These last few weeks, I have been re-reading one of my favourite books. The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis, is his description of the four loves that mark human interactions: Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity.
Affection is the most “organic” and “natural” of the loves, followed closely by Eros. Without the latter, none of us would have been begotten; without the former none of us would have survived.
Churches, as human (or maybe sometimes all-too-human) institutions, are marked by all four loves; indeed, they should be marked by all four loves, even the organic ones. Not least because God is more often presented to us in Holy Scripture as Father (Affection) or Bridegroom (Eros) to His people than as friend.
I don’t know that there has been a demographic study, but I sometimes wonder whether Affection is the least present of the four loves in many of our churches. And I wonder whether it is precisely because we strive to be friendly.
Let me explain. Affection is, for Lewis, the least discriminating of loves. It is often rooted in little more than familiarity. At its basest level, affection is what my wife feels for her old slippers and what my daughter feels for her guinea pigs. A bit higher up the ladder, affection is what we have for our family members because they are there and they are ours without our choosing them. (Indeed many times we would not choose to love them, but do all the same).
Affection, unlike friendship, is not deliberate. It does not depend on shared interests or common visions. Affection may even be deeply present without any visible sign of appreciation. It simply is there.
I wonder if our churches lack affection precisely because we have been so focused on being friendly. On building relationships with people with whom we share interests, whose company we enjoy, who are just like us. How many churches self-segregate according to race, political opinions, and wealth? No doubt, this is what Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind when he described Sunday at 11 as “the most segregated hour in America.” Insofar as churches strive to be friendly, they run the risk of becoming silos of self-reinforcing opinions.
Without diminishing the importance of friendship, I wonder what might happen if churches cultivated a more affectionate love. That is, on building slow, deep, familiar relationships that cross generational, political, gender, and other differences, requiring only a common love of Jesus to take root.
For example, what might happen to evangelicalism if “red-letter Christians,” actually committed to worshipping with “the Christian right” over a long period of time and stopped lobbing self-righteous “prophetic calls to repentance,” but which are in fact often only confirmations of their own prejudice (and, of course, vice versa)?
Here is one area in which the old parish model, where one attended the church closest, has a gift to offer. If the community is defined by something neutral like geography, the greater the likelihood of different kinds of people joining together for common prayer. As our urban areas change, the notion of the neighborhood parish or the village church may be in for a revival. If so, I hope the side benefit of bringing different people together comes, too. Certainly, it won’t be a reduplication of the older model. There’s no turning back the clock. But the notion of belonging to a church for reasons that had nothing to do with personal preference is one that surely needs revisiting.
This is not to say that Affection is the most godly of the loves. It can be unhealthily needy, even co-dependent. Affection needs to be tempered not merely by the presence of the other loves, but also by decency, courtesy, and reason. Affection too needs to be redeemed.
But for Affection to be tempered or even redeemed, it must first be present. And today, that’s a good place to start.