SATURDAY READING: A Community Of Love? On the Invisibility of Love and the Church by Kristien Justaert

A Community Of Love? On the Invisibility of Love and the Church by Kristien Justaert

From Believing in Community, edited by Peter De Mey, Pieter De Witte, and Gerard Mannion


By this shall all men see that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

According to John, Jesus teaches us that it is love that binds the community of Christians.  By their love for each other, the followers of Jesus Christ are recognized as Christians.  The love of God and the love for God lie at the basis of the Christian community.  But the verse of John’s gospel that is quoted also reveals another important aspect: the love the disciples have for each other, can be seen.  It is visible for other people who are not part of the community.  Nevertheless, the Greek text of the gospel and several English translations do not use the verb, “to see.”  If one translates the Greek literally, one should read, “to recognize,” instead of “to see.”  As I will try to show in what follows, the difference between “seeing” and “recognizing” is not unimportant.  The answer to the question whether this love – this ground of the community – can be made visible or not, reveals different theological opinions.  More particularly, the answer to this question is crucial for our understanding of the role of the church – the “visible” symbol of God’s community.  Formulated differently: if love is an event that takes place outside the law, as I think Jesus has showed us with his life and eventually with his death, how can we then understand the church (which also operates as a system of laws) as a community of love?

In an attempt to shed some light on the problem of love and visibility, I will limit myself to a particular debate: I will mainly look at how the Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst thinker Julia Kristeva might help us to understand what is at stake in the discussion concerning the nature and visibility of Christian love.

In the first part of this paper, I turn to Kristeva’s reading of eros-love.  In psychoanalytical anthropology, there is a situation that is structurally comparable to that of the believer and God: the subject has been said to be capable of love if he or she is capable of idealizing and identifying with an imaginary “father.”  In Christian terms, this is the anthropology of man as Imago Dei [image of God]: the core of the subject consists of an idealizational and identificational structure, a structure that is defined by Kristeva as “narcissism.”  In the second part, the next focus will be brought to the foreground, namely the question (in)visibility of the divine love.  Here, I will mainly deal with Kristeva’s writings on the way Russian-Orthodox spirituality binds a particular community of Christians together.  From Kristeva’s insights, I will finally try to sketch an image of a church that is based on an invisible love between the believers among each other, and between the believers and their God.  Borrowing a concept from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, I will call this church a “nomad tent.”

I. Man as Imago Dei: On Eros and Agape

In defining man as Imago Dei, Christian anthropology understands the core of human beings through a referral to their creator God, with whom there is a love relation.  The word Imago indicates that the nature of this loving relationship is an identification with and idealization of God the Father.  Traditionally, Christian love was expressed through the terms agape, the infinite and unconditioned love descending from God – and eros, the longing desire from man towards God.  Through the course of history, Christian theology always had an ambiguous position towards the concept of eros and to how it related to agape.  In Catholicism, for example, the two forms of love were synthesized in the economy of love of the Trinity: there exists at the same time a self-love in God (between the three persons) and a giving love towards the world.  For Augustine, self-love or eros is the model for the love of one’s neighbor.  He made a synthesis of eros and agape in the concept of caritas [charity].  Thomas Aquinas defends the primacy of self-love as the individual access to the ontological goodness of God in ourselves.  By loving himself, the subject confirms his ontological consistence of “being good.”

The reformation’s focus (especially Luther’s), on the contrary, is more on agape.  This unconditioned, giving love of God is the ideal for the love between human beings.  The loving man is able to give himself to the object of his love because God has primarily given his love to all human beings.  Eros as self-love was considered as not being love at all in a deeper sense, measured by the standard of divine love.

In any case, Christianity has the tendency to judge self-love – see 1 Corinthians 13:5: “Love does not seek her own” – or to extend the notion of self-love to the love of one’s neighbor.

In the following reflections, I will explore the eros-love, reading the works of Kristeva, because the concept of eros might capture most adequately the identifying and idealizing love expressed in the Imago Dei-anthropology.

It may seem unusual to consult a psychoanalyst about the love for God, but apart from the structural similarities between “love of God” and “narcissism,” psychoanalysis and faith actually have two important things in common, thus a turn towards psychoanalytic categories could be fruitful in our understanding of man as Imago Dei.  First, both psychoanalysis and faith are captured in a dynamics of love: God’s love for his creation is the very basis of Christianity; and on the other hand, in the process of a psychoanalysis, the dynamics of transference and countertransference between analyst and patient, the core of the therapy, is in essence an exchange of love.  Second, the true “object” of psychoanalysis is at the same time the cornerstone of Christian revelation: the spoken word between two persons, the analyst and the patient; or God and the believer.

The question that will guide my reflections on eros amounts to the following: what is the place of eros in the development of the subject?  (Or in Christian terms: how does man become Imago Dei?)

