There are some things out there in the universe that are nigh near impossible to define: what exactly God is, the concept of infinity (and hence the first thing on the list), the limit of y = 1 over x as x approaches 0. . . what women want. Now, in this realm of undefined, ambiguous notions consider this simple yet puzzling statement: “God is Love.” In Kurt Vonnegut’s much acclaimed and much beloved (by me not the least) novel Cat’s Cradle, this statement earns the following response from Dr. Hoenikker, an eccentric scientist who is every bit as difficult to quantify as the aforementioned phrase: “What is God? What is love?”
For a while there, in my ongoing struggle to answer both of the questions that Dr. Hoenikker poses, I thought outright that love didn’t exist. Now, please allow me to be more specific. Of course I knew that people said that they loved each other, and I knew that I cared deeply and passionately about the members of my family and about certain concepts, God among them, but I had a great difficulty saying that romantic love was anything at all like what we understand it to be.
I think one of the greatest difficulties in my search and with the idea of love in general, is that the English language possesses a woefully inadequate supply of words to differentiate between the varieties of love that we feel, and within the wide network of things that this English term love attempts to define, it impoverishes itself, being neither specific enough nor broad enough to define any idea well. In an essay aptly titled “Love,” published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosopher Bennett Helm wrestles with the homonymic quality of love, stretching from this single word various emotions and expressions tagged with designating adjectives like “philial,” “erotic” or “erosic,” “platonic,” and “value-ascribing.” I think that Helm is of the same mind as me in wishing that English could be more like Greek, with its cleanly separated terms for the various powers pulsing through our bodies that often fall under the blanket term of “love;” words like eros, agape, and philia; and in Latin, amor, amicitia, and the theologically powerful caritas. In Russian, I’ve been told, there are some seven words for love, among them любовь (Ee-yoo-beet) which can be translated as the “flame of love.” Yet, in English we are left with the plainly powerful, painfully imprecise word “love.”
The Confusion: This Love (Is Takin’ Its Toll on Me)
Love’s ambiguity wasn’t really my basis for denying its existence, though. That would be, I suppose, rather like claiming that blue isn’t a color because there are too many dissimilar shades of it. The problem for me is that I couldn’t understand how love, especially romantic love, was anything more than just a combination of a few other basic emotions. For example, it seems that love, with all of its psychological attachment and clinginess, is no more than an exaggerated friendship. What factors make it anything otherwise, anything more than another very strong human relationship? On the other hand, I couldn’t understand how romantic love was anything more than the clinginess of friendship with the addition of sexuality. But if love can be so easily conceptualized as an admixture of other more basic traits, then where is its essential power? If love really is an all-powerful, subsuming essence of life, then it shouldn’t be so easily reducible. If anything, other things (sexuality, friendship) should reduce to it. Otherwise, love is not really an essence of life at all but a confused product of more basic forces.
Important Questions: What Is Love? (Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no mo’)
From this state of confusion, I want to explore several questions about love, namely:
(1) Is love an essential force that cannot be reduced?
(2) Does romantic love exist independently from sexuality, that is, is romantic love autonomous?
(3) If romantic love is NOT autonomous and necessarily relates to sexuality, are our romantic interactions anything more than evolutionarily determined mating practices?
(4) Is love a transcendent experience, and, if so, how can this help us to understand God?
Finally, I want to extend this question as a source of reflection:
(5) What do you mean by love?
Love as “Essence”: All You Need Is Love
Before delving into whether or not love is an irreducible “essence,” I think I ought to identify what I mean by love. Colloquially, love is understood to be felt through a physical sensation—a warmth in the chest when someone is present, an emptiness when that someone is gone. Yet, the reasons why one feels these sensations ought to be part of the definition as well. For these, I turn to the three Greek terms eros, agape, and philia.
Eros arises from passion and desire, usually in a sexual sense, though Socrates sees this desire reaching further, as Helm explains: “Socrates understands sexual desire to be a deficient response to physical beauty in particular, a response which ought to be developed into a response to the beauty of a person’s soul and, ultimately, into a response to the form, Beauty.” In this case, the desire is for more than a person’s body, as the real desire is directed toward the ideal Beauty that manifests itself in that person. Eros, then, is a very visceral response to beauty, a desire to be close to it.
