The Metaphysics of Christian Love

The Metaphysics of Christian Love artwork

This essay will largely confine itself to the thought of two Christian writers on the nature of love: Josef Pieper and Josef Ratzinger. The latter, being the younger of the two, is immensely indebted to the ideas of the former. It is no surprise, then, that in his encyclical tradition as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger writes on each of the three theological virtues—just as Pieper did some years before him. In the foreword of his book, Pieper notes that he considered his work on love to be his most important.1 Though it is unlikely Ratzinger would make the same claim about his 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, we can be sure that, as his first encyclical to the church at large, the former pope felt its contents to be both timely and valuable.2

In the same foreword, Pieper states that his work is not specifically a theological treatise. For him, this means that his reflections do not explicitly concern the contents of revelation, and the traditions derived thereof. However true this may be, Pieper was a confessional Catholic whose opinions were imbued with the persuasions of great Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo. He balances his confessional sympathies with firm philosophical foundations from the ancients and moderns alike. His resulting work, then, is necessarily Christian; but because of its non–confessional character it is applicable across subject area and religious affiliation. The same is true for Ratzinger. On that account, the following remarks present the nature of love as Christianity understands it; it is hoped that there will be much room for accord in the non–Christian disciplines as well.

To end our introductory comments, we must state the purpose of our reflections: the Christian claim about love is a bold one. In his first letter, Saint John writes, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn. 4:16). Thus, it appears that love is not simply something God does, but is something God is by essence. But what exactly is the nature of love? What does it mean to love a someone or a something? Given the current state of western culture, misunderstandings about the inherent qualities of the Christian tradition’s primordial virtue abound. The ensuing considerations will offer both insight and correction. We begin with a correction.

What Love is Not
The English language, when compared with other Indo–European languages, is not especially suited for nuance. Whereas the Greeks and Romans often had numerous variations to pinpoint the exact meaning of a word, English usually does not enjoy this luxury. Perhaps in no other instance is this fact more regrettable than in the case of the English word “love.” It is a term used haphazardly at best, murderously at worst. To be sure, love is not an emotion; it is not a feeling. Being “in love” is a noble and worthwhile condition; there is much to be said for its place among love’s possibilities. But when cultural norms elevate the status of being “in love” to the zenith of love’s possible reach, mistakes are inevitably made. Romance, and the ensuing sexual interaction, become the norm by which individuals gauge the status of their ability to love, and be loved, by another. If the physical and emotive aspects of love are snatched away, there is little remaining that might be called genuine. Our culture knows this reality all too well.

Love is not an emotive feeling of being “in love.” Christianity understands this point—as do other religions. It is not news to the religious traditionalist that the customs and definitions of modern culture do not align themselves neatly with the customs and definitions of classical theism. Though the particulars may differ in explanation, the great religious traditions indubitably affirm that love is much more than what is immediately pleasing to the senses, and it is certainly not transitory in nature. Yet, however strong the obstinacy of orthodox religious conviction is vis–à–vis the modern secularist, room for error nonetheless emerges in the traditionalist camps, Christianity included. The subsequent excerpt should illustrate the posture of that error:

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love.3

For Lewis, love is not a negation. It may take the outward form of negation when, for instance, one person acts unselfishly toward another by refraining from his/her own use of material goods in order that the other may receive instead; but even in this case, negation is not the inherent nature of the unselfish act. Along these lines, it is not uncommon to hear preachers and teachers similarly affirm the necessarily sacrificial nature of true love. Love is realized most fully when one person sacrifices their time, energy, and talent for the sake of another. The uncorrupted sacrifice takes the form of giving up one’s life for a friend, family member, or stranger. Doubtless, these stirrings derive from Christ’s words in the Gospel of John: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13). The ultimate love, then, is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross at Calvary; this is love to the extreme. The striking assertion that Lewis makes, however, is that unselfishness and sacrifice—even sacrifice of one’s life—do not do justice to the nature of love as such. The heart of the matter lies elsewhere.

