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Love and the Skeptic

“The greatest of these,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). Many centuries later, in a culture quite foreign to the Apostle to the Gentiles, the singer John Lennon earnestly insisted, “All we need is love.”

Different men, different intents, different contexts. Even different types of “love.” You hardly need to subscribe to People magazine or to frequent the cinema to know that love is the singularly insistent subject of movies, songs, novels, television dramas, sitcoms, and talk shows—the nearly monolithic entity known as “pop culture.” We are obsessed with love. Or “love.” With or without quotation marks, it’s obvious that this thing called love occupies the minds, hearts, emotions, lives, and wallets of homo sapiens.

Yet two questions are rarely asked, considered, contemplated: Why love? And, what is love? These aren’t just good questions for philosophical discussions—these are important, powerful questions to use in talking to atheists and skeptics, for the question of love will ultimately lead, if pursued far and hard enough, to the answer of God, who is Love.

What Is This Thing Called Love?

One man who spent much time and thought considering the why and how of love was Pope John Paul II. “Man cannot live without love,” he wrote in Redemptor Hominis, his first encyclical. “He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (10).

That is a statement both St. Paul and John Lennon could agree with, for it states something that is evident to the thoughtful person, whether Christian or otherwise: I need love. I want to love. I am made for love.

But what is love? Many profound works—by luminaries including the Church Fathers, Aquinas, John of the Cross, Karol Wojtyla, and Pope Benedict XVI—have considered this question at great length and with intense detail. They have plumbed the depths of the various types of love—familial, sexual, and agape. I’ll start with the basic brushstrokes of a definition of love between humans. The Thomist Josef Pieper, in his essential book On Love, wrote that this love is personal, active, and evaluating. It gauges what is beautiful, right, and—especially—good, and affirms that it is such. “Love,” Pieper states, in articulating a philosophical understanding, “is therefore a mode of willing. … To confirm and affirm something already accomplished—that is precisely what is meant by ‘to love’” (On Love II).

How Wonderful That You Exist!

But what is willed by loving? When we say to another: “It is good that you exist, that you are!”—what do we mean? The question is not nearly as abstract or obtuse as it might sound, for it does serious damage to the flippant claim that man is able to “make a meaning,” for love is not about making something ex nihilo, but the recognition and affirmation of what already is. Or, put another way, in seeing the good of another, we choose to embrace and treasure that good.

So Pieper makes an essential distinction: “For what the lover gazing upon his beloved says and means is not: How good that you are so (so clever, useful, capable, skillful), but: It’s good that you are; how wonderful that you exist!” (On Love II). This seemingly simple point has profound ramifications, for it is an affirmation of what is. It involves the recognition that something outside of myself is objectively good and worthy of my love. Because reality is knowable and has objective meaning—not shifting, subjective “meaning”—love is possible and can be known. This, of course, raises the question: Where does the objective meaning of love ultimately originate from if not from myself? It is a question routinely ignored by skeptics, but worth asking of both those who deny God’s existence and those who reject the existence of objective truth: “If your love for your spouse or family is subjective and of a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ sort, what meaningful, lasting value does it really have?”

The true lover, Pieper argues, intuitively understands, even if not with precise logic, that an affirmation of the beloved’s goodness “would be pointless, were not some other force akin to creation involved—and, moreover, a force not merely preceding his own love but one that is still at work and that he himself, the loving person, participates in and helps along by loving” (On Love II).

Human love, therefore, is an imitation, a reflection, of the divine love that created all that is, including each of us. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, in Deus Caritas Est, “there is a certain relationship between love and the Divine: love promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence” (5). Even Sartre, who is not known for being happy about much of anything, remarked in Being and Nothingness, “This is the basis for the joy of love . . .; we feel that our existence is justified” (3.I).

Grateful to No One in Particular

It is here that Pieper makes a significant connection, proffering (as even Sartre’s remark suggests) that all love must contain some element of gratitude. “But gratitude is a reply,” he argues, “it is knowing that one has been referred to something prior, in this case to a larger frame of universal reference that supersedes the realm of immediate empirical knowledge” (On Love II).

