Four Hearts 1969 by Jim Dine born 1935C. S. Lewis once complained that “Romanticism” was “a word of such varying senses that it has become useless and should be banished from our vocabulary.”[1] Apart from “the vulgar sense in which a ‘romance’ means simply ‘a love affair,’” Lewis distinguished a further seven kinds of things which are called “romantic.” The paradox is that those words that have had too many different meanings attached to them suffer from a degradation of meaning. If something means anything it begins to mean nothing!

Even were we to agree with Lewis in desiring the banishment of such words, the desire is beyond fulfillment. A language is a living thing. It evolves with use. But the desire is not only impracticable and unrealistic; it is also undesirable. The banishment of words from our vocabulary would necessitate an Orwellian control over the language. Lewis understood this, of course. He was speaking purely rhetorically.

The solution to the problem of solitary words having too many meanings is not their banishment from the language but our learning of the many meanings. The more this is achieved, the more is our ability to communicate enlarged, adding new layers of nuance. At the lowest level, this improved communication makes itself manifest in the employment of puns and the enjoyment of double entendres, whereas, at the most edifying level, it exhibits itself pyrotechnically in the dazzle and delight and the dash and dare of the greatest poetry, such as that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, in which the multiple meanings, impregnating each word with life-giving power, ascend to the heavens to which all true meaning points.

Having said this, and at the risk of seeming to contradict myself, I would d like to suggest that the word “love” has so many meanings that I am tempted to echo Lewis by saying that it “has become useless and should be banished from our vocabulary.” Like Lewis, I am being rhetorical, knowing that the desire is neither practical nor indeed desirable. Nonetheless, the protest must be made that “love,” in the sense in which it used by the modern world, has absolutely nothing in common with the sense in which it used by Christians. For the modern world, love is a feeling, an emotional attraction to someone or something. It is, therefore, fundamentally irrational, a mere mood. The feeling fluctuates. It can be ecstatic or excruciating. It can take us high or leave us low. It makes us red-hot with passion or it gives us the blues. It is, in the poetic fluttering of Bob Lind’s lyrics, only an elusive butterfly which, to misquote Rodgers and Hammerstein, flits and floats, fleetly flees and flies.

How does such an understanding of love compare with the love of the Christian? Since God is Love Himself, it or, more correctly, He, is neither irrational nor fleeting. On the contrary, He is the source and summit of all reason and is the one thing compared with whom all else merely flits fleetingly and flies. Modern “love” has nothing to do with this Divine Love. Indeed it is antithetical to it, or Him.

Put simply and definitively, Christian love is to love as Christ loved. It is to lay down our lives for our friends and our enemies. It is to die to ourselves so that we may live for others. It is not an irrational feeling but a rational choice. It is to choose to put aside our selfishness so that we can give ourselves selflessly to God and our neighbours. It is to accept suffering as Christ accepted suffering. It is to make the conscious and rational choice to do good, which is synonymous with love, and to avoid evil, which is synonymous with the absence of love.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailAll of this leads me back to C. S. Lewis and specifically to his book, The Four Loves, which seems to confuse the essence of love, which is always a rational choice, with the accidental qualities that are often associated with love, such as the feelings that might be attached to it. Thus Lewis distinguishes four different loves: affection (storge), friendship (philia), eros, and charity (agape). The problem is that he is putting the accidental quality of love, the feeling that may (or may not) be attached to it, with the thing itself. It is true that the type of “love” that we have towards our parents, our children, our spouses, and our friends will differ in terms of the feelings attached to them, but the love is not defined by the feeling but by the rational choice to give ourselves to the other person self-sacrificially. If we behave selfishly in our relationships with our parents, children, spouses, and friends, we are not loving them. If we are no longer “in love” (eros) with our spouse, true love demands that we continue to lay down our life for him or her; it does not give us the right to desert our spouse in favour of another with whom we now feel “in love.”

The problem at the confused heart of Lewis’s treatise on love is not so much the four loves, which forms the bulk of his argument, but the two loves with which he introduces it. Lewis distinguishes between Gift-love and Need-love, creating an unnecessary and ultimately erroneous dualism as the impetus for his reasoning. Gift-love is the self-giving, which I have argued is the essence of love itself which has its source in the dynamic self-giving of the Trinitarian God; Need-love is “that which sends a lonely or frightened child to its mother’s arms.”[2] This would seem an enticing and even a seductive argument. Most of us, after all, have experienced the love of a mother and have experienced as children the loneliness or fear which led us to our mother’s arms. Yet the need for love and the feelings attached to such need is not love itself but the need for it. The need for food will lead us to eat and the need for water will lead us to drink, but the need is not the food nor drink themselves but only the appetite for them. In the analogy that Lewis employs, the love is not in the need for the mother’s arms but in the mother’s arms themselves. And let’s not forget that the same “need-love” that sends a lonely or frightened child to its mother’s arms also sends older children, similarly lonely and frightened, into the arms of illicit sexual partners, or into the hands of drug-dealers and other dealers in “comfort.”

With all due respect to C. S. Lewis, to whom I am indebted as to few others, there are not two loves or four loves but only One. In a rational act of self-giving which springs from the rational heart of the Trinity of Persons Whom He is, the One Love gives Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is Love, and He shows us what love is, in who He is and what He does. This One Love is the source of all love, and all love, taking up its cross as the One Love took up His, leads us to the Father of Love Himself. This is the Happy Ending to which all love leads.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Afterword to the Third Edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, paperback edition, 1992), p. 200

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Collins/Fontana Books, 1963), p. 7

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