Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Three Loves


I want to think about love.

The ideas that I begin to explore here came to me as I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean to London this summer. I transcribe them as I wrote them in a journal, with a few “touch-ups” occasioned by a conversation with friends about the Desert Mothers. I’m not sure that in updating my thoughts I didn’t make them even more unintelligible.

Part of my lack of clarity roots in the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about. And part of it is that I was very much influenced by my undergraduate Greek professor, Dr. Olin Storvik (who merits none of the blame for these musings!), and I remember his saying that the “classic” distinction among the three Greek words for “love” really didn’t hold water by his lights. Since then, I have not been able to find substantiation in literature that the supposed distinctions among the three Greek words often translated “love” do not exist, I have had to think harder. Because a dark airplane cabin tends to inspire reflection and remembrance in me, I somehow came around to “love,” and these thoughts resulted.

On to the topic at hand.

I know a feeling that sometimes comes of being loved – a fullness of heart that threatens to stop its beating or to hinder breath; a solemnity and satisfaction that can only be voiced in a sigh or a groan; a “take-me-God-I’m-ready” sense that roots in the sense that life may not ever be better than it is at the moment. I have known that feeling when my wife stands by me in my foolishness or talks me back to earth when I am flying blind; when my daughter sidles up to me to sit in my lap at home or entrusts me with a confidence while I drive her to school; when my godson rushes squealing into my outstretched arms, his own held above his head in holy joy; when incense in a Benedictine monastery mass one time sang “requiem” to my almost overpowering guilt and grief; when a long-time friend, from whom I had been separated for years and with whom I have recently reconnected met me at the airport and kissed and embraced me as though seven years had not elapsed since we last embraced; when a beloved local friend, who had been absent for a couple of weeks, flashed me a smile, eye-to-eye, that said, “We’re here together, Brother,” during the procession at mass on the Sunday before I left for Europe.

I say, forget the inherited (from whom? Anders Nygren?) typology of love – eros, philia, and agape – and face facts: Love is the dynamic interchange of or among all three “types” of love. To use this common understanding: Love is fundamentally erotic, with or without sex, in that it seeks fulfillment, manifestation, culmination in something larger than itself – something organic, interpersonal, imaginative. And it is also philic, even between lovers, in its desire to accompany, to defend, and to celebrate as equals, in a mutuality of concern and interest. And it is agapaic in its striving for the well-being of the loved one, even at great cost to the loving one. Agape can be rather one-directional, manifest in service and self-giving. Philia can be utterly mundane, tied to the here-and-now and known in commonality, comity, and mutual regard. Eros can tend to the ecstatic, to going out of self, in which the self loses some of its individuation in a movement toward some reality greater than the self.

In day-to-day affairs, this typology may describe our experience (except: how often in day-to-day experience do we know agape?). But in theology and those aspects of life affected by theology (by which I mean the whole of the Christian’s life), love cannot be segmented and the common differentiation has only heuristic value. It’s illustrative and descriptive, perhaps, but not normative – and ultimately it is a hindrance.

In Christian understanding, love cannot be segmented. In trinitarian fashion, love is what happens in the interchange among the three personae/faces of love. It may be that in this sense that God is love, God is in love, God loves. Love is not God, of course. (Neither logic nor revelation requires the truth of the obverse of truth.) But that love is dynamic, generative, self-fulfilling (in the sense that the self is brought to its fullness; not in the sense that it is generated by the self), sacrificial, sacramental – this is revelation; this is what has been shown.

God is love, then, in this sense. God is what we name the erotic-philic-agapaic interchange (or “relationship”) among Father and Son and Spirit, for love is what binds God within God. But God became human and, in the resurrection and ascension of Love Incarnate, drew humanity into the Godhead. The benefits run both ways, so that in love among creatures, something of the Godhead – the very life of God – is known and felt. Thus, not only is God love, but also in love is God.

Love between and among God’s people – which is to say, all people – is thus to be celebrated; it is the fulfillment of the Creator’s intent. For love cannot exist apart from God: God is love and apart from God there is no love. Atheists, non-Christian, doubters may dispute. But we may rely on what has been revealed – and thereby worship.

To be “in” love is not necessarily to be “in love.” That is a distinction often lost in wedding preparations and in best-man toasts at wedding receptions. Love is not (just or even primarily) an emotion; it is a state of being: One lives in the state of love. (Madeline L’Engle makes a different, but complementary point in saying that love is a “policy.”) And thus one lives in love – as one lives “in God” or “en Xristou” (in Christ). The Scriptures seem quite clear to me that this is the meaning of salvation – to live in the reality which is God, a reality which is love, the same reality that binds God-in-God. (At some point, I want to try to think through the Finnish Lutheran scholarship on Luther’s understanding of “faith” – that it involves being “in Christ” and Christ being “in” the believer – and connect it to this theory of “love.” I suspect that these reflections on “love” have been inspired by that most enlightening scholarship. It’s off the point, but I feel compelled in this connection – since I cannot include footnotes – to say that had I not run across this branch of Luther scholarship several years ago, thanks to the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, I likely would not be a Lutheran today. But I digress.)

