What is Love?

We are told in 1 John 4:16 that “God is love.” It seems a simple and, by now, obvious thing to say, but what does it really mean? It turns out that most of what we think it means has been determined by straight, white men, which means that our understanding of love and all its related fields – sex, gender, relationships, and family – are embedded in a heteronormative point of view. This point of view is unquestioned or even unnoticed. Then we theologize that point of view in the imagery we use to talk about God and our relationship to God. But what if our ideas about love had a different starting point? Queer love, unbound by the conventions of the heteropatriarchy, might lead us to some different possibilities about love between humans and love of God.

If you grew up in an evangelical context, you probably heard that there are four Greek words for love, each with its own distinct meaning. Eros, the dirty love of desire and lust. Storge, which is dutiful affection, as a parent for a child or a child for a parent. Philia, or friendship. And finally, agape, which is the love that God has for us. Of these, Eros does not appear in the Bible. Why should it? It’s gross. Agape, of course, is the best love, the love for which we should strive, even at the expense of all the other loves. As C.S. Lewis, the source for much of this analysis, claims, the three other loves are “natural loves” that can become rivals of apape, distracting us from our real purpose.

To be somewhat fair to C.S. Lewis, what we have heard in church all these years is a distortion of what he actually said. He acknowledges that this project of schematizing love is somewhat foolish. We don’t learn about love by analyzing it, but by doing it. Further, he does not recommend eschewing the natural loves, but letting them be transformed and redeemed by agape. I can’t argue against letting the spiritual inform the embodied. However, because Lewis carries forward with this doomed project and it has since been misused terribly, it’s imporant to reckon with the consequences.

First, we should say that this is just not how language works. Usage and meaning overlap. If I tell you that I’m “happy,” but someone else says they are “pleased,” you might be able to coax out some shade of meaning, but we might have meant exactly the same thing. Without a lot of context – facial expression, body language, environment, relationship, culture – you just don’t know. So when words are used in a dead language in a text that is thousands of years old, we should hold onto our interpretations very lightly.

In this specific case, we have a couple of examples that trouble the waters of a neat schema. First, in John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Jesus. The first two times Jesus asks, he uses the word agape, but Peter responds in the affirmative, saying that he philia-s Jesus. Finally, on the third attempt, Jesus switches to philia to match Peter. All my life I have heard that this illustrates the difference between the two words, that Peter is not ready for full-on agape, so Jesus meets him where he is at philia. But what do we make of the fact that this is a text amended to the Gospel of John, a text intended to rehabilitate Peter to the Johannine church by undoing his triple denial? More pointedly, what does John 15:13 tell us when it places these loves side by side: “No one has greater love (agape) than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (philon)?” Perhaps these loves are actually interchangeable. Second, if agape is the highest love, then how could it possibly be used to describe the feelings of Amnon toward his sister Tamar, who he raped? Is this how we are to understand our relationship with God? Beyond language, this schema does not cohere with real life.

When we schematize love, we transform it into a neat abstraction that has little to do with our embodied experience of love. All four loves are all mixed up. We feel them alternately, from moment to moment; often we experience them at the same time. The schema is easy to understand, easy to transmit, and easy to control, but it does not help us to love well. Quite the opposite. The schema exists, not so much to tell us about love, but to control bodies.

The schema dismisses and devalues bodies. The “natural loves,” like bodies themselves, are temporal. Fleeting. We feel desire for a moment and then it is gone. Affections fade. Friends drift apart. Not so, allegedly, for agape, which makes it clearly better. But is this really true? Do we always feel that we are loved unconditionally? do we always feel that there is a love that is eternal? In my experience, affection for God and Jesus and the Bible, my nostalgia for the place they have played in my life, have sustained me through the times when I did not feel lovable until I could reach a place where I could feel that again. And I usually find that place because of the friends I have in the church and elsewhere. It is the embodied love of the people around me that convinces me that I can be loved by an abstract God. I know that there is a little bit of the Divine in me because the Divine that is in them sees it and sings in harmony with it.

Queer people have an epistemological privilege here because the schema has never been for them. They can teach us about love because they stand outside of our easy categories. Straight people have our ideas of love handed to us and, for the most part, we accept them uncritically. Queer people have to make up some things from scratch and discover their own models; nothing is taken for granted. A lot of coming out is learning to listen to your own experience – of your body, your desire, your affections – of the fluidity between friends and lovers – and believe in it. What if we all did that? What if we thought about God through that experience?

Lewis relies on a great chasm between Creator and creation. Only agape can redeem the natural loves because only it is eternal. Lewis tells us that creation wasn’t necessary and so was a sign of God’s love. But if there is the spark or the breath of the Divine in everything and everyone, then these natural loves, loves experienced in our bodies, tell us something about who God is. Maybe they tell God something about who God is. Maybe they allow God to become fully God. What is a God that floats out in the ether, unconnected and unconcerned? What if God needs to be loved in order to truly be God, loved not just in some abstracted way, but in the tangible and fleeting love of bodies? Maybe that is the reason for the incarnation and not sin and sacrifice.

If God is love and the schematization of love does not tell us about love, then it can’t possibly draw us closer to God. Thankfully, queer love deconstructs the schema so that we can see love more fully. We can awaken to our own experience. We can no longer take our love, our sexuality, our relationships, our family structures as a given, shaped by a model that serves us poorly. And we can no longer accept an impoverished view of love – an impoverished view of God – that has no use for bodies.

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