Monday, May 14, 2012

Is Christian love "gibberish"?

Busy week here with little time to write! This post originally ran on January 24, 2011, comparing the atheist view of love with the Christian view.


It's clear from comments on this blog that there are two very different views of love: The Christian view and the secular/atheist view.

The cultural shift from the Christian view to the secular view has been steady -- and troubling. In past posts, I've asked atheists "What is love?" and the answers and discussions have been fascinating. Here are some thoughts on love from our atheist readers:

To me, love is a human emotion and doesn't have a 'meaning', any more than other human emotions like euphoria or anger or curiosity or whatever. 

Just as I painted the walls of my master bedroom blue because it is my favorite color and makes me happy, I am married to my husband because he makes me happy as well. 

I think that the feeling of "love" is what sets marriage apart from any sort of close friendship you might have with someone else, so once it is gone, there is no longer any point in staying with that person.

I absolutely would equate love to "chemical reactions in a brain that was randomly created and has the basic effect of making us feel good." 

I don't think that I chose to love [my husband]. I think my love for him is one of those crazy chemical reactions, and not something that I picked for myself. I would say that love is something you "have" for someone, not something you "do" or "choose."

[Love is] a very special emotion. 

[Love for a child is] due to a biological desire to care for your young [and] has no higher meaning than that.

Love is an emotion...associated with hormonal changes, physiologic changes, rapid heart rate, deep emotion, glad feelings, sad feelings, satisfaction, anxiety. Not under voluntary control necessarily.

I appreciate and respect the honesty of my atheist readers. This is how I would sum up their position, and they should correct me if I have it wrong:

Secular view of love = involuntary emotion; random chemical reaction; biological response; transitory; a feeling you "get", not something you "do".

Let's switch gears and look at the Christian understanding of love:

Christian love is an act of the will

Love is a choice.
Love is a deliberate decision.
Love is willing the good of the other.
Love is an outpouring of self ("self-donation") to the other.
Love is an offering; in other words, a sacrifice.

Love is not a feeling, although feelings do accompany love. Sometimes those feelings are ecstatic, blissful and peaceful, and sometimes they are excruciating, agonizing and raw. At other times, there are no feelings at all.

What a relief and a freedom that true love is dependent on the will alone! Imagine the possibilities: While our emotions are not always within our control, our decision to love always is. This makes us capable of loving our enemies (or a cranky spouse, a defiant child, a nasty neighbor). It made the saints capable of loving their executioners. (Think about that for a minute!!)

Christian love is not transitory, self-interested and fleeting, but rather transcendent, transformative, and eternal.

We are told (and shown) by Christ that the greatest love is to lay down one's life for another. This is no "good feeling" or "chemical reaction" -- it is a choice and an act, a willful offering of one's whole self.

When I recently wrote about the sacrificial nature of love, one atheist reader responded with a single word: "gibberish"

Gibberish? Really? 

But which view of love do we all yearn for? Is it the view that says "My love for you is based on an involuntary good feeling I get from you, and once the feeling is gone, so am I"? Or is the one that says "My love for you is based on an irrevocable decision to put your good ahead of my own, even at the cost of my own life"?

Which love do you want? 

I don't really have to ask. We were all made to love and be loved, not to use and be used. In the depths of our souls, we know this. Every one of us knows this. 

And it's not gibberish -- it's a clear, understandable, harmonious love song, straight to the heart.


  1. Eliminating from your life that love is a choice, an act of will, makes it so easy to justify hatred and apathy. Why would anyone want love to be so fleeting and fickle? If love isn't sacrificial, it is selfish, and other than our modern Amerian culture, where is such selfishness celebrated? Love has to be an actual choice of will; otherwise it is meaningless nothingness.

  2. This post was so reassuring to read while I'm bouncing a colicky infant in my lap. I don't have Hallmark feelings of "love" for my seven week old newborn who is currently kicking my butt with 4 hour long crying fits. I love her with a fierce decision to trust, to serve and to hope. And I'm profoundly grateful to be in a sacramental marriage with my husband. Our life doesn't seem "romantic" with a needy newborn right now, but we are having these beautiful, loving moments that dinner in Paris just can't touch.

  3. This describes the difference that I feel depending on the group I'm around. When I'm around exclusively non-Christians, there's a definite aura that is lack-o-love. It colors every comment, every put-down, every interaction. Sure, they might like me and we get along, but I can tell it's only because they find me reasonable or clever or whatever. It's a darker presence to be sure, and it still gives me small shocks whenever they say things that obviously indicate that they don't love people in general or even try to ("if someone gave me $1,000,000 to pull the trigger on a stranger, and I wouldn't get caught, I'd totally do it").

    It's a definite contrast to when I'm with a group of Christians, whose love for others is inspired by God.

  4. There are MANY people in the world who are not Christians but not atheists. What about their views? And among the approximately two BILLION Christians in the world there are countless ideas about what love is. How can you say there are "two" views?

  5. Tell me about the other views, Johanne. I'm very much interested. Thanks!

  6. When I think of love, the things that come to my mind are 1 Corinthians 13 and the love a mother has for her child.

    Johanne: I think the closest thing to answer you would be to say that the ways we define love are cultural. I know that our English word "love" has four counterparts in Koine Greek, each describing a different aspect of what we call love. (The corollary to "love" in 1 Corinthians 13 is "agape" which is a soul-changing love that the King James Version of the Bible translates as "charity".) I also remember a friend of mine telling me that when she told her mother that she loved her, she did it in Korean because the Korean evoked feelings that weren't explainable in English.