Of course, emotions may be implicated in love – a point that seems at least suggested by my earlier discussion. One simply knows somehow, and sometimes the knowledge is pointed and telling. And one certainly cannot live in love without acting it out to and with the loved one. That will often result in pleasure, even physical pleasure (yes), for both parties. (Cf. my comments above about Finnish Lutheran scholarship on “faith.”)

But because love is not an emotion, there is no necessary connection between what one does or has done to/for one and the sensations one experiences. God’s love does not depend on the loved one’s feeling a particular way. Frequently, the fickleness or ambiguity of human emotions requires that the experience of that love be primarily intellectual or based on trust. That, finally, is the meaning of faith, isn’t it?

But this is not to say that the fullness of God’s agape is not found, in part, in the response of the loved one. Otherwise, on the scale of “salvation,” God’s agape is, to paraphrase a friend, cold and impersonal and raw. The point of the dynamic of love is to deny an impersonal quarter to it. Thus, the “forensic” view of God’s love is, for me, sterile and out-of-date. The good news is not found in a judicial decree that I am “not guilty” (although who am I to deny that all of that is true), but rather in the proclamation to me that He who is love (that would be God) has seen fit to draw me into that love and to so invest me with his nature that I might grow in that love with him and with all those around me.

This analysis will help me to re-read the Song of Songs (Solomon) – something I pledge to do. To now, the sensuality – downright sexuality – given voice in that book has given me nothing to preach and nothing to increase my faith. Its inclusion (along with the Proverbs) in the canon has always seemed to me to be a lamentable example of where the good Fathers of the Church took a vote while most were asleep. (Luther thought something similar with respect to the book of James – but with much less reason, I think). But now I’m not so sure. Sister Dash is reading The Good Book front to back – but she hasn’t gotten to Songs, so I may have to prevent her (in the Jacobean meaning of the term: to go before) or pre-empt her on that one and read it and try to figure it out here. (Still, Sr. Dash, read quickly and get to that book so we can share impressions. Perhaps we ought to try reading it with our colleagues in Theological Discussion.)

Love will ultimately involve the full reality of love. That’s a tautology, I realize, but it’s a tautology that has been denied for decades, as we have sought to distinguish among the “kinds” or “types” or “levels” of love. The analysis often takes this form: God loves us in agape; I love my wife – but only legitimately my wife – in eros (although I may be “tempted” towards others); I “love” or lean kindly towards others in philia. But if God’s love for us is more that agape (read Hosea, for example, in addition to Song of Songs), so that it carries some kind of erotic content along with the philic, must that not apply to our relations?

And if that is true of love in and from God, then it must, by virtue of the Gospel’s promise through the Holy Spirit, be true of our lives in this world as well and already.

What does this say, first, about marriage? That’s pretty easy, it seems to me, blessed, as I am, with a spouse and partner who incarnates for me all three “types” of love. Second, what about parents and children? (Can you tell that I cannot seem to divorce my musings from my existential condition?) My relationship with my daughter is filled with opportunities for us to be for each other a companion (I am not saying that I will ever encourage my daughter to be consider me her “best friend”; that’s spooky) and for us to “deny ourselves” for the well-being of the other and for us together to forge a relationship that assumes a kind of reality apart from either of us. That relationship gives me enormous satisfaction – satisfaction (and don’t inform Child Protection on me for saying this) that is palpable.

My friends and I enjoy relationships that involve mutual support and encouragement (as well, in some cases, as mutual teasing and hazing), with a lot of kissing and hugging in the bargain. To put it indelicately, I cannot keep my hands off my close friends. There is, obviously, an “erotic” aspect to the relationship that is different perhaps only in degree from the physicality of my relationship with my wife.

All of this latest gibberish is to highlight the interpenetration of “types” of love across the spectrum of relationships. Might it be said that, in my giving of alms, I have not “loved” my neighbor by simply giving “stuff”; I must also in some way “touch” the hungry person, or the homeless one, or the AIDS patient?

To be frank, I’m not sure where this thread might go or whether it makes any sense. Your comments will help me to see what I need to think through more fully and what I need to give up.

But at this point, I am pleased to articulate for myself a more wholistic perspective on an issue that I have long fought with friends about. The sharp distinctions we draw among the way I feel about a friend and the ways I feel about my spouse and the feelings that I have toward those whom I “serve” – these distinctions are false and misleading. When we wrestle with the love of God, as Hosea should have revealed to me (if not the Incarnation), we’re not just talking about a bodiless, senseless, intellectual policy of “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Passion is at the heart of the whole mystery of salvation, and maybe we’ll be better off if we come to grips with that.

To be continued …. I hope.

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