When Love Is No Love at All

When teaching “love” to undergraduates, many wisely rely on Lewis’ The Four Loves. I recently discovered a less-read Lewis text that surpasses the former for pedagogy in moral theology. It is Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.

No Lewis expert myself, I had never heard of this text until a colleague of mine made the audacious claim that is it was Lewis’s best work. I could leave no such scandalous claim unchallenged. I knew I’d have to read it soon. That’s when God’s providence stepped in. As I walked past the “free books table” at the University’s library, what should confront me but a tattered old text so worn that the cover was illegible and completely torn from the book’s body. This book, literally, could not be judged by its cover. You’ll have no doubt as to its identity: Till We Have Faces. Not one to test God, I committed to read it straight away.

Two pages in, I knew I wasn’t in Narnia any more. This is no children’s book. Lewis reflects on the various truths and distortions in both Greek and “barbarian” culture and religion, refusing at every turn a facile reading of any character or any truth claim. Lewis retells the story of Cupid and Psyche from Metamorphoses, with some important changes. Sparing you the details, I will hopefully draw you into your own reading of the text (either for its use in teaching or your own meditation on the nature of love.

More than anything, the text tore at my heart by revealing to me ways that my own “love” for the people closest to me might not be love at all, or at best a distortion of love. Rather than willing and acting for the good of the beloved, I might (without even knowing it) be devouring the life of those I love for my own ends. The novel’s central character, Orual, discovers that what she initially considered an act of great self-sacrifice was in fact only a service to herself at the expense of her beloved. Let me explain.

Orual’s sister Psyche (a strange name, I know) believes she had been wedded to a god, a god who has created for her an indescribably beautiful (yet invisible) castle on a plain miles away from town. In the dark of each night this god visits Psyche, commanding her never to gaze upon his face. Let’s face it, one might more easily believe that Psyche has lost her sanity, or that she is being fooled by some criminal living on the lam.

Orual loves her sister more than life itself–or so she thinks. She thinks this love demands she rescue her sister Psyche from this foolish dreamworld. An attempt at reason fails, so Orual goes as far as stabbing herself through the arm to show she is willing to kill herself (and even her sister Psyche) if Psyche refuses to see things in the light of “reason.” Orual, then, compels Psyche to shine a lamp upon her sleeping lover in the night. Psyche, for love of her sister, betrays her new beloved spouse, disobeying his command to have faith in his goodness. In the light of the lamp, the god awakes, and as his splendor is revealed to all (even the unbelieving Orual) the castle crumbles to the ground and Psyche is banished to wander the world in eternal exile. At this very moment, Orual is given the beginnings (only the beginnings) of a realization that what drove her to compel Psyche into betrayal was not love, but jealousy and envy under the guise of love. Orual, who had been as a mother to Psyche, raising, teaching and caring for her, could not bear becoming second in Psyche’s heart. Neither could Orual bear the ease and innocence with which Psyche put her trust in the unseen, the unverified presence and truth of the god to whom she had been wed. Orual wanted Psyche’s faith, but rather than ask for and accept it, her cupidity for her sister’s love, her desire to be “god” for her sister, to be the central consuming love of her sister, would not allow Orual to believe that Psyche’s faith could be real. Psyche at once desired and hated her sister’s faith. Rather than embrace it, she could see only to destroy it, and in so destroying to recover Psyche to herself. Ultimately Orual’s plan failed. She discovers that the object of Psyche’s faith was real, true, and beautiful. The god was no dream. Her willingness to kill Psyche led to a fate worse than Psyche’s death–her sentence of wandering till death in exile.