  7. I briefly took a philosophy course from Franciscan U. in which we studied Dietrich Von Hildebrand's thoughts from his book The Heart. Sadly, I don't remember too much, but maybe someone here is familiar with his thought--the personalist philosophy that influenced Blessed John Paul II. It was eye-opening to me, though, to have this mid-20th century philosopher talk about how certain feelings of love were deeply personal and not mere sentimentality. He seemed to cross that divide between love and the will, and I know the will was much discussed--but my mental abilities and memory totally fail me here! Anyway, I just wanted to chime in and say it isn't necessarily a choice between loving feelings and cold, hard, rational will, although sometimes I think it is. Like, how can anyone possibly love their enemy--that's a great mystery!

  8. dachsiemama, that wonderful personalist philosophy is so clearly what our morally confused world (and our hearts longing for real love) needs today! And when true love exists, the feelings that accompany them (whether eros or agape or philia) are no mere sentimentality, to be sure! :) My point was only that the "feeling" is not the love itself.

  9. REO Johnson. That is so disturbing. I know many atheists who can be somewhat critical (not really what you describe) but many more who are very nice and quite moral. I am a Christian, and many Christians I know are not very nice, and some are extremely harsh and critical.

  10. mary, it may be worth noting that I'm referring to the college students that I was around. So, the Christians were pretty happy kids, while the atheists were "edgy" for breaking away from their upbringing and "thinking" for themselves.

    However, I know what you described to also be the truth.

  11. I am the person who used the word "gibberish" in response to a specific statement of yours long long ago. Oddly, my travels rarely take me to this site-- last time I was here was probably several months ago-- yet I logged on tonight to see that you are still getting mileage out of one of my comments... and STILL mischaracterizing it!! 18 months later!!

    My original comment using the word "gibberish" is not obtainable by me, but I'm sure it was spot on. However, I did find my explanation of the original comment in one of your later posts (mileage, baby) in which you mischaracterized it again: here.

    To review, Leila said: "One last thing: Love doesn't "come from" God; God and Love are the same. God is Love. Whatever is pure love down here is simply a reflection of the Trinity."

    I said that it's "gibberish to anyone who does not believe in God of the Bible. Let's just say that God is all the things that are Good. God is chocolate milk. God is Natural Law. It's gibberish."

    Perhaps "tautology" would have been a more appropriate term. Go for it, that should be good for a few more blog posts. LOL.

    (I'll follow the comment thread until it becomes unbearable.)

  12. Hi Tony! Please don't worry, it's really not all about you.

    You responded with one word, "gibberish" to all the things I had said. It's nice that you fleshed that out much later (how convenient) when I wrote a blog post using your one word comment, and I never took away that clarification. It's there for all to see.

    The real question is: Did I misrepresent these atheists' words? Seeing how I used them verbatim, I don't think I did. And really, that is the bulk of the post: It's a comparison between their view and the Catholic view.

    But if you want it to be all about you, then you can continue to think that it is. ;)

    Your clarification is here for all to see and evaluate.

    And, don't worry about sticking around till it becomes unbearable. I don't want you to have to suffer us Catholic fools. Go about your happy life, truly. We'll be okay here talking our crazy talk. :)

    Blessings, and it is nice to see you again after so long! I hope you are well!

  13. And just because I would never want to misrepresent what transpired, here is the entire exchange (which is "obtainable" by you actually):

    Leila @ Little Catholic BubbleDecember 18, 2010 9:10 PM
    Tony, Mrs. M is an atheist, not a Catholic, so she doesn't care what the Pope has to say about marriage. Her view of love is feelings-based and not the Catholic view at all.

    Pope Benedict did not mention love because the question he was asked in the interview was a technical one. It wasn't about the deeper meanings of marriage. If you have ever read JPII's Theology of the Body, you would be inundated by love. :)

    I agree that society uses the word "love" for any number of emotions. An abusive relationship is not "love" actually. Love is always about willing the good of the other. Abuse is not willing the good of the other.

    If the thing you call "love" is not good, not life-affirming, then it is not, in fact, love.

    Some have said that Love is synonymous with sacrifice. It's an "offering" of oneself to the other. That can be eros (romantic) love or other levels of love, up to agape. But it's always about giving oneself for the other.

    That is the Christian view.

    One last thing: Love doesn't "come from" God; God and Love are the same. God is Love. Whatever is pure love down here is simply a reflection of the Trinity.


    TonyDecember 19, 2010 12:54 PM


    Leila @ Little Catholic BubbleDecember 19, 2010 2:07 PM
    Ummm.... "gibberish"? That's all you've got?

    Tony, just wow.

    Thanks for the reasoned dialogue. Sadly short-lived on your end.


    Leila @ Little Catholic BubbleDecember 19, 2010 6:59 PM
    But Tony, I do have to thank you because you have inspired me to write a post on the Christian meaning of love -- compared to which, your understanding of "love" is gibberish.


    TonyDecember 20, 2010 6:43 AM
    You're welcome.

  14. I provided a bad link in my previous comment. Here is the correct link.

  15. Thank you so much. such a good reminder of what Love is.
    a choice we make, not a 'Feeling" that once its gone we dump the person . that is using them, that is selfish, that is not true love. to me that is sin.
    true love lays down ones life for the other. That is what the Christian is called to love ones freinds, ones spouse.
    True Love never ends.


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