Thursday, September 19, 2013

On "The Four Loves" by C. S. Lewis ***

A minister got me thinking about the biblical word for "love." He was talking about the Greek term "agape" meaning the love of God, perfect, selfless love. It's a common refrain among Christian teachers. But I was suddenly contemplating the Greeks themselves. The Greeks had no concept of God as Christians do; they had a pantheon of gods. So from where springs a term specifically referencing Godly love? That cannot be how it was used in the Greek.

Some research on the Greek terms--storge, philia, eros, and agape--conveyed to me that the meanings are not perhaps as settled as Christian teachers make it out to be. Indeed, "agape" is often used in the Bible to represent a selfless Godly love, but it can sometimes be used for selfish loves as well (the love of money, the love of the world). "Philia" might be the love of friends, but it is also used in a selfless sense (John 16:27 and Titus 3:4 use "philia"). I tried looking for the term "agape" in contemporary works outside the scriptures but found few; it was, outside the Bible, not so often used apparently. So perhaps the "Godly love" usage took some precedent even among first-century Christians. But not completely. Leave that to the 1800s, to an author who predated C. S. Lewis, and then to Lewis himself and this defining book. Those who give little credence to the differences between philia and agape blame Lewis for making the distinction so concrete, too concrete. But many of these same critics then said they'd never read the Lewis book; I decided I couldn't be one of those, that I needed to see what Lewis himself said.

Interestingly, the term "agape" did not come up in Lewis's book, so far as I remember. But the concept, as espoused by Christian teachers, certainly did. There is a human love and a Godly one, the latter one to which we aspire. This love, Lewis calls, in his final chapter, charity (as in the KJV translations of 1 Corinthians 13). To inherit that "heavenly kingdom," Lewis says, we must give up our natural loves for a spiritual one, must let the natural transform into the spiritual: Our earthly love can enter the heavenly kingdom "only on one condition; not a condition arbitrarily laid down by God, but one necessarily inherent in the character of Heaven: nothing can enter there which cannot become heavenly. 'Flesh and blood,' mere nature, cannot inherit the Kingdom. Men can ascend to Heaven only because the Christ, who died and ascended to Heaven, is 'formed in him.' Must we not suppose that the same is true of a man's loves? Only those which Love Himself has entered will ascend to Love Himself. And these can be raised with Him only if they have, in some degree and fashion, shared His death; if the natural element in them has submitted--year after year, or in some sudden agony--to transmutation."

In this sense, Lewis does pose a spiritual love as above a physical love. I'm not as sure the Bible makes this distinction quite as certain. In places, God's love for man is denoted as "philia"--friendship/brotherly love. And yet Lewis, when speaking in metaphor of earthly loves, equates God's love more with the other two Greek words: "Friendship is very rarely the image under which Scripture represent the love between God and Man. It is not neglected; but far more often, seeking a symbol for the highest love of all, Scripture ignores this seemingly almost angelic relation and plunges into the depth of what is most natural and instinctive. Affection is taken as the image when God is represented as our Father; Eros, when Christ is represented as the Bridegroom of the Church."

But a concordance search shows neither "eros" nor "storgi" explicitly appear in scripture. Meanwhile, "philia" (and derivatives) is used at least six times in reference to love between God and man.

Interestingly, Lewis does hold friendship love in a fairly high but special esteem, enough that, before I got to his chapter on charity, I thought he might not actually hold a strong view of hierarchies of love. What Lewis admires about friendship love is that it is the one love that is not as much based on need or on giving (a distinction he sets up in the first chapter and returns to in the last and which I will discuss shortly). It is, as he notes, "the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary." There is no expectation that your friend do something for you other than that you simply enjoy each others' company--though should a need arise, friends will help one another out--and then go back to being friends. While "eros," Lewis notes, is about naked bodies, "philia" is about naked souls. Good friends drive us toward goodness, while evil friends drive us toward the evil. Friends hold each other in high esteem, esteeming themselves more lowly than the others in their coterie (but the danger is that the coterie itself will often view itself as higher than those outside it).

I noted that Lewis makes a big deal about need and giving. He says, in his first chapter, that all earthly love is based on these two principles. At first, we might be inclined to say that God is the giver and humanity the needer, and that might make us think giving a superior love. "Need," we might say, is selfish. But Lewis points out that no one would claim that a baby who needs its mother or a child who looks up to and for his father is selfish. So we cannot quite equate need love with selfishness but rather a different form of love. (Indeed, a give love could be selfish as well, if the reason for the giving is to prop up one's own egocentric needs.) Spiritual love, however, Lewis points out in his last chapter transforms and transcends these components. And in fact, the greatest form of love is simply appreciation.

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