God is love: The words are so common, so obvious, so innocuous. It was not what most people expected as the topic of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical. Yet in it, he takes the reader beyond the superficial and trivial, offering a profound and sophisticated work that explores the connection between revelation and the deepest yearnings of the human heart.
Any discussion of love faces the difficulty that the English word corresponds to many different meanings. Benedict focuses on the most controversial and intense forms of love—eros and agape.
Part of the debate entails precisely how to understand these two kinds of love. Roughly speaking, eros (desiring love) is exemplified by Romeo and Juliet or Rose and Jack Dawson from the movie Titanic. Agape (self-giving love) is exemplified by Bl. Teresa of Calcutta’s dedication to alleviating the suffering of the poor. How are these two kinds of love related to one another? Are they opposites, one being a purely selfish love and the other a purely giving love? How do the longings of the human heart for love (both eros and agape) relate to the divine?
According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity poisoned eros, destroying our chance to achieve a taste of the divine. Don’t the commands and prohibitions inherent in Christian morality turn what should be a matter of joy into bitterness? This view, expressed in various ways, is widely held today.
Pope Benedict responds to this accusation in his encyclical. Benedict shows that erotic love and God’s plan are not in opposition but profound cooperation. He does this by comparing Genesis with another ancient account of the origins of love.
The Original Spousal Spat
In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells the ancient Greek story about the origin of love. Originally, Aristophanes says, primordial human beings roughly resembled conjoined twins of a cylindrical shape. These first humans were joined at the back, having four arms, four legs, and two faces. Their traveled like acrobats or gymnasts cart wheeling with great speed by rolling around like tires. They were powerful creatures whose pride led them to rebel against the gods. As punishment, in order to weaken and disorder these creatures making them less of a threat and more useful to the gods, Zeus split them in two. As a result of this punishment, erotic desire arose as every human being (now looking as we currently look) yearned to find its lost half. Eros hungers to be reunited with a lost half, our “soulmate” who completes us. In Aristophanes’ view, eros arose as a result of a divine punishment for wrongdoing. Before rebellion, and before punishment by the gods, there was no eros and indeed no procreation. Eros and its yearning to reunite is an effort to put back together what Zeus made separate. Erotic desire marks imperfection, punishment, and ongoing rebellion against the divine ordinance.
In the Genesis account, on the other hand, eros is part of the original blessing of creation. Finding no suitable partner among the beasts, Adam’s yearning for union is completed only with the creation of Eve: “At last this is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone” (Gen. 2:23). The fulfillment of erotic desire and the blessing “be fruitful and multiply” occur before the fall (Gen. 1:28). It is part of the divine plan from the beginning that Adam and Eve love one another erotically. After the fall, this erotic relationship is tarnished. Adam blames Eve and implicitly also blames God, “The woman you [God] put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree” (Gen. 3:12). Marital relations become martial in the original spousal spat. Adam, for the first time, fails to see his wife as a blessing from God. However, as Genesis makes clear, the erotic love of man and woman is a part of the original blessing of creation which is damaged but not totally undermined by original sin. Erotic love, like everything human, can be damaged through sin. Indeed, human erotic love, when made into an idol, a false religion, undermines itself. Benedict notes that the Old Testament:
In no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing “divine madness”: far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited. An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns. (Deus Caritas Est 4)
As C.S. Lewis noted in his book The Four Loves, when worshiped as a divine idol, eros becomes a demon. On the other hand, eros, when developed properly, can lead to the greatest happiness.
Charity Perfects Desire
What is the difference between an immature and mature love? Benedict writes,
Love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvelous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love. Earlier we spoke of the process of purification and maturation by which eros comes fully into its own, becomes love in the full meaning of the word. It is characteristic of mature love that it calls into play all man’s potentialities; it engages the whole man, so to speak. (DCE 17)
To engage the whole person involves loving more than a beautiful body, but the whole person of the beloved. It involves more than merely loving them for the moment, but includes loving them forever. It involves more than merely our feelings, but includes a commitment of the will to foster what is truly good for them.
The language and feeling of true love says, “you alone” and “forever.” It says, “you alone” because true love accepts no substitute. If you are hungry, any slice of pizza will do. If you are in love, however, only your beloved is suitable. Love says “forever” because true love is unconditional. No one in love feels or wants a limit to that love. True love pledges and desires a unity, “until death do us part,” not “until further notice.” But, points out Benedict, true erotic love cannot achieve its goals of “you alone” and “forever” without being supplemented by another kind of love—agape. In Benedict’s words:
Love promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence. Yet we have also seen that the way to attain this goal is not simply by submitting to instinct. Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation. Far from rejecting or “poisoning” eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur. (DCE 5)
It turns out then that agape and eros are not opposed to one another but complementary forms of love. Indeed, for Benedict, agape arises naturally following eros:
Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. (DCE 7)
The “giving love” of agape is not in contradiction to the “getting love” of eros. Without agape, eros degenerates into selfishness and cannot achieve its goals of “you alone” and “forever.” Without eros of some kind, agape cannot be sustained. Human beings cannot always give the gift of agape; they must also receive the gift desired by eros. These loves flourish together but flounder when separated or set in opposition. “Fundamentally, ‘love’ is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love” (DCE 8).
