Four years ago I wrote a memoir of how I came to learn what love means. Since that time, I have continued to think about how startling love is, how in many ways it upends so many of our usual assumptions about what it means to be a human being. From an evolutionary perspective, love is downright absurd: self-interested animals act counter to instinctual drives when they feed the poor, tend to the sick, instruct the ignorant, visit the prisoner, welcome the widow, adopt the orphan. In many ways, the corporal works of mercy, as they have come to be known in Catholic tradition, are bad for population. Ebenezer Scrooge famously remarked that getting rid of the poor purges the world of excess population. It is compelling to consider love as the irrational desire to put the concrete good of the individual before the abstract good of the herd.
"Love has its reasons which reason can never know." So wrote Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, in the 17th century. Love operates with an entirely different calculus than that of reason. And since we live in a highly rational world—a post-Enlightenment, modern, Cartesian, scientific, corporate, technological word—we tend to equate the words "reasonable" and "defensible." We say, "It stands to reason!" to imply that reason and truth are the same thing. We say, "Give me a good reason why you're doing that!" to demand an accounting for someone's actions. Often, love appears to us to be the irrational, the sloppy, the immature grounding for life choices.
In the Biblical tradition, though, love is the fruit of a change in one's perspective on life. The word usually translated "conversion" or "repentance" in English is the Greek word metanoia, "change of mind/heart," a compound of the words which can be rendered "after considering." I see a poor person who has made terrible life choices, and reason that he is reaping what he has sown. Reason points me from causes to effect. Metanoia, though, a change of perspective, allows me to reconsider: through the lens of love, I see someone who invites me to an act of generosity, of giving him a coat or inviting him to a meal.
It is impossible to give a reason for love. It is possible only to invite others to experience loving, to come and stand where one is standing when one looks out at the world with love. That is why, for example, Jesus' opening words in his public ministry are "repent [metanoeite], and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). His invitation is to stand where God is standing, and see the world the way God sees the world. Let go of your reasons, he seems to say, and see people as beloveds.
In our experience, the metanoia of loving has meant seeing orphans not as problems to be solved, but as beloved children who will gladden adoptive parents. If you are pro-choice, or if you are someone who has had an abortion, perhaps it may help to imagine what gives fire to the pro-life movement. Each pregnancy we see as a new opportunity for love, an irreplaceable gift that challenges us to love anew. We see abortion as an interruption of the potential for love, the opportunity for love, and so we hope to build a society in which those opportunities are welcomed. Our hope is both simple and profound: to treat human beings through the lens of love, rather than primarily through the lens of reason.
In the big picture, love is the far more powerful way of looking at the world. Love is the game-changer. People die for love; they stretch their energies and resources for love. They move to the farthest ends of the earth for love. They take on the greatest challenges for love. They fast, tighten their belts, work extra jobs, lose sleep for love. They imagine new possibilities. Reason is often a wet blanket: it tells us why we can't do something (it's too expensive; it will require too much work; it's too hard...). Love, on the other hand, moves us to find the ways we can do something. It is the most deeply human dimension of our lives, because it is at the same time the most deeply rooted in the divine.
1/24/2012 5:00:00 AM