Home > Christianity, History > Love: A Brief History Through Western Christianity

Love: A Brief History Through Western Christianity

  • Lindberg, Carter, 1937–
  • Love : a brief history through Western Christianity / Carter Lindberg.
  • p. cm.—(Blackwell brief histories of religion series)
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-631-23598-9 (hardcover : alk. paper)—
  • ISBN 978-0-631-23599-6 (pbk. :alk. paper)
  • 1. Love—Religious aspects—Christianity. I. Title.
  • BV4639.L495 2008
  • 241’.4—dc22           2007041657

Love in all its guises has been debated since the beginning of recorded history. Its fascinating evolution in Western culture is traced here in this concise history; one which spans the depth and complexity of this elusive topic. By examining the significant lives, works, and movements associated with love, this enlightening little book contributes valuable insights into one of history’s most inexhaustible and timeless topics. From the theological and philosophical texts of figures such as Augustine, Luther, and Feuerbach to intellectual movements like Romanticism and tragic historic figures like Abelard and Heloise, Love: A Brief History Through Western Christianity propels the reader across 3,000 years of the idea of love.

‘‘What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?’’ Judges 14:18

For Samson, that great athlete, sexual and otherwise, whose story is related in the book of Judges, the answer to the riddle is love. As the story progresses through Samson’s affair with Delilah, we learn that love not only makes the world go ’round; lack of love literally brings everything crashing down. In the words of the Song of Songs (8:6–7): ‘‘love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.’’ The centrality of love to human life permeates biblical writings from the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs to the shorthand gospel of John 3:16 that ‘‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’’ Not only the biblical writers, but philosophers, poets, and theologians from Plato through Dante to C. S. Lewis have struggled to describe, define, and demonstrate love. Their efforts continue to inform, deform, and reform present understandings and experiences of love. The history of love ranges from Adam and Eve to the most recent pot-boiler romance novel, from star-crossed lovers to parents and children, from friends to enemies, from medieval troubadours to contemporary minstrels of all stripes, from churches to talk shows. Is love an ‘‘eternal idea’’? Or does the understanding of love have a history? Does love change, grow, diminish? Does spousal profession of love have the same meaning at the altar and at the golden anniversary? Can marriage be based on love? Is love in an arranged marriage of the tenth century comparable to love in a voluntary marriage of the twenty-first? Indeed, what do marriage and love have to do with each other? Do parents love their children less or more now than in prior times? Is love a feeling? Is love an act? Is love an art? Is love voluntary or involuntary, or both? How is self-love related to love of the neighbor? Does love extend to enemies? What is the relation of love to sexuality? Can love be commanded? Is love redemptive? Is love divine? Is divinity love?

How does love form and inform our existence? What, indeed, is love? The questions seem to have no end, and any effort to set forth a history of love, especially a ‘‘brief’’ one, must be highly selective. Rather than ‘‘justify’’ my selections, I take refuge in the candor of Eusebius (c.260–c.340), ‘‘the father of church history,’’ who wrote at the beginning of his The History of the Church: ‘‘I have picked out whatever seems relevant to the task I have undertaken, plucking like flowers in literary pastures the helpful contributions of earlier writers, to be embodied in the continuous narrative I have in mind.’’ Obviously, in the following ‘‘history,’’ many beautiful flowers have been left in the pastures.

The following ‘‘brief history of love’’ presents some of the theoretical and practical ‘‘answers’’ to questions about love set forth in Western culture from early reflections in Greco-Roman culture to the present. Since a dominant thread running through Western culture is Christianity in its many expressions, we shall approach our subject from its perspective. But even this limitation is too broad because every aspect of Christian theology expresses in one way or another a concept of love. It is possible under the rubric of love to include anything and everything. Library shelves groan under the weight of innumerable studies on this theme. To read and understand even a small fraction of all these studies is far beyond my ability. There is also the dangerous professorial penchant of killing the subject.

As Søren Kierkegaard noted, theology professors too often reverse the miracle of Cana: they turn wine into water. Therefore I have attempted a broad narrative of love in Western history. The downside of such a ‘‘brief’’ history is that every reader will miss his or her favorite philosopher, theologian, or saint. I hope that in spite of such disappointments, this little volume may provide an entre´e to a fascinating and complex subject. To that end, the author have avoided footnotes but have provided a bibliography of the works directly informing my views for those who wish to fill in the gaps of this endeavor as well as find correctives to my synthesis.

Enjoy this great book

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