The word love has certainly changed over the years. The subtle change has resulted in love moving from an active verb to a possessive noun. Perhaps part of the issue is that in English, we have the one word for love - love. We often add adjectives to describe a particular quality of love but in our western culture, the indiscriminate use of the word love has served only to obscure the transformative and sustaining beauty of love. I love Potato chips, my new car, and alike illustrate my point. Does it beg the question is the way we love potato chips the same way we love our spouse? Our Children? Of course not!
In some cases, love has been denatured into a form of love that is no love at all. Love has become so anemic, fickle and toothless - reduced to egoic self-gratification by the indiscriminate consumption of things, and tragically, other people. In a western culture that is deeply entrenched in a consumer/consumption worldview is it any wonder that much of love given and received is quid pro quo. It is a commodity that is given or withheld depending on the others ability to meet our egoic needs.
There have been volumes of ink spilled on the topic of love, so in this short space, what can be said about love?
In some Christian circles when talking about love, we break it up into three types. These three may be familiar to many:
Greek in their origin, many of us have been taught to contrast these with each other but what if Agape, Eros*, and Philia are indeed valid healthy forms of love in the context of divine love itself? Let's not forget that authentic divine love has its source in God (1 John 4:8). So, if instead of ranking them, what if we take them for what they uniquely are in the context of each other and the whole of divine love. Like different facets of the same diamond, the beauty of divine love can be expressed in at least three ways.
Agape love is held up as the pinnacle of the love scale and is certainly the way in which God loves. Agape is the unconditional, universal, selfless love that God has for people and creation. It is not a quid pro quo kind of love and agape love is not conditional to whether the love is returned or not. Agape recognizes the inherent created goodness. God loves us completely, as we are - not just some ideal of a human.
Phileo has been referred to as brotherly love and this is the giving over of oneself to another for relationship that is greater than the sum of its parts. That together in relationship, in community we become more and can do more than on our own. This kind of love is important energy that creates and sustains an authentic community. Phileo is the love that creates a context for sharing and cooperation for the well-being of all in the community.
Eros (but different)
Eros is not a term used in connection to God or the nature of God in scripture. Eros describes a form of relationship with a hook or a "what's in it for me" and is often depicted as a snake eating its own tail. Eros has a strong connotation of eroticism and much of what we have come to culturally understand about eroticism is no love at all rather the exploitation and consumption of another for personal gain/pleasure (or to get life from another).
The daring metaphor of Jesus as bridegroom suggests that the living God seeks more than an intimate relationship with us.
While this Greek word implies a hook, it may also carry the baggage of Greek stoicism. Stoicism was a popular worldview in the Roman and Greek cultures until about the 3rd century. This philosophy of life elevates logic to the highest value and vilifies the emotions and passions. As such in a Greek context love is more intellectual than it is a deep motivating passion. While I certainly affirm logic to a point, one cannot dismiss the healthy role of passion and desire as a foundational part of what it is to be human and most specifically in love.
While Eros in never used as an attribute of God in scripture, can we see that the God who loves is indeed passionate for us and desires a relationship with us? Can we separate the healthy passion and desire from the hook of self-centeredness of Eros?
Human beings have been hardwired with a deeply intimate longing for Union or oneness with another and to desire for deep intimacy with God. However, we often settle for cheap substitutes that are rooted in the shallows of selfishness. Healthy divine love is much different than the indiscriminate consumption of another, but to find a word that describes it has been a challenge. I am wanting to describe an attraction to that which is lovely, that is sacredly intimate, and to know it intimately or... to become one with it without selfishly consuming or assimilating it. God has a longing for relationship (Union) with us BUT without the hook.
Fire of love, crazy over what You have made. Oh, divine Madman.
- Prayer of Catherine Siena
This form of divine love is indeed passionate, longing for oneness, for Union. I am not talking about carnality. However, I don't think we need to discard the metaphor of sexuality. To this end, some are of the conviction that the book of Song of Solomon is an allegory for the intensity and passion between God and his people. In the healthiest sense, sexual intercourse in the context of divine love is two becoming one flesh - the intimate union of two people. It speaks to a union at the deepest core of who we are. It is the place where the two becoming bigger than their sum. It is a holy community in a sense which in its best sense is lovely and life-giving - from the overflow of love produces children - hence community expands, love expands.
Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth... Song of Songs
While I am not comfortable with the use of the word Eros, what I am discussing shares much of the characteristics of Eros without the carnality. This kind of love (which I don't have a word for) differs from agape in that agape repays evil with goodness. It is a selfless benevolence. This “allusive word" affirms beauty, promotes it and longs for Union. It is passionate in the best sense of the word. More than that, this deep longing is the recognition of the intrinsic, transcendent, sacredness, beauty and the wholehearted acting for the benefit of the other in oneness.
This aspect of love, passion and desire is important because it provides much of the passionate energy for kenotic, self-emptying love, co-suffering love.
Greater than the parts...
I think as we reflect on the nature of the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - we can see each of these qualities of love manifest. Agape the foundational energy. Eros (without the hook) the unifying, reconciling, a personal deep desire for the other - working for its good. Phileo the sustaining energy and life of community, that calls us into a deliberate unity for the divine dance.
For divine love to be the life-giving divine love, we must allow for and cultivate the fullest, healthiest of each expression of love. Divine love is the integrated wholeness of Agape, the passion, and desire for Union like the hookless Eros, and Phileo as an expression of the wholeness of the divine community.
Let love be love
A holistic embrace of the facets of divine love can help us connect to life in a deeper way as the Spirit works to establish divine love as the pattern for our relationship with the Father and our relationship with others. The divine fractal (pattern) of love being reproduced in and through us and God's good creation.
To this end, let us be open to the healthiest and most life-giving expressions of love. Let's put aside the measuring sticks, wedges, and hierarchies of love and move freely in love as it is most beautiful, self-giving appropriate and genuinely life-giving. It is this place of resting that we are called to love as we can, as we are gifted to in whatever situation or season of life we are in, and let us thank God for that grace.