What Love Is—Approval and Affirmation
We have already discussed that being “in love,” though dignified, is remarkably insufficient in its reach. We then stated that the virtue of unselfishness, which manifests itself most supremely in sacrificial acts, is also insufficient to genuinely account for love’s nature due to its negative quality. To summarize: love is not a giving up; it is not going without. Love of persons, love of music, love of the arts, or sports, or food—do any of these share a common nature in reality, or is the English language, as mentioned earlier, hopelessly deficient to account for this variation? “The tentative answer to this question runs as follows: in every conceivable case love signifies much the same as approval.”4 Pieper goes on to elaborate:

This is first of all to be taken in the literal sense of the word’s root: loving someone, or something, means finding him, or it, probus, the Latin word for “good.” It is a way of turning to him, or it, and saying, “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are here!”5

Furthermore, this approval which the lover confers on the beloved someone, or something, and which takes the form of affirmation, is other than mere approval and affirmation. A stronger element exists besides disinterested acceptance; and the stronger element is the will.6 This supplementary distinction necessitates a slight rewording of the phrase introduced above. Because loving is an act of the will, the lover does not merely mean: “It’s good that you exist! It’s good that you are here!” But instead must mean, “I want you (or it) to exist! I want you to be here!”7 At this point, the Christian conception of love must take a turn that temporally precedes all others. ‘To love means to affirm something already accomplished;”8 it is an assent to what already is. Thus, the doctrine of creatio unavoidably enters into our discussion.

The creation narratives in the Book of Genesis, perhaps more than any other narrative thread in scripture, show the nature of love in its most genuine form. At the end of each day of creation, “God saw that it was good.” The story climaxes on the sixth day of creation, the day God made man and woman in the divine image. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” For Pieper, creation is the key to understanding the nature of both divine and human love. If love’s essence is anywhere discoverable, it is discoverable in the beginning. This is true because:

{T}he most marvelous of all things a being can do is to be. Existence itself, this simple “act” of being in existence, is conferred upon us and all other beings by love and by love alone. And precisely this is what we know and corroborate when we ourselves love. For what the lover gazing upon his beloved says and means is not: How good that you are so (so clever, useful, capable, skillful), but: It’s good that you are; how wonderful that you exist!9

Having established that love, at its core, is akin to approval and affirmation, we see that ‘the most extreme form of affirmation possible is creatio’.10 In the primal and continuing act of creation, God wills the existence of the creatura. The verse in First John now gathers a more intricate meaning—”God is love” is synonymous with “God is creator’.” If love is to be properly understood from the human standpoint, it is essential that the created subject knows his or her status as creatura. Unless we see ourselves as “something creatively willed and affirmed {in an absolute manner,”11 we will not realize the extent of God’s willful act of love that takes place in creation.

Additionally, and possibly to our surprise, Saint John adds another layer of significance that elucidates our reflections up to this point: “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). This is nothing other than an affirmation of creation, of having first been willed into being by a benevolent Giver. Love, therefore, is also passio—it is something that happens to us as creaturae.12 While the passive nature of first receiving love is paramount to fathoming what Love itself must be like, it is nonetheless critical to undertake a final step. “Being created does not suffice; the fact of creation needs continuation and perfection by the creative power of human love.”13 It is here that the true nature of love comes full circle. Having undergone the mysterious experience of a love first received, the human person is then commanded to continue, and perfect the absolute approval that God vouchsafes in the timeless act of creation. To love is to receive and then to bestow; in short, it is equivalent to sharing the primordial gift of God’s own love.

It still remains to be seen why God would will the existence of the created order, and by the same token, why the human person is subsequently called to participate in, and complete, this primitive act of the eternal will. The answer lies in a distinction not found in English but in Greek—the word of interest is eros.

Ecstatic Bliss
The New Testament writers do not use the word eros (love between a man and a woman) for love; instead, they prefer the words philia and agape. But does this mean eros has been expunged from a Christian understanding of love? In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict answers in the negative:

Of all the ways we use the word “love,” it is love between a man and a woman that would seem to be the epitome—all other meanings immediately fade in comparison. Indeed, it is through their love for each other, which encompasses both body and soul, that man and woman apparently glimpse an irresistible promise of happiness.14

For the ancients, eros is characterized by bliss; that is, the love between lovers results in an ecstatic exultation of being. The human person, as a composite of body, soul, and spirit is lifted to great heights in their experience of eros. As our reflections revealed earlier, the status of being “in love” is not intrinsically warped. On the contrary, the Greeks considered it the chief happiness; for it is here that the finitude of human existence is elevated to the infinitude of the divine.15 Desire for this elevation to divine bliss is itself found at the core of the human will. The will, as classical Christianity understands it, can never refrain from desiring to rest in the bliss of the divine.16 We seek beatitude—goodness itself. God is, therefore, “the beatitude for which our whole being yearns.”17

It is clear that human persons, as creaturae, seek happiness; bliss is the pinnacle of existence whereby all our yearnings are at once and eternally fulfilled; there is no more to possess than God himself. That being the case, we love because happiness and joy are the fruits of love. In this sense, love is its own reward: “I love because I love; I love in order to love.”18 If love were not the primal act of the will, then bliss would not be the primal desire of the will; love and the desire for bliss are inextricably bound together. But what of the First Lover? Is it fair to say that God also acts from desire?

