Love and Its Counterfeits? Looking at the various kinds of love and their connection to the spiritual life
Sermon/Reflection: Love and its Counterfeits
Looking at the various kinds of love and their connection
to the spiritual life
When anyone will look at spirituality today, you will hear a lot about love… And this is as it has always been because love, especially the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor are the core teachings of almost every genuine spiritual path… However,
Love is also one of the most misunderstood, amorphous, and poorly defined words that are glibly and superficially used…
In today’s presentation, I will outline the varieties of love you will find in World Scripture, and I will hazard my own understanding of how the terms have been misused, and are far too generally understood. Then, I will present how more clear definitions lead to a depth of understanding they can be used to elucidate the promises and blessings of the spiritual path.
So, as that great theologian, Tina Turner emphatically put it, “What love go to do with it?!” Now , we quickly realize that she is taking about passion and sexual chemistry, and while there can be a cogent case made for including “the urge to merge” as a kind of love, it is also the source of heaps of historical heartache!
Romance and its emphasis on sexuality, particularly as it is incessantly hyped and promoted in our culture, can be best understood as being on the feelings level of love; as the social awareness of biological drives; and It can be described less charitably in our Western spiritual circles, that the romantic attitude and outlook acts as the counterfeit of a more mature sense of love; That it acts as a barrier to cultivating a peer relationship based on mutual respect, equal responsibility, clear communications and shared intimacy…
It could be said that through the lens of centuries, and across the millennia of human society, that our particular American culture, being only 240 years old, is still an adolescent society- and furthermore, the crassness of perpetuating this acting out adolescence is something our culture depends on… Why? You know Why!
Because appealing to our biological drives or our desires for gratification and pleasure sells everything from cars to toothpaste! Because of that overarching and encroaching cultural fact, there is an ongoing, highly reinforced attitude and outlook that confuses sex with love!
Now the ancient Greeks, and to a lesser extent, the Romans, would scoff and laugh at us! They would say to us: “Haven’t you learned anything from us, from our literature, plays, poems, and other practices? Is it just some cruel twist of fate that blocks learning or is it a convenient, culturally programmed form of social amnesia that requires each generation of humanity to have to discover all of those hypocrisies and all those illogical discrepancies all over again?
Remembering that it is important to be Biblically literate and to also understand how the language of the dominant culture influenced the theological definitions that were used, or more importantly how they were understood during the process of translation and explanation to the people in the pews. From the creation of the Western church, we find that Hellenistic Greek ideas about love and its descriptive language, has had a crucial and long lasting effect. We can find those philosophical definitions and religious associations that have remained embedded in church teachings, and therefore influential in our lives. So it behooves us to briefly refresh ourselves, and to always remember that there are many kinds of love, and it is important to discern which ones we are talking about so that we can avoid confusion, misunderstanding, and of course, all the erroneous and greed motivated uses in marketing!
Let’s look briefly at our Western ancestral languages that have had a direct impact on religious teaching and on our cultural understandings- The Greek language of love and the adaptations we find in the Latin distinctions and descriptions…
The original four kinds of love given to us in Greek literature, and by extension Greek theology that was so influential in our writing and comprehension of the Bible’s wisdom are these:
Storge: kinship; family love
Philos: Friendship / Fraternis
Eros: Romantic Desire with a particular chosen partner/ Amatis
Agape: Spiritual, disinterested, altruistic / Caritas
The word for love from the Latin, amo, is found in most of the Romance languages… However, in its popular usage, it was an elusively comprehensive term that included everything from spiritual devotion to lust. So, this alarmed the church, and decided that they needed to break it down, and define it into separate and distinct categories like the Greeks had done…
The sociological fact remains: Patterns of cultural comfort with language have always had a long shelf life and will resist further refinement. The cultural tendency is to see definitions as a limit on the convenience of free expression- In our current society, we can quickly create slang with great speed, we will change definitions based on how a culture will accept or tolerate those changes or how easily a word can be commandeered and assigned a new and different meaning. In our contemporary culture, we give words a very wide latitude to fit whatever need we have, we want to create, or that arises…
Why does knowing about this matter? If you want to investigate the origins of attitudes found in Scripture or the background of any great spiritual concept, it is important to knew the cultural realities that attend to it and that can influence definitions and applications… One brief example: The Greeks would always make fun of sexual desire… They thought it to be comic, undignified, and crass… However, they would extol and praise motherhood, and the feminine qualities associated with caring for others… And they would revere all the ideals around being a family… They did not see any hypocrisy in that!
