This is the time of year when many of us are encouraged to invest in either finding love or finding creative and expensive ways of expressing the love we already share with another person. This is no bad thing – provided, of course, that this time of year isn’t the only time we display our love! But have you ever wondered what love actually is?
If we are honest, thinking about what love means can be elusive. Yet the profound reality of our human capacity to love and be loved is perhaps the universal human value. Its presence transcends every boundary of time and culture. Love has been both the inspiration for, and the constituent theme of, almost all of the greatest works of literature, music and visual art that the world has ever produced. It’s core to many religious and ethical movements. The Beatles famously told us that it was ultimately all we need. And the personal experience of knowing love is such an ubiquitous human desire, that the promise of match-making industries is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
But the question remains: Have you ever wondered what love actually is? It’s a much harder question than our familiarity with the subject might suggest. Modern tautologies like “love is love” don’t help us much either because its attempt to remove any boundaries to the meaning of love ends up collapsing the concept itself into meaninglessness.
Were we to ask a neuroscientist, perhaps we might be told that love is simply neurochemistry; merely the result of the behaviour of the vast assembly of nerve cells and associated molecules impacting our hormone levels, as Francis Crick once assert. But is love the illusory product of our biochemistry? Or is the chemistry we so evidently experience a product of a love which transcends mere atoms and quarks?
Such a reductionist conception of love won’t work for romantics. After all, when was the last time you bought a Valentine’s Day card for your beloved and inserted the inscription: “When I think of you my brain causes a disturbance in my gastrointestinal region!” Instead, love is to be understood in the powerful attractions, ethereal emotions and self-fulfilment one experiences when you are one party in a pair of star-crossed lovers. The danger with this sentimental deification of love, however, is that when such emotions fail, so too does love with have conflated it with. As Margaret Attwood lamented in The Handmaid’s Tale: “God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner… We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.”
Like Attwood many of us recognise that if love means anything, it has to be more than mere words or an abstract concept: it has to be made flesh. The interesting thing is that many of the most profound and enduring words about love we have, come from individuals who believed that God is love and that love has been personified in Jesus Christ.
So this Valentine’s season, if we are really interested in what love truly is, why not investigate the one who claimed to be love itself: Jesus of Nazareth.