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Toward a Theology of Eros

Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline

Virginia Burrus

Publication Year: 2006

What does theology have to say about the place of eroticism in the salvific transformation of men and women, even of the cosmos itself? How, in turn, does eros infuse theological practice and transfigure doctrinal tropes? Avoiding the well-worn path of sexual moralizing while also departing decisively from Anders Nygren's influential insistence that Christian agape must have nothing to do with worldly eros, this book explores what is still largely uncharted territory in the realm of theological erotics. The ascetic, the mystical, the seductive, the ecstatic-these are the places where the divine and the erotic may be seen to converge and love and desire to commingle.Inviting and performing a mutual seduction of disciplines, the volume brings philosophers, historians, biblical scholars, and theologians into a spirited conversation that traverses the limits of conventional orthodoxies, whether doctrinal or disciplinary. It seeks new openings for the emergence of desire, love, and pleasure, while challenging common understandings of these terms. It engages risk at the point where the hope for salvation paradoxically endangers the safety of subjects-in particular, of theological subjects-by opening them to those transgressions of eros in which boundaries, once exceeded, become places of emerging possibility.The eighteen chapters, arranged in thematic clusters, move fluidly among and between premodern and postmodern textual traditions-from Plato to Emerson, Augustine to Kristeva, Mechthild to Mattoso, the Shulammite to Molly Bloom, the Zohar to the Da Vinci Code. In so doing, they link the sublime reaches of theory with the gritty realities of politics, the boundless transcendence of God with the poignant transience of materiality.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page

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About the Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquia

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

It goes without saying that a volume of this sort is the result of the collaborative efforts of a multitude. We are first and foremost grateful to the sixteen other authors who contributed to the text, responding patiently, warmly, and often quite amusingly to our repeated editorial requests. Most of them participated in the 2004 Transdisciplinary...

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Introduction: Theology and Eros after Nygren

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pp. xiii-xxi

What does theology have to say about the place of eroticism in the salvific transformation of human subjects, even of the cosmos itself ? How, in turn, does eros infuse theological practice and transfigure doctrinal tropes? Veering off the well-worn path of sexual moralizing, this volume explores what is still largely uncharted territory in the realm of...

Part I: Restaging the Symposium on Love

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What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Platonic Love?

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pp. 3-22

In his celebrated study of Christian love, Anders Nygren identifies the emergence of heresy with the perversion of agape: ‘‘Agape loses its original meaning and is transformed into Eros; not, however, be it observed, into the sublimated ‘heavenly Eros’ of which Plato and his followers speak, but into that despised variety, ‘vulgar Eros.’ ’’1 The implications of...

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Flesh in Confession: Alcibiades Beside Augustine

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pp. 23-37

Benjamin Jowett, squirming still before his bowdlerized rendering of the Symposium, concedes the obvious as a condemnation: ‘‘It is impossible to deny that some of the best and greatest of the Greeks indulged in attachments, which Plato in the Laws, no less than the universal opinion of Christendom, has stigmatized as unnatural.’’1 Even the Platonic Socrates...

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For the Love of God: The Death of Desire and the Gift of Life

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pp. 38-62

The central question of this essay concerns the desire for God. In taking this as my theme, I want to expand the possibilities for thinking and experiencing desire in general and the desire of God in particular. That this should be a concern for me underscores what I think are some limitations of current theories of desire. Two are particularly...

Part II: Queer Desires

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Sexing the Pauline Body of Christ: Scriptural Sex in the Context of the American Christian Culture War

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pp. 65-98

In the midst of war in Iraq and a color-coded campaign against terror, American Christians are waging an intense cultural battle over the sexual dynamics of sexual difference. Responding to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts (2004) and civil union in Vermont (2000) and Connecticut (2005), some of the nation’s largest Protestant denominations...

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Homoerotic Spectacle and the Monastic Body in Symeon the New Theologian

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pp. 99-118

Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022), arguably the most important Byzantine religious thinker between John of Damascus in the eighth century and Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth, often presents salvation as a heavenly marriage.1 Scholars have long noted Symeon’s frequent use of erotic and nuptial imagery to explore the relationship between the...

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Sexual Desire, Divine Desire; Or, Queering the Beguines

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pp. 119-133

In the face of what the social historian Judith Bennett refers to as ‘‘the virtual absence of actual women from the sources of medieval lesbianisms,’’ a number of literary and cultural scholars have recently turned to texts by or about women to uncover homoerotic possibilities within the metaphoric structures of women’s own writings or in the practices...

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Feetishism: The Scent of a Latin American Body Theology

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pp. 134-152

In 1986, Glauco Mattoso, the blind Brazilian poet and self-confessed foot fetishist,1 wrote a book that has become almost an object of underground cult. The Loving Feetishist Handbook: Adventures and Readings from a Guy Crazy for Feet was converted into a cartoon and renamed The Adventures of Glaucomix, the Feetishist. Both books were very successful and even...