Philia, on the other hand, is a friendly affection or appreciation, the sort of warmth one feels when in the company of one’s best buds. But this feeling of love also extends to the love one may have of one’s community or country at large—it’s the appreciation that says, “that’s what I’m all about, or I can get behind that!” as well as “I’ve got your back, or you can count on me!” In this way, philia is derived from a sharing of ideals or interests—the camaraderie to eros’s companionship. Philia—it’s about friends coming together.
Finally, agape is the unconditional love of God for humanity and humanity for God, as well as a general love for all humanity, a kind of brotherly love. Helm describes agape as “’spontaneous and unmotivated,’ revealing not that we merit that love but that God’s nature is love.” Unlike philia, the love of agape is not built on shared ideals; rather, it is a love that God naturally has for us and that we in turn have for God and each other. In this sense, caritas is very much the Latin analogue of agape—it’s about moving beyond yourself, toward God and your fellow human beings.
These three terms describe different sources of love—beauty, friendship, God and neighbor. But these are all different kinds of love, not what love actually is. The similarities among them, then, should define what love is at its essence. As I see it, the main similarity is an individual’s deep, necessary (innate) attraction to something beyond oneself—to an ideal, a person, or a deity—that produces a pure and guiltless happiness that comes from making one feel whole.
The French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes about love in a very similar way. For him, love is a cosmic power that overwhelms the world, that traces back to the most primitive of interactions at the molecular level which gain sophistication in the interactions of living things. In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard writes of love,
“It is a general property of all life and as such it embraces, in its varieties and degrees, all the forms successively adopted by organized matter.” (81-2)
As a “general property of al life,” Teilhard is answering our first question in the affirmative—love is an essential force that is not constructed of other concepts like friendship or sexuality. In fact, sexuality and friendship and even kindness seem to require love as a base. Teilhard also affirms the idea that love works toward completeness:
“Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.” (85-6)
Here, Teilhard explains that living beings actually need love to be complete, that without it, one is deficient. Pursuing excellence, looking for a spouse, working toward a successful career—all of this requires love, an inborn desire to move beyond yourself toward fulfillment, which will bring happiness and wholeness. Teilhard’s emphasis on the necessity of love reminds me a lot of 1 Corinthians 13, which Noah discussed in a previous blog post:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13: 1-7)
This passage does two very important things in defining love’s essence; the first three verses emphasize the necessity of love, and the next four give some hints of what love is and is not—kind, not envious; trusting, not recording of wrongs; joyfully truthful, not delightfully evil. These distinctions will be important later when sexuality and love is discussed. For now, I think maybe the Beatles were right to sing that “all you need is love,” for with love as an essential force one can channel a benevolent mindset that, when followed, leads us on the path to happiness.
Romance v. Sexuality: What’s Love Got to Do with It?
Let’s assume that Teilhard is right about love: it is this essential force that leads us to fulfillment, manifested in our attraction toward things outside ourselves and our immediate needs, through agape or philia or eros. But if we define love, the basic all-across-the-board love, in that way, what does that make romantic love, the makes-your-heart-race kind of love that is normally implied when someone says the word “love”? Is romantic love just a fulfilling experience that integrates sexuality? Or is there something else to it? Cue question (2).
A few months ago, I had a long, long conversation with a few friends about this very question. What we ended up with were two proposed models for how friendship, romance, and sexuality relate.
In the first model, romance is a sort of intermediary stage between friendship and sexuality, the ultimate end of which is sexual interaction. The friendship doesn’t necessarily go away when romance begins, nor does romance end when sexuality begins; rather, they built off of each other, the friendship and romance sustained throughout. This seems to be more or less the kind of linear model bought into by romantic comedies and other media. It’s simple; it works. But is it right? Keep in mind that if romance is all that romantic love is, then romantic love yields to sexuality later down the line. Or, if this entire arrow scheme is all that romantic love is, then sexuality subordinates romantic love—it’s all just part of the sexual cycle. Any romantic relationship that isn’t tending toward sexual expression, by this logic, is incomplete. I, for one, hope that there’s more to it than that.
The second model, on the other hand, grants autonomy to all three ideas (friendship, romance, and sexuality) in classic Venn diagram shape. In fact, the linear model can be seen as a route through this diagram, as seen below.