Now apply that to Greek theology and to the traditions around Mary… She is to be praised, and in some cultures, prayed to with great reverence–Because is the mother of God. And from that Greek influence that separates sex and parenting, we can see why the church found it so necessary to teach and believe that she was a virgin or undefiled by the taint of human sexuality! For centuries, it was taught that there were two Marys- the good mother, and the Magdelene, or the prostitute… Obviously, both points of view were erroneous and harmful to the appreciation and respect necessary and needed to be given to all women!
In this overview, I focus on the challenge of spiritual love, always considered to be the highest expression of love, in the Greek called Agape, and in the Latin, Caritas, or delectio…
We best understand this as the way that God loves humankind… It is therefore, the highest and best way to love…
And so it naively follows, and has become a commonly held view in New Age or in various esoteric spiritual groups, to say that I love you unconditionally or to put on an attitude that aims to promote oneself as being so spiritual that you are effortlessly able to love life and love everyone unconditionally… You know, just the way that God loves us…
To use the scientific term for this: Hogwash or Bull…!
Here’s why… Here is where there is a sharp and thorny problem, and where the idealistic notions promoted by both conservative and liberal religious approaches will surely be punctured… We can ask: Does God love us spiritually?… How does God love us?
Is divine love an ultimate quality that transcends the human dimension or does it simply include it as a part of the more messy whole? Is God’s love without any human feelings?
Does God love us in a more aloof, disinterested way, you know, not really caring about us personally? There is a danger in using the term love too easily, glibly, as a general panacea that robs it of its distinctiveness, power…
And yes, a part of it can be passion, sex, romance! However, we have to be wary of its limits… Is it really true that “All we need is love?”… Sorry, Paul… Love is NOT all we need!
For love to be genuine, real, substantial and sustainable, it must include along with affection and desire, generous amounts of respect, trust, honesty, and in the case of trying to model our human love after God’s love, a quality of holy acceptance.
I see that quality of divine love agape, or caritas as having and holding on to a radical acceptance of all that is our lives…
Since as Unity teaches, that God is ever present, and all knowing, then it would follow that God accepts us knowingly and compassionately as the divine has created us! As humans, we are a mixed bag of insights and challenges, including episodes of numbing ignorance and blinding fear, and as humans, we are capable of breakthroughs that result in profound genius and exalting compassion.
As I understand it, God comprehends and fully understands that every human being is a work in progress… That biologically, we were given emotions, and then, through culture and conditioning, we manufacture and reinforce our subjective feelings and create social expectations and attitudes. We humans have drives and needs, hang ups and short comings, and while we are capable of acts of heroism and feats of transcendent altruism, for the most part, we have a daily, and maybe a constant need to lean on the Infinite and not lean on our worldly understandings or shifting cultural norms to provide us with sufficient truth, compassion, acceptance, and love.
In Proverbs we are given: Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. From Mrs. Eddy’s Science and Health, we read her firstlines: For those leaning on the sustaining Infinite, today is big with blessings.
I would suggest that while Agape and Caritas are beautiful soaring heartfelt ideals, I do not expect- outside of some very isolated saintly possibilities, that this kind of fully detached, unconditional love or love for Its own sake is very likely among or between we human beings… Our relationships are essentially soulful contracts, and each of us entering into a contract has a set of spoken and unspoken behavioral expectations that built into each and every one, and with each person we choose to care for or decide to love… I would doubt that any marriage or serious partnership would thrive on a disinterested and detached love! It sounds boring!
While it is true that we do not have to live up to one another’s egotistical or unrealistic expectations, because we do risk our hearts, and because we invest our feelings and try to uphold cherished values if we or our partner disappoints or fails to uphold certain “non-negotiables that the other person needs or requires, then the relationship is over, whether it was legal or not!
So we humans can aspire to Agape, Caritas, and towards a detached willingness to not be affected by whatever happens to us in and through our relationships, but it will be a very rare person who will be able to attain it… And for me, its an open question as to whether or not attaining such detached disinterest is very desirable or good in many ways!
Conversely, seeing God’s love as being based in a kind of noninvolvement can be problematic and misunderstood… After all, God does not care about the minutiae of our human lives… God does not care IF its sunny, if a politician speaks, or who wins the game! However, The idea that God is so intimately connected to us, so involved in every small facet of our lives, and has nothing better to do than… Oh… Find us a parking space, is either supremely arrogant or ludicrous at best!
