The Language of Love

Reflections by Randy Bush
East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA

A prerequisite for theological conversations about relationships (same gender, different gender) is having a clear understanding about the way we talk about the emotions associated with relationships. For example, love is a hard word to talk about theologically because the way it is used culturally is quite different from how it is used biblically. The scriptural understanding of love is far richer than the secular version, but the cultural definitions of love are so dominant and pervasive that people of faith always have trouble getting our message heard.

As English speakers, we use the same word to describe widely divergent categories of love. There are differences between how you love your pet, your parents, your second cousins, your work colleagues, or your spouse or partner. We mean different things when we say “I love chocolate,” “I love world peace,” and “I love you,” yet each time the same verb is repeated over and over again. The Greek language has at least three different words to describe the nuances of “love.” It has the word “eros” to describe the unabashed devotion of lovers, “philia” to capture the sympathetic commitment of good friends, and “agape” to express a deep, even sacrificial care for others, including those who do not show any care back in response. Like the Gordian Knot Hercules had to untangle, talking about love from a faith perspective is almost impossible until we clarify which type of love is most appropriate to the topic at hand.

Second, as soon as anyone begins to analyze, many others will argue that an intellectual approach to this subject is all wrong. It is too clinical and unromantic when the topic of love is meant to be emotional and passionate. We insist that love is like the high point of the Broadway musical “South Pacific,” when on some enchanted evening, across a crowded room, you spy a stranger and fall madly in love. Yet listen to Henri Nouwen’s description about the nature of true love from his own life experiences:

I realized how limited, imperfect, and weak my understanding of love has been. My idea of love proves to be exclusive (You only love me truly if you love others less), possessive (if you really love me, I want you to pay special attention to me), and manipulative (when you love me, you will do extra things for me). This idea of love easily leads to vanity (You must see something very special in me), jealousy (Why are you suddenly so interested in someone else and not in me?), and to anger (I am going to let you know that you have let me down and rejected me). But love is “always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offense, and is not resentful.” Do you hear the difference between the biblical language and the self-centered language about love? (Nouwen, The Genesee Diary)

To move from the cultural language about love to the spiritual language of love, it is important to remember that love is primarily directed away from us. In scientific terms, love is a centrifugal, not a centripetal force. When H. Richard Niebuhr wrote about the theological triangle of love of God, love of self, and love of others, he offered three words to describe the character of God-given love. He said, love involves rejoicing in the presence of the beloved, feeling happiness in the thought of the other. Love involves gratitude for the other’s existence and presence in your life. And love involves reverence, never seeking to refashion the other into your own image or to use the other as a means to your own advancement. All three of those words – rejoicing, gratitude, reverence – point to the Other-directed quality of love. Can you picture this? More importantly, can you identify those types of loving relationships in your life?

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