God Is . . . .

Two women hugging

Think of a straight line representing human emotions. On one end of the line let’s place those emotions that arise most obviously from body functions, more of the animal side of us. As we move down the line we can become increasingly human (as we flatter ourselves), and far at the other end of the line are the more ethereal, spiritual emotions. Emotions on one end can be in complete contradiction to the other end. On one end of the line we tear down temples. On the other end we build them.

Is there any word in English that can describe the full range of emotions on that line? I think no word can really do that, yet we do have a word that gets applied to the whole line: love.

When you think about how the word “love” is used, it’s a very strange word. On first blush, it seems to be a word that indicates strong affection. “You love your children.”  “I love my girlfriend.” “We love our parents.” In all these cases, the word indicates that the speaker feels a strong positive emotion for the people named. But what does that emotion really consist of, which is to say, what is the word really naming?

Emotions are hard to describe, but since we have a word, let’s try a little. You love your children: You feel responsibility for their well being, you think they are amusing, you want to teach them things. I love my girlfriend: I make a choice to be with her, I enjoy her company, she makes me feel good. We love our parents: We feel gratitude for what they have done for us, we feel respect for them as people, we enjoy talking to them. Just in these three instances, the word “love” has different meanings. Responsibility for the children, choice to be with the girlfriend, gratitude to the parents. Of course there can be overlap in the meanings, but the word “love” is describing three situations that could conceivably have separate words.

So far these subtle differences can all be contained within one word, especially a word to describe something so variable and amorphous as emotions. They are all cases of positive affection toward people. But what do we mean when we say we love heavy metal music (or popcorn)? None of the descriptions I gave for the three examples above would make the least bit of sense here. This certainly seems to be a case where a completely different word could be applied, and we do have one: I “like” heavy metal music. And yet, if I really like it (or as teenage girls with bad vocabularies say, if I like it like it), then I can still say “I love heavy metal music”. And there is a difference, after all, because I might say I don’t just like heavy metal, man I love heavy metal.

How can I use the same word to describe my feelings for my parents, my girlfriend, and a type of music? And we’re nowhere close to done. We may also say that we love God, or that God loves us. What kind of love is that? When God loves us, does he look at us as children? That metaphor is used. And when we love God, do we look at him as a father? Also a common metaphor. But those are only metaphors, and surely I feel differently about God than I do about my parents. And—I almost hate to point this out—how can I use the same word to describe my feelings for God and heavy metal music? (And I don’t want any answers from Ozzy Osbourne fans.)

When we talk about love of God, or a country, or even, in fact, music, we are on the “angelic” end of the line I started with. Let’s fly with those angelic wings down to the other end of the line to see what is happening there. Uh oh. It’s evening and there are women walking up and down the street, wearing short dresses, stopping cars. . .we know what this is. In 1931 Cole Porter described this amazingly common scene in a scandalous song called “Love for Sale”. Now we see the word “love” applied to situations where the most likely emotions are limited to greed, loneliness, and desperation. In this case “love” refers only to sex, a physical act that may have absolutely no affection involved.

We use the same word for sex, inanimate objects, people in our lives, things we enjoy, religious feelings. Is there enough in common between all these situations so that one word does not strike us as weird and unworkable? There must be. We say “love” for all of them. I don’t entirely understand it myself, however.

I would love to know.

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