Unlimited Love

Unlimited Love

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Challenge

St. Paulelevated love over a faith that moves mountains (I Cor. 13).   He diminished even laudable altruistic actions, such as giving away all one’s possessions to feed the poor,  should they be performed in the absence of love (I Cor. 13:2-3).   “Do everything with love” (I Cor. 16:14), and extol no loveless beneficent deed (Col. 3:14).  Love, for Paul, is something more than altruism, even when the latter is purely other-regarding in motive.  He knew well from his own endeavors that good deeds can be arid without the palpable presence of love.   But what is love?  Voltaire described the chaos of meanings:  “There are so many sorts of love that one does not know where to seek a definition of it.  The name ‘love’ is given boldly to a caprice of a few days duration; to a sentiment devoid of esteem; to a casual liaison; to the affections of a ‘cicisbeo’; to a frigid habit; to a romantic fantasy; to relish followed by prompt disrelish; yes, people give this name to a thousand chimeras” [Encyclopedie art. Amour].   The Greeks had a myriad of words for love:  eunoia refers to good will or benevolence, physike to kindness toward people of one’s own race, xenike to kindness toward guests and strangers, erotike to sexual desire, eros to impassioned attraction, philia to friendship, storge to tenderness, and agape to a disinterested affection.  Agape and philia would be taken up by emergent Christianity.   What kind of love are we concerned with here?  For the moment, suffice it to state that the love we have interest in is a creative emotional energy attentively that affirms the existence and worth of the other as he or she is, while mindful of the potentiality for the other to reach higher levels of fullness.

As for altruism, which can be one modulation of love, this refers to genuinely motivated helping (beneficent) actions that may or may not involve significant risk to self.  Such altruism might be a manifestation of a purely rational Kantian imperative (“this is what pure reason dictates”); or of a sense of self-identity and expectation associated with social context and super-ego (“this is what someone like me is expected to do”);   or of an innate empathic capacity that reacts immediately and instinctively to the other when imperiled.  There is no need to diminish the value of these three sources of genuine altruism.  Altruistic duty, altruistic self-identity, and altruistic impulse are not, however, altruistic love.

Altruistic motivation and action are well studied by the sciences, and such data deserve attention in any dialogue between science, philosophy, and religion that hopes to move knowledge forward.   But scientists who study altruism cannot fully point the way toward the fullness of love, which is much broader than its altruistic manifestation.  What is at the distinctive core of love, from which all its modulations emerge?   In other words, what is the real root of the experience of other-regarding love?   For love is to person as compassion is to person-in-suffering, as care (i.e., altruism grounded in love) is to person-in-need, as forgiveness is to person-in-error.  Compassion, care, and forgiveness are modulations of love, but what is love itself?

There is a word in the title of this presentation – “unlimited” – that has the ring of novelty.  It emerges from the thought of Sir John Marks Templeton.   It suggests a form of love that rises above every conceivable limit to embrace all of humanity in joy, creativity, compassion, care, and generativity.  The ideal of unlimited love lies at the heart of all the great world religious traditions, and is represented in the various historically derivative moral philosophical traditions as well.   Unlimited love is often associated with a divine presence that underlies the cosmos and makes life a meaningful gift.  The following discussion represents an initial effort to explain with definitional clarity what a movement for the scientific, religious, philosophical, and pedagogical study of unlimited love would indeed be attempting to study.


As Voltaire suggested more than two centuries ago, love is a word applied somewhat promiscuously.   Serious definitional work is imperative, especially in a time when popular culture seems to acknowledge no love worthy of the word unless it is expressed in acts of physical intimacy. While it is true that to some degree love is ineffable, so are most complex phenomenon, and we cannot rightfully set aside the task of definitional analysis even when the perfect definition sought after is elusive.   It must be more or less clear as to what this discussion of love is about in order to have anything substantive to examine scientifically.

Love is not reducible to empathy, although empathy has a role in love.  The innate and evolutionarily complex empathic capacity is clearly affective in quality.  It is an emotional feeling into the experience of the other as other, and it may give rise to highly altruistic actions that are genuinely motivated by regard for the other.  But the empathy-altruism axis has no necessary connection with the abiding quality of love, and social scientists produce innumerable studies on the axis without ever mentioning love.  Of course love will give rise to helping behaviors that are empathic.  Yet love is a cultivated art and disposition based on a sense of the sacredness of the other, rather than an innate reactive capacity along the lines of empathy.

