My Dear Readers,
Recently, for various reasons, I began to consider the meaning of love. What is love? I don’t think there is a quality in the world so misunderstood as love. I don’t quite understand it myself. It’s very puzzling for all of us, and this is my best attempt at an answer. So before saying anything else, if it is of no help to you, just ignore me. I am only a young man. I am only trying to put together what I am learning.
Thus said, I do think that whatever differing ideas we have about love, we may all agree that love is inherently good. But then we are still left with the question, what makes love good? What makes love, well, love?
In my own generation, love is an emotion. It is the good or exciting feeling about something or someone. It can be romantic or a strong bond between friends. If you ask anyone in the Victorian Era of the 19th century, their idea of love is probably that love is to do one’s duty. If you ask the ancient Greeks, love is sexual. In every era, there is a different definition, or at least a different emphasis, of love.
Many times, I’ve asked myself what love is. I’ve asked very wise people. I’ve turned to Scripture, which often describes love apophatically, i.e., telling us what love is not. I’ve turned to other books. The consensus is usually that there are many things love is not, but very few touch on what love is. When love is given a definition, the definition falls short. And yet, when one experiences love, one knows exactly what it is. It wasn’t until recently that I really began to understand why.
Love: Energy, Feeling, or Concept?
The truth is that love cannot be described. Love is best when incarnated and experienced. The word “incarnate” has a stigma against it because it always seems to have a voodoo religious connotation. Indeed, when we say that Christ our God became Man, that was an “Incarnation.” The Hindus refer to reincarnation: when one dies, his soul inhabits another body. The common thread is that the word “incarnation” means that a spirit or soul become flesh. In other words, to be incarnate means to have a real body.
If I say love is better incarnated, this means that love needs to be embodied. It needs a body. Love must be a real person. I don’t think it can be otherwise. People today think of love as an energy, a feeling, or a concept. An energy, or a force, is vague. It may be experienced by some, but not by others. It may not even exist at all, except within our own selves.
Thus, it may be only a feeling. If love is a feeling, then love is unreliable and probably best left alone. Feelings come and feelings go, and what people feel may mean different things. This bleeds into love as concept.
Love as concept tends I think to ascribe certain traits to love: is it happiness? Is it affection? Erotic attraction? Even hatred might be love, for we often hate something on behalf of the thing we love. You see, if love is a concept, then love fails. It fails because it isn’t true. There is no one such thing as love, and the concepts are intertwined with feelings. They are only temporary. Saying “I love you” or “I love this” would have no gravity, which would make it untrue.
Love as a Person
Love must therefore be incarnate. It must be a person. A person can be rejected, but a person’s existence cannot be denied. A person is real and must be reckoned with. If love is an energy, a feeling, or a concept, no response is necessary. If love is a person, then true love exists. It is constant, it is in the flesh, and we must respond to it.
What I’m about to say may be the most difficult for me to speak on (I am not married, and therefore not an authority), but it seems to me that erotic attraction may in fact be the closest “feeling” to being real love. In order to actually fulfill it, there is a real, definable act. One must do something with another person, in this case to have sexual relations, in order for it to be complete. And in fact, it may be said that in its purest sense, erotic love is perhaps the best expression of love ever to have existed.
This may sound very strange to say. Even reading it, I don’t like it much. Is love sex? That is not what I mean. Why then do I think it the “best expression?” The first reason, from a Christian perspective, is that God created it. The first love ever held between two humans was erotic. God created Man, male and female, to share an intimacy with each other that was not wholly unlike the love shared between the three Persons of the Trinity.
In every way, we see it: the Father loves the Son, and commands an inheritance for Him (Psalms 2:7-8, Nicene Creed), which is in turn cocreated by the Son (John 1:1-3) and the Spirit (Genesis 1:2). And the Spirit gives life to the world (Genesis 2:7, Creed).
In erotic love there naturally must be two people involved. Here is perhaps the only perfect example on earth of a kind of love that cannot be done alone. And if erotic love is to be successful, it necessarily involves self-sacrifice and selflessness. It has to first care about something other than sex: it must attend to the person. One can have (and many do, sadly) sex without intimacy, but that is not love. That is taking what one wants for one’s own self. Yet even this sorry thing requires two people. Real love gives the self up to another.
In this sense, sex is only the culmination of a true relationship, and it, like God’s love, has an inheritance: children. In order to care for children, to nurture them, to raise them up, one must be selfless. One must love the personhood of the child.
Friendship can mirror this as well in that in order to be a friend, one must again love outside of oneself. He or she must find enjoyment and have concern for the other person. Even here, if love is merely an idea or a feeling, one begins to focus solely on how nice it feels to himself. And it again becomes selfish. It is only by seeing the person for the person’s sake can love be true.
