Tennyson, Victorian poet laureate of Great Britain and Ireland wrote, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” That is a statement, which excludes nearly everyone. It suggests only males within a limited age range ever experience this universal activity of the mind. I think today that sentiment can be reconstructed to include all genders, however many there might be and all ages if indeed as many songs croon, love is timeless. But what did Tennyson mean by love? To a Victorian gentleman, such as he was, the definition was most likely as limited as the range of people perceived as capable of the experience.
During that period gender roles became more sharply defined than at any time in history. Courtship was considered more a career move than a romantic interlude for young men, as all of a woman’s property reverted to him upon marriage. Love between husband and wife among the middle classes as well as the working classes of people was anything but fair and equitable. When a Victorian man and woman married, the rights of the woman were legally given over to her spouse. Under the law the married couple became one entity where the husband would represent this entity, placing him in control of all property, earnings and money. Marriage even did away with a woman’s most sacred rights over her own body, giving him ‘ownership’ over her sexual and reproductive life and therefore became a contract to give herself to her husband as he desired.
By today’s standards, in most of the Western world, much of that concept has been dissipating within more intelligent communities. Thanks to women’s suffrage, movements for civil rights, women’s liberation; and even children’s rights (think Marlo Thomas), LGBTQ rights, and let us not forget grey rights (spearheaded in 1970 by Maggie Kuhn); love and, more recently, marriage has expanded to include a more equitable system of values among a wider variety of people. Where traditional marriage vows usually spoke of love in terms of obedience and adherence to narrowly defined gender roles, many people now choose to forge more personalized concepts of commitment to each other or forgo the institution of marriage altogether (think John Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir).
As a religion, I have no doubt Ethical Culture has been more than a little involved with the dissipation of Victorian love and marriage conventions. It has not only promoted alternatives to plain civil weddings for the un-churched, and conflicts experienced by inter-cultural, inter-racial, and inter-religious couples, it has been a valuable support for most if not all of the abovementioned socio-political actions. Its foundation of service to working class groups toward the end of the Victorian Era, construction of essential institutions like the Visiting Nurses and the Kindergarten Movement as well as ongoing commitment to social justice epitomizes a more modern definition of love that resembles the ideal in other religious traditions: the Hebrew ahavah, the Christian agape, the Muslim hubb. Yet, despite our own highly cerebral, intellectualizing culture, I can easily define what we do and how we feel about it in terms just as lofty as any from the more ancient traditions.
A few years ago while studying for a social justice class, I revisited Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I had encountered this work in both undergraduate and graduate studies. But this time I stumbled upon something different. What I found was that Maslow had modified the hierarchy later in his life to include three other needs at the top of the structure taking the total to eight levels. Most of us who use this motivational theory in our practice of psychology have only recognized Self Actualization as the pinnacle of the theory. The addition of Cognitive, Aesthetic, and Self-Transcendence Needs in the hierarchy clearly reflects our Ethical Culture relationships with our thoughts, our work, and each other.
As my relationships in our WES congregation expand, I am always deeply touched by the gentleness with which most seem to regard each other. In our Ethical Congregations, I see people going to great lengths in providing various kinds of support for each other. Added to that is the very human propensity for humor and laughter that does not generally harm, target, or marginalize. The ongoing commitment to inclusiveness that demonstrates a monumental acceptance of nearly every human brand is the manifestation of a kind of love that makes perfect sense to me. It aligns with my definition of love as a system of values that bind at a very specialized cosmic yet terrestrial level and includes an extraordinarily brave physical, mental, emotional, and ecological connectedness to each other and the universe of which we are a minute but obvious part.
Sheila Waters, WES Board of Trustee