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What is love?

Anna Krestyn - published on 02/28/13

Scripture teaches us that God himself is love

“Love” – it is a word that is so used (and misused) that it can seem difficult to define with any sense of objectivity. For instance, we might talk about love of family, spouse, friends, or the poor, yet somehow, we can just as easily turn our discussion to our love for iPhones and doughnuts.

The ancient Greeks came up with four words for love: storge (affection, as for one’s family), philia (friendship, forged by the bond of likeness between persons), eros (the passionate longing for another, the desire to be united with a good perceived, most easily seen in human relationships in the form of sexual attraction), and agape (charity, or the selfless orientation toward another which enables one to make a complete gift of self).

The Bible certainly places a great value on love: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13: 1); “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40).

The Catechism echoes St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor of the Church: “To love is to will the good of another” (1766).

Yet while the Christian faith is replete with references to love, the corruption of the concept of “love” since the days of the Enlightenment has poisoned the way of true human love by stifling freedom and erecting a multitude of prohibitions against it.

Is this a fair view? Among these many pronouncements about love, is there one single thread that constitutes a definition?

Jesus Christ Reveals the True Nature of Love

It seems fitting to revisit, at this time, one of the most beautiful accounts the Church has given of the true nature of love. Benedict XVI, in the first encyclical of his pontificate, Deus Caritas Est, offers us a starting point: “Jesus’ death on the cross … is love in its most radical form … It is from there that our definition of love must begin.”

How does the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross shed light on the meaning of human love? How do we get from our normal human desire for closeness to a member of the opposite sex, for example, to Jesus on the cross?

It is, first of all, impossible to talk about human love without talking about God.  “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn. 4:16). In these words, says Benedict, we find “the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny.” God is love; we are made in his image and called to love as he has loved us. This confirms what most of us know on some level already: that love is integral to the human person.

Benedict explains that the “four loves,” as conceived of by the ancient Greeks, are aspects of a single reality with different dimensions. He goes on, though, to caution that misunderstanding of how some of these expressions relate can lead to a distorted view of love.

The Redemption of eros

Most people’s instinctive definition of “true love” probably aligns most closely with eros, the intense longing for another that characterizes the romantic love between a man and woman. Its passion and depth seem to point to the very essence of love. This kind of love gets plenty of attention in popular culture. In pre-Christian times, eros was raised to the status of an idol, which found expression in sacred prostitution in the pagan temples as a way to connect with its “divine madness.” This, says Benedict, was a “warped and destructive form” of eros which actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it, driving the person to use others rather than to seek authentic communion with them, which is the only thing worthy of human persons.

The Bible does not use the word eros very often – twice in the Old Testament and never in the New. “The tendency to avoid the word eros, together with the new vision of love expressed through the word agape, clearly point to something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love.”

He goes on to say that “purification and growth in maturity are called for” in the perfecting of eros; far from rejecting or ‘poisoning’ eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur.”

Benedict points to the Song of Songs for the first indication of authentic eros, telling us that “according to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love songs … By contrast with an indeterminate, ‘searching’ love, ahabà, which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar sounding agape, expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: It becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”

In other words, this new love, agape, far from poisoning human love, saves it by opening it up to the whole of man’s existence, which includes his call to emerge from his self-centeredness and seek the good of the beloved. In this way, love is “indeed an ‘ecstasy,’” not as a madness or intoxication, but as a journey “out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.”  

Jesus Christ, who walked this path before us through the cross to the Resurrection, shows us the way of true love. This love of God for man is eros, a personal love which seeks him out, but it is also fully agape, because it seeks his good, his complete healing. “‘Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Lk. 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt. 10:39; 16:25; Mk. 8:35; Lk. 9:24; Jn. 12:25). Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfillment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.”

The Christian Teaching on Love Finds Points of Contact with the Human Experience

So, when we reflect on whether the message of love proclaimed to us by the Bible and the Church’s tradition ring true with the common human experience of love, we find that human love cannot survive without being raised up by the divine, and that we need Jesus – the Word made flesh – to show us how this happens. The love Jesus shows is the perfect unity of both eros and agape, which can “never be completely separated; the more they, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized.”

Eros, at first self-seeking, becomes increasingly less focused on the self and ever more seeks the happiness of the other, always in search of ways to give the self to the other. In this way, agape enters and redeems eros. On the other hand, says Benedict, man cannot be fulfilled through self-giving love alone; he was made to receive love as well as to give it, and he cannot live without love received – a Love given to us as a pure gift from God through the pierced heart of Jesus Christ.

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