“All you need is love.” This, of course, was the conclusion of the Beatles. And as we scan the radio dial, we find that love still has pride of place in contemporary music. But with popularity comes plurality—if “all we need is love,” whose definition should we choose?
If we take our cues from Selena Gomez, love is about satisfying our lover’s expectations of us:
“gonna wear that dress you like, skin-tight, do my hair up real nice, and syncopate my skin to your heart beating…let me show you how proud I am to be yours, leave this dress a mess on the floor, and still look good for you.”
Or, perhaps, we look to Ed Sheeran, who sings of a love whose value surpasses circumstance:
“Loving can hurt, Loving can hurt sometimes, but it’s the only thing that I know…When it gets hard, you know it can get hard sometimes, it is the only thing that makes us feel alive”
Or maybe love is about freedom—about being who you are, like when Katy Perry promises to love “unconditionally:”
Acceptance is the key to be
To be truly free
Will you do the same for me?
Indeed, if “all we need is love,” then we have a variety of options to choose from. It’s no wonder that “love” has become such a bankrupt word. It’s a word that’s become cheapened with overuse. You can love your spouse just as easily as you can say “I love tacos.” With shuddering irony, “love” is the most-used words on a major porn site.
Yet despite the shifting sands of American culture, love remains a dominant force. But why love? Why does love have this power, this significance? We cannot make sense of sexuality, marriage, or family without first anchoring ourselves in an understanding of what love is.
Despite an estimated 7,000 spoken languages, love remains our native tongue. The language of love unifies cultures even as it transcends them. In every culture we find a priority placed on love, a concept whose definition spills over the brim into small rivers of related ideas. The French, for example, use the phrase la douleur exquise, referring to “the enormous pain in your heart when you desire someone you cannot have.” The Nordic language contains a word—forelesket—to describe “the euphoria you feel when you fall in love for the first time.” Brazil even uses the Portuguese word cafune for the specific act of “slowly stringing your fingers through someone else’s hair.”
In 2011 Yale Professor Simon May released a book called Love: A History, arguably one of the first modern attempts to write a history and philosophy of human love. In his introduction, he points out that love is a unique experience—even when measured against other human experiences. So, for example, if you take someone from a previous century and drop him into our current time period, he or she
“wouldn’t recognize our attitudes to morality, or freedom, or the position of women, or art, or race, or parenting, or homosexuality, or the Church, or travel. He would be astonished to witness ordinary social relations—how the sexes interact, how children behave towards their parents, how black and white talk to each other, how gays touch—but he would quickly identify with what we think love is, or ought to be.”
The wheels of human progress grind ever on, yet “love seems frozen in time.” More than any other experience, love unites us and makes us emphatically human. Modern society places limits on anger, on sadness, even on generosity. Express any of these emotions “too much” and you may find yourself labeled as unbalanced. People have anger problems, they struggle with lust, eating disorders and depression. But love—ah, that’s something different, isn’t it? When we place limits on our anger or sadness, we deem that a sign of emotional health. But we don’t place such limits on love. In fact, just the opposite: the more unrestrained our love, the deeper our devotion, the healthier we assume the lover to be. We can’t dismiss this as merely an evolutionary adaptation or the product of social conditioning, for these might favor infatuation (or codependency) just as easily as genuine romance. No; it’s almost as if love penetrates to a deeper level, as though the human soul bore the very fingerprints of a Lover beyond our immediate senses.
“…FIERCE AS THE GRAVE”
Christianity offers a unique perspective to the subject of love. Paul tells the young pastor Timothy that “the goal of our instruction is love” (1 Timothy 1:5). John’s biography of Jesus tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16). The statutes of the Hebrew Scriptures may be summarized as loving God and loving one’s neighbor (Luke 10:27).
But Christianity also offers a vision of human love that is wildly vivid and intensely erotic. Among the collected love poems of King Solomon, we read lines such as these:
“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
he would be utterly despised.”
(Song of Solomon 8:6-7)
This is the stuff our pop stars and romantic poems can only reach for and dream of. For the further we dig in the further we realize the inadequacy of human language to describe this experience, and the way that we have reduced this tidal force to quaint romantic myths.
For, you see, no one ever falls in love. Love isn’t something we “fall into.” It elevates us, ennobles and enriches us. It lifts our eyes beyond the frail horizon of self; it calls to us in ways that makes the heart swell and the bones ache. Do we not yearn for it? Do we not burn and pray and weep for a love as “strong as death,” as “fierce as the grave?”
Yet we are also painfully aware that love can never terminate on itself, nor can any human relationship bear its full weight. No; we must look beyond love itself to the eternity to which it points. It is only understanding love’s true Source that we will understand love’s truest value. And so tomorrow we begin at the place where our hearts first felt at home.
We must begin at Eden.
 Selena Gomez, “Good for You”
 Ed Sheeran, “Photograph”
 Katy Perry, “Unconditionally”
 These and others taken from Adrian Catron, “What is Love? A Philosophy of Life,” from The Huffington Post, December 5, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adrian-catron/what-is-love-a-philosophy_b_5697322.html
 Simon May, Love: A History, p. xiii.