Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Agape Isn't Love: Translation & Loving God

Ancient Greek doesn't have a word for love.

Your Greek textbook and a zillion preachers will disagree, but despite the odds, I stand firm: Greek doesn't have a word for love.

Certainly, Greek has a number of words we translate as love, but none of them are words for love. Greek existed well before any form of English. How foolish to say Greek would have any words "for love," as if a group of people sat around inventing the language and decided to create a number of words "for love."

As English speakers, it is easy to understand "love" as one complex emotion, no matter how often we differentiate between different sorts of love. The vast permutations of love are just that: variations on a theme, not different emotions.

I cannot imagine the Ancient Greeks had any concept of what we call "love," which is not to say the didn't love, they just didn't understand what we call love. They had concepts of agape, philia, eros, and sturge. They may have even sensed similarities between these emotions, much in the way we understand similarities between like, love, passion, and hate. At the end of the Gospel According to John, Jesus asks Peter, "Do you agape me more than these?" (I'm not conjugating these verbs, for simplicity's sake).

Peter answers, "Yes, Lord, you know I philia you."

Jesus asks the question again, but differently. "Do you agape me?" Peter answers the same.

Then a third time Jesus asks the question, except not the same question. This time Jesus asks, "Do you philia me?" When Peter responds, he still uses the word philia.

Some connection exists here between philia and agape, a connection preachers make much ado over. Perhaps some of the ado is warranted, perhaps some of it isn't. I'm not concerned so much with what preachers make of this passage.

I'm concerned with us thinking Jesus and Peter were talking about two different kinds of love. John didn't simply switch between words "for love" for variety's sake. When you write, do you sometimes switch between the phrase "he fell" and "he has fallen," since both are phrases for the word "nafal" in Hebrew? I know I often use the following phrases nearly interchangeably when making subtle points like John 21: "He will remember," "He remembers," and "He used to remember." After all, they are all phrases for "yizcor" in Hebrew.

I'm not just making some unnecessary point. OK, you understand how self-centered our language regarding translation is, which is great. Precision is a good aim in communication, no matter how impossible it is.

Marva Dawn mentions a few words in Greek we translate as "love." The last word she lists is agape. "This last love, of course, is the richest of all." But agape isn't love. To adapt a saying from Dr. Gerald Keown, "Agape is agape." Agape is not love, because it is nothing else but agape. We misunderstand the biblical authors if we think they had a hierarchy of love with agape at the top and eros or some other love at the bottom.

We misunderstand love and agape if we think the Greek language outshines English because it has multiple nuances "for love." The point is getting closer, my friends. In our station, living thousands of years after the Greeks, we are blessed to enrich our understanding of the overarching concept of love. For us, love does encompass agape, philia, eros, and storge. Love is not agape, because agape is too narrow. However, we understand agape is a part of love. It is love as much as philia and eros are love.

Instead of picking up on the many differences between them, we can love doritos, love pets, love justice, love family, love friends, love through sex, love neighbor, love earth, and love God. Instead of focusing on the differences, our language helps us focus on the similarities. Sometimes we even confuse ourselves, replacing a desire for sexual love with a love for doritos, a desire for familial love with an unholy love for sex (which is different than love through sex).

Sometimes, we can purposefully and beautifully confuse these loves, expressing our love for God through our love for food in Eucharist, through our love of our neighbors, through our love of our families, through our love for God's creation, through our love of sexual language, through our love of humor, through our love for ourselves.

When we spend too much time on permutating love, we think we can only love God by some abstract concept of "agape-ing" God: through singing praises to God, through thanking God for things, through praying to God, through attending events centered on talking about God, through attending Christian schools, through going to church.

Certainly, the Greeks have aided us with the beauty of their language and their different words for what we call love. The concept of agape is also a great gift. It is a word I treasure, but not in the isolated (non)sense listed above where we forsake love for the sake of a mistaken agape.

Let us not forget the beauty of our own language. Let us love God by loving, something no biblical author could communicate, because of the limitations of their language. If we get too wrapped up in "agape-ing" God, we don't love God. If we intend to love God, we need to do it through loving everyone and everything else, too.

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