Among the many recent tributes to Prince, a piece in the weekend New York Times wins the prize for the most eye-catching title: “Prince’s Holy Lust.” The author, Prince’s biographer Touré, contends that in Prince’s world, sexuality and spirituality were inseparable:
Sex to him was part of a spiritual life. The God he worshiped wants us to have passionate and meaningful sex. His former tour manager Alan Leeds told me: “For him the love of God and the sexual urges we feel are one and the same somehow. For him it all comes from the same root inside a human being. God planted these urges and it’s never wrong to feel that way. The urge itself is a holy urge.”
According to the author, this puts Prince at odds with the Judaeo-Christian ethic, which “seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other.”
This claim is only partially true. The separation of erotic desire (in Greek, eros) and divine love (agápē) is found in influential works like Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros (1930 and 1936), and to some extent C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves (1960). But the opposite view can also be found: in the biblical Song of Songs and the prophet Hosea, and in Christian mystics and poets such as Bernard of Clairvaux, John Donne, and Teresa of Avila—the latter most famously portrayed in Bernini’s sculpture, Saint Teresa in Ecstasy.
Unsurprisingly, Pope Francis is hospitable to this view (see Amoris Laetitia 147); but to find a sustained treatment of the topic, we can go back to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. In his 2005 encyclical, Deus caritas est (God is Love), he writes that eros and agápē can never be completely separated:
The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. (7)
This view is based on a holistic understanding of humanity: body and soul, spirit and flesh. Separating these, to pursue either a purely “angelic” spirituality, or a purely materialistic instinct, results in the loss of both (5). This integrated view of humanity rules out the exploitation, commodification, or objectification of another person.
But it actively encourages the pursuit of sexual pleasure when this is joined to the self-giving love of another.
In such cases eros is transformed, becoming “a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns” (7). In other words, the urge can indeed be holy.
This suggests a surprising degree of affinity between the late superstar and the Judaeo-Christian ethic. Readers who are familiar with Prince’s life and work are invited to comment on how close this affinity might be.