What Is Love?

Jesus among the Doctors (1651-1656) by David Teniers the Younger. Public Domain.
Jesus among the Doctors (1651-1656) by David Teniers the Younger. Public Domain.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” – 1 John 4:7-8

We know love is important, and that is, at first glance, about all we can say. God is love; love is good; love thy neighbor as thyself. These are at once commandments to a most supreme duty and, at the same time, slogans to be plastered on felt banners, affixed to CCD directors’ white-plaster office walls.

Rather than define the term in its essence here (a task beyond my training and my pay grade), I want to think about it rhetorically. Christian love has an active dimension—love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemy—that is always predicated on the fact that God is Himself love. This force—if I may call it that—has to be communicated verbally and physically, and thus is always communicated, in some sense, rhetorically.

I’m not interested in this dimension merely because I’m a grad student in a literature program (though that does make this a task proper to my training and at my pay grade, I hope). Its importance, rather, stems from the fact that this is the dimension of love most Catholic find themselves navigating most of the time. When you try to counsel your depressed friend or deal with an angry online commentator, you’re figuring out how the rhetoric of love ought to look in a given situation. And that is to say nothing of political and social disagreements in their most basic forms (e.g. “love the sinner, not the sin”).

With that in mind, it seems popular discourse divides the rhetoric of love into two possibilities (these are my terms): strong and weak. The strong corresponds to a sort of “tough love.” At the level of emotion, this often means the use of phrases like “what you’re doing is a sin, and I’m telling you that it’s debased because I love you” or “you need to overcome this depression; it’s destroying you and the only way out is to pray for mercy and drag yourself into the light, as God wills.” Intellectually, it often takes the form of “I have proven you wrong; meditate on that wrongness and you will come to see the truth” or “I see no reason to respond to such a stupid question.”

Memes, more often than not, operate in this way. Cleverness masks dismissal; the “correctness” of the poster is signaled by his ability to condense the argument into imagistic shorthand (even if he, as is the case for hyper-aware Millennials, knows that the meme abbreviates discourse, and is thus, at some basic level, unfair). On Twitter, I recently called this a “Dominican charism,” an outgrowth of that Cathar-fighting spirit we associate with the Order of Preachers; its opposite one might associate with the Franciscans (these are analogies—note their imperfections if you must).

The dangers of this approach are well trod. A friend, for example, recently told me about a popular Latin Trad commentator bullying a fellow Catholic who liked video games. Because the kid spent time (and perhaps too much time) diverted by such things, he was denying the importance of “manning up,” of having kids, wearing suits, and whatever else it is that certain Trads hold to be important. Terms akin to “pathetic addict” were used.

This sort of rebuke appeals to some people; they appreciate the conviction of their opponent and see love in precisely that determination (though I have my doubts that calling someone “insect” or “pathetic addict” is ever an effective presentation of love). But it risks, in its commitment to the purity of truth, a surrender of the gentleness that is also part of the purity of love, more so in a society and time such as our own, where this sort of rhetoric is most likely to attract those already similarly minded. To be crass, one doesn’t convert the supposedly emotive and “weak” Millennial generation (taken in general) by bullying them or refusing to listen to their side of the story. In other words, this approach risks alienating precisely those who, on many readings, are furthest from the Church.

Then there is the “weak” approach. It is hard to avoid caricature here, precisely because, as a self-reflective, meme-loving Millennial, the absurdity of vulgar versions of this approach is obvious. My generation, insofar as we exist as a generation, has enough holdover from Generation X to be bitter and sarcastic. If the weak approach means something like permissiveness, or openness that privileges generosity and gentleness over the immediate force of a truth (e.g. “tell me about your robust, adulterous sex life, so that I may understand it with a view to getting you to stop” rather than “stop that right now; it’s vile”), it runs up against the harshness and grimness of the ever-ironic Internet Age. We may like it when people listen, but we’re also a cynical lot. “Hippy,” for good or for ill, largely has become a bad word among my confreres for a reason.

But “weakness” also has an advantage. Simone Weil gets at it in her essay “Human Personality”:

If you say to someone who has ears to hear: “What you are doing to me is not just,” you may touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention and love. But it is not the same with words like, “I have the right…” or “you have no right to…” They evoke a latent war and awaken the spirit of contention […] Thanks to this word [rights], what should have been a cry of protest from the depth of the heart has been turned into a shrill nagging of claims and counter-claims, which is both impure and unpractical.

Buried in this talk of justice and rights is a point about the needs of the human person. Human beings (and I assert this as an axiom of sorts) desire to be listened to and understood, even if, at times, this manifests in its own twisted opposite: the pushing away of the other, the isolation of the self. The act of listening to another call out beneath layers of detritus—of pain, of scandal, most centrally, of sin—is to dig beneath the “shrill nagging” the strong-rhetorical approach to love often becomes. To posit listening as the first act in receiving a human being in love is to avoid precisely the pitfall of “claims and counter claims,” into which so much conversation about truth and love devolves.

Both approaches thus have their limits. In effect, I’d say both are contextual, and only in knowing one’s particular audience can one really apply the correct mixture of “strong” and “weak.” Merely to commit to one is to deny the importance of rhetoric in the first place. We are almost always working with some mishmash of the two.

Most of us, however, are not in a position to evaluate every situation in full before we enter it. To post a meme is to risk ruffling feathers never before seen, even totally unknown. To express an open and listening ear to a person damaged to the point of bitterness may merely mean mockery; such people often deploy an analysis of the listener, combined with a sort of cynical stereotyping, to write off the effort to help from the beginning, to close off the possibility of love.

What, then, is the best approach to assume in general? What is the baseline rhetoric of love in 2017, if not at all times?

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