Christian Love is more than agapeic; it’s needy
CS Lewis’ Four Loves opens with an explanation of a plan he thought would work. Eventually, Lewis argues that the initial plan does not work to explain what Christians mean by “love,” but his error is so inviting that it bears repeating. This is why he explained it in his introduction and why we reflect on it here.
Lewis recounts that he initially thought the only tool he needed to analyze love from a Christian perspective was the distinction between “Need-Loves” and “Gift-Loves.”
Need-love is when we lack something and want it, like when we are hungry and we say “I’d love an apple.” Gift-love is when we do just that, give ourselves in love, as when a parent takes care of child. It seems obvious that God does not need anything, and so, God would not have “need-love.” Humans obviously have need-love. Thus, at first blush, divine love would be gift-love and human love would be need-love. Christianity would then be something like maturing from need-loves to gift-loves. Lewis argues this is not quite right, and Lewis is right about that.
The idea that maturation in love is simply a move from needing to giving is compelling for a number of reasons. We tend to think of our normal human maturation from being a child to an independent adult to being a parent as a move from being needy (like an infant) to being self-sufficient (like a young adult) to being a giver or provider (like a parent). The scale also works if we express it as moving from having no responsibilities to bearing the burden of all responsibilities for a family.
A related scale would seem to fit our thoughts about God. God certainly does need anything or anyone else, and so, is a perfect giver. Again, Lewis’ initial plan for how to write a book about Christian love is appealing, even if ultimately not adequate to the task.
Lewis’ first and fundamental point is that humans are always needy.
Perhaps “needy” is not the best way to articulate the concern here; we never mature beyond needing God. We may become much better givers of love, but not even in Heaven do we find ourselves somehow self-sufficient and independent of God. Indeed, Heavenly love draws us not only deeper into the life of the Trinity, but it also draws us deeper into the communion of saints.
There’s no Christian maturation that can be expressed as independence or self-sufficiency as a kind of opposite of need. We will always need the Body of Christ and the Triune God. Thus, when we attempt explain Christianity on the scale of love, we cannot simply make “needing” one end of the scale and “giving” the other end of the scale.
Another way to phrase Lewis’ initial point is to say that we would be better Christians the less we are needy and the more we are giving. We might try articulating this point as though the goal is not some kind of self-sufficiency which is independent of grace, but rather just like with regular human maturation, we should get to a point that we can contribute to society on our own without needing someone to feed us and care for us at all times.
We should also learn to discern our needs and wants, and learn to put others’ needs before our own.
Many people today talk about this with the Greek term agape and try to argue a relatedly simplistic scheme. Their basic point is that we should be like God and convert to having the love they call agape, which is associated with altruistic or pure motives. Lewis helps us see why that simplistic sensibility is also not adequate to the task of reflecting on Christian love.
It is hard to imagine a human person in this life with completely pure motives outside of the Incarnate Christ and the Virgin Mary. All humans are subject to sin and sinfulness, and this means that virtually nothing we do is done with completely pure motives. But beyond that, even in Heaven when our loves are radically transformed, they remain human loves. To be human includes a body and a soul; it includes pleasures that are internal and external, communal and personal.
The Resurrection itself reminds us of this, as do the Sacraments, which are always both physical and spiritual. In the end, however we chart the course of Christian love, we must ensure that it can transform every aspect of our life and make sense of a love of which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard.” Our understanding of Christian love shouldn’t place limits on how completely God can transform us in love. This returns us to Lewis’ initial observation that we must become humble enough to accept that we remain dependent on a God who is always beyond us, and whose love reaches well beyond our initial experience of love.
Christian humility admits our need for God and opens us to His love.