Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity

Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity

Richard Smoley
San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2008. 212 pages.

Conscious Love is an important book, coming at a critical time in human development when old values are dying and new values have not yet been fleshed out. In this book, Richard Smoley takes us through a number of different types of love romance, marriage, family life, friendship —each of which he characterizes as somehow "transactional," involving a certain exchange or quid pro quo, whether that is acknowledged or not. He contrasts these to agape or conscious love, which, he contends, is beyond transactions.

Smoley begins by telling an anecdote about the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He had fallen in love with a young woman when she was fourteen and he twenty-four. Several years later, still in love, he asked her to marry him and she happily agreed. But then he turned cold. Provoked by his attitude, she broke off their engagement and married another man. Kierkegaard remained a bachelor for the rest of his life. But when he died, he left his entire estate to the woman he never married.

Why did Kierkegaard behave in such a strange manner? He had decided that feeling erotic love for the woman was simply selfishness on his part and had nothing to do with true love, which ultimately should be reserved only for God. With respect to this attitude, Smoley has a lovely quote from Russian philosopher of love Vladimir Solovyov saying that "this unfortunate spiritual love reminds one of the little angels in old paintings, which have only a head, then wings and no more."

Though this denial of the flesh runs deep in Christianity, Smoley argues that "conscious love" does not have to be "freedom from drives or passions or self-interest but rather freedom within them." The rest of his book carefully develops and expands on this theme.

If the body cannot be ignored in love, is it all there is? Are we simply following an inborn, embodied need to perpetuate the species, as sociobiologists today argue? So it would seem at first, Smoley argues: "Each of us seeks the fittest possible mate, and satisfied or not, we settle for the best we can find. This is the law of nature, and the law is inexorable." From a biological point of view, each of us is born isolated into a hostile world. We have to find some way to protect ourselves. Ironically, after we have managed to do so, we feel a contrary urge to go past our own barriers of protection. "For humans," he writes, "the means of bridging this gap is often romantic love."

Smoley points to a certain tension here. While romantic love begins out of a need to perpetuate the species, at its best it goes past this urge: "Whenever I read of a truly great love, I am struck by all its uniqueness. Such loves don't fit easily into conventional schemes. Chaste or carnal, blissful or ill-starred, they are in every case the deepest expressions of the individuals themselves."

Why is this so? To answer this question, Smoley presents a position that he develops carefully throughout the book: inside each of us is (1) "something that experiences;" and (2) "that which is experienced" [emphasis in the original]. The first can be called the "I," the second the "world." The "world" is not only what we usually call the outside world; it includes the inner world as well, since that is also part of our experience.

All this takes us into deep water. "If all of what passes for my experience is in itself a sort of other . . . who or what is this mind that is doing the looking? And where is the dividing line between my mind and someone else's?" He goes on to say that the true "I" is more than the ego we normally associate with it; it is potentially our gateway to all that is. The entire path of enlightenment can be summarized simply as the inner need to know yourself. If we go through this process, Smoley claims, we will discover that there is "no real border between this 'I' and the collective 'I' in which we all participate." To realize this truth is to step past transactional love and to touch conscious, unconditional love.

Smoley asks where we can find God in this picture. In order to answer that question, he claims that there is a deeper meaning for "God" than conventional theology often assumes: God is "what theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the 'terrifying and attractive mystery.'" Put in one word, which Otto also coined: God is the numinous! What Smoley calls the true "I" —which is ultimately a collective "I" —is the gateway for access to the divine. "This is the mystical meaning of Christ's saying "I am the door' (John 10:9): The 'I' is the door."Smoley's ultimate point is that this joining with another can take us beyond our personal boundaries, and that joining is ultimately a progressive path toward the joining with the Godhead.

How can this true "I," the witness that can observe everything, still be embodied? In answering this question, Smoley makes one of the most significant points of the book: "This consciousness is not limited to human or even to living beings but subsists in everything, no matter how apparently inanimate." This is God in his most immanent aspect. As we begin to recognize this truth experientially, Smoley argues, the individual mind begins to pass into all that is.

While we are on the way to this high place, somewhere along the line we must each discover our vocation, our "special function," as the author terms it. When one first does discover one's vocation, rather that feeling a union with everyone and everything in cosmic love, instead we tend to initially feel isolated from all those around us. In such an uncomfortable position, we first fall either into arrogance or despondent. Some escape this because their path allows them to find companions; others continue alone. But following that special path, honoring our "special function," leads onward toward the cosmic union.

Smoley has taken us on a long path that led from Kierkegaard, who valued his head over his heart, through recognition of the wisdom of the body and heart, through all the varieties of love. At this point, he says simply that "there is something in us that stands apart from the ceaseless flow of the head's thoughts and the equally ceaseless flow of the heart's feelings and can see them." In the words from an ancient Chinese text: "Consciousness dissolves in vision."

This is an important book, the first I've seen that looks at love from a position rooted not only in esoteric Christianity, but in the deepest spiritual traditions of all times and places. Though the scholarship underlying the book is immense, the author wears it lightly, using both historical quotes and personal anecdotes to get his message across. The book is particularly significant in arguing for an embodied love that can bridge the old and the new. As the author writes, "we, in our physical bodies, are the instruments not only for God's work in this world but for his experience as well. If our own consciousness is elevated..., our pleasure becomes God's pleasure as well."

Robin Robertson

Robin Robertson, Ph.D. is a Jungian-oriented clinical psychologist and the author of sixteen books, including Beginner's Guide to Jungian Psychology. His latest work, Alchemy and Chaos Theory, will be published by Quest Books in 2009.