This is noteworthy because there are atheists and skeptics who insist that it is perfectly logical, even laudable, to be grateful. Recently, The Philosopher’s Magazine ( ran a piece titled, “Thank Who Very Much?,” written by Ronald Aronson, Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Wayne State University. It opened with a rather honest and blunt assessment of the situation faced by atheists and agnostics:

Living without God today means facing life and death as no generation before us has done. It entails giving meaning to our lives not only in the absence of a supreme being, but now without the forces and trends that gave hope to the past several generations of secularists. . . . By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the modern faith that human life is heading in a positive direction has been undone, giving way to the earlier religious faith it replaced, or to no faith at all.

So, what to do? Aronson maintains a stiff upper lip, exhorting his fellow disbelievers to “shape a satisfying way of living in relation to what we can know and what we cannot know” and so forth. Noting that Christianity and Judaism tend to be filled with gratitude since they believe in a personal God, he offers a rather startling suggestion, worth considering at length:

But there is an alternative to thanking God on the one hand and seeing the universe as a “cosmic lottery” or as absurd on the other. An alternative to being grateful to a deity or to ignoring such feelings altogether. Think of the sun’s warmth. After all, the sun is one of those forces that make possible the natural world, plant life, indeed our very existence. It may not mean anything to us personally, but the warmth on our face means, tells us, and gives us a great deal. All of life on Earth has evolved in relation to this source of heat and light, we human beings included. We are because of, and in our own millennial adaptation to, the sun and other fundamental forces. My moment of gratitude was far more than a moment’s pleasure. It is a way of acknowledging one of our most intimate if impersonal relationships, with the cosmic and natural forces that make us possible.

Why Does It All Exist?

We can be grateful, I suppose, for Aronson’s suggestion but still find it unconvincing. His notion of an “intimate if impersonal relationship” is, at best, paradoxical, and at worst, illogical. It is an attempt to assign meaning to something (creation) whose value has already been denied (since the world and our lives are the accidental offspring of molecular chaos). If I understand his proposition correctly, man should extend personal, relational reaction in response to a reality that is not only impersonal, but possessing no personal basis or value. And then we are stop there, without contemplating, “Where did all of this come from? Why does it even exist?”

Aronson recognizes this problem and appeals not only to “our gratitude to larger and impersonal forces,” but to man’s dependence “on the cosmos, the sun, nature, past generations of people, and human society.” Which still does not explain why the cosmos, the sun, and nature exist, or why they exist so as to sustain human life. Strip away the sincere intentions and we are still left with a simple fact: It’s not enough. The vast majority of people down through time have never found it enough to extend an intimate and personal note of gratitude to impersonal, biological forces that do not care about us or love us. Responding in gratitude to the sun, the fallow earth, the dewy meadow, the complexity of DNA is either sentimental neo-paganism or points to man’s natural knowledge that Someone must be responsible for those lovely—and love-revealing—realities. Here, then, is another possible point of discussion with skeptics of every stripe and type: “Are you grateful to be alive? If so, does it make sense to be grateful to immaterial forces and objects that don’t care at all about your existence?”

The novelist and essayist Walker Percy, a former atheist who believed in his youth that science would provide the answers to all questions and problems, impatiently dismissed the “grateful, but to no one” position in his rollicking self-interview, “Questions They Never Asked Me”:

This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight; i.e., God. In fact, I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything else. (417)

Aronson, like many skeptics, puts on a brave face, but ultimately settles for too little. His philosophical approach is merely a more sophisticated version of the skeptic’s crude belief: Create your own meaning. Yes, he essentially says, I readily admit that the universe is diverse and full of unbelievable phenomena, but at the end of the day I conclude it still has no meaning other than that which I give it. Ironically, it is the skeptic who takes an illogical leap of faith. Fortunately—or rather, providentially—faith does not have to be the enemy of reason, as long as it is faith in the right Person.

Love Is of God

The most convincing explanation for human love is divine love. As Benedict explains so well in Deus Caritas Est, Christianity carefully distinguishes between divine love and human love, but also recognizes that the latter results from the former. On one hand, man cannot know and g.asp the theological virtue of love by his natural powers. Yet by his nature man is drawn toward God even through human love—especially through human love. And it is the Christian story—the Christ story—that makes sense of man’s hunger to love and to be loved. The great surprise is that God’s love is most fully revealed in the death of the God-man, Jesus Christ, on a cross, which was the culmination of the great scandal of the Incarnation and was validated by the great mystery of the Resurrection.

