God Is Love
by Pope Benedict XVI
(108 pages, $14.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Robert Hart
The trumpet gives no more uncertain sound than does the word “love” to modern ears. In the 1960s John Lennon learned to “say the word love,” and soon became the inventor of a new doctrine we may (charitably) call sola caritas or maybe, more accurately, simply sola amor. We have no greater example of the confusion about how to define love than the spectacle of this man who, for the sake of a new “love,” abandoned his wife and son.
Nonetheless, meaning may still be made of his words, “All you need is love,” as long as that meaning is defined by a theologian, specifically a theologian who begins with the words of St. John, “God is love; and he that abides in love abides in God, and God in him,” and who understands them in terms of the specific love (in Greek agape, in Latin caritas) St. Paul describes in his classic and unequaled passage on charity.
Eros in Its Place
In his first encyclical, published last year on the Internet and now available in book form, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), Pope Benedict XVI begins by addressing the need for a clear understanding of what the Church means by the word “love.”
After a brief introduction, the first part of the encyclical addresses a “problem of language” with “one of the most frequently used and misused of words,” defining that word through the four biblical words translated “love.” (It is impossible to read this without thinking back to C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, a book for which the pope has long been known to have a high regard.)
In doing so, he provides a deep insight into the whole reality of man, placing the psychology and even the body of man and woman in the context of our relationship with each other and with God, seen in light of salvation as revealed in Jesus Christ. He does not shy away from the subject of eros, noting the presence of this word, howbeit infrequently, in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament quoted in the original New Testament and used by the ancient Church), though pointing out that it never appears in the New Testament.
He places eros in the context of agape and philia. It is not right, he argues, to give it priority above all else, which the ancient Greeks did, and modern Westerners do, as “a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a ‘divine madness’ which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness.”
It is far from the Christian understanding to treat the body in this way, as an object detached and elevated above the soul. While “nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having opposed the body . . . the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive,” Benedict writes.
Eros, reduced to pure “sex,” has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. . . . Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter co-penetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility.
But he is not, we must be clear, denying the place of eros, but, recognizing its power, directing it to its proper end. Because eros can take man out of himself to a world beyond his understanding, “it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.”
As Benedict continues the first section of the encyclical, it becomes even more clear why he found it useful to place eros in the context of the higher loves. He makes great use of the Old Testament image, in the writings of the prophets, of God as the husband of Israel, calling for the fidelity that is produced by true love.
We see the gospel as the greatest of love stories, a true romance of divine caritas, ultimately taking us to the Cross, where love is seen in its clearest light. In the Cross, God’s justice and his love are turned against each other.
His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in order to raise man up and save him. . . . By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. John 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). . . . It is from there that our definition of love must begin.
In the second part of the encyclical, Benedict deals with the practical ways in which the Church must act in this world to advance charity and meet genuine human need. He stresses that in all of its practical, economic, and social work of benevolence among the needy, the Church adds that personal touch of love which the political and economic structures of the world cannot give, even at their best.
Furthermore, consistent with his teaching in the 1980s about the error of Liberation Theology (and, no doubt, with memories of living in a nation whose government at one time sacrificed people to ideology, seeking to perfect mankind at the expense of innocent human lives), the pope writes against the idea of ignoring or neglecting human need in order to create a perfect system of justice in which there can be no suffering. He strongly rejects the notion that anyone can be sacrificed or allowed to suffer unnecessarily for some idea (someone else’s idea) of a greater good.
Benedict emphasizes the importance of each individual as the worthy object of the Christian’s love. In doing so, he could have added the words of Jesus Christ in his parable of the sheep and the goats: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these,” and conversely, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these” (emphasis mine).
Charity does not despise the need of the one for the sake of some illusive “greater good.” A system of perfect justice about which ideologues fantasize, ideologues of the Left or the Right, a system that is somehow worth the pain and suffering, the neglect, and even the death of the one, cannot be tolerated if we know that God is love.
By giving such sharp and profound definition to the word “love,” Benedict leads us to a deeper knowledge of God. He helps us to think concretely about the meaning of St. John’s words, the opening words of the work, “God is love; and he that abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” Our rest and abiding place is in the divine heart itself, and we must not settle for any stop along the way.
Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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