What is love anyway?

All through my PhD I had the same song running through my head. Unless you are a teen-child of the 80s you may not know it, and if you do, it’ll already be playing through your head! Howard Jones, ‘What is love’?

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click to go through to youtube for this piece of 80s gold!

 

‘What is lo o o o o love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?’

It’s the question that arises when relationships turn to shit (excuse the language, but when relationships go this way only extreme language seems adequate). Did he ever love me? Did I make it all up? Is she even capable of love? What the f*&k is love anyway?

Whilst this seems to be an inevitable part of life, it is a problem for Christian theology. For love is inextricably central to theology – as Saint Augustine said, ‘if anyone cannot love God and neighbour-as-self by his understanding of Scripture, then (s)he has not yet understood them correctly.’ If Christian theology cannot be described as loving, then it cannot be Christian! Systematic thinking about God-who-is-love (1 John 4) and the Christ who was sent into the world because of love (John 3), cannot be anything but love, if it is speaking truthfully about its theos.

So, what the heck is a Christian theologian to do, when they are in those moments of life singing Howard Jones into a handkerchief?

This question was the driver behind 4 years of full-time theological research. It resulted in a proposal for understanding the function of the ‘what the f*&k’ stage in the normative human process of change, of growing up. A crisis of love is no cause to give up on love, only an opportunity (painful as it can be) to reassess our assumptions about love. What is love, anyway?

For love cannot be contained by human thinking, not even theological thinking. Love is a concept that cannot ever be fully spoken  or written or imaged or drawn or described by any human means. Poets and artists do the best when they evoke a sense of love which we can feel in our bodies and the centre of our being, remembering the energetic throb of the experience beyond words.

Furthermore, love cannot be contained in any one relationship, connection or context. Love can arise between a parent and child, in friendships, sexually charged relationships, and – I would argue – between a person and material things or ideas and imaginations that they passionate about! We need all of these in our lives and more – just one love is never enough! Many people point out that there is only one word in the English language for love, although it is describing a whole range of different experiences. I think that is an advantage rather than a problem – for love should be understood as a concept that has a family of meanings (Wittgenstein’s family resemblance concept of words) each one displaying a family resemblance but with particular expressions in each instance.

What resulted from my pondering of love as a key concept in Christian theology, and forgive me if this leap is too long here in this instance, is that love requires a great generosity on our part. Each and every time love is evoked, it has the capacity to take us beyond itself, into the heart of the family, toward the fountain of love at its source. Plato suggested that when we reach perplexity of intellectual knowing (aporia) we simply step over the thresh-hold of our limited understanding into a different kind of knowledge, perhaps hidden to scientific rationality, but by no means hidden to the priests and poets (says Plato). We enter into an ‘open-space’ of knowing where it is possible to encounter love – and God – beyond human form.

This gives a Christian theologian enormous freedom in the current climate of cultural change, where the established norms, forms and institutions of love are in radical transition. There is no need to pitch so-called ‘Christian’ forms of love over and against other forms of ‘un-Christian’ love in anxious competition. Neither does this mean the opposite, that because the cultural norms of love are changing, that Christian norms of love must necessarily fall into line! Because most Western Christians think through the frame of reference of the European Enlightenment, we have arranged our understanding of love along a linear spectrum, with a forced binary opposition between two Greek word-labels for love – agape and eros. In its most extreme form the former is exclusively God’s domain and deemed perfect, the latter is the Human realm and unavoidably feeble. This understanding of love was made popular through C.S. Lewis’s book, The Four Loves. Academically, the definitive argument is laid out in Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros.

I am now happy to declare that I passionately refute such an arrangement of intellectual thinking about love!

I propose that all human forms of love (which in the first place cannot be reduced to the Greek eros) should be intellectually conceived as an arrangement around a sphere of open-space. There are an infinite number of particular love phenomenons. Each one is an invitation to go further, so open ourselves to the possibility that there is more, and especially that there is more that will never adequately be expressed in words. This is the open-space of both thinking and prayer, where divine love can be encountered beyond the need for form.

Love requires freedom. Freedom requires vulnerability. Vulnerability enables us to suspend judgment on individual expressions of love and enter into an enquiry of the mystery behind and beyond them.

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