The Great Mystery of Human Love

Garden of Eden Painting Reubens
“The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man” (1617) by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder

Interactive List of Contents

(1) Introduction

(2) The Permanence, Immutability, and Eternality of Love

(3) Love as ‘the great conqueror of lust’

(4) The Blindness of Love

(5) Conclusion


I have been thinking and reading about romantic human love a lot recently. In this article I will comment on quotations from my reading and try to derive and draw general, broad themes from my reading such as the immutability and eternality of love. At the end of the article, there will be a bibliography of my own personal reading on the subject. I accidentally stumbled across the first bit of reading while investigating the mystery of evil. In Eleonore Stump’s magnus opus Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering, she has an excellent chapter on “The Nature of Love” (Chapter 5). This chapter includes a brilliant, easily accessible and concise summary of the debate about the nature and definition of love. One approach argues that one loves the beloved because of the particular characteristics and attributes which the beloved possesses and which are manifested in the beloved. This seems to be at least partly true. However, this does not adequately explain why people form a strong and especial attachment to a particular individual and love them exclusively, depriving all others of their true and full love. Why are we obsessed and even mesmerised by a certain person? Why are we not mesmerised by the characteristics alone and them as separate and removed from the individual? One might respond by saying that it is because of this particular individual’s own unique combination of desired characteristics and the fact that he/she has them in moderation and in the best proportion and balance. However, this explanation does not seem, to many, to be sufficient.

The polar opposite view is that one loves the beloved because of the relationship one has with him/her. However, this is also a problematic approach as it is possible to love someone you do not even know or at least know very well/see very often. As Stendhal put it,

“If you don’t love me, it does not matter, anyway I can love for both of us”

(From “On Love” by Stendhal)

This links in with C.S. Lewis’ words in the 1993 film Shadowlands that love’s “one essential quality” and the thing which makes perfect love perfect is in fact and paradoxically it’s “unattainability”. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) says,

“The most intense joy lies not in the having but in the desiring. Delight that never fades, bliss that is eternal is only yours when what you desire is most out of reach”

(C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, in the 1993 film “Shadowlands”)

In the same film, Lewis talks of us humans living in the “shadowlands” where, no matter where we are in life, we always imagine that what is over the next hill is perfection and bliss but when we get there, it is much less great than we had originally expected. Arnold Pernes put it thus:

“Love is the acute awareness of the impossibility of possession”

(Arnold Pernes)

So too, perhaps, it is with romantic relationships. However, many point out that it is not really possible to love somebody without knowing them properly. What is instead present is a love of the fantasy or imagined idea of the beloved which can be and sometimes is crushed when one gets to know the person in question better and is confronted with the inescapable reality of them. Love is a mutual, two-dimensional thing. So, by now we can already see just how mysterious romantic human love really is. It does not fit into a human, logic, rational box or category and transcends such rigidity and inflexibility. As Anton Chekhov once put it:

“So far only one incontestable truth has been uttered about love: ‘This is a great mystery'”

(“About Love” by Anton Chekhov)

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The Permanence, Immutability, and Eternality of Love

“Love is patient, love is kind […] it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs […] It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails”
(1 Corinthians 13:4-8, NIV)

“Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom”
(An extract from Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare argues here that love is an “ever-fixed mark” and that it does not “alter” or “bend”. However, do not lovers adapt to each other and does not their love for one another change? Are not younger lovers concerned perhaps more with beauty, appearance and physical features than older lovers or is this relative? Perhaps love is still present and just as strong but maybe its form has changed and perhaps its primary concerns have shifted.

“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it”
(Song of Songs 8:6-7)

As James D.G. Dunn has rightly pointed out in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, it is very odd that she feels she needs to have her love engraved upon his heart and arm when she has argued that this love is also and simultaneously eternal and always so present, clear, obvious and eternal. Why is the seal needed? It cannot be to remind the lovers of their love or to make their love permanent. Does not love transcend the grave? Why then does verse 6 here say that “love is strong as death”, and not stronger? A friend of mine recently pointed out that, at that time, death was the strongest and most universal force which would inevitably come for all because this was written long before the resurrection of Jesus.

Isn’t 1 Corinthians 13 right in saying that love does not envy (verse 4) and that it is not self-seeking (verse 5)? If so, why does Song of Songs imply that it involves “jealousy” and that this “jealousy is fierce as the grave”? If 1 Corinthians 13 is right here then why does God, who ‘is love’ (1 John 4:8), describe Himself as a “jealous God” in Exodus 20:5? A friend pointed out to me that the jealousy of God can be justified as He alone is worth it, to use a very annoying cliché. His position and role necessarily require Him to be jealous and He could not be God without being jealous. This is because God, as the Bible clearly teaches, created everything out of nothing (John 1:3) and is sovereign over all things. He is the only Creator and we are His creatures and so we owe our entire being and existence to Him and He created the world in which we live too. It is only, therefore, fair and right for God to demand our exclusive love, loyalty, worship and obedience.

