Given the significance of the most recent holiday, St. Valentine’s Day, I thought I would post a few thoughts on love that I have been wrestling through.
Though we all have some concept of “love”, we very rarely stop to think about just how powerful it is in the human condition. Part of the reason for this is that we use the word love in so many ways that it means everything and, therefore, nothing. Here is what I mean: I say I love basketball, I love mexican food, and I love my family. Now, you know that I mean different things at different levels when I use the world love in each of these contexts, but by not qualifying it, we run the danger of making love an abstract term that has very little weight.
This is where the Greeks best us, yet again, for they had four words for love: storge–a fondness due to familiarity (I storge basketball), philia–brotherly love (hence the city, “Phila”delphia–the city of brotherly love), eros–passion or romance (where we get the idea both for cupid and the “ero”tic), and agape–the sacrificial love that literally “makes holy”.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. We know what it feels like to “be in love” or to feel love as a mushy, heart-pounding, sweaty palm experience, but there is fascinating research that shows that love somehow has the power both to grow and shrink the physiology of life. Without love, humans wither and die, both metaphorically and literally. Love, in other words, has the very power of life and death. As Frederick Buechner says, “He who does not love remains in death.”
But what is love that it should have the power of life and death over us? Science tells us that the bios (the biology) of love is pheromones, oxytocin, dopamine, and the release of hormones in the brain, yet there must be something more to love than the sum of its parts. The zoe (the spirit) of love is both transcendent and transformative and must be more than chemicals flooding the brain or long-embedded evolutionary mating habits.
How can this thing we call love be so powerful that it brings life to the possessor and death to those without it? It is a stronger drive than hunger or fear or even self-preservation, for many are the examples of those who willingly go without food or face down overwhelming threats or lay down their lives, all in the name of love.
This, then, must point to something beyond the explainable bios–the understandable and observable science of the chemistry we associate with the feelings of love. I believe it points to something that is Love–both the bios and the zoe, the consuming fire, the moral arc of the universe. It is what we experience when we hear Handel’s “Messiah,” when we hold a newborn child, when we recognize that there is a morality higher than the law, when we see the humanity in the prostitute and feel moved to care for the orphan. It is what we root for in happy endings and happily ever afters. It is the strength of the humble and the conviction of the just.
It is wild, untame, and unsafe. It is paradoxical, for experiencing agape means I must transcend my own self-centered needs for glorification and gratification. When we do choose love, we do so willingly, knowing there must be a cost involved, and yet we do it again and again and again.
Was it dopamine alone that led Mother Theresa to spend her life serving dying lepers on the dirt floors of Calcutta? Was it mere pheromones that led Jesus of Nazareth to fully live out in excruciating agony his own admonition that the one who experiences the greatest love is the one who is willingly slaughtered on a Roman cross? Was it hormones that led early martyrs to be crucified upside down, burned at the stake, or ravaged by lions?
Again I ask: what is love that it holds such a powerful grip on the very essence of being human? What is love that it possesses both life and death within its grasp? What is love that it enlarges the borders of the human experience or, lacking it, causes the shriveling of the self? What is love that it leaves me speechless when I experience its full, transformative, blinding presence? What is love if it is not the highest, noblest, and most demanding of the virtues? What is Love if not the voice calling forth that all things should be made new? If the author of 1 John 4:8 is correct, then (to inverse his thought): Love is God–that terrible, severe, merciful, mysterious, majestic Love that (to quote C.S. Lewis) would have us made whole, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.
That we have become so used to love does not limit its deep hold on us, nor its power to form and transform us in ways that literally save us from ourselves. I leave you, then, to ponder what, exactly, this Love is….
Feel free to respond in the comments section.