Love is a highly polysemous word. One can love wine or New York or a spouse or a friend or a family member, and all of these loves are different. Much has been written about the different loves from a Christian perspective (cf. The Four Loves), often appealing to the multiple Greek words for love (storge, philia, eros, agape, etc.) used in the New Testament.
Some Christians lament that these are all translated into the single word love in English translations, as it can obscure which sense is meant in context. But while there is certainly a truth reflected by the multiplicity of Greek terms, I think there is an additional truth in the English conflation. There are commonalities across types of love that justify the use of a single word.
I think one commonality is suggested by the poem “Devotion” by Robert Frost:
The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to the ocean—
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting an endless repetition.
The word choice evokes the constancy of the shore, though in reality every shore is continually changing its shape in response to waves. Thus the constancy in love lies not in rigidity, but in a perpetual willingness to reorient the self in response to the reality of the beloved.
In fact, the shore finds its very shape through its response to the waves. Our identities become formed by our continual response to what we love. Some may bristle at this, seeing it as overly accommodating; there is indeed a self-sacrificing element to it. But also consider this passage from C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed:
All reality is iconoclastic; the earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality.*
Regardless of the type of love, and no matter how painful or humbling or disillusioning it may be, the authentic lover desires the reality of his beloved.
- Regarding love of God: this is perhaps the love that most obviously requires our malleability, and yet we cling so strongly to our personal ideas of God. Lewis writes, again in A Grief Observed: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast.”
- Regarding self-love, I think inauthentic self-love requires no reorientation of the self, while authentic self-love is similar to loving something external. I think Walker Percy (cf. Lost in the Cosmos) and C.S. Lewis (cf. Till We Have Faces) might agree that the reality of the self is no easier to discover than the reality of another. One must strive to see and adjust to the reality of his self if he is ever to love it (cf. The Art of Loving).
- If you’re wondering how all of this can relate to love of things, even a thing as mundane as, say, coffee, read this proclamation of love from Four Barrel.
*Thanks to Jeremy Pierre for the Lewis quote and excellent discussion here.