“In the mystery of the Cross love is at work,” wrote Pope John Paul II in Dominum et Vivificantem, “that love which brings man back again to share in the life that is in God himself” (41). This love allows man to participate in the life of the Triune God, who is love (1 John 4:16). The perfect love in and of the Trinity is the source of love and the home of love. The Son’s redemptive work of love unites us to himself, the Holy Spirit perfects our will in love and makes us more like the Son, and both guide man toward the loving heavenly Father. Such is the path of divine life and love, the joy of divinization. “God himself,” the Catechism summarizes, “is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (CCC 221).

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new,” wrote Augustine in his Confessions. As a young man he had sought love in many places, things, and people. Why? Because he knew that he was made to love and be loved. Everyone, in the deepest recesses of their hearts, has the same knowledge, no matter how scarred and distorted it might be. Some have even made love their god, failing to see that we cannot love love, nor can we worship love. Lennon sang, “All we need is love.” More accurately, all we need is the One Who is Love. Now that is a lyric worth singing for a lifetime and beyond.


If We “Create Our Own Meaning,” Is Love Real?

A personal anecdote may help to illustrate some of the assumptions we have about love. Years ago I worked with Ellen, a smart and funny lady, and a good conversationalist. Our chats would occasionally veer into the realm of religion. Ellen was raised in a Catholic home but had decided years ago that there was no God. She was, she confessed without the slightest hint of animosity or guile, an atheist. This led to some fascinating conversations, including one that went like this:

Me: “So you really believe that since there is no God and no transcendent reality, the material realm is all that there is?”

Ellen: “Yes, that’s right.”

Me: “Now, I know that you love your husband and children very much . . .”

Ellen: “Yes, of course. Why?”

Me: “If the material world is all that exists, then how do you explain your love for them?”

Ellen: “What do you mean, ‘How do I explain my love for them’?”

Me: “If your presuppositions are correct, then the love you feel for your family must be simply a matter of biology, physiology, neurology . . .”

Ellen (slightly testy): “No, I really do love them.”

Me: “And I am convinced that you love them. But it seems to me that your beliefs about God and reality necessarily mean your love for them is a matter of biology and neurology only—it has just as much meaning as water running down a hill or leaves falling from trees. Yet you and I both know that love is much more than a matter of biological chance.”

Ellen: “Well, I don’t think there needs to be a God for me to love my family.”

Me: “Would you die to save your family?”

Ellen: “Yes, of course!”

Me: “Why?”

Ellen: “Because I love them!”

The conversation never progressed from that point, and it probably couldn’t. But this matter of love and meaning soon came to my attention again.

Kevin, the founder of the local “Freethinkers and Atheists Society” was featured in the newspaper for his involvement in that group. A few months prior I had exchanged a few letters with Kevin after he took exception to a letter-to-the-letter that he deemed to be filled with silly Christian superstition and illogic. The newspaper article reinforced what I had learned in our correspondence: Kevin’s g.asp of basic Christian doctrine was about equal to my understanding of quantum physics. But the article revealed that Kevin was married to a woman for whom he expressed great love. Very well. Yet I recalled that Kevin, in a letter to me, had explained, in typical condescending fashion, that there is no “right” or “wrong,” nor any “truth” or “falsehood” (despite his constant denunciations of Christianity). Rather:

Atheists simply assert that in order to create meaning, you must have a functioning mind. We all create our own meaning, and hence our own version of morality, whether we want to believe it or not. There is no one right way, no fundamental rule which applies in all circumstances.

Kevin was writing about morals, but if his thinking were consistent, it is only fair to surmise that he would also believe that love—like good, evil, truth, falsehood—is something the atheist “creates” and suffuses with meaning based on whatever his needs, desires, hopes, concerns, and passions might be at this moment. In which case, I would ask Kevin, if I had the chance, the same questions I did of Ellen: Why do you love your spouse and family? How do you explain that love?

Further Reading

  • Back to Virtue by Peter Kreeft (Ignatius)
  • Deus Caritas Est by Pope Benedict XVI (available at
  • Faith Hope Love by Joseph Pieper (Ignatius)
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