St. Paul tells us that love is greater than faith and hope (1 Corinthians 13:13). He also says that one could have the power to move mountains, but if that person lacks love, he counts as nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). Our Lord said that all the law and the profits depend upon two things—love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34-40). Now, these are some of the more famous passages of the New Testament. The question I want to explore is, why does love have the central role that it does in Christianity? One of the reasons, I argue, has to do with our natural constitution as human beings. We are “hardwired” for relationships as it were, and the highest form of expression that a relationship can exhibit is love.
The Uniqueness of Human Relationships
Perhaps all sinful acts can be understood as disordered relations. A murderer has a disordered relationship with his or her victim(s). A dictator has a disordered relationship with those under his or her authority. And an unfaithful spouse has a disordered relationship with his or her better half. Or rather, in committing these acts, the perpetrators introduce disorder into the relationships they have. It is important here to make a distinction.
There is a somewhat trivial sense in which all things can have relationships with other things. Dirt has a relationship with the plants that have taken root in it. Animals have relations with their offspring, mates, prey, etc. What makes human relationships unique is the fact that we have the powers of intellect and will (as we saw in the first installment of this series). These are immaterial powers that allow us to conceptualize our relationships and pursue them in an intentional and rational way.
It is precisely because of our rational capacities that our relationships with each other and the world take on more meaning and responsibility. Our power of choice is also the cause of many disorders that enter into our relations. This is not true for non-rational creatures. The actions, relationships and any disorder that may exist therein of non-rational actors can all be described in terms of instincts, genetics, disease, scientific laws and the like. But when we begin to speak of human actions and relationships, reason, intentions and choice must enter the discussion if it is to be adequate. The types of relationships we have fall into two basic categories—the physical and the psychological/spiritual.
Two Types of Relationships
The physical relationships correspond to the needs of our bodies. We need food, drink, shelter, heat, air conditioning, peace, safety, clothing, etc. All of these things allow the physical aspects of our nature to flourish and thrive. In order to get these things we have to work together with our fellow human beings. This is something Plato speaks of in The Republic. The basic idea is that we cannot supply our physical needs either at all or as well if we try to supply them by ourselves as opposed to working with others. Thus our bodies impel us to seek fellowship with others for our own survival. The bonds formed merely for the sake of these needs are physical relationships in the sense I am using the word.
Our psychological/spiritual relationships correspond to the needs of our minds and souls. In order for our minds to develop we need parents to raise us and schools to train us. Unlike other animals, when we are alone we can understand and conceptualize that loneliness. We can see that life is not as full devoid of any sort of relationship and interaction with another. This drives us to seek out the companionship of others. However, the needs of our minds go even deeper than this.
Desires of the Mind and the Soul
Remember that in first part of this series I outlined a classical argument for the immateriality of the mind. One implication of this is that since the mind is immaterial it is not subject to the same limits as physical powers. One of the hallmarks of physical capacities is that they can be indulged to satisfaction. For example, the stomach can only desire so much food, the eyes can only take in so much light and so forth. The mind, however, is not limited in that way.
To be sure, there is a limit to how much we can know as human beings. This has to do with our mind’s connection to the body, and the fact that we are created and contingent beings. However, even though there is a natural limit to how much we can know, the immateriality of the mind means that there is no limit to what we desire to know. And since the will is simply our soul’s power to choose what the mind knows and put it into action, there is also no limit to what we can desire to choose.
St. Thomas Aquinas understood this well and then posed the question, is there something that can satisfy man’s mind and will? He answered that happiness can satisfy the infinite desires of the mind and the will. And happiness is friendship with God. God is the satisfaction of these desires because He is immaterial, infinite, and the source of truth and love. Friendship with God, therefore, constitutes our most precious relationship and is the deepest longing of the human soul.[i]
The Centrality of Love
This is precisely why Jesus tells us that the law and the prophets depend upon our total love of God and our selfless love of neighbor. Only God can fill our minds with the truth, and our wills with the love that they both desire. In order for this to happen, we must become God’s friends and have a relationship with Him. And our friendship with God consists of doing His will and He wills that we love one another. His will can be seen in the composition of the natural order. Our constitution, as bodily and spiritual beings, beckons us to seek out relationships with others. However, in order for these relationships to be fruitful, they must be properly ordered.
It seems plain that often times it is much easier for us to do things that are unloving and disordered. It’s much easier to cast blame than to take it. It’s much easier to give up on a relationship when times are tough than to see it through. And it is often easier to try to satisfy your own needs at the expense of others. For example, Adam did not have love of God in mind when he ate the apple. An unfaithful husband is not acting for the good of his wife. And a dictator is not acting for the good of his or her own people. Their motives are decidedly self-centered and are bad for those with whom they are in a relationship.
(Some might think that not all human-to-human relationships require love, e.g. what about your relationship with the mailman? I would respond that there are many different forms and types of love; the Greeks had 4 words for love signifying different levels of it. In a more fully developed example I would argue that it can be shown that at least one of these four types of love is operative.)
Only love can ensure that our relationships remain properly ordered. That is because love, of its nature, is selfless. Love is the willing of the good of another precisely because it is the other’s good. Once any other motivation for human-to-human or human-to-God relationship is introduced, disorder will almost surely follow. Truly loving all those that we are in a relationship with is extremely difficult.
In fact, for human beings alone, it is impossible to accomplish. That is why God sent His only Son. He loved us so much that He did not want to leave us in our loveless state. And knowing that we are human and the best way to teach us is with symbols and actions, His Son gave us an example to follow and opened up the fountain of grace from Heaven. We can access His grace through the sacraments and the Church He established. But how, then, are we supposed to prioritize our relationships and concretely show love to those around us? That will be the subject of the final installment of this series.
[i] I am not using this argument as a proof or any sort of demonstration of God’s existence or His divine attributes. I am merely assuming that for the purposes of this post. For a trenchant introductory foray into these topics see https://www.amazon.com/Aquinas-Beginners-Guide-Edward-Feser/dp/1851686908