Sunday Thought: Love is Not Love

(Yes, it’s a day late.)

One of the more frequent effusions masquerading as an argument in support of gay marriage is that “the government shouldn’t be able to tell people whom they can love.” (Which, even in the days of anti-miscegenation laws, the government never did. It only told people of different races that they couldn’t marry.)

The argument continues: “After all, love is love.” There the argument ends, the foe vanquished by its concomitant breadth and brevity. As I say it’s not really an argument but a sentimental gloss worthy of a Hallmark card. I have seen it leaking from the pens of professional writers, who have nothing in their power of expression over what I encounter in freshman and sophomore compositions. ‘Love is love’ does not readily offer itself to complex or elegant reformulation. It pretty much must stand as it is. And yet it is so obviously and flatly false that I wonder why anyone bothers to utter it.

Coincidental to my recent suffering through the limning of this inanity in different forums, a male student hung around after class recently, and when all had departed he asked, “So, Professor, what’s your perspective on love?” Naturally, I wanted to know why he wanted to know. Was it work in another course, a topic for the forensics club, what? No, he said, he was just curious.

And what did he want from me? A definition? Sure, that would be great. So I told him that love was to will the good of another, to the degree that you would sacrifice yourself for that other’s sake. And that in the case of our love of God, we would likewise rather die than offend Him or depart from His truth. I knew in advance – and could tell from the look on his face – that this was not quite what he was looking for. Its demands seemed draconian.

I presumed that what he was really asking was whether there were different kinds of love, was that it? He nodded. So I said, “Yes.”

“Ah, but that’s just a perception,” he said. “Love is love, right?”

There it was again. You can try to kill it, but it won’t die. Bury it, and it digs its way out.

No, I told him, it was absurdly, irrationally false. His eyes widened a bit, because young people these days seem to think no answer should make definitive claims, but rather be couched in a caveat, softened by a tentative “This is just my opinion but..,” as if the fact that something is an opinion surrenders it to the fog of relativity.

The assertion that ‘love is love,’ I went on, is the thing that is “just a perception.” In fact, it’s probably less than that. It’s a deliberate attempt to redefine reality, and is more accurately called a lie. I know that people say it all the time, but they usually have some ulterior motive for doing so, since it plainly is not the case. I do not love my parents in the same way I love my children. I do not, and cannot, love my best male buddy or my sister in the same way that I love my wife. And my love for my grandparents is different from these other loves, conditioned by a solicitude for the weakness that comes with age, a reverence for the wisdom that accompanies it, and gratitude that they have a place in my ancestry, for I would not be here without them. These are not merely perceptions; they are “facts on the ground,” as people say; they constitute reality. I would have to lie to myself to say otherwise.

The power of love arises in our hearts and proceeds outwards to others, but it is not of my own making. I simply find myself in possession of it, sometimes greatly in its grip, at other times not, from whence I conclude that it was given me. The mystery of this power in human beings is that it appears to be one thing divided into many kinds. This might not be, theologically or philosophically, the most correct or rigorous way of discussing it, but everyone knows what I mean when I say it. It (this power) must have (should indeed seek out) an object upon which to bestow its beneficence, but must also be modulated, or rendered appropriate, to that object. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, but I doubt most of us will extend to that neighbor the same painfully ineffable tenderness elicited by our own children.

To say that ‘love is love’ (I told my student) is like saying that ‘God is God.’ It seems to me that the second half of the definition ought to add something to the first, to say something about it, rather than eat its own tail. Only in God (I went on, pressing my luck) can we imagine a Being in whom love is a single, indivisible, and eternally unwavering phenomenon; of such power unrelenting that we can also imagine it giving birth to the universe, to all life, to us; of such intensity unceasing that we cannot admit of any fluctuation, corruption, or tendency toward dissolution in this Being’s exercise of it, as we see among human beings; such that we are compelled to confess that it must, in this Being, constitute His very essence. Hence the reasonableness of the common expression “God is love.” Or, put another way: Love is a Being.

It is fancied by the purveyors of ‘love is love’ that a Being of such pervasive, all-embracing benevolence would never discriminate, pass judgement, or pronounce condemnation. Such a Being, such a God, would never bother with the things that humans fuss over, like rules and regulations, discriminatory doctrines and judgemental legalisms. Thus does “God is love” become the source of its own falsification. It’s a real Big Love, so enormous that it beckons us, collectively, in like manner: “Come one, come all, and come as you are.” We need surrender nothing, for the Big Love made us as we are, and Good R Us. The Big Love is like an eternally temperate, calm, huge, horizonless, sharkless ocean in which everyone can swim and no one drowns. No one even needs rescuing. The Big Love is very undemanding, completely accepting – unlike the small love of human beings, whose various ideas of it are very demanding indeed. These little people are always claiming that this way and not that is the right way to love, with the inevitable result that someone is left out. This is not fair, and the Big Love is always fair.

