In meandering thoughts this summer, I came to reflect on love, and how in general conversation, we tend to make distinction between Agape, Philia, and Eros. Plato and Aristotle had their own ways of talking about the different “kinds” of love, but for the most part, we Christians tend to define those words this way:
Agape: Deep love, unconditional love, divine love, almost out of reach for the mortal. It is the love God has for us and that we endeavor to return to God.
Philia: Brotherly love (ex. Philadelphia), love between friends, “platonic” love, love without romantic attraction. While acceptable to have this kind of love for God, it is often described as lesser than Agape, which is what we seemingly ought to strive for with God.
Eros: Romantic love, desire, sexual attraction, love between two spouses, not often talked about in relationship to God. This “kind” of love seems to be merely a human endeavor. My sense from a lot of Christians is that eros is almost dirty; we would never ascribe eros to God or Jesus; oddly, that seems almost too intimate or messy. How do we wrap our heads around a God who somehow “feels” Eros for creation?
In the Bible, though there may be other examples, the clearest example in my head of a gospel writer potentially suggesting a difference in love is in John’s gospel, 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Simon Peter three times if he loves him. The first two times, Jesus asks Peter, John uses “agape” in Jesus’ question and “philos” in Peter’s answer. The third time, Jesus uses “philos” and Peter uses “philos.” Many, many times, I’ve heard people try and make some sort of quasi-intellectual argument for Jesus trying to highlight the kind of love he wants from Peter (Agape) and Peter only being able to return the lesser love (philos), or something like that. Certainly there is some weight in such an interpretation, but as I step back and consider the way in which we are created, I have some objections to even the notion of thinking of love as divisible.
Instead of letting Aristotle or Plato define love, I feel more comfortable starting with the premise “God is love.” God, though expressed in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is one, the ultimate paradox (something that we remarkably come close to imitating in community and marriage). If God is love, and is the fount from which all human love is made possible, how can love be divided? It cannot.
Furthermore, if God created all things good (friendship, marriage, sex, plants, animals), then God must have some part in experiencing them (interestingly, John Milton in Paradise Lost imagines that the angels in heaven spend their time having sex…). God cannot create something that is extricable from its creator.
This kind of thinking is similar to what I suggested about the way we think about power; instead of starting with a definition that excludes God and then try to explain God using that definition, we should start with a definition that includes God and explain everything else in that light. Therefore, even if we keep the distinction between “types” of love, somehow we have to come to grips with the fact that Jesus also experiences and blesses agape, philos, and eros.
Shane Claiborne always makes reference to our “lover Jesus,” capturing the language of some of the early church abbas and ammas, who recognized that intimacy with Jesus was akin to that of a romantic relationship. I think that language gets at the element of eros that God is present in.
Yet, I still feel that in the end, any division of love into “kinds” or “types” diminishes the all-encompassing love of God; all love is Agape, or an attempt at it. We may not achieve perfection in love, indeed only God can, but I believe all of our attempts to love are an effort to be in the image of our creator. What we call “types” of love, I think are really just expressions of it. In the same way God is expressed as Father, Son, and Spirit, yet remains one, love is expressed in a myriad of ways, sexuality and friendship being two of them. Many people know the experience of seeing one expression of love lead to another (friends who become spouses). I think anyone who has been married for a long time understands that all of their expressions of love towards their spouse deepen over time and become more like the Agape that we know God is capable of. Sex as an expression of love becomes less the principal way of communicating love as the married couple moves closer to one another an better imitates the love between Christ and his church. Indeed, Agape is sacrificial love that brings the many into one.
The implications of this re-understanding of love are far-reaching especially in the area of sex, sexuality, and singleness, which I hope to dwell on in my next post.