Thursday 5 November 2015

God is love: Varieties of love in Christian tradition

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." 
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The belief that “God is love” is at the heart of the Christian tradition. But when different Christian teachers talk about God’s love, they can have quite different things in mind. Without any claim to comprehensiveness, here’s a sketch of 12 types of love in the Christian tradition:

1. Pedagogical love: God loves us the way a wise educator loves his pupils (Clement of Alexandria, Origen) – our love for God is like an insatiable love of learning.

2. Maternal love: God loves us with the self-giving tenderness of a mother for her children (Augustine, Julian of Norwich) – our love for God is like a child’s affectionate dependence on the mother.

3. Paternal love: God loves us with the strong supervisory care of a father for his children (Tertullian, Calvin) – our love for God is like the reverential admiration and trust of a child with his father.

4. Courteous love: God loves us with courtly courtesy (George Herbert) – our love of God is like a sweet, mutually attentive conversation between host and guest.

5. Married love: God loves us with the courteous familiarity of a spouse (Julian of Norwich) – our love for God is like the free and intimate conversation between spouses (note that this is not a sexualised picture of marriage; it's more Jane Austen than D. H. Lawrence).

6. Celibate love: God loves us infinitely, but with a certain restraint (Methodius, Macrina) – our love for God is like a chaste and never-consummated yearning.

7. Erotic love: God loves us with the warmth and eagerness of a lover (Pseudo-Dionysius) – our love for God is like an ecstasy that takes us out beyond ourselves into unspeakable union with another.

8. Aesthetic love: God loves us because we reflect something of God’s own infinite beauty (Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine) – our love for God is a bigger version of the love we feel whenever we see a beautiful thing.

9. Purifying love: God loves us in the manner of an artist who creates an artwork and then patiently removes the imperfections (Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Nineveh) – we might experience God’s love as a fire of torment (i.e. as hell), but it's all for our good.

10. Authoritative love: God loves us the way a wise and charismatic ruler loves the people (Tertullian, Athanasius) – we love God with something like the intense loyalty and admiration that the Macedonian soldiers felt towards Alexander the Great.

11. Brotherly love: God loves us as an older brother loves his siblings (Desert Fathers & Mothers) – our love for God is free, familiar, and confident.

12. Friendly love: God’s love is a firm and loyal commitment to friendship for its own sake (Karl Barth) – our love for God is like reciprocating the loyalty of a friend.

Note: I don’t mean that these are entirely separate things. They’re differences in emphasis, not mutually incompatible ideas. The names beside each type are merely representative. You could put a name like Origen or Augustine beside nearly every type of love on the list, which is probably saying something about Origen and Augustine.

Questions: What have I left out? Which of these types of love predominate in current theology?


Dec said...

Possible omission - Compassionate Love or Suffering Love: God loves us as a fellow-sufferer (Bonhoeffer, Moltmann), and our love for God is a participation in Christ's sufferings in and for the world.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Dec, that's a very good addition.

Bengt Rasmusson said...

Nice list! I agree with you about Barth and friendly love, but can you just a little develop how you come to that conclusion? Any "general" or specific bibliographic references?

Maybe you could add Sam Wells (with his talk about "being with") to Friendly love or to Dec's Compassionate Love.

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