John’s simple, little line – God is love – may come closer than anything else in scripture to capturing what Christianity is at its core. God is love says it all, sums it up. These three words are the beating heart of the Bible; in them is encapsulated the whole of that sweeping, grand saga which starts in Eden and ends on the other side of eternity. God is love is the CliffsNotes synopsis of the Old Testament stories and laws and commandments. God is love is the New Testament gospel in a nutshell. Everything we need to know about God is contained within this one claim. And God is love tells us not only who God is, but who we are to be: as John goes on to say – God is love, so love one another. God is love, so love one another is our guiding star, is something like moral, spiritual true north. God is love, so love one another orients us ethically, turns us outward and teaches us what is our obligation to all those whose paths we should cross, and to those even in far-flung places half a world away whom we shall never meet. God is love, so we should love one another is the bedrock belief upon which the Church stands when it blesses marriages and preaches forgiveness and ministers to the poor and marches for justice. God is love, so love one another is foundational – is the truth from which all the rest of our religion flows, and the standard of faithfulness against which our religion is to be tested. So God is love is a pretty big deal.
But what does it mean for God to be love? To actually be love? Because John does not say that love is one among many of God’s attributes or that love is an affection that God feels for us (in which case, love would be something God has). Rather, John says that love is, is, what God is, that love is something like the entirety of the genetic structure of God, that love is the whole enchilada here, is the very stuff God is made of, that God is love, first of all and last of all, full-stop, nothing but love, all the way down. But, again, what does that mean? What does it mean for God to be love? Love only arises in the context of a relationship. You cannot have love in a vacuum. You cannot siphon off the love shared between, say, a mother and a child or a husband and a wife, put it in a vat, pickle it, and shelve it. Love cannot exist out there, but always only here, in the in between, between us, between you and another. Now, as a quick aside: I am not saying that you cannot love your cat, Fluffy, who – sorry, folks – being, by nature, the nastiest, most standoffish of all God’s creatures, is constitutionally incapable of loving you back. (Just kidding.) Or that that you cannot love gardening or love chocolate. Because of course you can. But it is still the case that you who love and what you love share together in at least some semblance of a relationship. Love needs a subject (in whom love arises) and an object (on which love rests). Because you cannot just love. You cannot just love generally, love nothing at all; you love someone or something. Love attaches you to someone or to something. Love needs a self and an other. Love is always love between or love for.
So when John writes that God is love, he cannot be saying that God is just love, that God is just love, in general, only loftier and transcendent, like, an immaterial fluff of sweet feelings. John cannot be saying that God is the pure essence of love, that God is love distilled or boiled down. God is not condensed love, only in a really, really big can, floating out beyond the farthest galaxy. Because that is not what love is. Love is not an abstraction; it is an activity. Love is a phenomenon. Love transpires in some sort of in between space. Love is not so much something you have, something you can have a hold on, as it is something that happens between one and another. Remember: love cannot exist but in the context of a relationship. There is no love apart from the ones who love. There is no such thing as love untethered from the subject (in whom love arises) and the object (on which love rests). Love is always love between or love for. Love requires a self and an other; love logically, by definition, depends upon at least two somebodies who do the loving. And so, if what John writes is true, if it true that God is love, that God is this activity, is this phenomenon which transpires, which happens in some sort of in between space, between a self and an other – if it is true what John writes, if it is true that God is love, God must be, in some mysterious sense, simultaneously a self and an other. God must be, in some mysterious sense, a subject and an object. God must be, in some mysterious sense, a sharing of and a sharing in love. God must be, in some mysterious sense, a relationship of ones who love.
One of the most beautiful imaginings of the Trinity, of that boggling, mathematically bonkers theological construct according to which Christians claim that God is both one and three, that God is three-in-one and one-in-three, comes to us courtesy of St. Augustine. Augustine suggested that we think of the one, triune God like so: as Father, who loves, that is, who is the Lover, as Christ the Son, who is the Beloved, and as Holy Spirit, who is the bond of Love between them. Lover, Beloved, and the Love between them, this is what the Trinity looks like, Augustine says. This is what God looks like, Augustine says. God is a web of love, love given, love received, love reciprocated. God is a relationship. God is a relationship of ones who love. God is one being who is mysteriously, at once, both self and other. God’s own inner life is a kind of communion of lovers, is a sharing of love – an arising of love within one, an offering of that love to another, and a joyous resting and delighting in that love as it is returned, then offered again and again and again and again. God is a sharing of love. God always was, eternally was a sharing of love; there never was a time when God was not sharing of and sharing in love. And so, because it is only in the sharing, in the glad circle of giving, receiving, and reciprocating that love is strengthened and sustained, and because God has had eons x infinity to share in and share of love – we say that God’s love is perfect, is pure, is crowned by all the blessings of absolute mutuality, before which our own loves cannot but pale.
That is heavy, is all somewhat heady, so let me cut to the chase. Here is the upshot, in my mind, of thinking about the Trinity, thinking about God as Lover, Beloved, and the bond of Love between them, thinking about God as a relationship, as a family, as a household wherein love flourishes and not thinking about God as some sort of never-never-love, as an ultimate vagueness that exists only as a nice abstraction: It is the difference between love being a noun or a verb. It is the difference between seeing God’s love as a principle, or seeing that, in God, love is something which is practiced and perfected. God is love, so love one another asks a lot less of us (if love is a principle) than God is love, so love one another asks of us (if love is something that must be practiced and may be perfected). God is love in the abstract becomes love one another in the abstract. But God is love as an activity becomes love one another as an activity. God is love, so love one another as an abstract principle means shaking your head at the state of the world, tearing up during the nightly news, then going back to your dinner, it means complaining about politics or about the state of the country and doing nothing about it but maybe once in awhile, on lunch break, positing an opinion piece on Facebook. But God is love, so love one another as action, as a practice means going door to door canvassing, manning phone banks, donating money, it means voting, it means volunteering; in the home, maybe it means tough conversations, maybe it means marriage counseling, maybe it means a twelve-step program. God is love, so love one another as action, as a practice means getting your hands dirty, means getting your heart broken, means getting busy, means dong the hard, often agonizingly, sacrificially hard work by which the love we feel for our families and for our friends and for our neighbors and for the needy and for our country and for those far off, by which the love we feel for them comes to be perfected, to be purified, comes to be something more than mere sentiment. And is not that what Christianity is at its core?