In each of these: the marital union of man and woman, child-rearing, friendship, there is a true fulfillment of the three “loves” described earlier. I think my generation does have something in that love has emotion. It is not an emotion, but it has it. Properly purified, it becomes commitment until eventually we recognize that “feeling” no longer matters. The person or persons we commit to matter. Naturally, this must mean the Victorians also got it right when they said that love is doing one’s duty.
And I believe the Greeks had something right about sexual love. Here, intimacy is required, friendship is perfected, and child-rearing can be done. There could be no friends or children were not marital unions established first. Before we can do any of those things, we need people. Persons. I think this may be precisely why all the books and theories and definitions on love fall short: It is because love is no abstract theory or idea to be defined. Love is real. Love is incarnate. Love is a person. It may only be energy, a feeling, or an idea if it is first incarnate and personal.
Our Mired Love
Of course, we are inevitably faced with answering the question, “What happens when a person fails to love?” A person can and will do terrible things. I do not show myself to be love if I do you an evil turn. I present myself as an incarnation of evil. If I do well by you, then I am an incarnation of love. But this means that even personhood inconsistent if people cannot be relied upon. Is love not a reality, then?
As I said before, it is easy to know love when one experiences it. It is easy to know what it is when a person is loving you. Whatever action causes someone to need forgiveness, that action was not one of love, otherwise no forgiveness would have been necessary. And worse, sometimes people may never forgive.
If we are our standard for love, then we are poor examples. Time after time we say “I love you” to the same person we snubbed earlier. “I love you,” I say, a little while after a heated argument where I called you many nasty things. In the case of erotic love, as we have been talking, how many times have we all failed? “Hookup culture” has taken its hold for the long run already. This is where I think my generation (and a great many others) gets it wrong. We are persons, but we are fallen persons, and we are often swayed by feelings or concepts rather than being their masters.
Our standards must rise higher. Love must be a Person, or Persons. This we call the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. The love of the Triune God, each Person for each Person, needed no incarnation, Divine love didn’t need flesh. We are beings. God is Being beyond Being and His love needs for nothing.
Yet, it was His love that He incarnated many times over. This we call Creation. Love took physical form in the crafting of the stars and space, the land and sea, trees and vegetation, animals, and finally, most importantly, Man. Male and female became the Image of God, with Divine light watching over them day and night.
Then the first man and his wife fell into the temptation of the devil; failing to obey Our Lord, they lost Divine protection. Defiled, they could no longer look upon the face of God and live. Their creation had been caused by an outpouring of God’s love. As incarnations of love, they chose to be incarnations of sin and death. Their goodness was distorted and mired by wickedness, and their children took after them. From this came the sins we know today.
We are inconsistent in our love because we have all learned from this moment. The first parents sinned, taught the same to their children, and their children taught theirs, and today, we are so mired in sin that it is oftentimes difficult to tell the difference between love and sin. We can hate with a fury and pretend to love, we can sin against each other many times and yet say we love. When we do that, do we not make ourselves hypocrites and liars? So we are unreliable. What is the higher standard?
The Incarnation Above all Incarnations
Our standard of love would necessisarily be a perfect Person. This Person must be untouched by sin. He may relate to us, but He does not sin with us. He is an Incarnation of love, but His is an Incarnation above all incarnations. When we Christians refer to God becoming Man, this is what we mean: The Father sent His Son to become Man; because of this Incarnation, mankind could look upon the face of God once more.
Christ was under no obligation to become incarnate in the flesh, but by doing so, He communicated the love of God to the human race. Men and women could once again have a relationship with God because He lived among us as one of us. He healed the sick, raised the dead, forgave sinners. Finally, He suffered death on a Cross, repairing the broken relationship with mankind and God. Thus, we may all look to Christ, take up our own crosses, and follow Him. Perfection and perfect love does not depend on us, but upon Christ. In defeating death by death, Our Lord restored us to Himself, so that all who believe in Him would have eternal life.
This is where I believe real love can be found: Christ our God is the perfect Person, love incarnate. It is because of Him that we may approach the throne of God and ask forgiveness for our sins, and it is because of Christ that we may forgive each other. You and I cannot love each other perfectly, but just like Christ forgave our sins to restore the relationship we have with Him, so we may restore our own relationships with one another.
Our love for one another is not perfect because of our sin, but we are still the Image of God. Our love is not God, but it is a signpost of the love that God gives. When we show love to others, we show the love of Our Lord to them. And because we can forgive each other as Our Lord forgave us, our love is true. True love passes over all wrongs. Returning once again to love as duty, I can only say that if we love at all, I believe the best way is to love as Christ loved, to forgive as Christ forgave, so that one day we may enter together into eternal bliss, into that intimate and personal love, with our Lord Jesus Christ unto life everlasting, together with His Father and the Holy Spirit.
Until next time, I bid you,