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Is Love a Choice or a Feeling?

Spoiler alert: It's both. And we need both, in harmony, in order to love the way God wants us to love.

“Love isn’t a feeling; it’s a choice.

I’ve heard it countless times in various Catholic educational contexts: high school classrooms, RCIA, marriage preparation, etc.

Is it helpful? Yes, and no. Without a broader education on the reality of love, especially when it comes to the love between men and women, I find it unrelatable.

We are human. Sexual attraction, while not everything, isn’t nothing, either, when it comes to choosing a spouse. Being human means we are both body and soul. One of the earliest heresies in the Church was the gnostic heresy, which denied the goodness of the body. (So much so that homosexual relations were encouraged because of their sterility . . . if you just had to relieve yourself of sexual frustration.) But we are also our souls, endowed with reason. We can’t just abandon our spouse if or when “that lovin’ feeling” fades.

Are we doomed to live out only one aspect of our humanity when it comes to marital love? Will reason or the emotions win out in the end?

Thankfully, the late Pope Benedict XVI can help us sort out how to understand love as an action, something we can choose and determine, and love as an emotion beyond our natural control.

Benedict discusses the concept of love in his first encyclical as Pope, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). He begins with the problem of language. The Greeks had four words to describe love’s four dimensions: storge (affection), philia (friendship), eros (romance), and agape (sacrifice). We don’t need to examine all four in order to show that love can be both a choice and a feeling. Just eros and agape, analyzed within the context of marriage, will get the job done.

Was Friedrich Nietzsche right about Christians, Benedict asks, when he said that Christians “poisoned eros”? That is, did Christians ruin all the fun with their emphasis on agape, or sacrificial love? Why so many rules around romantic love? What killjoys!

Whenever I hear Christian educators say, “Love isn’t a feeling; it’s a choice,” I can’t help wanting to agree with Nietzsche. But, notwithstanding what Christians might have done and continue to do, Jesus—who, as God, invented eros—certainly didn’t ruin eros. On the contrary, with the introduction of a distinct Christian understanding of agape, Jesus saves eros for us.

That’s more like it.

First, let’s admit, as our wonderful Benedict notes, that eros, the romantic love between man and woman, “is neither planned nor willed.” We aren’t stoics. Or angels. We have bodies; therefore, we have emotions. And they matter. A lot.

Eros is a gift that “imposes itself upon human beings.” Anyone who has been in love can affirm this truth. This is a real and human experience. The ancient Greeks, Benedict notes, believed that eros’s capacity to “overpower reason” is a sort of “divine madness.”

Agape, on the other hand, fully engages reason and freedom, in that expressions of agape are the correct actions taken for the sake of the good of the other, regardless of how we may feel.

To be fully expressed and enjoyed, love must be unified in these two dimensions, whether we’re married or not. But that sort of unity is hard to come by these days. Just like the ancient Greeks, we are living and observing a type of madness of eros-without-agape. No need to rehash here the massive divorce rates, skyrocketing porn addiction, or the hookup culture, not to mention the problem of sex-trafficking. The institution of marriage is sliding into obscurity. The dream that won’t die is, in fact, dying.

We know that hedonistic moderns aren’t really having fun; we’ve never been more lonely, depressed, anxious, or existentially orphaned. On the other hand, it seems that living according to the natural law and the Church’s moral teaching (agape) can save us from this sort of misery. But how does agape “save” eros—especially in marriage, when the “honeymoon phase” is over?

Well, eros was never about the “honeymoon” phase in the first place. Agape restores eros as an experiential sign of the ultimate fulfillment of all desire, which is God himself. Benedict says it best:

Love is indeed “ecstasy,” not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self toward its liberation through self-giving, and thus toward authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).

But have married Christians “preserved” their lives? Even more so, are they experiencing the “abundant life” that Jesus promises (John 10:10)? Are they having fun?

Well, we know that just because some Christians are getting married, staying married, and abiding by the “biggie” commandments, that doesn’t mean they are enjoying love. But they do when they choose agape.

Indeed, paradoxically, choosing agape, sacrificial love in accordance with reason—and this is precisely what the Church’s commandments are: dictates of reason based on the conditions necessary for authentic human freedom and flourishing—is what keeps married people in love . . . in eros. Erotic love is fed by agape love. That’s the “trick.” That’s what our culture is missing and what Christianity can uniquely offer. This is what Nietzsche was missing—it’s not that agape is supposed to replace eros as a cold, rigid, “chosen” and “Christian” love. It is that eros cannot be fully enjoyed without agape.

Without fancy theological language or philosophical categories, an article from 2013 by a Jewish writer touched on this. The more the author sought the “feeling of love” in his marriage, the more it eluded him. But the more he served his wife, the more the feelings emerged and developed between the two of them.

The writer is correct in that without agape, as Benedict writes, “eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.” But what he is missing is that “anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift.” And the original source of all love is Jesus Christ, “from whose pierced heart flows the love of God.”

We can’t make romantic feelings happen whenever we want them. If we could, we would stamp out the enjoyment and surprise in line with the nature of this gift. But we can certainly make choices that set up the conditions to generate romantic feelings. We are rational creatures, and emotions are meant to serve, not enslave us. If we seek the emotion, and not the good of the other, we make eros an idol, and that is exactly when it ceases to be a gift and an authentic experience of the divine. In union with agape, however, we can have the “divinity” of eros without the “madness.” This is what is actually in our control.

The Church and the world desperately need happy marriages—not just for our own sakes, but for the tremendous evangelical value happy marriages provide. For what converted the early Church in the first century but happy marriages and families? What will convert us now?

G.K. Chesterton, the great romantic, nailed it when he wrote, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” We cry at weddings not only because two people are “in love.” The reason why we cry at weddings, precisely what makes them romantic in the first place, is that those feelings of being in love are bound up with commitment, permanence, and exclusivity. In other words, with agape.

Is love a choice? Yes. Is love a feeling? Also yes.

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