For Kristeva, self-love or narcissism is a decisive element in the development of (Western) subjectivity, because this love creates what she determines as a “psychic space.”  This space then turns the subject into an “open system” that is capable of loving another subject.  The psychic inner space of the subject comes itself into being through the narcissistic structure of the subject in what is called in psychoanalytical terms the “pre-oedipal” phase of subjectivity: outside the “world,” the symbolic order, the law.  In the pre-oedipal domain, before the subject is taken up in the world of law and language, the individual builds a narcissistic structure, an inner space in himself through the detachment from the unifying love for and from his mother, and the idealization and identification with an “imaginary” father.

Narcissism and the psychic space are being situated in the pre-oedipal phase of the subject, in the non-representational order, because the actual source of narcissism is the body of the mother – or the alleged unity with the mother.  That is why Kristeva doesn’t use the word “father” (as an access to the symbolic order, to language), but “imaginary Father,” (Freud’s “father of individual prehistory”).

In the process of primary identification, the pre-subject identifies with this imaginary father, because this father-figure is the desire of the mother.  The imaginary father, I quote Kristeva, “separates in fact the idealization and the bodily contact between mother and child, and brings up a Third as a condition of psychic life, this means of love life.”  So it is the separation from the mother which enables us to become narcissistic, to develop a psychic life and eventually, to become subjects.  The primary identification with the imaginary father is the basis of the formation of a “successful narcissistic structure.”  But the imaginary father is just this: imaginary, he doesn’t exist – it’s only the mother’s desires – so the pre-subject identifies itself with its own reflection.  Yet, this reflection is empty: there is not yet an “I.”  And precisely this emptiness will determine the human psyche.  It is this emptiness that forms the first distinction between what is not yet an “I” and what is not yet an “object.”  “The emptiness that is opened by the separation,” to quote Kristeva again, “is the barely covered abyss in which our identities, our images, and our words are threatened to disappear.”  This emptiness is exactly what makes us capable to love another subject.  Love brings with it a depersonalization: the “I” becomes an other in the identification with the loved one.

The identifying love of the believer for God turns him into an Imago Dei: human beings want to be identical with God and at the same time Imago Dei is an ideal.  What is striking in this explanation of eros is that the process of this love takes place outside the world, out of the symbolic order in what Kristeva calls the semiotic: the pre-linguistic phase of subjectivity that is a permanent structure of the subject.  Eros is thus a love that cannot be represented in words, in symbols.  From this, we could conclude that what a community binds cannot be an identification with a transcendence represented by the church or the Eucharist, but rather is a love that transcends language, that can never be symbolized because it is situated beyond the representational.

In the second part of this paper, I will come back to this “problem” of the invisibility of eros versus the visibility of the church.  But first I will focus on Kristeva’s scheme more thoroughly, so that the role of the semiotic eros in the development of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity (community) will become more clear.  More specifically, I will take a look at what can be labelled Kristeva’s “Plotinian metaphysics.”  What exactly is a “Plotinian metaphysics” and in what way is Kristeva’s thinking Plotinian.

What has been revealed about eros by Kristeva in psychoanalytical terms, can already be recognized in the metaphysics of the neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus (204/5—270 AD).  More particularly, Plotinus conceives a notion of an inner space or inner self.  For him, eros is the kind of love par excellence that can bring us closer and eventually unites us with the One, exactly because eros is essential for the construction of an inner self.

Plotinus’s famous expression, “monos pros monon” (alone with itself/himself) – the expression with which he characterizes the human soul – is the first sign of this inner space in the human psyche.  The soul, longing to identify and unite with the One, is alone because the One does not have qualities: a mirroring of the One shows no objects with which to identify.  The “Highest Good” is no object.  When the inner self is constructed through idealizing and loving the One, this self realizes that his ideal of the One is no one else but himself, or the Divine in himself.  So the subject develops an inner space by loving himself against the background of the ideal: unification with the One.  Love equalizes ourselves to the divine One and guides us – through the knowledge of our true divine nature (narcissism) – to self-knowledge.

This “hidden” nihilism of Plotinus (for him, the One is still God and not nothing), becomes explicit in Kristeva’s thinking.

What Kristeva actually does in her theory of narcissism and the psychic space can therefore be understood as an interiorization of Plotinus’s metaphysics: “the One” becomes the “idealized imaginary father,” the love for the One (God) becomes the logic of desire that plays between child, mother, and imaginary father.  The interiorization of the Plotinian logic does not necessarily mean, however, that Kristeva is not able anymore to speak about God.  As we will see in the next paragraph, she recognizes the narcissistic process in the spirituality of Russian-Orthodox Christians.  By elaborating on this latter topic, we would like to show Kristeva’s originality in locating the love for the transcendent in the immanent life of the subject, namely, in the semiotic regions of his mind (the unconscious) and body.

