The modern-day play “J.B.,” authored by Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) and published in 1958, portrays a modern rendition of the Biblical character, Job, someone who became a pawn in a battle between God and Satan. God “allowed” all kinds of misery (sickness, loss of reputation, loss of wealth, and loss of children) to befall his faithful servant, Job. In MacLeish’s telling, we see that J.B. (like the biblical Job) undergoes setback after setback. In the end, J.B. comes to the realization that “He [God] does not love. He is.” Sarah, his wife, responds, “But we do. That’s the wonder.”
We (humans) spend a lot of time talking, singing, and writing about love. Sometimes we even claim to behave in loving ways. Yet, just what is love? Why do we love? How do we love?
St. Paul, a hefty contributor to the New Testament canon, wrote to the Galatians, naming the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (I add mercy and justice to the list.) All of these fruits (expected to be displayed more by women in our society than men) are used as a measure of the Spirit’s activity in one’s life. Yet, all of these fruits evade specific definition.
No fruit can be objectively measured and absolutely quantified. What do any of these fruits even look like when they are on display? Who determines their appearance? Much of the time, those who hold power in a family, community, or institution get to design the appropriate look of love. To demonstrate love for one’s country, joining the armed forces and carrying out orders to kill a perceived enemy is called patriotism and sanctioned by the state. Killing one’s perceived enemy in this scenario often gets defined as an act of love.
Most (if not all) of our religious communities encourage (even command) us to love, be patient, display gentleness, show mercy, and practice justice, yet these very communities often fail us by not unpacking and exploring the terms, believing that those vague, unquantifiable fruits mentioned by St. Paul in Holy Writ will automatically make sense to the faithful. More importantly, those in power are eager to define the terms according to their own sensibilities as a means to retain their power.
Are we being merciful when we work with a terminally-ill person to end their suffering? (This is common practice when we have terminally-ill pets.) The official position of many religious institutions is to “let God take them in His own time.” Is justice served when a murderer is sentenced to death? Nothing will bring the victim back to life. What is justice? Why was owning slaves in this country once considered merciful and just? Why no longer? When an abused spouse refuses to leave their domestic scene because they believe they are exercising patience, don’t we commend them for being long-suffering? When one thinks they are practicing self-control by keeping quiet as innocent people fall prey to corruption, are they reflecting a Spirit-filled life? Do parents spank their children because they love them? The Bible (Proverbs) admonishes its readers: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Is inflicting physical pain or harm on a child loving that child? Many say yes.
Literature, film, song, and poetry explore and wrestle with the concept of love. One of my favorite artists, John Denver (1943-1997), wrote “Perhaps Love.” This recording of the song also features Placido Domingo—lyrics included below:
Perhaps love is like a resting place, a shelter from the storm
It exists to give you comfort, it is there to keep you warm
And in those times of trouble when you are most alone
The memory of love will bring you home
Perhaps love is like a window, perhaps an open door
It invites you to come closer, it wants to show you more
And even if you lose yourself and don’t know what to do
The memory of love will see you through
Love to some is like a cloud, to some as strong as steel
For some a way of living, for some a way to feel
And some say love is holding on and some say letting go
And some say love is everything, and some say they don’t know
Perhaps love is like the ocean, full of conflict, full of pain
Like a fire when it’s cold outside, thunder when it rains
If I should live forever, and all my dreams come true
My memories of love will be of you
I admire John Denver’s artistic expression. He does not define love, but explores the nature of love through the use of simile and experience. How one demonstrates love varies widely. However, since love cannot be absolutely defined, how can we know our behavior is loving? I’m not sure. However, I am confident about one thing.
Any individual, community, or society absolutizing and enforcing one specific understanding and manifestation of love does not love. “Perhaps Love” reflects curiosity and openness to the possibilities of what love might be. There is no formula that, when followed, automatically delivers love. Even the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is not a guarantee. What if “another” does not want done unto them what you want done unto you?
I’m convinced that fruits in order to nourish require honesty—primarily with ourselves. Honesty frees us to move in the direction of “living out” (demonstrating) those fruits in a heart-felt manner. Rabbi Harold Kushner (b. 1935) says: “Do things for people not because of who they are, or what they do in return, but because of who you are.”
Kushner is speaking about living a life rooted in personal integrity—whole and complete within oneself. The roots of integrity form those fruits St. Paul mentions. Working the soil around our own hearts, not concerning ourselves about the soil around our neighbors’ hearts, is the best we can do. However, doing so moves us in love’s direction.
BIO Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently retired from teaching.