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Bonds of Affection: The Ecclesiological Significance of Storge

I was recently rereading portions of C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves and I began to wonder why storge (affection) has never been given the same theological attention as eros, philia, and agape. The theological debates over eros and agape (e.g., love as desire, love as gift) have raged at least since Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros (1930), and most contemporary ethicists who write about love, write primarily about the relation of these two (see, for instance, Gene Outka's Agape, Amy Laura Hall's Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love, Tim Jackson's The Priority of Love, and Werner Jeanrond's A Theology of Love). There are also those theologians who have recently prioritized friendship and discussed it as the root description of the love we have for one another in the church. Drawing on Aristotle's account of friendship as determinative for the good working of the polis, theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches (in Christians Among the Virtues), as well as Paul Wadell (Friendship and the Moral Life and Becoming Friends), have urged us to think about the centrality of friendship for the Christian life. The Ekklesia Project titled its inaugural and self-descriptive pamphlet "A School for Subversive Friendships." This is all well and good, but what has become of poor, downtrodden storge? Is "affection" just too weak to do any real theological work?

One place where affection lives on theologically is in the phrase "bonds of affection," long used in the Anglican Communion to describe the connection that links us across history, continents, and languages. In recent years this phrase has become important as those bonds have been strained by actions on all sides of the debates over homosexuality and women's ordination. To remedy the strain, one proposal, now in its death throes, was to create an Anglican Covenant that would define more precisely, and juridically, the nature of our communion. While I think there is a good biblical basis for the language of covenant, I am also aware how quickly covenant can morph into contract (see, for instance, Hobbes and Spinoza). And contract replaces relational goods with legal demands.
So, what is the value in keeping alive, even strengthening, the theological importance of affection, especially for the church? Affection grows by virtue of shared time and space. Its most basic form is the love within families, but it extends out to include fond feeling for those in our neighborhood or workplace, even pets. What is most interesting is that affection does not rely on shared interests or passions (as does friendship) nor does it rely on shared attraction (as does eros). Rather it grows out of the regular routines of shared life, short conversations, exchanged pleasantries, and proffered gratuities. Affection is of all the loves most linked to place—it arises among those who find themselves sharing common life, not because we chose one another but because we found ourselves thrown together in sharing the ordinary.
I think of the relationship that has grown between those of us who take the bus to work and the regular bus driver of our route. The affection that has developed over time emerged out of small acts of gratuity—the shared smile, the "thank you," the "have a nice day" that exceeded the payment already made for the ride. Such excess of mannerly gratuity may seem small but over time it increases affection which heightens sympathy and can become meaningful when, say, discussions arise at city council about compensation for bus drivers. What moves many of us at that moment is not likely an abstract account of just wage (though that would not be a bad thing) but rather the affection that has convinced us we share a common life. (For more on the economic importance of affection see Wendell Berry's wonderful NEH lecture "It All Turns on Affection."
Affection may be what we most need in the church because, as Lewis observes, affection "is indeed the least discriminating of loves. . . . Almost anyone can become an object of Affection. . . . There need be no apparent fitness between those whom it unites" (Four Loves, 54). The danger of thinking about the church in terms of friendship is that it may imply that we need a high level of agreement in order to be church together. This is a potential recipe for schism or a divided congregation of a "church within a church." Further, as Aristotle noted, it is hard to have many true friends. We are not likely to find a large number of people with whom we share enough commonality and we are unlikely to have the time to develop the relationships if we did. But we can share affection for a wide swath of people with whom we do not have much in common and with whom we may not be inclined to be friends. One of the gifts that arises from affection is that we begin to appreciate things about one another that we might not have attended to otherwise. Lewis notes, "[Affection] can 'rub along' with the most unpromising people. Yet oddly enough this very fact means that it can in the end make appreciations possible which but for it, might never have existed" (58). Just as the reader with wide taste can find a suitable book on the rack outside the used book store, Lewis writes, so "the truly wide taste in humanity will similarly find something to appreciate in the cross-section of humanity whom one has to meet every day. In my experience it is Affection that creates this taste, teaching us first to notice, then to endure, then to smile at, then to enjoy, and finally to appreciate, the people who 'happen to be there'" (60).
Perhaps, then, rather than lamenting the weakness and unenforcability of the bonds of affection in the Anglican Communion, we might strive all the more diligently to nurture affection so that appreciation might come.
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