A friend sent me a link to this video of Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen discussing Love. In particular my friend had a question around the last quarter or so of the video where Cohen discusses his view on the difference between Agape and Eros and wondered what I thought about it.
I suggest watching the whole video but just to give a broad brush overview....a woman asks Wilber and Cohen a question about the role of love in the spiritual life. Wilber begins by distinguishing between Agape and Eros. He defines Agape as Love reaching down and embracing lower levels of being. For example, when we choose to love and embrace a wounded, younger part of ourselves that is Agape. Wilber sees Agape inherent in the universe itself--he even sees Agape at work in a molecular membrane embracing atoms.
Eros, on the other hand, is the force impelling Creation to move into higher and higher forms of unity. From atoms to molecules from molecules to cells all the way up to the human neocortex. Eros also drives us to create wider, deeper, and higher forms of our own consciousness. For example, at one point in human history the people who were given status were primarily, if not exclusively, individuals in your tribe or ethnic identity. At a later point, individuals reached into and articulated a vision (what Martin Luther King Jr. described as his dream) where the way people were to be treated was not based on physical or gender or sexual orientation or economic or national differences but rather on the inherent dignity of all human beings. That's Eros. Or again to quote MLK, Jr.: "The long arc of the universe of bends towards justice." That long arc is bending towards justice because of Eros.
Eros and Agape are more or less equivalent names for what integral philosophy calls transcend (eros) and include (agape). And Wilber's point is that Eros, driving newer forms of creativity, and Agape, reaching back down and including more and more deeply, are both Love. Life is consequently an act and offering of Love.
Cohen then begins (around minute 10) with a discussion of the word Love. He talks about the difference between saying things like "I love spaghetti, I love my dog, I love my family" and Love in a context of spiritual awakening. He talks about how real deep spiritual Love includes those other types of Love but also brings about an Absolute form of Love and that this Absolute form of Love can be a serious threat to the status quo. I appreciate his point that Love is not always a warm ooey-gooey feeling. Love brings real consequences and commitments. Love--as a Divine Force--has an agenda and that agenda does not always line up with the agenda of the ego-based self. Really walking the walk of the spiritual path involves a great deal of dying to the egoic self in order to be Love.
As Mother Theresa said:
"I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, only more love."
Then Cohen goes into his understanding of the difference between Eros and Agape (this begins just prior to the 16 min mark). This is the section my friend was particularly focused on.
Cohen argues that in the older forms of enlightenment, the primary manifestation of awakening was Healing, i.e. healing the suffering of the world. This would be Love as Agape--tending the wounds of all beings. Cohen does say that there have been many great saints who have performed (and continue to perform) heroic acts of healing.
Cohen then mentions in his teaching of Evolutionary Enlightenment there is great emphasis placed on Eros--connecting to the Creative or Evolutionary Impulse and seeking to give rise to which wants to come into form. He goes so far as to say (17:40 and on) that when we awaken to Eros the scales tip in the other direction. He says:
"We become less concerned with healing and more concerned with giving rise to creation."
Now I think the distinction between Love in its two forms as Eros and Agape is a conceptually helpful one, though in practice I think they are often much more intertwined. Still for the purposes of learning and clarity I think it's good to make a distinction between the two. I also think it's very important to emphasize the legitimacy of Eros as a form of Love and an essential element to a contemporary spiritual path. I appreciate both Wilber and Cohen for articulating that point. I do believe it's the case that there's plenty of spiritual teaching out there that really only validates and embodies Agape as the expression of Love to the neglect of Eros.
I also appreciate that Cohen is totally up front about his preference for Eros over Agape and therefore his teaching is going to preference giving rise to creation over healing. As an admitted outsider, that seems like a very fair self-representation of his teaching to me.
While appreciating the honesty, I nevertheless have real concerns about the strong valuing of Eros over Agape. Perhaps this is not surprising as I'm not a student of Cohen's, but either way there it is. If the problem has been teachings over-emphasizing Agape to the detriment of Eros (and I believe that there is a real problem of that around), then I don't see how it solves the problem to go full bore in the other direction, over-emphasizing Eros to the neglect of Agape.
I'm not saying it has to be 50/50 even split between Agape and Eros, just that seeking a more harmonized approach would be, from my perspective, much more helpful. But again, I'm not a student of Cohen's so I'm trying to be as honest as I can about my own biases.
