enough" after all, that I have been deluded and misled, that "all my life/I have worshiped the wrong gods"?

I don't think so. I may be lonely, but I think, in the end, I have still done people good, that I have done the right thing, by trying my best to love, and to love well, and to always be improving along that path. Despite their eventual departures, despite their sometimes not even wanting to be loved, not believing they deserve it or rejecting the obligation they assume it implies. Despite my own loneliness and self-doubt and fears and wavering courage, really, the choice is between worshiping the gods I believe to be real, and playing along with the dogma just to hedge my bets. When it comes right down to it, it is not about choosing to love, but choosing to cease loving when chance and circumstances seem stacked against you. That is not a choice I'm willing to make.

The Reproach

You have betrayed me, Eros.
You have sent me
my true love.

On a high hill you made
his clear gaze;
my heart was not
so hard as your arrow.

What is a poet
without dreams?
I lie awake; I feel
actual flesh upon me,
meaning to silence me--
Outside, in the blackness
over the olive trees,
a few stars.

I think this is a bitter insult:
that I prefer to walk
the coiled paths of the garden,
to walk beside the river
glittering with drops
of mercury. I like to lie
in the wet grass beside the river,
running away, Eros,
not openly, with other men,
but discreetly, coldly--

All my life
I have worshiped the wrong gods.
When I watch the trees
on the other side,
the arrow in my heart
is like one of them,
swaying and quivering.

- Louise Gluck


  1. "Gods" , or even "God" are nothing more than projections of our own existence/conciousness, and we manufacture them to suit our needs and/or to justify our behaviors. I pay homage to "The Goddess and The God" only as metaphores/representatives of a power I do not fully understand, yet wish to harness in whatever way might be possible. As social pack animals who suffer with hierarchy issues, most of us need an "Alpha" to kiss up to, since many of us cannot handle being the big dog but will sacrifice just enough "self" to garner favor with those who have no trouble assuming/taking power over others.

    So, no, there is no divinity particularly worried about how or why you strive to love or be loved, but there are people down here sharing this plane with you who by virtue of biological imperatives are not so much worried about the biochemistry of love as they are about how good it feels to love and be loved, especially without condition or having to fill out an application. The longer you study and disect and evaluate and measure why you are lonely or try and philosophize why you of all people should be lonely on a planet of 6 billion people, the longer you remain......what I just said. I consider my own personal quest for love to have been a nightmare. If I had to do it all over again, and I could over rule my hormones, I would say the hell with it. Our right hands never judge us.

    But, I got lucky. Millions upon millions of us get lucky every day. You might just get lucky. You might not. The odds ARE in your favor. Just let it happen. It WILL, when it damn well wants to.

    As for the other end of this observation, I suggest that the poorest of us have the least hurtful impact on our fellow humans. The more ONE has, the least the rest of us has. Simple math.

  2. You misunderstand me if you think that the choice to love, from my perspective, has anything to do with pleasing a given deity. It doesn't. The conversation about deity, belief and self-blindness was an attempt to use a metaphor that religious people might find helpful in order to explain something that most people don't want to examine very closely. Questioning (or "analyzing") love has become taboo, which probably explains why most people are pretty bad at it. You can't expect to succeed at something that you never try to think about or improve at.

    Since, unlike your belief in your gods, I believe that love is a real thing, I also have some idea what that "real thing" is like. But that's another post.

    Of course, like I said, I could be wrong. I choose what I believe is love, rather than the calculated artifice designed to outwit (or cultivate, or throw oneself at the mercy of) "luck." I may be cynical, but it is a special kind of cynicism comprised of a hopeless, stubborn optimism in the face of an apparently unresponsive reality. I have no qualms believing whole-heartedly that fellow human beings are far more essential than physical, or mental, or emotional, masturbation. Love is a particular thing, a particular way of being and acting in the world. If I am wrong, well, who's to say? As far as I can tell, there's not one person alive who can claim an unbiased opinion about this type of thing.

  3. More on the "Prosperity Gospel" by someone who has truly been there: - see the video there - its wonderful!

  4. Caron, thanks for the link. It's always refreshing to see Christians who are willing to turn a critical, analytical eye on their own faith and how people can use and abuse it for personal gain.