Love is complicated. After I came back to the Church, I realized that the world’s definition of love wasn’t going to cut it. I knew that it had to be more than just a feeling, but I was still confused. How could I define something so powerful, so sacred, and so broadly applicable to everything from my mother to my future husband to Harry Potter? (Oh, Harry Potter.) I finally worked out a definition of love, based on my understanding of the theology of the body, but I couldn’t quite express how to apply it to all the objects of my love. Little did I know that the inimitable C.S. Lewis, author of spiritual classics I already love such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, had tackled that one, too. His book on the definition and nature of human love shows us that there is not just one kind of love, but many, and love of God is the highest of The Four Loves.
As usual, if you’re new to C.S. Lewis or to apologetics, I recommend starting with Mere Christianity. Lewis’s style can take some getting used to. Starting your journey through Lewis’s Christian apologetics works with The Four Loves is like diving into the Bible from page one looking for Jesus. Ask Jen Fulwiler; that’s not the best approach. You’ll need to know at least the basics of the Trinity and to be comfortable with philosophical reasoning. It will also help if you can define love. My definition is “the choice to do what is best for the beloved.” It’s more than just a feeling, although feelings are important, too. What is best is not always what the beloved wants, and it may cost the lover the love of the beloved, but our call as Christians is to love fully and selflessly.
It remains, though, that we don’t love everyone and everything in the same way. I don’t love my mother the same way I love Harry Potter, and I expect to love my future husband differently than I love even my closest female friends. Lewis groups human love, seeking the best for the beloved, into five categories: sub-human, affection, friendship, eros, and charity. That grouping covers all of my loves, and it all makes so much sense! For example, I am not a pet person in the slightest, but I have friends who love their pets as though they are family. Animals aren’t people, though, so the love we have for them is not the same as the love we have for actual humans. Love of country (patriotism) and love for objects (water when we are thirsty) fall into the first precategory.
The human loves, like humans themselves, are more complex. I’ll attempt to scratch the surface for you. Lewis explains that most human love fills a desire, giving us something we need; he calls that Need-love. When we love someone or something simply because he, she, or it exists and can be loved, that is Gift-love, which is better. Affection is the most basic love and is usually the love of family members. We love people who belong to us, so to speak. Animals can have that kind of love. Friendship is an exclusive form of affection. We choose our friends. Some people are our friends, but most of the people in the world are not. Affection and friendship are usually included in the higher loves.
Eros and charity take human love to the highest heights. Eros is also called erotic, romantic, or sexual love. Eros applies our biological sexuality to a real human person. The true eros love must be Gift-love, not Need-love. True eros loves even the one who is clearly unworthy of love. Charity goes one step further, expressing the love God has for us and we ought to have for him. All other loves must come second to our love of God. The beautiful thing is that, although we love God because we need him, he gives us as a gift the ability to offer Gift-love to him, to appreciate him for his existence alone and not even for his creating us and giving us the power to love.
If that blew your mind, you are not alone. If you’re struggling with the love you feel for someone who doesn’t deserve you, read this book. If you’re wondering how to put God at the top of the list of your loves, read this book. If you’ve read my bio and are wondering how my three greatest loves could possibly be Jesus, grammar, and Harry Potter, read this book—and come be my friend; it makes more sense when you get to know me. Thinking and talking about love isn’t just for weddings and Valentine’s Day. It’s for every day. Make this meditation on love part of your day today.
Up next: Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious, a newly-published book on authentic Catholic womanhood by author and podcaster Pat Gohn