I do think however this Eros/Agape dichotomy runs deep into Cohen's teaching. I've found his Five Tenets are a deep and powerfully challenging set of practices to awaken Eros. On the other hand, I see a downgrading of Agape showing up as a lack of a public explicit shadow work practice in the teaching. (For an argument about how shadow work could be seen as part and parcel of evolutionary practice, see this interview). The missing Agape also shows up I think in evolutionary circles cutting themselves off--i.e. not embracing downward sufficiently-- from the world of postmodernism. This is an objection I've raised earlier in response to questions around integral/evolutionary activism.
Then Cohen (at about the 17:45 mark onwards) uses a story of Jesus to illustrate the difference between Eros and Agape and consequently favoring creation work over healing work. This story involves Jesus' famous line about, "letting the dead bury the dead."
First off, Cohen gets the story wrong on a number of crucial points--I'll get to that in a second. To be fair though he does explicitly state that he's unsure if he has the story right in all its details so that's fine. I have however heard Cohen use this story a number of times so I think it's worth looking at in some detail as it reveals some deep elements of spiritual teaching that are in play in this discussion around Eros and Agape.
The way Cohen tells the story is that Jesus and disciples are going down the road and see a dead body. And by Jewish law the body must be buried (this is a religious duty). Jesus then says "let the dead bury the dead, what we are doing is more important."
Now here is the story as detailed in Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke, verses 57-62 (the story is also told in Chapter 8 of the Gospel of Matthew in the same context, emphasis mine):
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, 'I will follow you wherever you go.' And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' To another he said, 'Follow me.' But he said, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' But Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.' Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.' Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'
Now notice that all three of these short vignettes have to do with the question of people wanting to become Jesus' disciples but Jesus questioning them around the sacrifice involved in being his disciple, particularly for those having dual loyalties.
In the first mini-story Jesus makes clear to a would be disciple that his [Jesus'] movement is an itinerant one and while even the animals have places to sleep in nature the disciple must be prepared that they do not fit into their world ("The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."). Then comes the dead burying the dead tale which I'll get back to in a second. The third is a man who wants to be a disciple but asks to say goodbye to his family first. Jesus says you can't put your hand to the plough and look back. Meaning if you're going to make that choice you have to go forward and not hesitate. This is the same with the man who asks to bury his father.
All of these stories then involve individuals who expressly state their desire to become disciples of Jesus (or in the second case where Jesus calls a disciple to follow him, presumably based on some previous interaction). These are not random people off the street. These are spiritual seekers in our modern parlance, they are would-be devotees of Jesus. That context is of crucial importance. It sets a specific frame absent from the story as told by Cohen. Please remember this point, it's really crucial. In other words, the Gospels are very clear that Jesus--like any spiritual teacher--held a different standard in mind in relation to crowds, to formal disciples, and to would-be disciples.
So back to the dead burying the dead. Jesus calls a man to follow him. He responds, "Let me bury my father first." This is similar to the response of the other man who wants to first tell his family goodbye. In both cases Jesus is making clear--for those who are going to be his disciples--they must place the kingdom of God first and not family. Jesus modeled this in his own teaching by pissing off his biological family and stating, "who are my brother and mother and sister but those who do the will of God?" In other words, Jesus created what scholars call fictive kin relationships, he created a different sense of family that wouldn't be based on biological ties (similar to what Andrew discusses earlier in the video about non-exclusive forms of spiritual love).
The assumption is that someone else in the family will bury the dead father. "Let the dead bury their own dead." Jesus is (I think) punning on the idea of physical death and being spiritually dead while still alive--the latter being the other family members who one assumes are not considering giving their lives to the kingdom of God and can be counted on to perform the social and religious custom of burial.
I don't hear Jesus saying that the burial should not take place or that it's not a valid spiritual act, just that if this person wants to follow Jesus he needs to go about the proclamation of the kingdom of God and let others handle the burial. It's important to note that the body is not simply lying on the road uncared for. The man approaches Jesus and tells him that his father is dead back home. That's a big difference because in Cohen's telling it sounds as if Jesus is making a grand sweeping once and for all statement of Eros over Agape, of creation work over healing, right in the vicinity of a corpse.
This very strong preference for Eros over Agape is certainly not the case in Jesus' own teaching. Jesus went about doing lots of work of healing. If you read the whole of Chapter 9 in Luke's Gospel our story of the dead burying the dead is preceded by stories of feeding the multitudes and healing a boy. For more on that point, see my previous post on Jesus as a shaman.
In the language of the gospels Jesus interacts both with crowds of people and his disciples. In today's spiritual scene that's basically the difference between the people who show up at retreats or workshops or evening teachings and those who are formal students of a teacher. When interacting with the crowds Jesus always offers healings as well as parables (transcendental wisdom in the form of stories). This is more the Agape side of things.
