This past weekend, I also experienced the thrill of traveling to Coming Together 7 in New Haven. Talking to students from across the country who shared a passion for interfaith ministry and a deep respect for different traditions was an eye-opening experience. To be honest, I’m still trying to process the entirety of my time at the conference, so I cannot adequately convey the lessons I learned in words. Instead, I wanted to talk about something that was nagging at the back of my mind during the few days I spent hearing speakers, participating in breakout sessions, and attending Jumu’ah and shabbat services. While I was engaged in meaningful dialogue and moments of close fellowship with other students, I was also highly conscious of a certain date. I wouldn’t say that I dread this day, but I have slowly grown to accept its looming presence every year–February 14th, Valentine’s Day.
Whenever I think about Valentine’s Day, I am reminded of the subject that so often comes with it. For a word, an emotion, an idea that is so often praised in writing and in song, it is immensely difficult to define what love is, let alone what it means. Any definition that I try to come up with somehow falls short, and is unable to fully capture the mix of warmth, comfort, pain, sorrow, wonder, and brilliance that comes with it.
I suppose if one had to start somewhere, though, a definition can be found in John 1: 4-8 : “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” When I think of God, the image of divine love comes readily to mind. Strangely, though, I rarely consider the possibility of the reverse: that love is God. It is hard to fathom how a human emotion can encompass the infinite being of the Divine. With that said, a question immediately jumps out: what kind of love is John referring to? Answering this requires a discussion of the multiple meanings of the word “love”.
Love seems to defy all definitions, at least when it comes to language. This can already be seen in the numerous words related to it that English possesses: affection, passion, infatuation, desire, friendship, and caring, to name several. Each of these captures a slightly different aspect of the human emotion. It may seem strange to include friendship in this list, but I do have some support for that one from the Greek. C.S. Lewis wrote a book describing four different aspects of love: στοργή (storge, familial love), φιλία (philia, friendship), ἔρως (eros, romantic love), and ἀγάπη (agape, unconditional love). John uses the last one, agape, when referring to God. Thus, a divine love is one that is unconditional, eternal, and all-consuming. This is the love found in Matthew 5: 44 (“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”) and in Mark 12: 30-31 regarding the greatest commandment (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these”).
Even with that linguistic aside, though, I have trouble recognizing agape in my daily existence. This is because I encounter love most often among people. The tenderness of a mother toward her newborn child, the affection that two friends share in a hug, the warmth that flows from a couple as they hold hands and embrace–all of these offer a path to the divine, but they are not the Divine itself. It is especially easy to forget this on Valentine’s Day, when we are bombarded with candy hearts, flowers, chocolate, and exchanges of a simple yet powerful three-word sentence. All of these celebrate an idealized form of romance, a happy ending embedded in our fairy tales that many aspire to realize. If we seek only that, though, we lose sight of love as a means to the Divine, to agape, and only perceive it as an end.
The Greek philosopher Plato wrote a book called the Symposium, in which guests at a dinner banquet praise love and speak of its origins. One character tells a story that humans used to walk as two joined bodies. Once, they tried to scale Mount Olympus and overthrow the gods, and Zeus decided to split them in half to weaken them. Since then, we have sought to find our other half, to be reunited with the one who once made us whole. Our relationship with God is similar. Each of us yearns to be reunited with something that completes us. Whether we find it in another person or in ourselves, in nature or in a city, in stillness or in movement, that part allows us to live and serve with purpose. If we can serve with purpose, then we may serve with love unconditionally. And if we love unfalteringly, then maybe, just maybe, we can encounter the Love Eternal that is God.