A Treatise on Love
“Above all things I believe in love. Love is like oxygen. Love is a many-splendoured thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!” Trite lyrics to cliché love songs, strung together by the character Christian in the 2001 musical film Moulin Rouge! The word “love,” in modern American society, at least, is ubiquitous. Not only can I love my wife (if I had one), my mother, and my friends, but I can also love your outfit and shoes, that song they just played on the radio, this bumper sticker, the new and trendy restaurant downtown, “The OC,” Google, and pizza. What is love? When I tell my wife, “I love you,” do I mean the same thing as when I say, “I love pizza?” Is, as Mary Beth Bonacci calls it, “pizza-love” the same as “wife-love?”
The problem, from a purely semantic point of view, is that the English vocabulary is deficient: pizza-love is most certainly different from wife-love, yet in English they are both “love.” So, I must reach back to a more ancient language to begin to make sense of “love.” The ancient Greeks had several different words for “love:” first, there was ἔρως, the desirous love that Plato and Aristotle would place among the animalistic passions, used primarily of the sexual passion, but broadened in time to include the object of desire and the god of love. Second, there was στέργηθρον, the love which is the bond between a parent and his child. Then there was φιλία, perhaps the most versatile of the ancient Greek words for love; its basic meaning is the affection between friends, or simply, friendship; however, this bond became so universal that for the pre-Socratic philosophers, it came to mean the natural force which unites discordant elements and movements. In addition, there was εὔνοια, benevolence, goodwill, and favour; Aristotle, however, makes it a point to distinguish between φιλία and εὔνοια, such that the former is the bond with close acquaintances, while the latter is the more universal characteristic of goodwill.
So we return to our problem of the English word “love.” When I would say that I love my wife, I mean, at least in the immediate, ἔρως; when I say that I love my mother, I mean στέργηθρον; when I say that I love my friend, I mean φιλία; and when I say that I love all mankind, I mean εὔνοια. It would seem, however, that I really ought not to speak of pizza-love; that is, I ought not to speak of love of material things as “love,” or rather, I ought to distinguish, perhaps, between “love” and “Love.” When I speak of “Love,” I speak of a human connection. I cannot have a human connection with pizza, or with bumper stickers or shoes or Google; I can only have a human connection with other humans, and I can only speak of Love in regards to them and to that connection.
There is, however, one other Greek word that we need to examine: ἀγάπη. This noun was seldom used by the ancient Greeks, though its root verb, ἀγαπάω, a word ranging in meaning from “show affection,” to “be fond of,” to “be content with,” (and when demonstrating desire, never in a sexual sense), was often used. However, with the advent of Christianity and Koine Greek, the noun comes to play a very important role, for it signifies the Love between God and man, and, by extension, the Love between man and man as brothers in Christ. Furthermore, it became the name of the “Love-feast,” that is, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is this word that
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and yet have not Love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and yet have not Love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not Love, it profiteth me nothing. Love is patient, Love is kind; Love envieth not; Love vaunteth not itself, is not proud; Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth Faith, Hope, Love, these three; but the greatest of these is Love.
Love is, therefore, not just a connection between men, but a connection also between man and God. In fact, the first connection is between man and God, and thence springs the connection between man and man. What is the nature of this connection? How did it come to be, and how is it sustained? For these answers, we must look back to the beginning, in which God created the Heavens and the Earth. In the beginning, God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
And so man was made in the image and likeness of God: therein was the connection, and thereby was it established. Therein lies also the inherent dignity of all mankind. Every man, because he is made in the image and likeness of God, is more beautiful, more hounourable and dignified, more noble and good, than anything else in all of creation; furthermore, there is nothing that any man can do to take away that inherent dignity.
Yet, man did not obey God, and he gave in to the temptation of the serpent, and so the connection was broken, though his inherent dignity as a Child of God, made in His image and likeness, was never diminished. Yet, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, to suffer death upon the Cross for the redemption of the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. And so was the connection renewed, and it was done out of Love.
This week, we commemorate and celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ: this week, we commemorate and celebrate the renewal of that connection, and, as our friend Ryan Connors once reminded us, we must recall that it is Love that we celebrate this week. It is a celebration of God's immeasurable Love for us, a Love that humbled itself to wash the feet of its disciples; a Love that established a new commandment, that we should love as He loved us, and established a new covenant, that all who shall eat of the bread of His body and drink from the cup of His blood shall be saved; a Love that went to Calvary, that bore the lash and nail and cross, and died; and a Love that rose again from the dead, that was and is stronger than death itself. That is the Love of Him who loved us first and loves us all still today.
So we come to the final mystery of Love, the ultimate understanding of its essence: not only does God love us, not only does he show us Love and connect to us with Love, but he is Love. God is Love and Love is God, utterly and completely. So we sing on Maundy Thursday, Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est, for God is caritas, He is amor. This is the one, ultimate, eternal, and absolute Truth, whence springs all truth. He who accepts Love into his life, he who defines himself by Love and binds his will to act only in accordance with Love, has accepted Christ into his life and has bound his will to the Will of God, even if he has never heard a single word of the Gospel.
Furthermore, we must understand that, because we are made in the image and likeness of God, so too do we partake in being Love. The entities that we call our “spirits” and the realm that we call the “spiritual” are entirely enveloped in Love: they are made of Love, they are sustained by Love, and they emanate Love. Yet, this reality extends also to our frail humanity, for this, too, is divine. When Christ was made incarnate, he took on the full nature of man. Hence, He reveals both the great truth of God's Love for us and what it means to be human. Only when we look upon Him can we fully understand both who God is, i.e. what Love is, and who we are called to be. When William Blake looked into the face of God, he was frightened; when I look into it, I see only Love, shining upon us all.
Love is the defining element of all creation. It is the creative force, it is the sustaining force, it is the renewing force. Schiller was wrong: it is Liebe, not Freude, that is the wondrous spark divine, and where Love's gentle wing resides shall there be a brotherhood of men. Henry van Dyke was right when he was inspired to write his hymn to Beethoven’s theme: “Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, – All who live in Love are thine; Teach us how to love each other, Lift us to the joy divine…Father-Love is reigning o’er us, Brother-Love binds man to man.”
Love is the foundation of all existence, and yet the greatest mystery of all. We all know Love within the deepest recesses of our hearts, for the recesses themselves were fashioned from it. Yet the sublime heights and profound depths of its majesty infinitely surpass the farthest reaches of human understanding. Ἀγάπη is everything, and every other sense of “Love” – ἔρως, στέργηθρον, φιλία, εὔνοια – is subsumed in it and then from it reborn. Every man is bound to every other by the liberating fetters of Love, tasked by our common identity as Children of God to love each other as He loves us. Each of us then delves deeper into the folds of Love when we express each other type of Love first founded in ἀγάπη. We ratchet tighter the chains of ἔρως with our wives, of στέργηθρον with our parents and children, of φιλία with our friends, and as each tether of Love is drawn in, our freedom grows ever greater. Our human nature is utterly enslaved to the power of Love: first, we were made in the image and likeness of Love, and then Love took on our very flesh and blood, and sacrificed that flesh and blood in the most profound act of Love, that in binding our souls to His, Love might free us from the depths of despair and set us high up in the heavens, in this empyrean, the mystical delight of which enthralls my entire heart, soul, mind, and strength.
+ In Christ,Nathaniel Martin Campbell On the Maundy Thursday, Anno Domini MVII
[Note: this treatise was first conceived during Holy Week 2005, almost a full year before the publication of Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est, which I commend to you all as a study of this topic that far exceeds anything I could produce.]