“Love” has been experienced, examined, converted for entertainment, manipulated, shaken, and stirred innumerable times through the ages, as humanity attempts to reign in the profound concept. Mankind was created to participate in a love affair with the Creator, and even those who don’t believe in Him still feel desire for the love only He can provide. With regards to Christianity, the fact that “God so loved the world” seems to be ingrained in the church, but His love can nonetheless feel intangible and semi-present.
Therefore, when God’s love feels distant–or is not believed in, people try to fill this ache through other means, namely each other. What is then found is an idealized love–created by people–which mimics the love of God but focuses on the satisfaction of the individual. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” represents this secular vision of ideal love, but as Benedict XVI reveals in “God is Love,” it is ultimately only a shadowy, reflected image of God’s passion that cannot be fully manifested amongst sinful people.
When conjuring an image of love, the likeliest initial response is of people “in love. ” This love that is separated from the other types by sexual desire and carnal attraction is called eros. People can twist this form of love in two significant ways that limit its potential. One way eros is manipulated is through the idea of “soul mates,” or more specifically, that somewhere there is another individual who matches the one perfectly–an individual in whose love the other can find his or her identity.
The problem arises in finding this person, as–despite what media and self-perpetuating stereotypes might lead one to believe, the perfect soul mate does not exist. Entertainment and media have created impossibly high standards to fulfill, so that a person must be incredibly attractive, endearing, patient, passionate, ever-understanding, successful, impressive, and more. Divorce rates are higher than ever before as people entering marriage begin to realize that rather than the event being a joining of two halves, it is of two very different, flawed individuals committing to one another despite the pitfalls sure to come.
Secondly, eros can be distorted if seen standing alone as a “pleasure” love: one that is “self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness” (Benedict XVI 8). In some forms of pagan practice, prostitutes were seen as mere gateways to achieve a divine, ethereal ecstasy. However, this in essence dehumanized the persons involved and gave greater weight to the feeling and act; certainly in eros, there is the rise beyond a person’s self, “yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation purification, and healing” (Benedict XVI 8).
Eros in itself does not fully match up to the secular ideal of love; indeed, one might think that it would be–eros classified as sexual love, agape as God’s love, and philia as a friend’s love – yet it is actually a combination. It would make sense that beings based on God, the model of love, would then not be able to resist, even integrally, the desire for agape. Here is where the basis for the soul mate, as well as the mimicry of God’s love, is introduced: the ideal of eros in sexual love combined with the perfect, altruistic love of agape.
Shakespeare writes of this as he describes it as an “ever-fixed mark,” that lasts eternally, and a “star to every wandering bark” to guide people through life . He expands eros which tends to focus on the self and temporary pleasure, so that now there is a high concern for the other person above the self, as well as a desire for the love to be shared between two alone – creating an element of exclusivity with the persons – and to last forever (Benedict XVI 9).
This love, a “marriage of true minds” (Shakespeare), is ultimately based on whole desire for the wellbeing of the other person. It “seeks the good of the beloved” and would indeed “seem to be the very epitome of love; all other kinds of love immediately fade in comparison” (Benedict XVI 4). Most significant in differentiating this combination of eros and agape from pure eros is that it is “not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come” (Shakespeare), so that physical beauty is not the basis for the love.
Shakespeare acknowledges that true love will not only be a walk through the park, but insists nevertheless that it “looks on tempests and is never shaken” and “bears it out even to the edge of doom. ” The unfortunate flaw in the eros/agape design is that it is ultimately an ideal. People can pursue, model after, and embrace this ideal, but the very perfection of a love “whose worth’s unknown” (Shakespeare) is unachievable to people, and so even this secular view of love is unattainable in entirety. Unable to deny though is the lingering desire to be valued uniquely and appreciated, understood, and pursued beyond reason or appearance.
It would be fatal in relationship to expect such love from one’s partner, for he or she is imperfect and will undoubtedly fail to measure up in some way. That is where this mimicry of God’s love falls flat, for He is not imperfect and will not fail to measure up. God is love. His very nature is not merely pervaded by this concept–all the world is pervaded by Him, for He is the concept–He is the definition of true love. In creating man, God’s character spilled forth to make a source to lavish His love upon.
Individuals desire all-seeking, all-fulfilling love because God created them for the purpose of relationship with Him. God’s love is that of the perfect agape, but includes eros as well (Benedict XVI 15): His love never fails, is ever seeking, ever forgiving, and ever fulfilling. However, God expects and desires relations with us as He loves “jealously. ” God claims His people to be His “bride” whom he pursues and accuses them then of “adultery” and “prostitution” when any idol is placed above Him, as He wants to love the individual wholly and receive, ideally such devotion in return.
Such love is unfathomable to a human, as people are flawed, sinful, and selfish by nature–constantly rejecting, wounding, and disobeying their Creator. God loathes sin, and as the ultimate and supreme judge and source of justice, it would only make sense that such actions against Him should be punished severely. Yet there is one thing greater than His hatred of sin and that is His great love for people, which is “so great that it turns God against Himself, His love against His justice” (Benedict XVI 14).
Even for a person who is able to recognize the truer fulfillment of God’s agape over man’s eros, the latter can still seem more desirable: God is intangible, works within His plan–not man’s, and sometimes withholds what a person may want for the sake of what is best, while the secular ideal encourages self-satisfaction and immediate expression and relief. The key difference which separates the worldly concept of ideal love and God’s truly ideal love is how eros and agape play their roles.
While both agape in eros and eros in agape are superior loves, what sets the love of God above the love of man is consistency and character: man fails and, prevented by a sin nature, cannot ever truly attain the secular ideal. God, however, never fails, and His very nature refuses to hold out on His people. Shakespeare’s description of love is only a caricature of true love—love only God can truly uphold. Thus God must be the first and foremost source people use in finding fulfillment and identity, as He will never fail to provide it.
XVI. God Is Love: Deus Caritas Est : Encyclical Letter. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006. Print. Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 116.”