Ever found yourself in a discussion by which you appeal to love as your ultimate answer….and it falls flat on it’s face?
It’s kind of a sinking, agonizing feeling. The idea of taking a concept, such as love, and presenting it in a way which should tear down walls and rebuild infrastructure in any rational conversation, yet only capsizes upon departure.
Why is that? Why does Love, the most powerful substance in the world, hold little brevity in most current debates? Why does it explode from our hearts and fizzle out on our tongue? Often, those we present the notion to, step to the side, let it pass, and continue volleying their own opinions at us as though we inconvenienced them with an insignificant footnote in the conversation.
If you’ve been in this position before, it’s gut-wrenching, not only because you know you have something powerful to prove, but also, (let’s be honest), if you’ve come to a point in your discussion by which you are defending the concept of love to someone else…they are most likely an A-hole in dire need of understanding the concept (or, at very minimum, lost without it).
So, what’s happening here? Where is the major disconnect? How can we once again appeal to Love in a way that gives it latitude, longitude, and clear direction in our debates? How can we once again, “turn the lights back on” and stop fumbling through the dark?
A. Properly Define What It Is We Are Talking About.
Love, in the English language, is one of those words that gets so generically defined, it’s in danger of NOT having any definition at all.
Back in the day (as in, back in the Greek days), concepts complex as “love” had multiple words to describe them, therefore giving us the ability to reference certain facets of a many-splendored thing. When the Greeks were using words referencing love, they were getting at it’s essence, more than just it’s definition. For some, it was such a high point of philosophical thought and engagement, it was akin to the concept of God and goodness.
In modern day America, it couldn’t be more different. The word “love” is flattened by a common understanding of it being eros (erotic love), by which we place it on a pedestal above all other forms, and by which we bastardize it from a whole definition of itself.
Even worse, the word love only finds itself over-generalized and subject to the whim of those who try and use it, or deny it, according to their own opinions of it (think of words such as “art”, “science”, “goodness”, “God”, etc, which have experienced the same over-generalization). Instead of becoming a unifying beacon of thought, feeling, and philosophy, by which we all look and find common understanding together, it’s been something which most often divides us….(the cruel, cruel irony is not lost here).
WHAT IS LOVE????
**Warning, much of what I’m referencing has been HEAVILY influenced by C.S. Lewis’s THE FOUR LOVES. In fact, you might be better off reading that instead…if you haven’t already.
In the appropriately and efficiently named book, Lewis addresses the 4 main types of love we experience in everyday life and relationships, as understood in their original Greek form:
1. Storge (pronounced storgē): The bond of empathy and affection. This form of love exists in almost every relationship. It’s a natural affection and fondness for those around us based on familiarity, or proximity.
The most widely dispersed of all the forms of love, it’s not very exclusive. In fact, it’s possible to feel Storge love/affection for your pet, an animal, and possibly even an inanimate object. Therefore, given it’s widespread nature, it can come and go with quite a bit of ease….making it the most essential, yet most vaguely reliable forms of love. Lewis warns against taking it for granted, as though we might expect affection from everyone around us as an “automatic” response, when sometimes, the conditions don’t exist (aka, they are being an asshole) by which we feel storge affection for them.
Also, important side note: I’m not sure it’s possible , in the day and age of social media, to feel this form of love outside of person-to-person contact.
2. Philia: “Brotherly love”, aka love between friends.
Lewis calls this form of love a “higher” form, given it’s non-utilitarian purposes. Our evolutionary selves do not need philia love to survive or procreate (although, the more cynical might say otherwise). However, as addressed later, I’m not quite sure there is such a thing as a “higher” form of love. Yes, it’s good to occasionally emphasize one form over the other, but ultimately, getting the WHOLE picture of love involves tearing down hierarchy and rebuilding circulatory ways of seeing it (expanding more on that idea later).
Also, in Lewis’s Four Loves, he talks about philia, friendship love, not ever intending to reach eros, or the erotic. Initially, this is true. Many friends, especially bros, aren’t interested in letting their relationship get that close and personal. However, eros has a spiritual bend to it….which alters things slightly.