These images are extraordinarily profound and insightful but are they really accurate or consistent? We must all continue to ponder these mysteries.

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Love as ‘the great conqueror of lust’
As C.S. Lewis rightly notes in his chapter entitled “Eros” in The Four Loves, it is a very strange thing, unique to Eros, that someone who may not at all seem physically attractive to us becomes more attractive the more you the know the person and the more you fall in love. As Stendhal puts it:

“A man may meet a woman and be shocked by her ugliness. Soon, if she is natural and unaffected, her expression makes him overlook the faults of her features. He begins to find her charming, it enters his head that she might be loved, and a week later he is living in hope”
(In Chapter 17 of “On Love” by Stendhal)

As Lewis profoundly states in Mere Christianity, ‘love is the great conqueror of lust’. Stendhal talks of “beauty” being “dethroned by love” in On Love. This explains how a believer can love God who is invisible.

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The Blindness of Love

“For I am much ashamed of my exchange.
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could Cupid himself would blush”
(Jessica in lines 35-38 of Act 2, Scene 6 of “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare)
But if thy love were ever like to mine—
As sure I think did never man love so—
How many actions most ridiculous
Hast thou been drawn to by thy fantasy?
Into a thousand that I have forgotten.
Oh, thou didst then ne’er love so heartily.
If thou rememb’rest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not sat as I do now,
Wearying thy hearer in thy mistress’s praise,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not broke from company
Abruptly, as my passion now makes me,
Thou hast not loved”
(Lines 23-37 of Act 2, Scene 4 of “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare)

Whenever the beloved is accused or criticised, we immediately, automatically and subconsciously assume a presumption of innocence towards him/her. We protect and defend him/her in every way we can, sometimes without even realising it. Romantic human love causes us to refuse to find, acknowledge, recognise or realise any flaws or faults with the beloved. We put on rose-tinted spectacles when we are in love and find ourselves unable to remove them. This also strongly links with the theme of the previous section where one overlooks the flaws in the beloved’s physical features and appearance due to love. When in love, one is also blinded to the folly and inappropriateness of deeds which the beloved has asked them to perform. This blindness is therefore a double-edged sword as it rightly hides from us insignificant deficiencies but wrongly also hides from us important morals and significant flaws in character. Another paradox to ponder and, if it is one which interests you, please see my later article Is Love really blind?

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The Song of Songs twice talks of love in terms of sickness (2:5; 5:8) and this is certainly what it feels like, especially if one’s love is not reciprocated. However, unlike a common physical, medical and bodily sickness, this sickness transcends the boundaries of reason, thought and logic. Its cause is impossible to truly identify, its form and shape are baffling, and its effects are inexplicable. This sickness dominates and pervades all. Through its lens all else seems meaningless, empty and void. Everything else pales into insignificance. As St Paul writes:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing”

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

I would like to finish with a lovely poem from Shelley which is appropriately entitled “Love’s Philosophy”:

“The fountains mingle with the river

And the rivers with the ocean,

The winds of heaven mix for ever

With a sweet emotion;

Nothing in the world is single;

All things by a law divine

In one spirit meet and mingle.

Why not I with thine?—

See the mountains kiss high heaven

And the waves clasp one another;

No sister-flower would be forgiven

If it disdained its brother;

And the sunlight clasps the earth

And the moonbeams kiss the sea:

What is all this sweet work worth

If thou kiss not me?”

(“Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley)

“Eros” in The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
“Chapter 5: The Nature of Love” in Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering by Eleonore Stump
Song of Songs/Song of Solomon, esp. chapter 5 and chapter 8, verses 2-8
1 Corinthians 13:1-8
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, esp. Act 2, Scene 6
As You Like it by William Shakespeare, esp. Act 2, Scene 4
Song of Songs: The Divine Romance by Charlie Cleverly

By Ben Somervell

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Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed it, you might be interested in the following articles which I have also written on love:

(1) My Favourite Quotations about Love

(2) Love’s Powers of Self-Discovery and Self-Transformation

(3) Reading List on Love

(4) Is Love really blind?

(5) The Concept of “The One” in Song of Songs

(6) Is unrequited love “the infinite curse of a lonely heart”?

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