Neither is love reducible to compassion, although compassion is a vitally important modulation of love in the context of suffering.   Love at core includes a celebration of the other’s very existence that has no particular correlation with suffering.  Love is a radical affective affirmation of the other that is manifest by a desire to be with, and in a willingness to take the time to participate in the life of the other.   The reader will perhaps be surprised that the definition of love to be provided herein, while inclusive of compassion in an important way, does not attempt to elevate this particular manifestation of love above all others.    Instead, following more closely the insights of Buber and Levinas, I identify the core of love with an almost sacramental appreciation and affirmation of the other.    This foundational disposition precedes any of love’s other manifestations or modalities.  Thus, again, love is to person as compassion is to person-in-suffering.  Compassion means literally “to suffer with,” but unless we are all suffering all the time, love must take different forms and expressions than compassion.   I have for two decades been astounded by the elegant writings on love by the great Spanish poet and thinker Miguel de Unamuno.  In his classic work, entitled The Tragic Sense of Life (1912), Unamuno pictures all love (other than carnal) as a form of pity and compassion born of suffering and sorrow:  “To love with the spirit is to pity, and he who pities most loves most.”[1]  Unamuno continues:

“Men aflame with a burning charity toward their neighbors are thus enkindled because they have touched the depth of their own misery, their own apparentiality, their own nothingness, and then, turning their newly opened eyes upon their fellows, they have seen that they also are miserable, apparential, condemned to nothingness, and they have pitied them and loved them.”[2]

Love is compassion for Unamuno, or it is absent.  He laments the “vanity” and “tedium” of existence while asserting that “all consciousness is consciousness of death and suffering.”[3]  Love has no other expression than compassion, he argues, because in reality there is nothing but suffering in life if we see it for what it is.  God’s love for humankind is also, he contends, a matter of pity alone.

Unamuno is the most graceful of the Spanish poets.  His insights into suffering are profound, for there is a pathetic aspect to our lives in that we do all suffer and fall short before the power of finitude.  Yet Unamuno distorts human experience by omitting the homo ludens of play, of celebration, of joy in the gift of life.   As Johan Huizinga wrote, play is an essential indispensable mode of human existence.  He moved far beyond play as essential only to the child.   Huizinga saw play as a deep human reality upon which is based many of our highest spiritual accomplishments. [4] William A. Sadler, in an exhaustive phenomenology of love, wrote that play is connected with love:  “This is precisely what the world of love provides: love gives man a home in which it is safe to play.” [5]

Compassionate love is important and worth studying, but it is erroneous to think that love must always be in compassionate form.   Love is associated with joy, play, and celebration in relational freedom.  To cite Sadler again, “Phenomenological investigations indicate that the playground of freedom is love.”[6] I do not wish to trivialize compassion or suggest that life is as playful as Huizinga suggests.  But life is somewhat playful, and play can be an expression of love in its joyful affirmation of and participation in the sacredness of the other.  Many aspects of religious ritual represent love in the modulation of play.  (It is not my task here to trace how compassion came to be viewed as more or less the whole of love, although this was the result of 19th-century German philosophy and gave inevitable rise to the understandable but lamentable reaction of Nietzsche.)

Neither is love reducible to care.  Care, like compassion, is a vitally important modulation of love.  Love is to person as care is to person-in-need.   I take care to be the rough equivalent of altruism grounded in love – i.e., to altruistic love.   The caregiver tends to the needs of the other, but the person may not be in need.   The tendency in the contemporary literature to speak almost exclusively of care rather than of love (except in loves carnal aspects) is remarkable, suggesting that we have lost sight of the higher meanings of love that give rise to the very existence of care.