(Fun side note: Aristotle has some great thoughts on different depths of friendship, by which he coined the terms Friendship of Utility, Friendship of Pleasure, and Friendship of the Good. Here is a great beginning resource to learn more about them.)
3. Eros. Erotic love.
I’m tempted to wax eloquently about eros until I’ve so filled the air with noise, you wouldn’t know I changed the definition altogether in an attempt to fit it into my own intents and purposes. But I won’t. I believe many Christians have hijacked the (forthcoming) agape love and bent it towards their own definition of God’s unconditional love, and for me to do likewise with eros would be hypocritical.
But I will say this (which means I’m going to do what I just said I wasn’t going to do anyways): Scripture isn’t shy about using erotic terms, ESPECIALLY WHEN REFERRING TO GOD AND HIS/HER PEOPLE.
Whether it’s Song of Solomon (the go-to for Christians trying to justify and understand the erotic in their faith), the prophet Hosea describing Israel as the bride of God, Jesus’s reference to His followers in the parable of the betrothed 10 virgins, and especially, the final “marriage supper of the lamb” in Revelations, scripture does more than just use erotic language, it directly correlates erotic, sexual context between God’s people as a bride and God (or Christ) as groom.
“…a prophet’s quarrel with the world is deep down a lover’s quarrel…Their quarrel is God’s quarrel.” Frederick Buechner
It’s not just sex, it’s passion, intimacy, and experience. Sure, when we think of the word erotic, we think sex, but throughout history, many have found erotic fulfillment through the intimacy of their own spirituality.
To give you a rough-cut idea of history, nuns go through a mystical marriage ceremony to Christ when becoming nuns, Rumi, the Islamic mystic and poet, spent many passionate moments doing “whirling dervishes”, and writing poems consisting of lines like,
Why should I seek? I am the same as he (God, and also, very possibly, Rumi’s lover).
His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself.
Many mystics have described their relationship with God in terms that would make you blush. St. Teresa of Avila once wrote of an angel who visited her and plunged his spear into her over and over again, which sent her into painful, spiritual ecstasy.
Let me provide a little imagery to help…..
Why is all this so important? Why bridge the connection of the erotic and spiritual? Glad you asked…..eros love holds great power, both physically and spiritually, and honestly, I don’t think Lewis does the best job at helping us understand it. If anything, he takes the common path of our spiritual forefathers, by downplaying it’s impotence (*insert nervous giggles here) as opposed to exploring it’s potential.
Of course, it may seem I’m condoning a giant orgy/love-fest in the name of science, but really, it’s more important to understand the concepts and ideas behind the erotic than simply partaking in the erotic itself.
However, those who’ve put the erotic in motion (more giggling) in their own lives, as well as mystics and those who’ve experience the mystical, seem to be the most reliable source on eros love.
4. Agape: Self-sacrificing love, aka unconditional (but unconditional is not an entirely true definition).
Lewis counts this as one of the highest forms of love. While that’s true in a sense, especially since it’s the least intuitive of loves according to our biological/evolutionary coding, and the love by which many religions base themselves, it’s not the truth as it stands alone.
Many of our religious, spiritual, and philosophical forefathers saw this love as sitting on top the hierarchical pyramid. But, I really don’t see it that way. They were humans, after all, and also, ALL MEN. It’s a male tendency to see the world more black and white, compartmentalized, and in various forms of hierarchy. Typically, we like to sort things out from “highest” to “lowest” form, which automatically insinuates some things are more important than others. Lewis was guilty of the same.
As amazing thinkers as our forefathers were (many of the ancient greek philosophers were ahead of their time and displayed great skills in thinking paradoxically and in complex ways), they had their flaws…most notably, their lack of female perspective.
What does that mean? It means for centuries, humanity has been dominated by male leaders, male driven philosophies, and especially, a male driven approach. By itself, this is not all bad, except that it nixes our potential to know ourselves by ohhhhhh, I don’t know, HALF.
I’m speaking from a man’s perspective here, but there seems to be an approach that is uniquely female, by which, many hierarchical pyramids and levels of importance don’t need to exist, and a whole, “networked” picture is more preferred.
