Monday, January 19, 2009

That Tricky Thing Called "Love"

I had a conversation with a friend recently in which she confessed that she had been reading Twilight. I was somewhat horrified, unjustly so because I have not read the books nor seen the movie. Still, there's something about angsty teenage vampire romance that I just can't handle.

This post is not about Twilight. But the conversation I had with my friend got me thinking about love, in all its confusing meanings. Part of the problem, of course, is that the English language uses "love" to refer to a lot of different things. In Greek, there's eros, erotic love, philos, friendship or non-sexual love, and agape, charity or Christian love. In modern society, there is something of an obsession with romantic love, and I think that is what most people mean when they talk about love. We see it in movies and on TV—nearly every film or show has to have a romantic interest of some sort. You can't watch an hour of TV without seeing ads for dating services and the people who fell madly in love thanks to them. Books like Twilight feed on our infatuation with love stories. It is not a purely modern phenomenon, of course—look at Jane Austen, or Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The idea of people being meant for each other, of finding one's true love and living happily ever after, is powerfully present all around us.

Please don't misunderstand me. I don't have anything against romantic love itself. I am very much in love with my husband, and the romantic love that we share is a great blessing in my life. What concerns me, what I want to bring up in this post, is the idea that romantic love is the be-all and end-all of human endeavors. Too often I think that romantic love is placed as the highest goal for people to achieve, and the goal which we must not fail to reach. There is a sense that, if you cannot fall in love with someone and have a storybook romance, you have failed in some deep, unforgivable way.

The Bible points to a different reality. There, we find an image of God who is loving, and God's love is extraordinary: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation" (Exodus 34:6-7). This is not human, romantic love; it is something wholly different. Then we discover that there is a different, transforming human love as well; in the New Testament, it is called agape. Paul famously described it in 1 Corinthians 13: "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

How different is this from our idea of romantic love! Romantic love is jealous, suspicious, and self-centered—and it is understandably so. If you love one particular person, and want that person to love you in return, your love is naturally going to be particular and selfish. Again, there is nothing wrong with this love; but isn't agape a higher form of love? I think of C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, where he describes an image of heaven. His character meets a woman there and his mentor tells him, "Every man who met her was her lover." What he means is that this woman's love was so pure and divine, that it was shared with every person around her. This woman did not share romantic love with one person; she shared agape with every person, selflessly and universally.

Soren Kierkegaard also described agape in his Works of Love. He says that a good test of your love for others is to go to a cemetery and love the people in the graves. That way, you know you are not loving them because of who they are or what they could do for you—you are not even loving them in order to receive love from them in return. Your love is truly universal and selfless.

While romantic love certainly has a place in our human relationships, I would like to see a greater focus given to the love described by Paul, C. S. Lewis, and Kierkegaard. That is the love we are called to as Christians; that is the love towards which we should aim.

Update: I swear, I did not read the following before I wrote this blog post, but check out the Dinosaur Comic from last Wednesday. Might as well close up shop here, I've been outclassed.

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