An Unromantic Thought for St Valentine’s Day

Although I may be untypical in this regard, as a single person, I have generally been very thankful for the fact that I do not have to participate in the yearly celebration of St Valentine’s Day (if and when I get into a relationship, please keep this to yourselves, OK?). I am thankful for the fact that I can steer clear of its clichéd and mawkish expressions and that I need have no dealings with its frequent sickly sentimentality. I am even more grateful for not having to undergo an annual wrestling with the prisoner’s dilemma in connection with it.

However, my main reason for feeling this way is due to my suspicion that St Valentine’s Day is in many respects an event that is primarily geared, not towards the celebration of a particular beloved person, but towards the celebration of Eros, one of the highest gods in our culture’s pantheon. As such it can often be about a self-reflexive and narcissistic (even though shared) love of being in love, rather than being about a unique individual that is loved by us.

This is how Eros becomes an idol, an idol to which we will sacrifice the wounded hearts of other persons. In order to fulfil its expectations of us and our desires for it, we will elevate it over everything else, ripping it apart from the rich and multi-layered fabric of shared lives to become a good that trumps all others and which justifies all sorts of crimes done in its name. It can involve an ‘unworlding’ of love, a losing of ourselves in the feeling of love and passion, divorced from the history and the world of a love that makes it so meaningful.

Eros can become a third party in a relationship, or its perverse superego. It commands that we ‘enjoy!’ and we can unwittingly become its oppressed slaves. As St Valentine’s Day is overly geared towards the celebration of Love, rather than our beloved, it can be this third party of Eros with its superego injunction that comes to dominate the day for us, rather than the other person. It is Eros and its expectations that we try to satisfy, rather than our partner.

In contrast to such a day that celebrates love, summoning up the emotion that Eros demands of us and emoting at our partners on cue, I believe that we should rather be seeking new ways to celebrate the particularity of our beloveds. Anniversaries and birthdays are far more suitable for this. They are about the person, not about the emotion, or the demands of undiluted enjoyment of love, romance, and sex that eros places upon us.

In many respects, this celebration of love on St Valentine’s Day can be similar to the way that we can celebrate ‘faith’ and ‘spirituality’ in a manner that obscures Jesus. Our worship can become about singing of our feelings towards Jesus to such an extent that we lose sight of him. It can be similar to the way that we celebrate the ‘feeling of community’ in a manner that is indifferent to the needs of our neighbours.

Thankfully, Christian worship need not be about whipping up emotions as a sort of ‘work’, but is a response to God’s gracious action towards us in Christ, occasioned by his own character as revealed to us. We celebrate the love of God every week in the Eucharist, and at key moments of the year we memorialize his past actions and the continuing reality of their presence in our lives as the people of God. By rooting our celebration firmly in God’s prior action and his person, we can resist the urge to make an idol of our faith, love, spirituality, or sense of God’s presence, and can rather fix our eyes upon the object of our faith and love, Jesus Christ.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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6 Responses to An Unromantic Thought for St Valentine’s Day

  1. Hey Alastair,

    As a single person (who just had a birthday on Valentine’s Day, as a matter of fact), I just wanted to tell you that I appreciated your comments here and a few weeks back in your post on Friendship. “Friendship is the new Family” is what I say. Nice to know that there are others out there like me. 🙂

    • Thank you, Rachel. It is encouraging to know that someone has found this piece helpful. Being single in the world and the church might be hard at the best of times, but with the idolatry of eros and the manner in which so many churches are thoroughly focused upon the family, it can be so much harder (the set narratives about finding a partner and marrying that seem to cast the single person as a failure, often even spiritually, don’t help either). I have found that a clearer sense of God’s Word in such a context has enabled me to maintain a firmer sense of self-identity, less troubled or distracted by these things.

      I hope that God will bless you in your situation.

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