That’s all fine and dandy, but what does each section mean? Where does romantic love fit in? The all green friendship section is easy enough—it’s a (friend)zone where you aren’t interested in someone as a sexual or romantic partner (maybe philia fits here). The pink section, then, is the voracious and licentious zone of loveless one-night-stands and unfriendly sexual favors (unless one can go straight to loving someone without friendship or romance [even love-at-first-sight requires some courtship before sexual interaction, right?]). The blue section might be reserved for someone met through speed dating or some other process that circumvents friendship and goes straight to courtship. The overlapping sections, though, are more difficult to quantify: the section between friendship and sexuality might be friends with benefits; the one between romance and friendship, a celibate relationship; the one between romance and sexuality, a sexually active relationship between two people who are not friendly toward one another. The center section is a synthesis of all three, perhaps a functional marriage in which the pair can confide in one another as friends.
But this diagram leaves us with a lot of questions. What differentiates romantic actions from sexual ones? One could just say that sexuality includes all sexual interactions, and romance is the sort of innocent lovey-dovey stuff and walks on the beach. But usually, these two are conflated. People don’t usually act romantically toward someone whom they are not interested in being sexual with potentially down the road. Still, there are certainly people who date without the prospect of sex entering into the picture until after marriage. But, even then, if one dates just to find a marital partner, isn’t sexuality still the end goal that subordinates romance?
Where, then, is romantic love? Is it autonomous? Maybe. Perhaps there are aspects that make romantic love more than just friendship + sexuality.
For example, Helm cites an argument from a R.C. Solomon who defines romantic love in terms of union: “Love is the concentration and the intensive focus of mutual definition on a single individual, subjecting virtually every personal aspect of one’s self to this process.” This means that two romantically engaged people work toward forming a shared identity for themselves that includes similar interests, life goals, etc. Sounds a lot like Genesis 2:24:
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Another view is that romantic love is an expression of a robust concern for another person’s well-being. However, this could also be applied to a friend or a child just as well. Maybe romantic love involves a deeper level of trust and reliance towards one’s beloved. In this case, the difference between romantic love and friendship or philial love is one of degrees, not kinds. You trust your beloved as you do your friend, only more so. You care about your beloved’s well-being as you do your friend’s, only more so. But this means that romantic love isn’t autonomous from friendship. In order for it to be autonomous in and of itself, it would need some other aspect, but if that aspect were sexuality, then it would not be autonomous from sexuality. Is that a problem?
Maybe. If romantic love is all about sex, then why wait until marriage to have sex? Maybe the union or the commitment is important. Either way, the thought that I HAVE to reject is that sex = love, a horrible misnomer with we are barraged by popular songs and movies. This is precisely why I can’t bring myself to use the euphemism “make love” to describe sex, as if the sexual act were somehow what allows a couple to love each other. Liberated, bare-naked sex is not enough to constitute romantic love. Nor do I personally think that it is a necessary condition for it (i.e. friendship + sex ≠ romantic love). There’s a great line about the relation of sex and love in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a war novel with a love story woven grittily into its pages. A priest opines to Mr. Henry, an American ambulance driver in the Italian army, concerning the latter’s sexual encounters with Italy’s finest harlots:
“What you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.” (72).
This attitude of self-sacrifice exemplifies the Christian understanding of love (caritas) which I’ll discuss later. For now, let’s assume (against my will) that romantic love is not autonomous, that its definition depends on sexuality.
My Chemical Romance
Several years ago I was sitting alongside a river in Germany. The stars spanned across the firmament of the heavens. The air was cool. My friend, however, was not feeling so tranquil. He was confused about love, much as I am. “How can love be real,” he lamented, “if it’s just chemical interactions in our bodies? How can it be important if it’s just our drive to pass on our genes?” At the time, I responded that just knowing how something works chemically ought not to deprive it of meaning. One can know that water droplets adhere to one another through hydrogen bonding and still be astounding when they defy gravity by flowing along the bottom of one’s outstretched arm. Yet, I am still troubled by my friend’s lamentation. If romantic love and sex are ultimately just about passing on genes, microscopic collections of DNA that may play a very, very big part in who we are, how we behave, and each choice that we make, what room is there to be in awe of someone you love romantically? If all those warm and romantic feelings can just be reduced to “Wow, I like your genes,” what more is there to it? The whole mating process seems completely indifferent to the love between to people, unfortunately meaningless. (That’s one interpretation.)
As it turns out, the neuroscience of attraction and affection are rather interesting and perhaps meaningful. Hormones, as many of us know, are involved in sexual development and attraction, testosterone being the big one for men (increasing aggression, for example) and estrogen playing an important role for women. Pheromones are another chemical indicator, communicating messages outside of the body, especially in various insects to direct social and sexual behavior (seen in chemical trails left by ants).
