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Erotic tradition of scripture vital, speaker says

Megan O'Neil | Monday, February 6, 2006

The erotic tradition which grew out of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures is an enriching facet of Christian spirituality despite centuries worth of arguments to the contrary, said Saint Mary’s Aquinas Chair emeritus Keith Egan Saturday.

Egan’s lecture, entitled “Eros and Friendship” was the first of two given at the College over the weekend as part of the ninth annual Thomas Aquinas Symposium. This year the Symposium also served to kick off the 60th anniversary celebration of the Saint Mary’s religious studies department.

While one of the most commented on books during the middle ages, the sensual Song of Songs has at times been ignored as part of the Canon in Christian tradition, Egan said, or interpreted in such a way that dilutes its meaning.

“The erotic direct sense of the text has been allegorized, in other words, given a spiritual or mystical meaning,” Egan said. “The Jewish tradition has depicted the Song of Songs as a celebration of the Lord’s love for Israel while Christians have seen the Song as a celebration of Christ’s love for the church or the individual Christian.”

The passionate language found in the Song is absent from the writings of great Christian theologians, Egan said, including Thomas Aquinas. Instead Aquinas chose to write about “caritas,” which he argued unites one to God in friendship.

Many scholars such as Denys Turner and Fergus Kerr believe the erotic mysticism born out of the Song lacks a theological foundation and no longer has the power to communicate a message, Egan said.

Nevertheless, the erotic tradition born out of the Song of Songs has influenced the work of many Christians throughout history and, in conjunction with the friendship language of Aquinas, remains relevant today, Egan said.

“The list of commentators and mystical authors who have expressed their spiritual vision through the language and symbols of the Song reads like a who’s who of saintly and mystical Christian authors,” he said. “Their articulations of their religious experience in erotic terms is much too important to write off.”

In a society saturated with sex, Egan said, the power of erotic language such as that found in the Song is at risk. It is necessary, therefore, to retrieve and preserve the tradition in order not to loose the wisdom of women mystics such as Teresa of Ávila, Thérése of Lisieux and Edith Stein.

Celebrating the Song of Songs can also help in the development of a positive theology of sexuality, Egan said.

“What is need is a positive vision of human sexuality as sacred and sacramental,” he said. “The Song celebrates and delights in the goodness, power, energy, intensity and beauty of the sexual love of the Song’s twosome.”

Ultimately, Egan said, the principles of eros, friendship and love that have long been presented by scholars at odds with one another are interdependent, and should be brought back together in reconciliation.

“Eros on its own can become self-indulgent, friendship without love is no friendship at all, and a supposed caritas disconnected from earthly love stands in danger of becoming what [scholar Fergus Kerr] calls a supernaturalism, that is, a pretended piety that shuns human society,” Egan said.