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Digital Bodies and the Transformation of the Flesh

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pp. 153-166

Bodies have always been the subjects of representation, sometimes written about in texts but more often carved in stone or painted on walls. Such images constitute a central feature of the visual culture from which most people in most historical periods have derived their knowledge of how the body is ordered in their society. As postmodern theories...

Part III: Sacred Suffering, Sublime Seduction

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pp. 169-193

The seductive enigma of the word passion—and the Christian passion to which it is tied—seems to me to lie in the way in which it allows the subject at its center to function as subject and object both at once. Derived from Latin passio and Greek pathos, it is bound, in its first appearances in anything we would recognize as English, to passivity, suffering...

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Praying Is Joying: Musings on Love in Evagrius Ponticus

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pp. 194-204

‘‘Happy the spirit [nous] which attains to total insensibility at prayer,’’ exults Evagrius of Pontus in his Chapters on Prayer (120).1 The Chapters, like so many ancient texts, comes wrapped in the envelope of a personal letter (though we no longer know the name of Evagrius’s addressee). A response to another letter, it begins suspensefully...

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Carthage Didn’t Burn Hot Enough: Saint Augustine’s Divine Seduction

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pp. 205-217

At the opening of Book 3 of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, the author enters into young adulthood and into the city of Carthage, where all about him famously simmers a burning cauldron of unholy loves. Yet the ultimate object of his desire, in these years when he indulges in theater and prays for chastity to come at some more convenient time, is neither...

Part IV: Cosmos, Eros, Creativity

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American Transcendentalism’s Erotic Aquatecture

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pp. 221-233

There are two high-water marks in the self-unfolding of the depths of nature within Euro-American thought. The earlier occurred in the neo-Plotinian transfiguration of our experience of infinitizing nature in the metaphorical undulations concresced in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The latter emerged in the dazzling architectonic of the creator...

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‘‘She Talks Too Much’’: Magdalene Meditations

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pp. 234-254

As it has done all along, the sensuous icon of Mary Magdalene flashes through popular culture, but with a curious difference now. The saint has found her voice. The recovery of certain ancient texts over the past century has made her speech possible. Some of these, such as the Pistis Sophia, a lengthy third-century gnostic document, unfold such arcane...

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Ethical Desires: Toward a Theology of Relational Transcendence

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pp. 255-270

‘‘Eroticism is first and foremost a thirst for otherness. And the supernatural is the supreme otherness,’’ writes Octavio Paz in Double Flame. The supreme otherness of God—theologians call it ‘‘divine transcendence.’’ Eroticism thus suggests a link between human otherness and divine transcendence. In its most common versions, however, divine transcendence...

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New Creations: Eros, Beauty, and the Passion for Transformation

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pp. 271-287

The Genesis story in the Hebrew Bible, with its account of a beautiful garden forfeited by a descent into sin and violence, is often taken as the paradigmatic narrative of creation for Christianity. It is not the only biblical account of creation. The prophet Isaiah, for example, describes a vision of a new creation, made by God to transform the present world of...

Part V: Rereading the Song of Songs

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Lyrical Theology: The Song of Songs and the Advantage of Poetry

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pp. 291-305

The statement by T. S. Eliot with which I begin is not without its problems, the most obvious of them the difficulty of actually defining ‘‘poetry.’’ Yet it seems worth sticking with Eliot’s formulation for the time being, inasmuch as too often the fact that the Song of Songs is poetry—and not another thing—seems to be forgotten by interpreters...

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The Shulammite’s Song: Divine Eros, Ascending and Descending

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pp. 306-340

The Song of Songs offers no single, stable perspective from which to view the amorous scenes unveiled on its pages. Most readers of the Song from antiquity to the present have, however, been inclined to identify with the female figure traditionally known as the Shulammite. But who is the Shulammite, and who, for that matter, is her beloved? The sustained...

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Suffering Eros and Textual Incarnation: A Kristevan Reading of Kabbalistic Poetics

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pp. 341-365

The intertwining of language, eros, being, and time that may be elicited from Kristeva’s words complements a cluster of motifs that I recovered in my excavation of the textual landscape of kabbalistic hermeneutics and poetic imagination.2 Utilizing a number of philosophical and theoretical perspectives, but most notably Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological...

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Afterword: A Theology of Eros, After Transfiguring Passion

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pp. 366-374

Eros in theology may signify the lure of the not-yet. But as this volume demonstrates, there is nothing new about theological realizations of eros. ‘‘Theology’’ and ‘‘eros’’ are more or less co-originate Platonic notions. Yet theology as a work of Jewish and Christian hermeneutics arises from another matrix of love: agape, not eros, translated the Hebrew...


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pp. 375-463


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pp. 465-469

E-ISBN-13: 9780823246755
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823226351
Print-ISBN-10: 0823226352

Page Count: 408
Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sex.
  • Love -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
  • Sex -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
  • Love.
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