To wit, there is another story that states that "when Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd." The word translated there as compassion literally means 'his guts turned inside out.' He was bodily, viscerally hit by their pain. The compassion (other translations have it as 'pity') he feels is Agape.
Now I do think Jesus had a strong dose of Eros in his teaching. As an example, earlier in the video above Wilber mentions a "bull whip in the temple" which of course references Jesus' cleansing of moneychangers from The Temple. Jesus, was as I've argued elsewhere, an apocalyptic prophet; apocalypse is the ancient form of Eros spirituality.
Even the story about the dead burying the dead does have Eros in it. But notice the man brought up his father's burial as a reason not to follow Jesus. He may well have been using a socially approved religious custom to cover over his fear of giving away his life. Or he may genuinely have been bound within the well-meaning but ultimately limited (according to Jesus anyway) views of his day. We don't know. Either way, Jesus wasn't making some end all-be all statement. Jesus was responding to someone who claimed that he wanted to be a disciple and yet who specifically mentions his father's burial as a reason to delay his act of full commitment.
Jesus makes patently clear in many places in the gospels that if individuals want to move from being in the crowd to becoming full-fledged disciples, they must be willing to sacrifice themselves. In Jesus words, "anyone who wants to be my disciple must pick up his cross and follow me."
Picking up an instrument of torture and execution by an imperial state is not exactly a spirituality of consolation. It is, paradoxically in my experience however, one of healing. Just not for the ego. Jesus says shocking kinds of thing to make clear the enormity of the task of being his disciple--in essence to weed out the legitimate disciples from the false ones (see the Parable of the Sower & The Seed for more on this).
While Jesus definitely includes Eros in his teaching it doesn't ever strike me as valued over Agape. In fact, my read of the Gospels is that Jesus sees the Healing work precisely as a sign and expression of the Eros work.
For example, as Jesus says after healing a man with a demon:
"If by the finger of God I cast out this demon, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."
The Kingdom of God coming upon you is Eros. The healing is Agape. So the healings have an Agape element (they derive from compassion) but they also are placed with an apocalyptic (Eros-based) frame. They are somehow both Agape and Eros.
In his teaching of the Kingdom of God I would argue Jesus paradoxically balances both Agape and Eros. There are a number of sayings in the gospel that indicate that the Kingdom of God is already here, among us, full and whole (Agape). There are plenty of other sayings of Jesus that state that the Kingdom of Heaven must come on earth, that it is not totally fulfilled (Eros).
Theologians therefore summarize Jesus' teaching as: "The Kingdom of God is already but not yet."
The Kingdom is already means that in the brokenness of this world there is already wholeness. The Kingdom is not elsewhere. Heaven is already available in the fragility of life. Christians say that God became human in Jesus and therefore God has accepted the human condition--from being a helpless baby pooping his pants to those awkward teenage years to the experience of pain, death, betrayal, loneliness, and alienation. Jesus spent his time among the outcasts of his day like prostitutes and tax collectors to indicate the Kingdom was for all and could not be constrained by our human categories of good and bad guys and gals. The heavenly realm is not one in which we escape from nor master pain and suffering. It is simply one in which we undertake it through love.
And yet the Kingdom of God is not fully manifest. This not yet is Eros. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is [already] in heaven." Jesus not only told his disciples that they must love the Kingdom more than their families, he also said that they had to love the Kingdom more than their need for security, their own bodies, their own lives, even their own vision of God.
It is the tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet' of the Kingdom that gives rise to the spiritual path for a Christian. But the two (Agape and Eros) must always be held in tension.
So to tie this discussion about Jesus back to the video...
What I'm trying to say is that Andrew Cohen is of course perfectly free to decide how he wants to teach. If he believes that it's important that practicioners come to value Eros over Agape (creation work over healing) then that's what he should do. I don't think however this example of the dead burying the dead strengthens his overall point. In fact, I think it could be said to undercut (or at least raise some questions) about his overall position of valuing Eros over Agape. Nor do I think more broadly Jesus' own teaching should be seen as legitimating an argument about Eros over Agape.
As I said, I do appreciate that Cohen has brought this element of Love as Eros to the fore, but I don't agree with then placing it over top of Agape. Whatever people think about Cohen's view or mine on this point, I think I've made a detailed enough argument that Jesus' overall ministry and teaching probably isn't the best precedent Cohen would cite in his favor on this point.
The danger of an evolutionary spirituality is that it will come to neglect Agape. It will come to lose touch with the Absolute Compassion that recognizes we are all flawed beings. Even if there is a part of us that is not wounded, that comes forward driven by the work of creating (and I believe there is such a part, I've experienced it), that part of us will always be mediated through our imperfect-though-transformable humanity.