A Theology of Attraction

To love another person is to see the face of God.

-Victor Hugo

In the postscript to an earlier post, I alluded to an idea which a friend of mine has discussed in more detail: attraction to (understood as the desire for and capacity to enjoy the company of) any given individual can and often does change over time based on one’s perception of that individual.

My goal in this post is to add my quasi-theological reflections to his philosophical analysis. Chris has suggested that attraction to any given individual “may be a positive means for friendship, community, service, charity, and sanctity,” and therefore ought to be considered a good in itself.

In the context of theology, the suggestion that a thing is good is the suggestion that it has something to do with God; that is, if we experience something as good, it is in some sense an experience of God’s Love, and therefore sacramental in the broadest sense: the good that we experience is a concrete sign of God’s invisible Grace.

Attraction to any given individual allows us to see God’s Grace at work in and through that individual, not only in their physical appearance, but in their thoughts and their choices– in other words, their intellect and free will. To be attracted to another person not (as the saying goes) as a piece of meat but as a whole person is to be attracted to precisely those qualities in which the Divine Image (c.f. Genesis 1:26-27 and paragraph 1704-1705 of the Catechism) is most clearly present. Furthermore, to perceive these qualities as compelling and attractive is to catch a glimpse- however fleeting- of how God sees them (which is to say, as they truly are).

Here we return to the idea that attraction is not consistent: although we may for a time be swayed in our actions and attitudes toward that individual, the perception does not last. However, if what we perceive through attraction is indeed the Divine Image as uniquely manifested in that individual, then the fault lies with our perception and not with the Divine Image: the qualities that God loves in the individual are there regardless of whether we can clearly perceive them, and in that sense, every attraction we experience is, if only indirectly, a reminder of the intrinsic dignity of each human person. Or, as Blessed Cardinal Newman put it, “The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men.” As we learn to love our friends, in whom the divine image is more frequently perceptible, we learn to love those in whom we cannot as readily perceive God’s Grace at work.

This may be good enough in the context of friends whom we know well, but in the throes of infatuation, we do not perceive and therefore are not attracted to the other as they truly are, but rather, are in love with an entirely imaginary person that just happens to have the same name and physical appearance as someone we know. It seems impossible to assert that a picture that is entirely the product of one’s imagination is in fact a glimpse of the person as God sees them. This is true.

However, this does not mean that infatuation is in itself worthless. The content of the imagination is not quite the same thing as the impulse that inspired the imagination in the first place. Insofar as infatuation is characterized by a desire for communion with the beloved and a desire for the good of the beloved, it is an imitation of the divine eros, and if only through the characteristic passion of infatuation, we gain a deeper understanding of divine love. That is, although an infatuated person does not perceive precisely what God perceives, they perceive the other person in the same way.

Another way of explaining it: the parents who would call their own baby ugly are unusual, not because every baby possesses perfect physical proportions, but because it is natural for parents to develop a strong emotional attachment to their own infant.

I’ll not pretend to have done justice to the interplay of divine eros and agape as we find it laid out in Deus Caritas Est, but I would like to think that I have made at least some contribution to Chris’ argument that attractions ought to be understood as goods in themselves. I would also like to note that a definition of attraction that includes friendship, infatuation, and parenthood is very broad, and therefore cannot be brought to bear directly on marriage or marriage-minded dating; however, defining attractions as goods does open some doors for further analysis

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2 thoughts on “A Theology of Attraction

    • I mean simply that eros is eros: the passion which a person experiences in infatuation is similar to the sentiment which Christ expressed in, say, Matthew 23:37.

      The knowledge of the beloved is obviously not the same as God’s knowledge of each individual, but the desire for communion with the beloved can be seen as parallel.

      Reply

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