My latest in the Christian Courier.
You can hardly argue with the title of the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit presently on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit is a display of wedding gowns and wedding attire created by Gaultier over the years. And the title of the exposition is the same as that given to this column: “Love is Love.” Who could argue with that?
But as soon as we insist on the truthfulness of that phrase the question arises as to what, exactly, it means. “Love is love” seems like a perfectly circular argument in that it starts with itself and ends with itself and goes nowhere in between. But perhaps that is the only way for Gaultier to make the point that love is singular – that there are not many loves or multiple definitions of love. Rather, there is only one love. Love is love!
To make this more concrete, let me offer a simple definition of love. Love means being patient and kind with another person; it means seeking the best for him or her; it means building them up; it means serving them; it means challenging them; it means pointing the other to Christ and his way in the world. We are each able to extend this love to others, and also receive it. Wherever love is expressed, well, there is love.
Love, of course, can be expressed in every relational context. It can be expressed between parents and children, between neighbours, between sisters, between colleagues at work, between life-long friends, between spouses, or between strangers on the bus. Each relationship is unique, of course, and so the way that love is expressed will differ from context to context, but love itself is singular. Love is love. Conversely, and sadly, there is no relational context in which a failure of love cannot also reveal itself.
Just here, however, we might need to distance ourselves from Gaultier’s words, since it turns out that his meaning of love is not what I’ve offered. The subtitle to his exhibit suggests that his thinking leads in a different direction. The subtitle is: “Wedding Bliss for All.” So, when Gaultier speaks of love, he means romantic love. It turns out that Gaultier is doing something that is common today – defining love in terms of preferential/intimate relationships. He does so, in part, to make the point that romantic, marital love is inclusive of opposite and same sex relationships.
As Søren Kierkegaard argued a century and a half ago, western culture has set up romantic love on the throne of our lives and imaginations. And it has displaced love, which Kierkegaard defines as neighbour love, from the place of prominence Jesus would give to it. For his part, Kierkegaard prefers to leave romantic and preferential loves to the poets (and designers?). He suggests that those who follow Jesus should get on with the business of neighbour love, which can and must be expressed in every relationship.
A simple measure of the church’s own failure in this regard is the frequency with which 1 Corinthians 13 is read at wedding services – a text that has nothing to do with preferential, intimate relationships and everything to do with love. The love to which the church is called, in Christ.
Here the title of Gaultier’s exhibit begins to feel more like a slogan (intended to support a particular ideology) than a compelling comment on the nature of love. The question of marriage is not a question of whether love can be expressed in whole variety of relational contexts – of course it can be. The question of marriage concerns its nature as a covenantal bond given with creation and redeemed in Jesus Christ. We may debate the nature of marriage but perhaps we can otherwise agree on love. Specifically, that love cannot be reduced to romantic love (whatever exactly that is) or reserved for preferential relationships.
Love finds its source in the God who is love. Each of our lives is rooted in love. Love is the compassion, the friendship, the forgiveness, the service, the strength, and the encouragement we offer to one another in Christ. There is no relational context in which love cannot be expressed. Love is love!