II. On Visibility and Intersubjectivity

       Love is a road that knows neither method nor mediation. (Heidegger)

Between Christianity and postmodernism, John Milbank suggests, there is an important affinity: both are characterized by an obliteration of boundaries.  Christianity, or rather Jesus Christ himself, opposes itself radically to Judaism, in being a religion that “invented a discourse and tradition of living beyond the law.”  Especially in the gospel of John, but also in the synoptics, Jesus often refers to his life and message as being “not of this world,” as not fitting in with the normal world order. (See John 14:17; 17:16; 18:36; but also Matthew 10:35-39.)  Living (and loving) in the invisible thus seems to be an inner characteristic of Christianity, at least of the life of Jesus Christ.  This is an opinion shared by political philosopher Hannah Arendt.  Referring to the expression of Christian love, she explicitly writes that goodness, doing good or being Imago Dei, must necessarily be an invisible activity and is therefore a private affair.  In The Human Condition, Arendt writes: “It is manifest that the moment a good work becomes known and public, it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness’s sake.”  In Jesus’s own words (Matthew 6:3): “Let not thy left hand know what they right hand doth.”  Christian love thus cannot be perceived.

But if love is invisible, how do we actually build a community that is based on something else than laws, on hierarchy, on economic relations?  How do we reconcile the irrepresentable, the invisible with the active forces of creativity?  For a possible solution that would allow the irrepresentable eros to come into play again, Kristeva urges us to take a look at the orthodox tradition.  In Russian Orthodox spirituality, Kristeva discovers a particular way of dealing with the empty space, a way that leans towards nihilism, but also testifies of a deep mysticism.  She thus turns towards Orthodox Christianity to find inspiration for ways of binding a community and finding an identity based on love.  In her opinion, the Russian Orthodox faith respects more the ineffable love that transcends all symbols and language.  Kristeva has always been interested in what escapes language.  What she called the domain of the semiotic is for her even more constitutive of subjectivity than the symbolic.  The semiotic, as condition of possibility for the capacity of symbolization, works through the language of the mother, of the body, of the sensible.  That is why Kristeva also looks for the transcendent in the semiotic order: for her, the feminine is intrinsically interwoven with the sacred, more than the symbolic representations of God in a hierarchical system.

In the Eastern Russian Orthodox culture, like in Plotinus’s thinking, God is so transcendent that identification with this God the Father is impossible.  By consequence, the Son – and by extension the believer – remains united with the “mother.”  Orthodox mysticism is therefore more concentrated on the “sub-linguistic, sub-oedipal, and supersensory.”  In psychoanalytical terms, orthodox faith deals with narcissism in another way.  The impossible unification with the Deus absconditus [hidden God] of Orthodox Christianity installs in the orthodox man an empty space, impossible to conceptualize, beyond all representation.  This is expressed, for example, in the per filium [through the Son] instead of the filoque [and the Son]: for the orthodox believer, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son; for Catholic and Protestant believers, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the from the Son.  This scheme results in a different relation between Father and Son.  For Catholics and Protestants, Father and Son operate more on a level of equality, while in Russian Orthodoxy, the Son is more subordinated to the Father.  Kristeva articulates this as follows: “Subordinate and godlike at the same time, the Son (and with him the believer) is caught in an exquisite logic of submission and exaltation that offers him the joys and sorrows intrinsic to the master/slave dialectic.”  The empty space in the Russian Orthodox believer installs a certain freedom in him, a freedom “that is only a silence of the ego, a displacement of the intellect and rational reason toward the heart, understood as the pole of an unrepresentable infinity and the source of an intuition of an ineffable divinity.”

Thus, Kristeva concludes, “Orthodox experience valorizes the pre-oedipal, narcissistic stages of personality; in linguistic terms, it favors the semiotic preverbal more than the verbal symbolic of signs, syntax, and logical argumentation.  The consequence of this difference is that the orthodox idea of freedom allows a kind of community, not based on rational or economical commitments, but on affectivity, on non-verbal, unworldly (mystical?) grounds. (Or better: abysses.)

The semiotic thus becomes not just another name for the irrepresentable, but is able to function positively and actively in the development of a community; the dynamics of the semiotic can create an affective, corporeal bond amongst the members of a community, one that recognizes the invisible character of a deep love.

III. Conclusion: The Church as a Nomad Tent

Eventually, the problem of a community of love is rather an intra-subjective than inter-subjective one: according to Kristeva, eros finds its basis in our narcissism and the inner space that comes from it.  True encounter with the other, true intersubjective love finds its ground in the invisible layers of the subject, beyond language and representation.  Hannah Arendt calls the subject’s inner space the “who” of someone, the invisible part of a person, versus the “what,” his or her qualities.  The task of the church, then, we could imagine, would not in the first place be to develop laws and doctrines, but to bring to the fire a person’s “who,” to give a place to the inconceivable in each of us.  In this way, a crucial task for a Christian church would consist of referring to transcendence in giving a place to our incapacity to form a visible community of love and in continuously trying to transgress its own boundaries.  Thereby the church would become something like a “nomad tent,” rather than a static structure of power.  The concept of nomadism is one of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.  Inspired by his thinking, we could describe a nomad tent as an intersection where people’s identities and positions are always changing.  In this tent, not laws and static structures rule, but invisible powers such as love continue to encourage the transgressions of this representative logic where love can never find a home.  By such a nomad church, the love between the believers might not be seen, but surely be recognized.

H. Arendt, The Human Condition
J. Kristeva, Histoires d’amour; Soleil Noir; The Feminine and the Sacred; and
The Crisis of the European Subject

A. Nygren, Agape and Eros 


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