The Meaning of Love—A Reflection

O Theophila,[1] you ask about the meaning of love.

Limitless words have been spoken and written to try to grasp the meaning of that word, and the reality it tries to name.

You ask, what do I think it means. Let me take your question seriously and try to lay out my understanding as clearly as I can. This will be longish and mostly “dry,” but “feeling” will creep in gradually.

First, at the most fundamental level (you probably read my writing something like this before—I apologize ahead of time for being so boring). First, what do we mean when we use the word “good”?

That was “good” ice cream; that was a “good” performance of Mozart; George is a “good” friend….

We also say things like; I love Mozart. I love ice cream. I love George…. We all understand when someone makes those statements.

But what does “love” mean in those very different statements?

I understand it to mean that I wish to “become one with” Mozart, ice cream, George…. Whenever we perceive the “good” we want to become one, united, with it.

That then raises the question: What do we mean by the word “good”?

I think we have in our minds an idea of what something should do, and when it does that, we say that it is “good.” Thus, we think that ice cream should be, for example, sweet, cool, soft…., and to the extent that thing in a dish that we are eating does those things, we think/say that it is “good,” or not good, or very good….

Of course, different people might have different understandings of what ice cream should be like: It should be very soft, medium soft, almost hard, very sweet, slightly sweet…. To the extent that this ice cream does what I/you think ice cream should do, I/you say that it is “good,” very good, not so good, bad….

The same is true of music: We think that this sound should calm our feelings, or arouse our feelings, or be pleasing to hear, or….. To the extent it does those things, we say that it is good, not so good, bad…. Because different persons might have similar or very different ideas about what music should do, we have differing judgments as to whether Mozart’s music is good or not….

When I say that George is a “good” friend, we understand that a friend is a person who we can depend on, will sympathize with us when we are sad…. If George does that a lot, we say he is a very good friend….or not such a good friend….

Again, when we use the word “good” we mean that this thing—ice cream, Mozart, George…is doing what we understand ice cream, Mozart, friend should do.

Here is where “love” comes in. Love fundamentally means, we want to become “one” with what we perceive as “good.” Thus, I want to become one with ice cream by eating it. I don’t want to “eat” Mozart, but I want to “become one” with him by listening to his music. I want to “become one” with George, not by “eating him,” or by sitting and listening to him endlessly; I want to “be one” with him by talking together with him, sharing his joys and sorrows, helping him when he is in need….

So, to my Beloved: I perceive you as a “good” friend, and thus, I want to talk with you, share my joys and sorrows with you…. I want to become “one” with you in endless ways…

Because you and I are “persons,” my love for you means that I want to be “one” with you in the endless ways that only persons can be one with each other. All those different ways are endless because Persons are made “in the image of God,” (Gen. 1:27) who is endless. Even if a person doesn’t believe that “God” exists (historically, we humans have had such wildly contradictory understandings of “god” that it is understandable that many find the idea of “God” unacceptably confused), there is in us humans an “endless” quality. We reach out endlessly in every direction —wider, wider, deeper, deeper….without end.

Even when the body ceases to exist; even when there doesn’t appear to be a separate “soul” in us humans (where was my beloved Andie’s “soul” when she slowly disintegrated from Alzheimer’s before my eyes for seventeen years?), still: There is this endless, “infinite” quality that exists in each human person. What it might be after the death of the body, we don’t know. But, we have this endless yearning. For us humans, reality is endless not only in “time,” but also in “space,” that is, we endlessly reach out to become one with—Love—all being, which we come to know endlessly, and hence, move to become “one with.”

Thus, my “loving” you means that I am yearning to, moving toward, becoming one with you more and more, endlessly. At the same time, my perception of you, my loving you, my becoming one with you continually expands so that mysteriously you grow ever greater. Somehow this loving you, moving to become one with you, draws more and more of reality to be one with you—and me. Thus, endlessly all becomes One, Good…You—and I move to become one with You, and you are endlessly expanding.

Is this what we mean—or, perhaps, better, somehow “experience,” yearn for—when we read and make our own in the New Testament Letter of John (1 John 4:8): ho theos agape estin, “God is love.” Or, maybe, yet deeper: he agape theos estin: Love is God!


Leonard Swidler

[1] Acts of the Apostles, 1:1. Ho Theolophile (Greek, phile, “love,” theos, “God”).


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