How does this effect us, and what are it’s implications? Well, for example, say we took a highly influential philosopher like, oh I don’t know, *cough *cough Plato.
This beloved philosopher (hint: it’s Plato) decides to formulate ideas about a hierarchy concerning our bodies. He tells us it’s his notion that our body is, generally speaking, a lower form of our human existence, and our souls and spirit are higher on the rung of human worthiness.
Someone picks up his idea a couple hundred years later and takes it to the next level. If our souls and bodies are higher on the pyramid, what would be so wrong with thinking of our bodies as “less than”? Why not emphasize the “higher” forms, or modes of our existence and downplay our “lower” forms. Therefore, the calculation comes out to: Human bodies = bad, they entrap our most beautiful souls. Human souls and spirits = GOOD, they are yearning to be free of their stupid cages, aka the body.
Thus enters Gnosticism, the arch enemy of early Christianity (Christ came in body and soul, and redeemed both), which has plagued Christianity ever since. (Also, a strong reason behind why Christianity has fumbled around, dodged, and downplayed sexuality and eros love throughout it’s history)….see things coming round full circle?
But, there’s still more thought to tease out of this idea….. What if someone else picks up the idea this great philosopher (*ah *hem, Plato) is throwing down, and runs with the thought that if we have “greater than” and “less than” parts of our bodies and souls, why not have “greater than”, “less than” parts of mankind, namely, man vs. woman. Certainly not an idea Plato would condemn….
What follows is a systematic and developed understanding of female being secondary on the pyramid, where male sits at the top. Certainly, this can easily be justified in the Judeo-Christian creation story, and in many of the apostle Paul’s (HEAVILY influenced by Hellenistic thought btw) writing’s in the epistles.
And as a result, we’ve now lived through a couple millennia of human history, dominated by a top down approach that’s specifically created for, by, and to all (well, at least mostly) things male.
(Side note: if you are male, most likely Caucasian, squirming in your chair, just itching to stand up and scream out “reverse discrimination”! Just sit down and chill the fuck out.
Be introspective, and listen for a change. Your sense of urgency to be right and to dominate with your opinion might be what got us here in the first place. Also, think about using your time and energy to contribute to the greater good and help us all get out of a hierarchical system, instead of trying to keep your position on the food chain. The survival of the fittest approach is what contributes to certain people groups-def not you though *cough *cough-feeling higher in their societal status and afraid of losing it. In a circular form of societal awareness, it’s possible for ALL to be working for the same good, and working towards solving the problems that inhibit us, not just you…..Random tangent ((worth the effort though)).
Point being, Agape love….NOT the highest form of love. Also, NOT unconditional love (as Lewis and many in the Christian camp have sought to make it).
Instead, what if we thought of Agape love as essential in the loop as all the other forms? If we take it out, we lose something and the circle is broken. If we leave it in, the circle continues to loop in on itself and brings us new dimension.
What if we created a diagram, which looked less like this:
And more like this:
WHY NOT THE GREATEST?
If Agape’s the greatest form of love, other forms are “less than”. They can be interpreted as expendable, useless, and/or easily manipulated. It becomes a way for us to deny love to others and make things exclusive. A conjured up fantasy of trying to reach the tallest room in the tallest tower of the highest castle. An illusionary quest for an illusionary princess waiting for an illusionary kiss. With ease, agape love then becomes something you obtain (or inherit), rather than something we (notice the first person pronoun shift) have on the inside, which may have existed all along, yet has never been realized.
Sure, understanding and striving for Agape love in your life is hard work, certainly much harder than storge, for example. But that doesn’t necessarily make the case for it being the greatest of all forms of love.
When it exists in the circle, there’s reciprocating motion, not upward striving. All things are seen as linked together in a chain of events and relationships, and if you take one piece out, the chain is broken, blocking our ability to fully understand all other forms, and therefore, blinding us from the entire reflection we long to see in the mirror.
WHY NOT UNCONDITIONAL?
Time and time again, agape love has been co-opted as being an unconditional love, both by God towards man, and by man towards God. This started early in Christianity’s history, with the consistent pandering to Greco-Roman culture, in an attempt to make Christian belief’s more enticing to the philosophies and beliefs of the time. It was a noble cause, but possibly came at a price….
