In 1952, during the height of an era hailed retrospectively as one of American wholesomeness, a movie and two recordings introduced a new song:

When I fall in love it will be forever,

Or I’ll never fall in love.

In a restless world like this is

Love is ended before it's begun,

And too many moonlight kisses

Seem to cool in the warmth of the sun.

When I give my heart it will be completely,

Or I'll never give my heart;

And the moment I can feel that you feel the same way too

Is when I fall in love with you.

The song went on to be covered by a list of musical who’s whos, everyone from Nat King Cole to Celine Dion.  It remains popular: last year, Michael Bublé made it the lead single for his album Love. And in the song’s endurance lies a tale: in the lyrics’ appeal to the contrast between the potential stability of these people who will maybe “fall” in love, and the instability of the “restless world” around them.

The challenge that this restless world poses to those intent on higher things, especially love, human and divine, has been a writer’s theme since the times of Plato and Ecclesiastes. It is a challenge that evokes different responses. Some surrender to the world’s revolutions, some fight them, some retreat.  And among the retreaters there were for a time few more admired than the author Joshua Harris.

When I was a teenager, like many another girl from a conservative background, I read Harris’s seminal I Kissed Dating Goodbye cover to cover.  I can claim neither the inspiration nor the scarring that many others seem to have experienced through their exposure to the book: while I found many of Harris’ criticisms of contemporary dating culture to be just, I was disinclined to embrace his courtship ethic, and did not experience the frustration and guilt that some have described as a result.

Many dates, one marriage, and a few children later, I read of Harris’s own separation from his wife and disavowal of his previous views regarding dating and more fundamental matters.  He had been slowly distancing himself from his work for some time. Nevertheless, it is shocking to witness so complete a departure. Rod Dreher calls it an apostasy — a fitting term given Harris’ statement that “by all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”

But in another sense, Harris’ departure from Christianity should surprise no one — for (if his most famous work is any indication) Harris always shared a key proposition with his erstwhile antagonists in the secular order.  What both the world and Harris agreed on, the principle that renders Harris’s deconversion ultimately comprehensible, is the idea that human beings are almost inevitably defined by and hence prey to their impulses.

In Harris’ bestseller, this idea takes a negative form.  We are all prey to our impulses, and so we must avoid any and all situations that incline us to give in to them. Dating can be (in a Catholic phrase which Harris would understand, though he does not use it) an occasion of sin — and so we should never date.  Even unsupervised alone time between two young people of the opposite sex can be dangerous — so we should employ chaperones. Repeat emotional investments can be emotionally draining — so we should avoid creating situations in which we become emotionally invested.

In the secular world, similar observations about human nature become a template for a very different sort of behavior. Dating is a near occasion of sin? Sin boldly! Old relationships can emotionally shadow more recent ones? Consider an open relationship!  And so it goes; and so it goes.

But what both Harris 101 and the secular world discount is the other side of human nature: the side that, while it is influenced by emotion, is rational. Yes, a date might involve temptation—and some dates, with some people, under some circumstances, might be too tempting to be prudent — but ultimately, we are not the victims of our emotions but of our choices. We can choose to follow up on our impulses, or not. And, while it is good to protect ourselves from situations that evoke our worst impulses in their strongest form, it is impossible (pace Harris 101) to protect oneself altogether from bad impulses.  Fundamentally, the problem is not outside us (“the world”) but inside (“the flesh”): the problem is original sin. And the answer is not to eliminate every occasion of sin — everything is a potential occasion of sin, so that way madness lies — but, as the Act of Contrition puts it, “to avoid the near occasions of sin.”

The world, of course, is no great help. Instead of seeking to eliminate inappropriate emotions, the world makes reason serve emotion: our desires define our goals, and our rational side exists to fulfill those desires in the most efficient and satisfying way possible. If you want something, it is good; the only question is how to get it.  In the course of pursuit one might make an intellectual mistake (“Gee, I should never have mentioned her mother-in-law!”).  But there is no entertaining the notion that the object of pursuit might itself be mistaken (“Are one-night stands good?” is a question not to be asked).  Secular mores insist that error resides in the intellect; the heart and loins are unimpeachable.

Yet Michael Bublé is still singing those lyrics, 65 years after they first aired: despite, or perhaps because of the fact that they so potently contradict this dismal reigning theory.

When I fall in love it will be forever …

There is no possibility of forever when you cede to the emotions the power of gods (whether that makes them your objects of worship, or you their hapless victim).  “Forever” is only a possibility if you think that love, in addition to being an emotion, can also be a choice—as the next words imply:

Or I'll never fall in love.

The role of the culture in discouraging stability is underscored:

In a restless world like this is

Love is ended before it's begun,

And too many moonlight kisses

Seem to cool in the warmth of the sun.

But the fundamental ability of the individual to act differently, to behave like a rational as well as an emotional being, is reiterated:

When I give my heart it will be completely,

Or I'll never give my heart;

And the moment I can feel that you feel the same way too

Is when I fall in love with you.

As Aquinas put it—distinguishing “actual love” from both mere goodwill and “the love which is in the sensitive appetite[,which] is a passion”—“[t]o love is indeed an act of the will tending to the good, … [which] adds a certain union with the beloved” (Summa Theologica, 2.2.27.2).