Benedict again writes to confirm the reasonableness of Christianity’s insistence that eros is not alien to the goodness of the divine nature. The will of the Creator “to create” demonstrates that God loves his creatures affectedly. “His creation is dear to him, for it was willed and ‘made’ by him.”19 Of course, this is not to say that God needs creation; God’s being is always and already God’s own bliss.20 Still, it is certainly true that God delights in creation, that God desires the human race to partake in love’s immensity—which is nothing other than God’s own self. The erotic nature of divine love is nowhere more evident than in the Hebrew scriptures. The prophetic literature, as Benedict notes, “describes God’s relationship with Israel using the metaphors of betrothal and marriage.”21 God’s relationship with Israel is a love story that reveals God’s passionate willingness to pursue his beloved.

Though more prominent, spousal language is not limited to the Hebrew scriptures; it is found in the New Testament as well. Here, Christ is the bridegroom, and the church is the bride. This nuptial union, as Saint Paul writes, “is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). Marriage, it would seem, is the eschatological reality. The Book of Revelation describes it as follows:

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice
of a great multitude crying out, “Hallelujah!”
For the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure.22

It is evident, then, in our reflections on the erotic nature of divine love, that “God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.”23 In other words, the experience of love that the human person has is only possible because God first has it. God cannot give what he himself does not possess. From the scriptures, it is clear that God loves; “and his love may certainly be called eros.”24

We began our inquiry with a point of reference from the First Letter of Saint John, which states boldly that “God is love.” It was our intent to explore what exactly the nature of this love is. A number of conclusions emerged: first, in opposition to the notions of secular modernity, love is not limited to being “in love.” It is also not characterized essentially by unselfishness and sacrifice. Second, even though the English language tends to use the word “love” haphazardly, in each instance, love signifies much the same as approval and affirmation. To be self-aware as a creature is to know that one has first been loved; that is, willed existence and lovability are inseparable. And third, the Judeo-Christian scriptures indicate that love is nuptial and, therefore, destined to be ecstatically blissful. Just as man and woman desire each other, so does God desire his creatures. Common to each set of conclusions is the underlying conviction that existence—both in passio and in action—is a gift. Happily for us, because God is love, this gift will never end (cf. 1 Cor. 13:8).

  1. Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 12.
  2. For short reviews of Pope Benedict’s encyclical, both of which offer praise and critique, I recommend Avery Cardinal Dulles’ “Love, the Pope, and C.S. Lewis,” First Things 169 (Jan. 2007): 20–24; and Thomas G. Weinandy, “Deus Caritas Est: Defining the Christian Understanding of Love,” Pro Ecclesia 15, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 259–262.
  3. C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 25.
  4. Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 163.
  5. Ibid., 163–164.
  6. Ibid., 164.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 165.
  9. Ibid., 170.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 177.
  12. Ibid., 153.
  13. Ibid., 174.
  14. Deus Caritas Est, n. 2.
  15. Ibid., cf. n. 4
  16. See St. Augustine, Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, especially chapters 3 and 11; see also St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I, q. 19, a. 10; ST I, q. 94 a. 1; and ST I–II, q. 10, a. 2.
  17. Deus Caritas Est, n. 4
  18. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 83, 4–6.
  19. Deus Caritas Est, n. 9.
  20. For more in this regard, see David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 285–290.
  21. Deus Caritas Est, n. 9.
  22. Rev. 19:6–8.
  23. Deus Caritas Est, n. 11.
  24. Ibid., n. 9.
Nathan Arends About Nathan Arends

Nathan Arends is completing a MA/MDiv at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in Saint Louis, Missouri. His interests are broad, but especially include church history and spirituality. He lives in Saint Louis with his wife, Michelle.


  1. Awesome article! I will share with my high school students. :)