Unconditional Love is exactly that….love without any condition attached to it. When we see agape love as more than “self sacrificing”, but as unconditional, it becomes dangerous. Here’s how:
Say, for instance, you have a wife, or child, or both, getting abused (verbally, sexually, physically, etc.) by their own husband/father. What is unconditional love in this scenario? If we simply define it as “self sacrificing”, agape love, it only takes a slight of the hand to turn the word agape into a trite reason for allowing the victim to stay in their toxic and destructive circumstances…all based on their virtue of “self sacrifice”.
But, I digress, let’s dial down the example a little and say a woman is married to a man, but this man has a hard time with power issues. He power-plays, angles, gaslights, slightly manipulates, etc. in order to insure he is always holding the upper hand. Surely, not every man acts this way (you could easily flip genders in this example), however, all this behavior leads to a power grabbing spouse who is possibly an unpredictable mix of angel and asshole.
In this example, what is the other spouse to do? Love them unconditionally? What if both spouses believe in a God who loves unconditionally….how are they able to love unconditionally just like God does?
The answer? THEY’RE NOT.
Unconditional love can only be realized by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, benevolent entity….humans were never made to obtain it, only journey towards it. This is what makes it such a beautiful, humble concept. It’s not a fixed, static goal we are shooting for, but a living, breathing connection to a God who love’s us so passionately, He would sacrifice His own life for us, without any retribution in return.
As a result, we are only “shadowing”, or “emulating” the unconditional love we see in God. It’s a light on our path and a guide to our feet. As non-omnipotent, non-omniscient, non-transcendent, and sometimes just nasty, no good seekers of malevolence, it is not within our grasp (nor should be) to arrive at unconditional love, only journey towards it.
And what a blessed journey it is, every step of the way and through every failure, we learn what we are not, and what love is….with grace, empowerment, and tender-loving compassion guiding us through it all. All our lifetime couldn’t teach us everything we need to know of unconditional love, and what we do learn, goes from being simple knowledge, to inherited and well-deserved wisdom. The paradigm shifts, and instead of looking at agape love as anything more than the ability to self sacrifice, or freely offer up our will, we see the whole picture instead:
All four loves, moving towards a common goal. With unconditional love in the middle, a portal opens and we see deep into the infinite. If love was a natural resource, it would be upgraded from “scarce” to “abundance for all”.
The possibilities are endless: When loving my wife, I love her in a way by which all four loves, friendship (philia), storge (affection), eros (erotic), and agape (self sacrificing) are working in conjunction with each other. I’m not always striving to be one of those loves, and one of those loves only (looking at the “agape is the highest form of love” people right now), but all of them, when I precisely need to be. I see my wife as friend, lover, someone I feel affection for, and the one I serve. If she were only the one I serve, without the others to balance it out…we’d be headed for burn out, and lots of therapy.
Even more, if you give me a hall pass (even though I think I have a pretty convincing argument for it), and allow eros to be the erotic, AND intimate and spiritual….I can apply this holistic concept to all other relationships in life. I now have the capacity to love my kids, mentors, friends, community members, etc. in a way that embodies self sacrifice, passion and/or spirituality, friendship, and affection for.
Still not done yet though. When unconditional love sits in the middle of all our intention, it gives us capacity to apply all four loves to the people we’re NOT intrinsically drawn to love. My boss, that big jerk next door, the shithead who cut me off on my morning commute….all are able to be loved, and loved in full capacity when the terms become unconditional. Love no longer is blind, but fully seen, and infinitely applied to all those willing to receive it. The debate shifts from “what is love???”, to “what is the most loving definition to apply in our context?” with agape, storge, eros, and philia all sitting as goal posts within our debate. The discussion shifts from a question of equality, to one of equity,
And finally, we are not left in the dark, without a flashlight and a compass to point us home. When benevolence is our centering point, lawmaking becomes prudent, government works, neighborhood’s become safer, society thrives, philosophical debate becomes non-combatant, conflicts often get resolved, and people just start treating each other down right nicer.