We could count the ways – of love, that is. Poets have done it; philosophers and theologians too. And lovers, usually without numbers. We could categorize it and define it – ask ourselves where does eros end and agape begin? What separates the love of attraction and desire from divinely rooted, selfless love? Where does philia, the love found in friendship, enter in?
But love’s place, especially in religious life and community, is perhaps less about the names and types of love than it is about the practice of loving. How might we choose to love and to live with an ethic of love? “We would all love better,” claimed writer bell hooks, “if we used it as a verb.”
As a verb, and one embedded in this incarnate world, we discover quickly that love is a messy thing and not always harmonious. To really give ourselves to the act of loving brings our heart into relationship not only with joy and desire, with attraction and satisfaction, but also inevitably with disappointment and anguish, with vexation and, at some point, also grief and loss. Some have noted the profound message embedded in John Coltrane’s recording, Love Supreme, titled as Coltrane’s personal faith statement and more than a nod to God, or we might say, the sacred power of love. In the recording, Coltrane repeats the “Love Supreme” motif in no less than twelve different keys, at times euphonic, and other times dissonant, as if to musically express the observation included in his liner notes: “No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God.”
If God is love, as many teachings and people say, and as our own heart’s longing may confirm, it is no simple thing to align our lives with love’s demands and to “go back to God,” or to our sacred grounding.
Author Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. notes that James Baldwin too repeatedly returned to the necessity – and challenges – of love, equating it with salvation. Baldwin said salvation is “the beginning of union with all that is or has been or will ever be,” insisting “There is no salvation without love.” Of course, the salvation Baldwin named is no otherworldly time and place, but the salvation of our collective soul, here and now, living in this land tormented by racial hatred and oppression. How to practice love as a verb in this world, in these times, is a question still salient today.
We might be comforted to learn that research of the human brain has found that love is not merely a heartfelt counter-balance to human reason. It is, in fact, hardwired into the brain itself. Our natural connection to one another – in physical and emotional interdependence – has evolved within the human limbic brain as a necessity of survival.
To be sure, we have developed many ways to avoid love’s call into larger unity, and this has been at great cost, individually and collectively. “There is life without love,” wrote Mary Oliver. “It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied.”
The work of religion might be described as claiming life’s larger worth by inspiring and equipping us to choose and practice love anyway. Despite our fear of disappointment or loss. Despite our culture’s messages that love is desirable but fleeting, personal but not political, attractive but impractical. Despite the forces that would have us believe we can have love in our lives without challenging the lovelessness of oppression in the world. We are called, in the name of love, to imagine and remember the larger wholeness in which we all belong and, in so doing, to recover our wholeness within. That is the difficult road by which we return to the holy.
“When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight,” Oliver’s poem continues, “the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks . . . when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life toward it.”