A larger, more inclusive and compassionate understanding of how God works can be found in the qualities of God, as spelled in Unity where we are taught that the energies and activities of life and existence that we would call God have a supernal residual benevolence… A quality of always being there…of always being Good…
God is a reliable source and a holy resource for our hearts and minds. Through prayer, meditation, contemplation… And actively as it is taught by Unity leaders such as Butterworth, “God can not do anymore for us than God can do with us…”
10 In that way, the Divine becomes our principal source of both consolation and hope for all the issues and concerns facing humankind. Now we can better understand what the Greeks and the Biblical writers were trying to say to us: Agape or Caritas is an ever present quality of compassionate constancy.
From our conviction that God is ever available, we can gain a radical acceptance of a divinely authored reality based on God’s omnipresence… That no matter what happens to us, we are never alone, never beyond reach, and we are never outside of the love of God!
Returning to our human capacity for love, while such acceptance can be aimed for, I have found it evolutionary and beneficial to see love as being intimately attached to our will… It becomes our responsibility, our intention, and our willingness to choose love when there can be other competing feelings, conflicting emotions, and other challenging reactions that are present.
Let me end with these two cogent and visionary reflections:
First, Scholar and Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel makes this observation about life and the quality of our relationships:
“Life is a continual process of relational re-synthesis… We are broken apart, and then we are put together again… Each time we are broken, and each time we are put back together again, it is different… We have changed.
Each time different, and if it is true to one’s soul, then it will build on one’s past, and move us further away from fear, away from complacency, and move us into new definitions of self and society. …
The continual process by which we experience change is made more meaningful by the quality of our interactions, by the depth of our caring, by our participation in a true sense of community, and by creating genuine relationships.”
And Jesuit scientist and mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire. ”
May every day be a true Valentines… Where we are given gracious opportunities to display our unselfish understanding and by doing so, make our lives contribute to increasing blessing and widening the effects of love and caring in our world… AMEN
Love, or the act and the response of being loving constantly requires our attention… The duty to love and care for ourselves and attend in loving ways to others never ends…
Because an elevated, sincere and trustworthy love is a heart-centered decision that is made every day, each moment you are together… That awareness is what opens us up to the reality that true or spiritually informed relationships are trialogues- connected and interwoven by the God of our understanding- in that way we have a God who is an ever present Spirit that accepts, upholds, challenges and blesses us each day.
In my years of teaching about marriage and family issues and concerns, and in my work with couples in wedding planning, I will often ask them to define love… That is usually sentimental, romantic, and easily understood on a feelings level… However, that is not even the half of it from a spiritual and more intentional point of view!
One of the best definitions of love I have come across what first written by M.Scott Peck, psychiatrist whose best selling book, The Road Not Taken, was a perennial favorite and I would always have it on my bookshelf… In the book, he defines love as existing when this is true:
“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” …
” Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who truly loves does so because of a decision to love. Love is not simply a feeling. Love is an action, a soulful activity… Genuine love implies an ongoing commitment and the daily exercise of wisdom.”
Meditation: God’s Love I John 4:17-21
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. …
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters,* are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister* whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
The Commandment we are given is this: Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Wow! That is quite an assignment! To love others with a clear, consistent compassion that would then reflect how God loves us! An enlightened approach to understanding our human quest for wholeness and holiness rests on how we understand this ultimate responsibility, and how well we practice it in our lives…
Let me first say this: I have never met a person who has always kept all the Commandments, every day and in every way… And I expect this is also true concerning the requirement to love for all the Christians and metaphysicians I have met all along my life’s way… Along with the Great Commandment, there are no more challenging verses we humans can aspire towards or hope to reach! It all seems so impossible when you are a student of human nature!
Maybe that is why mystics and teachers have used the dramatic phrase: We are doomed to love! Another way, a little more gentle, is that we are destined to love… However, the challenge still remains!
I have heard it said that that everything boils down to choices… The ones we make, and the ones made for us by others… What about the choice to love? Can we ever choose NOT to love? Are we truly doomed to love no matter what, no matter what might come our way???
I prefer to render this declarative emphasis on being doomed… Doomed without being gloom-ed… In this way:
As divine children of the Holy One Reality we call God. We are required to love ourselves, our neighbors, and God with equal intensity and with a fullness of heart! In short, we can do nothing but love, IF… we desire to live in harmony, in equity, in justice, and in peace…
Of course, our society, our churches, and most everyone we can meet are a long way off from living out this ideal… But even that discouraging admission does not free us from the spiritual obligation… Even though I hesitate to use that term, I know, I will reframe it from that ultimate mystical command… That we have continually before us a sacred invitation, a holy active aspiration, and we have before us the gracious opportunity to love and then be loved… AMEN