Love is a many-splendored thing, we are told. The problem is that we very rarely know what kind of love we are talking about.
We use the same term to describe the most heroic of sacrifices and the most banal of affections; our heroes are loved and so is that latest BuzzFeed post.
I used to think this was a problem, that our modern tongue cannot help but bastardize the beautiful and the true, dragging even our language down into the gutters where we wallow. Love is supposed to be noble and sublime, but most of the time we speak of it as ordinary and trite.
Just a linguistic parasite supping on the host that has long since forgotten to notice.
It is easy to blame our fathers and our cultures for the ruination of love, to point the finger for this vulgarization at some extrinsic source. The Christian might think love too lofty to be used for anything other than our own particular agape, even if we grasp for other words to use in its stead for lesser goods.
The problem, however, is that love has not been brought low by our neglect or even our sins. In many ways it is easy to believe this is the case, as if there is a height from which we have fallen. After all, our race loves nothing more than to be able to have an out, someone or something else on which to affix our guilt.
But the truth is much more holy and lofty and thus so much more sinister and base. If this seems a meaningless paradox, simply consider that the higher one flies, the farther one has to fall.
Love is not a god nor even an angel or a demon. If it were so, we might be off the hook. The machinations of higher beings are out of sight and out of mind for mere mortals; let the divines play at their games and God bless ‘em.
But at bottom, love is desire, the affection one has for an object. In older tongues love was seen as a kind of force which even moved the heavenly bodies by attraction. And why not, we praise love as if its power knows no bounds in our songs and in our poetry; why should we begrudge the ancients a flowery way of describing the movement of the spheres?
In rationals beasts- that noble brute known as man– love gets a bit more complicated, on account of it being sticky. The rest of our innards share in this quality, and like a movement of the bowels or the effusion of the salivary glands, love is yet another sticky response to the stimulus of the universe around us.
But the rational bit is meant to make our others bits do what it says, and thus love is not just a lump in the throat, nor is the rationality merely a niggardly taskmaster. We animals with a mind find love to be more than just a response of the body, but also a repose of the will.
To be able to not only feel love, but also to will it– that is the particular blessing of man. The hierarchy of being in our essential constitution entails that we are meant to love on purpose, not merely because our bodies tell us to. This brings up the paradox of love, how it can be a radiant angel or a withering demon. For the truth about love is that since love isn’t a god, there are loves we are meant to pursue, and loves we are meant to avoid.
If love is at bottom an affection for some object, that really tells us very little more than what we already obviously know and feel- that we desire this certain object. Like the heavenly bodies of antiquity being drawn toward each other (mindlessly or not!) in their mutual celestial attraction, so we feel the tug and pull of that which we desire to have or possess or consume or control.
But to leave it there touches only the brutish half of our nature, leaving out the angelic side altogether. Well, actually the grim reality is that since one cannot separate the two without the final severance, our heavenly side is along for the ride whether we acknowledge it or not.
To know the good and to love it within the bounds of reason is the purpose of our rational side. And for the rational soul, the attraction of love is not a love that is necessarily good. After all, if love is basically desire, then there can be greater loves and lesser loves, just as there are greater desires and lesser desires. Knowing the difference is why we have a mind, and is also where we stumble so frequently.
And this is where the language of love can trip us up, for we often willingly stumble into a equivocation. God is love and love comes from God, we are told by the Scriptures, and this is true. How easy to then perceive any love as godly, and the attraction of any desire as holy! After all, we ask, if God loves us, doesn’t he want us to be happy (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)? And how easy it is to conflate what we desire with what will make us happy!
This is probably why most of us will end up in hell, for hell is full of love. We have been taught to imagine it as a place bereft of love, but the problem with hell is probably more that it is over-stuffed.
All the things we desire instead of God, all the lesser loves that attract our attention and consume our affection are the cobblestones on the path to damnation, and the walls that we will build to keep heaven out. All love comes from God- even the lesser ones, it is true- since God is the source of all love. But not all loves are therefore to take the place of the highest love, which is reserved for God alone.
It is not without reason that the Scriptures declare the God is a jealous God.
The problem with every love besides God is not that it exists or is another love (for all being, since it is from God, is good), but rather that no other love can actually be the love that the love of God is. It supplants the proper affection and adoration due to God alone, and by virtue of this usurpation actually engages in the most egregious lie.
Lesser loves promise the fullness of divinity, but they simply can’t cash the check. As our first parents discovered in the garden, to know the good on one’s own terms is not to become god-like at all, but is really trying to say that God doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. And since reality isn’t big enough for two ultimate realities, the ones who were made in God’s image ironically lost the lion’s share of that image, all in the name of love.
In Dante’s Inferno is one of the most poignant scenes in all of human literature: as he descends into the 2nd Circle he comes across two lovers who grip each other tightly, as gale-force winds batter their bodies for eternity. Curious as to their plight, he inquires as to how they came to this sorry state, and receives this reply:
Love, that on gentle heart doth swiftly seize,
Seized this man for the person beautiful
That was ta’en from me, and still the mode offends me.
Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving,
Seized me with pleasure of this man so strongly,
That, as thou seest, it doth not yet desert me;
Love has conducted us unto one death;
Caina waiteth him who quenched our life!”
These words were borne along from them to us. (Dante, Inferno, Canto 5)
For these benighted souls in hell it was nothing less than love which bore them thence. That which promised eternal delight could only deliver eternal death, and even in the misery of the netherworld that love still drives them together, further exacerbating their pain and extinguishing any hope of another love breaking in.
This is why the most dangerous reason we can ever have to do anything is because of love. Our desires are notoriously fickle and untrustworthy; our affections can very well be the hangman’s noose or the coils of Minos. How trivially easy to justify whatever we desire in the name of love!
In this respect the Christian understanding of love is the anomaly, for charity-love is practically (and essentially) nothing like any other love that we know or understand. The banality of love that we meet day-in and day-out is not a degradation of a concept; rather, charity-love is the transcendent splendor of divine love which ennobles any other.
While other loves may attract or gaze or draw our affections or tickle our desires, charity-love is meant to go much further and promises much more. It absolutely requires that it may consume us, and in doing so allows the rational animal that is man to take wings and ascend unto God. The ancient Christian notion of theosis is wholly predicated on this surrender to charity-love, and is the only way in the which the order of love and the order of our nature is finally brought into rectitude.
Hell may be full of love, but the smallness of that love borders on the pathetic. In C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce he imagines the Ghost People from Hell as being transparent because of having been stretched out of proportion, for in comparison to even ante-Heaven Hell is infinitesimally small. The loves that they cling to in Hell and which keeps them there forever is not even, in Lewis’ metaphor, as big as an atom in Heaven, yet those loves consume them entirely until there is little to nothing left.
Love is ultimately a gift from the one who is source of all Love, and the only way in which love makes sense is when we love correctly. For every time we set up another love where only love for God should be, we simply place another brick on the road to Hell, built by our own hands, and we loved every minute of it.