Perhaps, though, Orual couldn’t be accused of having no love at all, merely not the fullness of love. Allow, if you will, an explanation from C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. In Lewis’s mind, we should likely accuse Orual of having a mere “erotic” love, the love of “eros” for her sister Psyche. This, of course is not reducible or synonymous with sexual love. It is rather a love of cupidity. A desire to possess and unite oneself with the other. It is a love that attracts me to the beloved passionately yet it is a passion to bring the beloved entirely to myself, to possess the beloved for myself as good in itself. It is a love that tends toward idolatry. This is how Orual loved her sister Psyche. When she saw that she could no longer possess her sister and her sister’s undivided love, she decided at that moment that no one else would have her either. Her love, this “eros,” ultimately devoured Psyche in its insatiable hunger. Orual lacked one of Lewis’s other loves, namely “agape,” or love that serves the beloved for the good of the beloved. Agape chastens the other loves, especially “eros.” Had Orual acted “agapically,” she would have patiently helped Psyche pursue the truth, and even been open to hearing the truth from Psyche. Instead her desire to possess closed her ears, mind, and heart to what the truth might really be. May it never happen to us!

The beauty of Lewis’ Till We Have Faces lies in the fact that the meditation on love carries through all the relationships in the book. I have merely scratched the surface of one relationship (the sisterhood of Orual and Psyche). What I hope to have accomplished here is to suggest a text that can be used in tandem with teaching on the four loves whenever an ethics or moral theology class might bring them up. As we all know, stories teach the good life better than any lecture or textbook. Let’s let a master do our teaching for us. Teach the four loves (storge, eros, philia, agape), then put students face to face with Till We Have Faces.

Of course there are endless novels and short stories inviting reflection on the nature of love and its distortions. I’d love to hear what is helpful for you in teaching love as well.

Day One – How To Wake up a Student

Ironically, the precious first-day energy from students typically gets wasted on the silliness of syllabi. On day one, we have the opportunity to speak before the walls of apathy entrap the student’s mind. Full of questions, expectations, rumors, doubts, the students file in and nervously sit. Will I pass? Will this class be boring? Is this professor as difficult as everyone says?

All this nervous energy sadly ends in a crash when we slowly walk students through the syllabus, promising that things will get better next time. Eyes gloss and get heavy. Snores resound.

Tired of squandering an opportunity, I like to start the first day with a bang! Let’s look at “Intro to Christian Ethics,” which begins for me with a living case study. After a quick prayer, I tell the students, “I’ve never liked how subjective grades are. I also can’t stand all the work at the end of the semester trying to figure them out! Therefore, I propose we get this whole grade thing over with right now. Any takers?” Believe it or not, a majority of student hands shoot up. I ask each student to write her/his name on a piece of paper, rip it out, and pass it up to the the front. Writing the letters A, B, C, D, and F on the board, and placing the names in a hat cleverly revealed from behind the podium, I state that we’ll be assigning grades by lottery. Going through the entire class, giving an equal number of each grade type, student faces transform. From Cheerful A’s, to happy B’s, to contented C’s, to disgruntled D’s, to furious F’s. At this point, jaws have dropped, adrenaline has been rushing for a couple minutes, and students are still trying to discern whether I’m serious. But at least they’re awake.

At this point I ask: “Does anyone object?” Hands shoot up from one B, half the C’s, and all the D’s and F’s. The A’s, hoping to disappear, move not a muscle. Here’s where the real fun (and learning) begins. By the time an hour has passed and the socratic conversations have ended, the students have attempted to argue that my method of grading is unethical in every way they can imagine. Most common arguments relate to “fairness,” “standard rules for grading,” and “effects on student learning,” or “you’ll get in trouble if you do that.” Only rarely does a student suggest it’s not conducive to human flourishing or happiness in general. Without knowing it students have done deontological, consequentialist, and eudaemonistic ethics. They also encounter the various the typical choices facing a person who attempts to convince the “other” of a moral position: (a) walk away and forget it; (b) find common rational ground and move from there; or (c) appeal to coercive power (i.e., if you grade this way, we’ll see that you get fired). As if that weren’t enough, in addition to arguing against my “objectively fair yet bad method,” they have offered a better “ethic of grading” based either on deontological, consequentialist, eudaemonistic grounds, or a mix of these approaches. They didn’t know it but they actually DID ethics on day one.

Ultimately, the students may not come away from day one having read the entire syllabus, but they came away with an experiential sense for the field of ethics and definitions for three ethical methods. Hopefully what I’ve done on day one is a little intellectual Jujitsu–using the student’s own mental and emotional energy to move their minds somewhere they didn’t think they were going…on beyond apathy-land.