Is love something ready-made, automated—so that all we have to do is push “play”? Does this guy or that girl always have my best interests at heart?
I think we know the answers to these questions—for finding true love is often a complicated and messy process.
The title of this blog takes its cue from John Paul II who used this very phrase at the outset of his famous book, Love and Responsibility: “[O]n the basis of the Christian ethics born of the Gospel, a problem exists, which can be described as an ‘introduction of love into love’.”
The first “love” refers to Jesus’ great command—that we love as He loves, to the point of dying to ourselves and sacrificing for the good of the other (cf. Jn 15:12-13); and the Greek word Jesus uses here for love is agape which signifies a divine, total self-giving love—not a self-interested or self-serving love. The second “love” in the quote above refers to that which stems from our sexual drive—not bad in itself, but something which initially responds to a lesser order of love, one flowing from our perception of the sex appeal of the other. And the Greek word denoting this love is eros (hence, “erotic”).
The great task, then, is to introduce “love” (agape) into “love” (eros). The vision of the Church is not the suppression of eros—not the suppression of the romantic and erotic—but the full permeation of eros with agape. And this is actually prerequisite for the full flowering of love: for we are embodied persons. That is, we have what John Paul II refers to as “sexual values” (our physical sex appeal as well as our masculine or feminine charm and allure); but these sexual values do not exhaust our dignity as persons. Thus, the problem with eros running on its own is that the maturing of love often freezes right there; that is, our love never deepens beyond physical and emotional attraction—we never go beyond the “sexual values” of the other.
But if we allow eros to be integrated into the context of agape, then our appreciation and even attraction to the sexual values of the other is not diminished but integrated into the context of the whole person. This allows a fuller love to develop—in fact, it’s the only way true love can develop. For love is not merely the union of two bodies, nor even simply an emotional bond between two people. Love is first and foremost an unrelenting act of the will ordered to the objective good of the other. Here, true love must often rise to the challenge of having the strength to say “no” to eros when it conflicts with a thorough-going agape. In fact, right here true love is often tested and made manifest: for if someone is willing to make this sacrifice for you, what could they not do for you? And if they aren’t willing to give their all for you here, then what does that say about the depth of their love?
In Love and Responsibility, John Paul II later says that the sexual drive has a natural orientation to turn into love; but it can’t do this on its own. We have immense dignity as persons, but with that dignity comes the great responsibility to love (hence the title)—not merely in an automated way that simply reacts to external stimuli, but in a truly personal way. True love—worthy of the person—is a great act of the will, a choice to act for the good of the other. And only with this great act of the will does our love reach a fully human and personal level. Here, we have the “introduction of love into love.” And if I may speak from experience, agape love doesn’t diminish the romantic and erotic, but actually enhances it to a degree the hook-up culture couldn’t possibly comprehend.
Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. Among his publications are Spiritual Survival in the Modern World: Insights from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again: A Christian Philosophy of Life. He and his wife, Sarah, live with their four children in Atchison, KS.