Correspondence about agape

A short discourse about some aspects of love: what it is and what it isn't...  This was originally a letter to a friend.

Dear ____,

I was just rereading your email and I noticed that you closed with the words: “agapé the divine love”.  Now I am wondering whether you think that only the sort of love we call agapé is worthy of being called divine?

In fact all love is divine.  The passion of eros is no less divine than agapé.  All love is given by God, all shades of love were created by God, all love originates with God.  I am of course assuming that we can tell the difference between love, liking and lust. 

In the English language we use the word love very carelessly and say that a man “loves a sunset” or that a man “loves money”.  In reality the man admires or enjoys or is affected by the sunset and probably lusts after the money.  However, let us assume that we are using the word “love” correctly. 

Well there are still many forms and styles of love.  Sometimes they may be combined so that we have many types of love for the same person.  In other cases we might not love a person in a certain way.  There are many passages in the Bible where God describes his love for his people in the same language that a man might use to describe his love for a sweetheart or wife — including the erotic language of Eros.  And do not forget that the church is the bride of Christ.

If we begin calling agapé the divine love then we are saying that the other forms of love are somehow less divine or not divine.  This can lead into all sorts of errors.  It might take us into the path of asceticism (denial of bodily pleasure) as is found among some eastern gurus and some monks; it might cause us to feel unnecessarily guilty about sexual passion with our husband or wife.  Whatever else it does it will surely prevent us from appreciating the full glory of God, his love and his creation and it will prevent us from expressing our full, God-given humanity.  Humans were created as passionate creatures, we were created as needy creatures, we were created as homely and gregarious creatures.  Each of these aspects of our nature was God-given and has its own shade or form of love.  None of those forms of love is “less” than any of the others.  Each one has its own place and purpose. 

I suppose that one useful way to regard agapé is that it is the love that can direct and override the other loves and it can keep them from misbehaving.  If love were music then agapé is the conductor ensuring that each love plays the correct note at the correct time.  You and I (and probably everyone else) know that it is possible to feel romantic and erotic love for someone who is not our wife.  That love was, I am sure, mingled with lust and pride and greed but there was still some real love involved.  I do not have to be perfect in every way before I can love.  We love from the beginning but the gold is still buried in the ore and needing to be separated and then refined. 

Now let us not make a similar mistake of assuming that because agapé directs or is “in charge” that it is somehow better or more spiritual than the others.  This is a very wrong idea but a common human failing.  You have probably noticed that whenever a human is shown two different things they start trying to ask or say which one is better.  In other words they start trying to assign a value to the things and then decide which one is most valuable.  This is a characteristic of our sinful nature and it is the cause of many quarrels and fights.  It is a stupid way to think; it is like asking which wheel of a bicycle or scooter is most important!  The front wheel directs, the back wheel propels.  If you take either one away then you and your scooter are in trouble.  If you like, you could think of Eros as the engine of your scooter, storge might be the chain and gears, phileo the rear wheel and agapé is the front wheel — directing everything else.  But not for one moment is agapé more important, better, more spiritual, more divine, more significant or in any way superior to the others.  Does your scooter run without an engine, will it work without a chain, can you go anywhere without a rear wheel?

Each part is
different in purpose
equal in value

You will find that this principle applies not just to the loves of life and to your scooter but also to many, many, many other aspects of life.  For example a husband and a wife are different in purpose but equal in value — you cannot have a marriage with only one of them!

The idea that only agapé is divine is not Christian.  Judaism and Christianity are, as far as I am aware, the only two faiths in the world that elevate marriage, sexuality, sex within marriage, passion and “Eros” in general to the divine level.  It is the other faiths of the world that consider these things sinful, weak and dirty. 

There is another error to avoid:  Be aware that the distinctions we make between Eros, phileo, storge and agapé are actually only a matter of literary convenience and the divisions are entirely subjective (a matter of our preference not of their qualities).  In reality each form of love that we identify is actually just one aspect of a greater whole.  We give names to different parts of the whole only because it makes it easier to communicate.  The names we use are only part of our attempt to communicate what we experience and know; we should not make the mistake of thinking that the names we use somehow define and delineate what the thing itself is.

If we were discussing the atmosphere around our planet we divide it up into the troposphere, stratosphere and the ionosphere.  But what actually are these regions?  If you take an aeroplane up into the sky you will not find any line between them and there is no place where you can say “here the troposphere ends and the stratosphere begins”.  In fact the regions do not exist in the sky at all.  They exist only on paper and in the minds of men; they are just words we use to describe regions of perceived similarity.  In the same way there is no clear line between the end of a river and the beginning of the ocean or between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.  These regions and borders exist only on maps and they exist only so that we humans can describe experiences or places or journeys to one another.

Now in exactly the same way, there is no clear line where agapé ends and Eros begins.  The “different” loves exist only in human literature such as poems, marriage guidance books and religious instructions.  These regions of love are defined by us so that we can describe our experiences and journeys to one another — they are just places we have marked on the map of our existence but they do not actually have distinct or separate existences.  You cannot detach what we call agapé from what we call Eros any more than you can remove the Pacific ocean to leave an empty hole between the other places that we describe as oceans and seas.

Best wishes,