The only way to understand the God Who is Love is to set him at odds with the law. As a practitioner of the tactic, Andrew Sullivan was a repeat offender. A case in point was a column he wrote back in 2006, before he was able to publicly admit what anyone with good sense already knew: that he was not really a Catholic. Maybe this lack of self-awareness allowed him to wear two hats at once – Scriptural scholar and theologian:

Rules can only go so far; love does the rest. And the rest is by far the most important part. Jesus of Nazareth constantly tells his fellow human beings to let go of law and let love happen: to let go of the pursuit of certainty, to let go of possessions, to let go of pride, to let go of reputation and ambition, to let go also of obsessing about laws and doctrines. This letting go is what the fundamentalist fears the most. To him, it implies chaos, disorder, anarchy. To Jesus, it is the beginning of wisdom, and the prerequisite of love.

Now where Jesus says all this about letting go of law and the ‘pursuit of certainty’ in the form of doctrines because such a path is ‘the beginning of wisdom’ I don’t know because Sullivan doesn’t provide book, chapter and verse as most scripture scholars would. It turns out my scepticism is well-founded because, in the interest of fairness, I went looking for the other side and found this from a fellow named Benedict (the XVI) via Caritas in Veritate:

Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite…A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world.

Well put, Pope, for I had been about to ask a question: is it in fact true that “God is Love”? Because if it is, then that love must have a content, a substance, unlike the Big Love, which seems to have been emptied of all save one attribute: acceptance. If God is Love and Love is a Being, then we have the beginning of a doctrine. We have a notion of love as something closer to Newman’s “continually repeated action of an intelligent and living Mind, contemplating whom it visits and intending what it effects” than that soothing ocean that washes over and baptizes us all in a reaffirmation of our self-worship. Such a Mind would likely be far more discriminating than our own, so pure in its perfection that the path to our participation in it might be very narrow indeed.

Love among human beings is a many faceted thing. St. Paul lists some of those facets while simultaneously describing what human love (called “charity” in the King James) in its purest form might look like: it is long-suffering, kind, and without envy or vanity; it despises evil, loves the truth, and never fails – a passage well-encapsulated in a line from Blake’s poem: “Love seeketh not itself to please.” It is often recited at weddings. Notably absent is any mention of sexual love, that thing so easily corrupted. I mention it because I suspect that the great motivation behind the concept of ‘love is love’ is the culture of sexual license conceived as an unalienable human right. I can’t think why else anyone would bother to put it forth. And I am not speaking only of the push for gay marriage, for that is a later development of a more general deterioration.

But even more notable in Paul’s passage is that it makes no sense to most of us to talk about God’s love lacking in ‘envy’ or ‘vanity,’ or of its need to despise evil, or the possibility that it might ever fail. It is we who are lacking, namely in perfection, and so only human love must suffer division into kinds. Each kind must have a definite shape and form; each must be narrowly focused on the object to whom it is offered. We must be able to talk about it, say what it is, to define it. It is very hard work, but it is the only way we can get it right. And yet all the kinds will have this one thing in common: a loss of self in seeking the good of the one who is loved. Perhaps it is here that we embark upon that narrow path to the Truth.

(I don’t mean to come across as pious, a quality in which I am gravely deficient. I would like it noted that my understanding of these matters is usually arrived at by examining what is lacking in my own character.)

Now, obviously, I did not share all of the above with my student (especially the stuff about Sullivan and the Pope), but there was enough that I’m sure it amounted to an insufferable monologue. Nevertheless, he seemed attentive, and when I was done seemed to want to say something, but couldn’t find the words. At last he said as he was leaving, “Well, that’s probably the best answer I’ve heard so far.”

He must have been asking around, but why he was asking I still don’t know. I have noticed in his work a tendency to philosophize about things, a tendency, however fanciful and undisciplined, I try not to discourage, because such a student will take chances that others won’t. In an essay, amid a tangle of error and confusion, a sudden truth might appear, a line that will startle with its insight. I’ve seen it happen. I also have no doubt that nothing I said will survive the blast of war being waged outside that classroom. I like to remember a line from that chronicle of God’s love, something about working while it is still light. Of course, my exchange with this young man came at the end of a long day. I was tired, my work was done, and outside night had long fallen.


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2 Responses to Sunday Thought: Love is Not Love

  1. Lydia says:

    Thanks for a great post, Bill. This quotation from Lewis’s _The Problem of Pain_ seems apropos and in agreement with what you told your student:

    “You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect,” is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring…” (pp. 46-47)

  2. William Luse says:

    That’s a great passage. And I loved that book.

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