2016-06-30
It's Friday. You have a 7 p.m. date scheduled with someone you've had your eye on for a while—he’s smart, good-looking, and funny. Just for kicks, you visit a fortune-teller for the inside scoop on your future with this guy. At first, the seer's words lull you into what feels like eternal bliss: this date has great potential. The two of you will fall deeply in love, enjoy each other's company, challenge each other, and have countless afternoons filled with laughter.

You sigh. He's got to be The One. Finally.

But she doesn't stop there, and your steadily growing excitement is suddenly crushed like that scary bug you saw on the bathroom floor the night before. Apparently, after two years of relationship paradise, something will shift. Eventually, you will go your separate ways. Your once fluttering heart drops like a stone through your body.

Now, of course you'd never really go to a fortune-teller to determine the outcome of a date. But pretend this woman knows that by going on this date, you're inviting a temporary relationship into your life--a relationship that is loving and caring for a time, but inevitably doomed to end.

As 7 p.m. approaches and your heart is inconveniently still residing somewhere in the region of your shoes, you waver about the evening ahead. Should you cancel your date? Stave off the wave of pain destined to follow the love you'll share?

After all, who needs more heartbreak?

Unfortunately for many singles, if someone could give us a damage/risk assessment for every possible date, we'd probably choose to remain at home alone in front of the TV instead of going out with anyone. Lurking behind the innocent question "Do you want to go for coffee?" lies the hope that this date will turn out to be a soul mate, that you will be compatible, and that you will build a future together.

Between faith and culture, we tend to receive a lethal dose of disapproval regarding our dating lives: dating for the sake of dating isn't good enough. For many religious people, dating is viewed only as a path to marriage. We too often view each person we go out with as a potential marriage partner, and quickly pass off potential dates because we don't think they're "marriage material." Sometimes, painful breakups are even viewed as a sign of God’s condemnation of dating and punishment for sinful behavior. As we grow older, this view of dating becomes more pronounced, and dating for the sake of marriage takes on greater urgency.

Our culture's obsession with marriage only furthers this idea that dating should be for the sake of marriage. Even the television series "Sex and the City," which usually seemed like a weekly paean to dating for the sake of dating, ended with all four of its characters finding a man to marry, or at least finding "the one".

This view of dating can easily make us forget that dating has spiritual value in and of itself. We need to stop focusing on its potential for marriage and accept its temporary nature. Dating can help us to grow spiritually--if we allow it to.

While it is not quite friendship and not quite marriage, dating shares similar qualities with both types of relationships. Through all of these relationships we learn about other people, and in turn about ourselves, who we are, what we like and dislike, and what it means to be in a good or not-so-good relationship.

The spark of intimacy that turns a dinner with a friend into a date is the same spark that holds the seeds of spiritual possibility. Spiritual journeys begin in moments when our attention is grasped in a powerful way, moments often described metaphorically as being gazed upon by a lover.

Countless theologians and spiritual figures understand setting out on a spiritual path as waking up to the possibility of divine intimacy, an experience “sparked” in much the same way our interest in dating another person begins. Upon discovering God, Methodism founder John Wesley described his heart as strangely warmed, Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan talked of suddenly falling in love and seeing the world anew, and the Persian poet Kahlil Gibran, urges that "when love beckons to you, follow him." Hafiz, the fourteenth-century Sufi master and poet, described loving God as if a game of tag. In playing, God flirtatiously tags us as "It." These thinkers never add caveats for God along the lines of "only if you are guaranteed to love me and stay forever." God encourages us to walk toward possibility, to risk turning ourselves toward a new and unknown path of intimate relationship, one with no end in sight.

As with divine love that is pregnant with possibility yet not without risk and uncertainty (at least on the human end), so a date opens us to potentially loving another person deeply, to a process of discovery that may last for years or may only last for the length of an evening. Going out on a date is like an invitation to mystery: the mystery being both the other person, as well as the depths within ourselves we have yet to discover. Dating encourages us to take leaps of faith into the unknown, to invest ourselves, even for a short time, in the idea of a relationship, in opening ourselves up to someone new, and in presenting ourselves in our best form. Dating begins with our own flirtatious game of tag, the excitement of being singled out by someone who catches our eye, the allure of future love beckoning to us that, we should give a chance, regardless of how long that love will stay.

There’s no denying that heartbreak is part of the deal, as it is with any relationship--marital, friendly, and even divine. There is always risk of disappointment and loss. No relationship comes with a guarantee, not even a godly one. A broken heart is not an indication that God is punishing us; it is the very human experience of knowing that we have loved, an experience foundational to spiritual growth, one that can lead to a deepening relationship with the divine, and a growing understanding within ourselves of what it means to love another.

Medieval Christian mystics, who, I'll admit, singles don't often turn to for dating advice, have some surprisingly good advice for us about this particular risk that comes with dating. Women like Julian of Norwich, Hadewijch of Antwerp, and Teresa of Avila wrote about the many trials that accompany loving relationships, spending years reflecting on the experience of falling in and out of love with the divine.

Reading the mystics can help us to understand the impermanence we sometimes experience from loving another, the insecurity, and the unfulfilled longing that accompany any relationship. But they also convince us that despite these difficulties, moments of love, however short or long they may last, are worth all the risks we take on their behalf. If we never open ourselves to the possibility of love, we will never experience the transformation possible when it walks in, and sometimes out, of our lives.

Most important of all, if we allow it to, dating can encourage self-transcendence, asking of us that we forget the constant need to know the future, encouraging us instead to see another person as an end in themselves. Our contemporary dating sensibilities too often make us forget about the person before us in favor of the aisle we hope to walk down some time in the future.

Rather than seeing our date as a person worth at least an hour of conversation, we instead subject them to our respective checklists and interview them as a means to another end: for the job as our future mate, forgetting the tried and true religious teaching of treating someone else as we would wish to be treated, as worthy of an investment of our time.

So, when 7 p.m. rolls around and your date comes by, reconsider your approach to the man or woman knocking on the door. We would do well to take the advice of that fourteenth century Sufi poet, and bask in the idea that at least for the night, we've been tagged as "It." We are free to learn, share, and grow, whether it lasts the evening, or a lifetime.