Love is also not reducible to altruism in its broad sense, which includes its groundings in capacities other than love.  Love includes a strong element of loyalty (covenant, fidelity, patience), which may be entirely foreign to the altruist who dives into the cold sea to save a fellow sailor (perhaps at some peril to self).  After the genuinely beneficent intervention, the altruist may simply walk away in search of some other opportunity to do good.   The image of the wandering “do gooder” is not uncommon in literature and media.  The altruist, in addition to being potentially peripatetic, may also have no particular affective warmth or joy in the presence of the other even in the fleeting moment of passing encounter.  I mention these things not to imply that altruists are all lonely long-distance runners.   Logically, however, the point is that altruism and love are not identical, however closely they can be related.

The literature on love is vast, and academics have approached it with rigor and occasional acrimony.   As a point of departure, I propose to build from love as described by prominent practitioners who have reputations for goodness through service to humanity.   It seems that such individuals will have had some level of experience that elevates their degree of insight beyond mere abstraction.   Epistemologically, I am interested in individuals who have knowledge of love, and not just knowledge about it, and who therefore can speak of love at deeper levels insofar as they manifest it. Let me explicit:  I trust the definition of love that comes from men and women devoted to its practice.  I refuse to take terribly seriously those who have developed academic careers writings about the nature of love as a matter of intellectual interest and scholarly advance.   I have interest in the history of philosophical and theological thought on love, but I do not believe that further interpretation of the history of ideas is an adequate beginning point for analysis.   I prefer to focus on experience, practice, and subsequent scientific analysis.

Let us begin with Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche (1964), a faith-based international network of more than one hundred communities in thirty countries for people with intellectual disabilities. His discussion of the nature of love is found in a book, Becoming Human, which builds on his experiences in living with and serving persons with developmental cognitive disabilities. [7] Vanier, writing of his experiences in l’Arche, describes the rejection felt by persons with these disabilities.  He writes of the importance of their feeling loved:

“In our l’Arche communities we experience that deep inner healing comes about mainly when people feel loved, when they have a sense of belonging. Our communities are essentially places where people can serve and create, and, most importantly, where they can love as well as be loved.  The healing flows from relationships – it is not something automatic.”[8]

Vanier describes Claudia, a 7-year-old autistic girl welcomed into a l’Arche community in the Honduras: “Her anguish seemed to increase terribly when she arrived in the community, probably because in leaving the asylum, she lost her reference points, as well as the structured existence that had given her a certain security…She seemed totally mad, her personality appeared to be disintegrating.”[9] He continues:

“Twenty years a ter she first arrived at Suyapa, I visited the community and met Claudia again; I found her quite well.  She was by then a twenty-eight-year-old woman, still blind and autistic but at peace and able to do many things in the community.  She still liked being alone but she was clearly not a lonely person.  She would often sing to herself and there was a constant smile on her face.”[10]

Vanierinterprets her experience as a migration from loneliness and insecurity through community and love to inner peace.  What does Vanier mean by love?  Fortunately, he is specific about its seven aspects – to reveal, to understand, to communicate, to celebrate, to empower, to be in community, and to forgive.   I will present these aspects with some interpretation, and then segue to a phenomenological treatment of love based in part on the writings of Max Scheler and Jules Toner.

The first feature of love is the revelation of value:

“Just as a mother and father reveal to their children that they have value and beauty, so, too, did the therapist and the others who lived with Claudia reveal to Claudia her value and beauty.   To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness.”[11]

In contrast to altruistic actions alone,

“To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention. We can express this revelation through out open and gentle presence, in the way we look and listen to a person, the way we speak to and care for someone.”[12]

The revelation of value can take time, but without it, Claudia’s screaming madness was a viable response to a world that had rejected her.

The agent of love, I think, lives in an enchanted world where the other has sacred value.  How can we become so enchanted, and can we see even the most downcast outsider in this bright Rembrandt-like ray of light?  The revelation of value typifies all forms of love.  Parental love reveals to the infant and child its inestimable and unique value in a way that would seem impossible outside of parental investment and even infatuation.  In conjugal love each spouse reveals value to the other in ways that may, to some extent, be rooted in romantic infatuations, but that must be grounded more deeply in affirmation of being if it is to last.  A core beginning point of the great world religions is the affirmation of value and meaning in all humanity, for all life is above all a gift over which we are stewards.   Lovers of all humanity see unique and inestimable value even in the most devastated, imperiled, and seemingly unattractive human lives. This revelation of value is not, in my view, something merely bestowed upon the other, who, lacking any unique or intrinsic value, is nevertheless treated as worthy despite being nothing (this is surely not something to tell your child).