The Bridegroom Delights in His Bride
This unity of love is found even in the source of all creation. “God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape” (DCE 9). God’s eros differs from human eros in that for us erotic desire arises from our incompleteness and imperfection. We are akin to an empty jar that wishes to be filled with the other. God’s eros arises from his perfection and completeness. He is akin to an overflowing fountain, enjoying such super-abundance that it spills over to benefit others.
We tend to use the word “lover” to pertain only to human beings, and yet God is a “lover” of each one of us. Benedict puts the point as follows: “God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape” (DCE 10). The idea startles: God as our erotic lover. Yet, the Song of Solomon, chapter four in particular, has been read for centuries as not merely a man’s praise of a woman’s beautiful body, but as a metaphor of God’s taking delight in us. In the New Testament as well, Jesus the bridegroom takes the Church as his immaculate bride (Mark 2:19-20, Eph. 5:25-27). Ancient Christian authors, such as Pseudo-Dionysius, understood “God is love” not just as “God is agape” but also as “God is eros.” Mystics, like St. Teresa of Avila, experience a mystical union with God described in language reminiscent of the union of man and wife in the act of marriage. The poet John Donne put it this way:
Batter my heart, three-personed God . . .
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
God loves us—not with the cold, calculating, mechanistic love of a distant Creator, but with the urgent, personal, and overwhelming love of a passionate groom for his beautiful bride. “Love is ‘divine’ because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a ‘we’ which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is ‘all in all’” (DCE 18).
Agape Unites us With God and Neighbor
How can we experience God’s love in this way? Benedict suggests: “Love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God” (DCE 16). In helping other people, you’ll not only be helping them, you’ll also be helping yourself know and love God more. Agape should not be limited to hours volunteering for various good causes, but must include serving in every day and ordinary ways those with whom we have daily contact.
This love for neighbor should not be understood as an alternative to or as a self-standing substitute for love of God and the sacramental life. We should not strive to be only “persons for others” in forgetfulness of love of God and life in God through the sacraments. In particular, the Holy Eucharist strengthens our love for God while at the same time creating bonds with our neighbor in Christ. “Communion draws me out of myself towards him,” writes Benedict,
And thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become “one body,” completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself. We can thus understand how agape also became a term for the Eucharist: There God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us. Only by keeping in mind this Christological and sacramental basis can we correctly understand Jesus’ teaching on love. (DCE 14)
This union with Christ, particularly in Holy Communion, underscores the unity of the Church’s mission.
The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being. (DCE 25)
It would be a grave mistake, in Benedict’s view, to set these responsibilities against one another or to denigrate one in preference to another. Evangelization, sacramental prayer, and service to others combine to make God’s love for us present in the world and to enliven and enrich the best of human things, most of all perhaps love.
Let Me Count the Ways
We say we love our mothers and we love ice cream. The word covers such a wide range of human affections that it is helpful to look at Greek, which has four terms:
- Storge is affectionate love, such as the need-love of a child for a parent.
- Philia is the love felt for friends.
- Eros is romantic or sexual love, the love that desires to possess the beloved.
- Agape is self-sacrificing love, the love that desires the good of the beloved.
- The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis (Harcourt)
- Heart of the World by Hans Urs von Balthasar (Ignatius)
- Love’s Sacred Order: Four Meditations by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (Ignatius)
Something’s Wrong with John
John Yzaguirre, in his book Thriving Marriages, recounts that when he was a teenager, a friend invited him to attend a lecture given by a physician on living the Gospel in everyday life. John considered himself an atheist who had “outgrown” religion but went to the talk simply out of friendship. Following the talk, John asked the physician, “Do you really believe that stuff?” The doctor replied, “Who cares? The important point is whether you do.” The physician took out his prescription pad and wrote these words from Jesus: “Whatever you do for the least of these you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). The physician then added, “For the next two weeks, live these words as if they were true, and then call me.” John returned home, and when his dad came in the door from work, thought, “Well, if Jesus were just arriving here, I’d get up and greet him,” so John did. His dad was stunned: “Everything all right, son?” Before he sat down again, John saw his mother cooking dinner in the kitchen and thought “Well, if Jesus were in the kitchen cooking, I’d at least see if he needed any help.” Near the end of dinner, when only a single hamburger remained, John offered it to his younger brother, who said in alarm, “Dad, something’s wrong with John.” In fact, something was right with John. With God’s help, he had begun to live the wisdom of Bl. Mother Teresa, “Each person is Jesus in disguise.” As he loved the people he saw in his ordinary, everyday life, John soon began to love the God he could not see. John became a passionate believer and lover of people—not through argument, but by loving his neighbor as Jesus would.