Several neurochemicals receive a lot of attention in human attraction and sexuality. Scientists tend to divide the chemicals into two groups—those that cause attraction and those that cause attachment. Oxytocin, known as the “human super glue” creates powerful attachment between two individuals and is released during intense physical contact of the sexual kind. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are present at higher levels during the attraction phase of a relationship. Serotonin, in particular, is linked to obsessive thoughts about a potential mate. In addition to indicating attraction, dopamine also induces pleasure though a neurological “reward” system: like giving a dog a treat for rolling over, our brains produce dopamine to reinforce certain behaviors.
That’s all very interesting, but what does that tell us about love besides how bodily chemicals are involved? As I told my friend, knowing how something happens doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, it seems to make it more real. Similar chemical processes are involved in other sensations, such as a baby bonding with its mother. The chemical understanding of love seems only to reinforce the idea that it’s all very complicated. What’s more, the differences between chemicals that produce attachment and those that produce lust (as well as those released during sex) indicate that the sensations of being in love vs. infatuation vs. lust are all quite unique. If different chemicals cause these sensations, then there ought to be a perceivable difference between feeling infatuated and “the real deal.” Certainly, there is still room for transcendent experience.
Beyond the Sensual Body: Transcendent Love
If romantic love’s definition is dependent on sexuality, that doesn’t mean that people are just evolutionary automatons attempting to pass on their genes—there’s much more than that (many people deliberate prevent the passing on of genes through the sexual act in the modern age of sexual liberation). Yet, defining love just on a basis of sexuality seems to dampen it. Why is there a need for all of the ceremony and dating rituals if it all comes down to a moment of passion? Doesn’t romance possess an intrinsic worth? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy seems to think so. Therein romantic love is honored with a grace mightier than mere sensuality. The romantic love of medieval knights and damsels, for instance, transcended desire and “theoretically was not to be consummated, for such love was transcendentally motivated by a deep respect for the lady.” This understanding of romantic love harkens back to Plato’s writings of Socrates, in which a beauty beyond the body was the real desire of eros.
By most any account, those who have experienced what they feel to be romantic love regard it as a very powerful experience, one that cannot so easily be dismissed. There is something about it that is elevating and fulfilling. This understanding of love from a Christian sense.
Christian teaching frequently uses the rhetoric of love. As mentioned previously, this kind of love does not entail the erotic passion of eros but the unconditional devotion of agape or caritas. It is a love made dually powerful through its assurance that God will always present us with the offer of love and its notion of commitment to something far greater than ourselves. This is not a simple Valentine’s Day affection. This is determined commitment to servitude, something “you wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve” as Hemingway’s priest says. If Teilhard is correct in thinking that this fulfilling force of love pervades the universe, then encountering God’s rejuvenating, fulfilling love should be as simple as acting on this desire to extend beyond ourselves–to transcend and produce happiness. Hence, Christ issues his two most important commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”(Mark 12:30) and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31). How does one do that, you may ask? Return to 1 Corinthians 13 and its definition of love: patient, kind, not boastful. This behavior often involves sacrifice; indeed, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross demonstrates the will do take on the burden of all wrongdoings to grant as all another chance to love each other more fully. That’s a love that perseveres always. This behavior, Teilhard feels, will bring humanity to its Omega point, that is, toward union with God.
There’s a great scene in Cat’s Cradle where sex is shown to be subordinate to other forms of bonding. The protagonist ends up on this island where many inhabitants secretly practice a cultic religion called Bokononism, the main holy rite of which is placing the soles of your feet against the soles of another person’s feet and reciting a chant. There is a beautiful woman in the novel who is not at all interested in sex–she just cares about this rite. Placing the soles together to form one soul, to create companionship–this dyadic bonding is more important to her than intense physical pleasure. And now that I think about it, this is what really sets romantic love apart. A strong bond between two people to form a singular “we.”
I’m not going to pretend to understand love all that well. It’s not my story to tell. But I think that there is a lot more to it than kissing and physical contact or sappy terms of endearment. I approach love like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart approaches obscenity: I know it when I see it. Or in this case, if I feel it. For now, I’m going to go listen to all of the songs linked in the subheading of this post. To me, it seems like love in its totality transcends all definitions but this: Love, like God, is something that is only known when experienced. God is love.
Cum Caritas (with the love that God has for each person, and which each person is, in turn, called to have toward God and each other),