It seems that the great lovers of humanity see a special value in each person, and in seeing through to the unique intrinsic value of the most devastated individual can point this value out to the world.   People want to be valued for what they are, and not despite what they are not.

Such revelation inevitably provides comfort, safety, and a release from anxiety in the other.   It is in stark contrast to the malignant social psychology that makes the other feel that his or her very being rests on a mistake; love is a revelatory affirming participation in the being of the other.

Vanier’s second and third features of love are to understand and to communicate.  Claudia “needed to be understood.  If no one understood her how could they help Claudia to find inner peace and growth?  Her screams were not only a sign of her inner brokenness, darkness, and anguish but also a cry for help.”[13]

Understanding precedes compassion and care, for the lover must become aware through understanding of the other’s suffering and need.  Most people, including children, who feel unloved will lament that they were never listened to and therefore were never understood.   Love manifests a readiness to understand the history of malignant devaluation.  Empathy is certainly an aspect of this process of understanding, although such understanding involves a degree of intentionality and skill that is much more than empathy alone.  Someone who loves must be communicative, a process that moves back and forth in an open truthful flow of information, and that allows full and trusting articulation.

Vanier’s forth feature of love is to celebrate.  “To love people,” he writes, “is also to celebrate them.”  Love involves laughter, joy, and play: “The Claudias also need laughter and play, they need people who will celebrate life with them and manifest their joy of being with them.”[14] Love relieves people from the perception that life is only a tragedy.

Love is not, in my view, best understood as a form pity so much as an abrogation of rejection through the creation of celebratory relationship. It is in celebration that negative self-esteem is finally conquered.  It is the ultimate expression of inclusion, acceptance, and “being with.” Celebration allows the fulfillment of the will to exist and the will to belong.

Vanier’s fifth aspect of love is to empower.  As he writes of love,

“It is not just a question of doing things for others but of helping them to do things for themselves, helping them to discover the meaning of their lives.  To love means to empower.”[15]

Claudia has to learn that she was responsible for her body, her life, and her choices.   Further, “Empowerment meant that Claudia had to learn how to observe the structures of the community and make efforts to respect and love others.”[16]

Those who love do not attempt to possess or control or program, but rather wish to create community in empowered freedom.  Empowerment allows one to have an identity based on a distinctive life journey, and to act in the light of that identity.    An empowering love requires that the other be cared for with respect to needs, but it also wishes to teach the other to care for self; love will take the form of service as need demands, but it wants to encourage responsibility as well.

Vanier’s definition of love evolves to include a sixth aspect, to be in communion.

“Through revelation, understanding, communication, celebration, and empowerment, Claudia is now able to participate in mutual trust and mutual belonging.  Communion is the sustaining end point of love, “it is the to-and-fro movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives.”[17]

Communion is not static, but instead constitutes an “ever-growing and ever-deepening reality that can turn sour if one person tries to possess the other, thus preventing growth.” [18] Vanierwrites of openness to one another, growth in freedom, and above all, of trust as essential to communion.  In trust, “Claudia entered into a relationship of belonging. But we can only give of ourselves if we trust that we will be well-received by someone.  At what moment is trust born?  There was a secret moment, known only to Claudia, when she recognized that she was loved.”[19]

In communion, the other has been discovered and accepted as worthy, and nurtured into trust and mutuality.  The solipsistic tendency to view the other as valuable only insofar as he or she furthers “my” agenda has been completely set aside in all directions.

Vanier’s final and seventh aspect of love is to forgive.  This aspect of love is central to communion, for we all need to be forgiven and to forgive, and forgiveness precludes the hatred and violence that destroy communion.

