Note: The following essay was originally published in the May 2007 edition of This Rock magazine.
"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 showsthe 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 discussionsthese 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 worksby luminaries including the
Church Fathers, Aquinas, John of the Cross, Karol Wojtyla, and Pope
Benedict XVIhave considered this question at great length and with
intense detail. They have plumbed the depths of the various types of
lovefamilial, 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,
andespeciallygood, 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 accomplishedthat 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 meaningnot 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 involvedand,
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,
eternitya 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 (http://www.philosophersnet.com/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
lovelyand love-revealingrealities. 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
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
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.
Fortunatelyor rather, providentiallyfaith 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 loveespecially through human love. And it is the
Christian storythe Christ storythat 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.