Christians Need to Reclaim Expansive, Beautiful and Multi-Dimensional Love
“Do you have the courage to listen to what the Bible says about eros?”
It’s one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite sermons of all time, Billy Graham’s 1973 talk on “True Love.” In it, Graham talks about love. The famous preacher talks about “the climax and enjoyment of married love,” which is a gift to be experienced within the parameters that God has set. Graham also talks about what C.S. Lewis called “the four loves.” They are affection, friendship, eros and agape. The first two are obvious, eros is sexual love, and the last is our final goal, the love of God through Jesus.
The All-Encompassing Love of God
I love the way Graham is so open and honest about love, and the different types of love, because I think many Christians have forgotten how vast, grand, and all-encompassing the love of God is. Also, how important it is. The Bible is very clear. I Corinthians 13:1-3 says,
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
I’ve heard some of my Christian friends say that we have cheapened love because now people say they love everything — their pets, their pop stars, the great Thai takeout down the street. I actually think this expansion of love is a good thing — provided we thank God, the One who created this universe and the good things in it. As I once said in an article about surfing, it’s natural to have spiritual stirrings when you are doing something exciting and beautiful like surfing.
Yet there is a proper order of things. You aren’t worshipping the earth or the oceans, but the Maker of the earth and the oceans. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), Pope Benedict notes that many modern pornographers and “artists” try to celebrate “love,” when, like the awful temple of eros in ancient Greece, it is nothing more than “a degradation of eros.”
That’s not love — God is love. Once that becomes clear, it’s obvious that love is essential to, well, everything. Once this is reestablished by Christians, the joy can be deep and endless.
The Essence of Life is Love
In his new book The Meaning of the World is Love: Selected Texts From Hans Urs von Balthasar with Commentary, Richard Clements argues that the great Christian theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar “would say that love is essential to answering the deeper questions about life because love is the essence of life itself. More specifically, Balthasar would say 1) love is the essence of God (1 John 4:16); 2) God is not just one being among all other beings, but God is Being itself, existence itself, life itself; 3) therefore the essence of being/life is love. Love is what life is all about.”
In Love Alone Is Credible, Balthasar asserts that love is the only credible answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, the question of why there is something rather than nothing. We human beings, and the entire universe itself, were all created from and for love. The inner-Trinitarian life of God is an eternal circulation of love, a communion of love, and God invites all of us to share in that divine life and love forever. That’s why we are all here. Only in love, only in sharing in the divine love, will we find the perfect happiness and freedom that we so deeply desire.
Self-Surrender in Love
There is one more important concept in the Christian theology about love. Balthasar liked to use the German term Hingabe to refer to the self-gift of love — of giving ourselves to others, as Jesus did, in love. Hingabe can be translated as surrender, or self-surrender. Balthasar notes that loving self-surrender is a sign of strength, not weakness. As Clements observes:
To genuinely surrender ourselves in loving self-gift, we have to be strong, by which he means, at least in part, possessing a healthy self-love, being in control of ourselves, and having attained a fair degree of mastery over our fallen inclination toward egoism and selfishness.
Selflessness also requires a self-emptying of our selfish tendencies in order to “be for” the other rather than being only “for self.”
Only a Big Love Can Fill a Big Hole
The words of Graham, von Balthasar, and of course primarily Jesus, remind me of how I survived the recent deaths of both my brother and my mother. It wasn’t only Jesus who pulled me through, but the things that Jesus gives to the world — friendship, art, beauty. After the funeral one of my brother’s old friends and I talked about the old days when we were in high school and college. We talked about the things we loved — the beach, good preachers, girls, art, friends. Affection, friendship, eros and agape.
One of the biggest bands my brother and I loved when we were younger was U2, the Irish supergroup made up of Christians (and yes, Bono is annoying — but I can’t help but, excuse me, love the guy). The name of Bono’s recent autobiography is Surrender, a reference to the self-emptying surrender in love von Balthasar and Graham talk about. Bono is featured in a video series with David Taylor, a theology and culture professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. ”Bono & David Taylor: Beyond the Psalms,” features the two men talking about the Psalms, music, and their Christian faith.
In one talk video, Bono explains how his mother died when he was only 14, and that the “hole in my heart” could only be filled with God’s love. “I became an artist through the portal of grief,” Bono said. “My mother died at her own father’s gravesite. As he was being lowered into the ground she had an aneurysm. I was 14. I began the journey trying to fill the hole in my heart with music, with my mates, my band mates. Finally, the only thing that can fill it is God’s love, it’s a big hole but luckily it’s a big love.”
Bono also reveals the profound impact a trip to Jerusalem had on him, particularly a trip to Golgotha, the site where Jesus was crucified:
I went to Golgotha and I went to the site where death died. I don’t really believe in it [death] anymore, so it has no power over me as it had when I was 14 years old. It’s unpleasant for the people we leave behind or if we’re left behind, but it isn’t unpleasant for the soul to now find its true meaning.
Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs the New American Stasi.