Phenomenology and Definition

Love is a remarkably complex term used to mean anything for anyone. The meaning that Vanierhas discovered is, I believe, the central one, and it is less a definition than a sketching out of aspects in chronological order: to reveal value, to understand, to communicate, to celebrate, to empower, to be in communion, to forgive.  These are the observations of a man whose life has been devoted to creating a healing world of love for those imperiled by harsh rejection.  Perhaps the via negativa can be useful here.  The opposite of love is invalidation of being, and the related objectification, mockery, disparagement, and destruction of being.

We move now from Vanier, whose ideas emerge from his experience as a person of unlimited love, to Tom Kitwood, known worldwide for his work with the most deeply forgetful, i.e., with persons who are demented.   In his book Dementia Reconsidered: The Person Comes First, Kitwood writes, “I suggest that we might consider a cluster of needs in dementia, very closely connected, and functioning like some kind of cooperative.  It might be said that there is only one all-encompassing need – for love.”[20] Kitwood’s cluster is resonant with Vanier’s.  He begins with comfort, which “carries meaning of tenderness, closeness, the soothing of pain and sorrow, the calming of anxiety, the feeling of security which comes from being close to another.”[21] Kitwood then turns to attachment, which provides reassurance when bonds have been broken and the world is full of uncertainty.  Inclusion follows, emphasizing the social nature of human life “related to the fact that we evolved as a species designed for life within face-to-face groups.”[22] The need for inclusion comes to the fore in dementia because the other has been cut off from so many forms of community due to the loss of memory and communicative capacity.  Kitwood then refers to occupation, some way of drawing on a person’s remaining abilities and powers to give them a sense of active agency.  Finally, he includes identity, which flows from supportive community over time.   It is love, argues Kitwood, that preserves personhood in the face of diminishing capacities.   While Kitwood does not achieve the chronological phenomenology of love that Vanier does, he too worked with a community of individuals who, however cognitively compromised, still need to be loved and are often quite capable of returning love.  (I remain convinced that in our busy lives we forget about the centrality of love to human existence, and that persons with cognitive disabilities serve to remind us of our most basic human needs and nature.[23])

At this point, we turn briefly to two key phenomenologists of other-regarding love, Scheler and Toner.  The German philosopher and phenomenologist Max Scheler was correct in distinguishing the “big picture” of love from compassion, which he saw as “pity at its strongest.” [24] It is pity, of course, that, when genuine, “should lead to acts of beneficence.” [25] But love, Scheler argues, is too large a concept to be derived from fellow-feeling, i.e., sympathy leading to beneficence.  As he argues, such helping actions are not the same as love, or at least they do not exhaust it or touch on its readiness to elevate the other.  For Scheler, love is more a creative presence than a reaction to suffering or need.  Love is expansive:  “But love is a movement, passing from a lower value to a higher one, in which the higher value of the object of person suddenly flashes upon us; whereas hatred moves in the opposite direction.” [26] Love is about the vision of fullness and value in the other, and all the intentional acts that this implies.  In the widest affirming and enhancing sense possible, love is a “creative force.” [27] In summary, “love is that movement wherein every concrete individual object that possesses value achieves the highest value compatible with its nature and ideal vocation; or wherein it attains the ideal state of value intrinsic to its nature. Hatred, on the other hand, is a movement in the opposite direction.” [28] Genuine love always involves objective seeing rather than being blinded.

Scheler’s discussion, which reflects the dense style of late 19th-century European phenomenology, is focused on the distinction between love fully considered and the helping inclinations (sympathy) observed within human nature by the British moral philosophers such as Hume.  He appreciates the importance of innate emotional inclination, such as empathy, and would doubtless recognize what today’s social scientists refer to as the empathy-altruism hypothesis, but he also realizes that the “creative force” of love is not reactive so much as uplifting.  Scheler never broke love down into anything like Vanier’s aspects, but in most respects, Vanier and Scheler resonate conceptually.

There was no greater American phenomenologist of love than the Jesuit Jules Toner, whose writings established an important school of thought in the last three decades of the 20th century.  His work, The Experience of Love, is considered a classic in the field. [29] It is immediately clear that love emerges from the whole agent, rather than from any single capacity:  “In the full concrete experience of love, our whole being, spirit and flesh, is involved:  cognitive acts, feelings and affection, freedom, bodily reaction – all these are nfluencing each other