Aphrodite (Venus in the Roman pantheon) is the goddess of erotic love and sexual desire. This is a good and a necessary, God-created, part of our humanity. As with most instincts, it’s a good servant of human flourishing, but it makes a poor master. Are there people around us today who have turned their erotic appetites into an (unconscious) god, to be served above all? Is she one of the gods of our modern pagan culture? To ask the question is to answer it.
But as a pastor I see almost every day that Aphrodite is a lying god. Speaking from his own pastoral experience (and echoing my own), Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright says,
Those who worship Aphrodite may sacrifice many things at her altar: time, money, deep or lasting relationships, unborn children, emotional maturity, secure jobs, health and even life itself. [Still,] she remains inscrutable, holding out glittering promises which turn out to be mirages. And yet her worshipers come back for more.
Under what name does Aphrodite go today? We can discover this by starting with something most modern Americans find odd: For the Sacrament of Matrimony our church doesn’t really care how partners for a marriage are selected (so long as there’s no coercion involved); cultures in which parents choose their children’s future spouses, cultures with strict rules about who may/must marry whom according to genealogy, free choice of the spouses…the church doesn’t care much about that. It cares very much only about what the spouses make of their relationship together after the ceremony. Our sense that this is odd is the clue to where Aphrodite lives today: She lives in what our culture calls romantic love.
The human experience of romantic love seems pretty much always to have existed; but in former times it wasn’t seen, as it is today, as a motive for marriage. It was seen rather as a bit of adolescent foolishness that was a threat to marriage, a bit of dangerous madness that occasionally overcame people and led them to do dangerous and crazy things. (The great poets of the Languedoc who effectively created the modern western ideal of romantic love usually celebrated the romance between a knight and his lady – who happened to be married to someone else.) We see this in dramatic form in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which the romance between the title characters is opposed by the parents as a threat to their family allegiances, and which of course leads to the deaths of the lovers.
Psychologists (in the psychoanalytic tradition) see romantic attraction as based on the mechanism of projection: I believe I am lacking in some quality (which in fact exists not-yet-discovered within me), and to become “complete” I project that quality onto another person and find it in him/her – with whom I then form a bond that “completes” me. (If you need a further explanation, consult almost any teenage music favorite from the 1940s until at least the 1980s: “You are my everything” / “I can’t live without you” pretty much sums up the genre.) Relationships built on romantic projection are doomed to fail because who is “seen” through projection isn’t the actual person, with his/her own distinctive personality, but rather who I need him/her to be for me. This is Aphrodite’s fundamental deception.
Relationships that start in romantic attraction can, and often do, mature into genuine love and/or friendship as the people involved discover what is truly lovable in each other. Aphrodite can be a good servant, since she urges us to overcome the fear of vulnerability that comes with starting any relationship. But when we make her a god, trying to build a lasting relationship on her, she leads us astray. Look around for the evidence. You won’t have to look far.
Another cultural “god” next week. Until then, peace.
- Spiritual and Religious: The Gospel in an Age of Paganism [SPCK, rev. ed. 2017; p. 124.]