I had a conversation recently with an atheist-Jewish friend, the sort of which I value tremendously, in part because out of our discussion about some of the distances between Judaism, atheism and Christianity, it brings fantastic questions to me like this: Love is pretty important to Christianity, isn’t it? I would want to ask in reply, Isn’t to everyone?! I think of one Catholic philosopher who turns Descartes on his head by saying of cogito ergo sum-certainty, ‘So what? . . . Does anybody love me?’ But I get this. I get that love is a vague, diluted and overstretched enough concept that it doesn’t necessarily have punch or purchase. Put it in this sentence, ‘Gød loves you,’ and I have instant respect for anyone who fires back in earnest, Yeah, but what does that mean?
Not long ago I finally got around to reading a phenomenal book by Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, and really struggled through the first several chapters in which Nouwen speaks at length of Gød’s great love for us; I was in no place to have patience for such an airy, Precious Moments concept as that was sounding. I felt abandoned after a major move I made to pursue ministry. I felt like Gød was playing at riddles with me, manipulating me and withholding. I felt I was constantly failing a test of my obedience to Gød’s will without Gød ever giving me the exam questions. Whatever that love is, didn’t seem to amount to doing anything. That Gød loved me with big dewy eyes that watched me floundering desperately and great big bear arms that I couldn’t feel around me wasn’t particularly interesting. That Gød felt love for me wasn’t interesting, and I’m still not sure that it’s compelling.
But I think that this understanding of love is why we sometimes find love in general uninteresting or banal or silly, the stuff of Hollywood and drugstore paperbacks. If love is to feel something or to have something we feel, then it’s nice as long as it feels good, inconvenient when it feels bad (assuming it doesn’t help you write a hit single), and meaningless when you just don’t feel it. If love is to do something or to have something we receive from it, then it’s meaningless when it doesn’t do the thing we want. So what use is love apart from fiction and Christian home decor?
Perhaps nothing—so long as love is something you have or don’t have, feel or don’t feel, receive from or want of. The problem here I think is thinking that the kind of is it is, is something you can have—like, I don’t know, a cup of coffee. It would be a fickle kind of having that makes you question whether it actually is—like cup of coffee that, bear with me, sometimes goes cold, sometimes is suddenly empty, suddenly full again, sometimes disappears off the table altogether, and whose contents only occasionally taste like coffee. So bear in mind that there’s always tea and hard liquor and stuff like that, and you’ll wonder why anybody would talk about coffee so much, certainly any serious-minded worldview, of which Coffeeanity would certainly not be one. I also think the reason that we want to think of love as a thing we can have (to feel or receive) has a lot behind it, but I’ll leave that implied for now. The point would be that if we let that aside, we can instead think of love purely as a relation.
But wait. Because the temptation is going to be to think of it as having a certain kind of is again where people have (that is, possess) a relation between them—which is still going to bum us out when we see the love that two attractive people, neither of whom are us, have between them and when we don’t feel that between ourselves and someone else (maybe especially Gød). The trick is to think of the relation not between A and B (between lover and lover) but from A to B (from the lover to the beloved). Love in this sense isn’t anything that A has or something that is for A; it’s a way that A is toward B. It’s not something that B has from A—or even anything B can receive or not receive; it simply is a way that A approaches B, looks at B, beholds B. More, if you’ll make the trip with me, it makes B in-relationship-to-A, makes B something (to A)—almost the way you become sideways when I cock my head sideways toward you. It transforms B; it makes B the beloved. Now, does B feel beloved? Not necessarily, but even so, B nonetheless is because of A’s love.
And even that’s not all. We’re talking about a very particular kind of A-to-B relation. It would be one thing for A to relate herself B in a way that makes B uncomfortable or unsafe, precisely because the one-way nature means that B doesn’t have a choice in the way A is toward B. Stalking, pornography are extreme examples. What makes love different? The way that A is toward B, namely that A gives herself up to B, puts herself ‘out there,’ stands out in the open, exposed. There’s no manipulation here, no control, no power. A, in loving, takes the initiative to place herself in relationship to B in a way that B has no say over, but B is free—more, empowered—to refuse, scorn and even wound A. This is exactly why love is hard, why it hurts, and why a parent will keep opening herself to a child’s spurns as he pushes away. This makes it a radically different kind of relation, not only from, say, stalking but also our day-to-day interactions with people where we’re only reasonably measured and at least a little bit guarded precisely so that people don’t wound us. But in love, the lover doesn’t care, or at least, the lover risks it. In a word, love is pure gift.
What’s the value of this gift? Well, that’s precisely for B’s estimation. B can reject it as unwanted or use it callously or—this is the other side of the coin—can love A with greater safety and confidence and freedom in A’s vulnerability. Now, suppose this one-way relation goes one way each (A gives herself up to B with no ‘ask’; B gives herself up to A with no ‘ask’), and we have something really beautiful and really rare. Of course, unfortunately, this often isn’t how we love.
When we talk about Gød’s love, then, there’s a lot that we can say. If love is a relation of gift of the lover to the beloved, I would want to suggest that this first says something about creation. To create what wasn’t, and didn’t need to be, is gift. Does this mean that creation is love? For that matter, then, if you didn’t exist (until you did) and didn’t need to exist (and still don’t), is your existing gift? Is your existing love?—not your love but Another’s, one incredibly intentional and focused here just upon your specific being, everything that you are and can be? I would also want to say only too briefly that this speaks of Jesus being Gød giving Gødself into the world, to be seen, to be misunderstood, to be refused, scorned and wounded—and all with no ‘ask.’ Because it wasn’t as though the ones that he gave himself up toward and rejected him, the beloved, failed some kind of test in which they had to receive his love for his love to be; instead, exactly in its rejection, Jesus asked the Father to forgive them, out of love. That—in just a couple of quick pictures—is what we talk about when we talk about Gød’s love.
So even in the illustrations of creation and cross, leaving aside what Gød’s love, does or what it feels like and crossing out that it’s something that you can have, it is. And one is because of it—one is the beloved. Underneath all of the philosophy and theology here is really just left a rather primitive, naked significance to being loved. It’s what the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion cuts to the heart of when he asks, ‘So what . . . Does anybody love me?’ It’s in his question to Descartes, ‘What’s the use?’ When I’m alone, in the quiet, at the end of the evening, when my aloneness has worn thin and the thinness of the present feels empty and futile, when I feel futile and worthless—does anybody love me? Do I matter? What’s the use? There, I have to admit, the love of Gød—which is Gød’s beholding me as an object of love—means everything; it is to be held in the void of our existential self-doubt or our emotional spirals or our realization of personal failure. It is to be, finally and definitively and forever, beloved.
Photo cred: Raphael Perez