On obligation to love.

This essay started with a random glance at the next year’s possible retreat topic. I think that’s what it was. The topic was “Love as an Obligation.” And my first response was to turn to a sister next to me and to ask, feeling everything slow down as it does when something in my head isn’t quite jelling with something in the world, “Can love be an obligation?”

I will, by a somewhat circuitous route, come back and answer this question at the end of the essay. I promise. But I have to start with why I asked it in the first place.

As a vast majority of us is, to a greater or lesser degree and each in our own way, I am a product, a shaper, and a victim of a cross-section of a set of cultural presuppositions – and from more than one culture. The immediate misgiving I had in reaction to thinking of love as obligation arose, more than anything, from a series of modern, Western convictions ingrained in me since birth and perpetuated by most contemporary love as obligation 1psychology, quite a bit of philosophy, all of the legal field, and a smorgasbord of Hollywood movies: these are the convictions that we do not choose whom we love, that love is a feeling, that our feelings are a private matter, that actions not feelings determine the goodness of a person. The idea, of course, has deeper roots than modernity, but in the end it is familiar to everyone, I’m sure: It’s all right to – and we all do – have “bad feelings,” such as anger, resentment, or lust. It’s what we do with those feelings that’s important. If we don’t act on them, we are good. If we act on them, we are bad. Even for many religiously conservative monotheists, this translates into comfortable behavioral guidelines, Sermon on the Mount notwithstanding: Anger is normal, but revenge is bad. Murder is forbidden; revenge is God’s purview. Lust is normal, but adultery is against God’s commandment. Resentment against authority is normal, but respect must be shown to “parents” nevertheless.

In the face of having to live together in a society that controls many of our actions, our guarding of our right to feel what we wish is assertion of control over part of our lives – at least the inner, intimate part. It is desire for freedom out of which all other freedoms stem, and in that it is modernity understandable and praise-worthy.

There is some real plus in positing actions as the measure of goodness and leaving inner life to a person’s own handling. For one, humans inescapably judge one another (however hard we might try not to), and deeds are the most reliable food for judgment available to us. Misjudgment based on our perceptions of love as obligation 2someone’s state of heart is very dangerous. For two, we are familiar with a long history, even in my own Catholic tradition, of thoughts and feelings being considered a basis for a degree of sinfulness, and whenever such an approach is undertaken in a shallow or casuistic manner, the damage – especially to the young – is hard to overestimate. Chronic guilt eats away. It does no good. I am a Russian Jewish Catholic, and I almost drowned in the Mariana trench of guilt  before making it to the surface. I would never advocate throwing anyone into it. For three, counseling psychology – one of modernity’s favorite children – has made some real inroads in helping us understand our feelings precisely as they’ve been divorced from the actions of our lives.

And so, once again, there are advantages in separating “actions” from “feelings,” regulating the former, and trying to guide the latter in positive and non-judgmental ways.

The problem is the price.

The price is divorce from reality.


In the course of thinking about this issue, I’ve asked people I encountered what they thought. “Can love be an obligation?”

Most of them said, “No.” Quickly and outright. When pressed for reasons, most of them made clear that by “love” they meant “romantic love” eros or kinship love, philia. One specifically talked about forced marriage; another, familial responsibilities. A friend of mine countered my question with a question: “Is it equally valid if I don’t like my neighbor but act in loving ways?”

Leaving aside what my friend meant by “valid” and his confusion of “like” and “love,” the question he asked, I think, zeroed in on the crux of the problem we as a culture are having with love. What he really tried to clarify was, “Is love a feeling or an action?” Because – remember? – we are comfortable obliging ourselves to act but not to feel.

The problem is, love is not a feeling or an action. It’s neither. It’s both. It’s more than the two. In fact, I am becoming unsure there is such a thing as “feelings,” separate and opposed to “actions” or to thoughts or to physical sensations. Not long ago, in a psychologist’s office, I was identified as prone to psycho-somatic symptoms and warned to watch out for that, which got me thinking yet again about just how much more integrated we are as entities than we tend to perceive ourselves. We experience life on many levels, and one level of experience always involves others and translates into others. Divorcing one from another is always artificial. Failing to expect that psychic experience will manifest somatically, thinking of psycho-somatic as abnormal is as myopic as thinking that somatic symptoms would not manifest psychically – as in, thinking that pain should not upset me.

love as obligation 3 cropped

What I mean, relevantly to my friend’s question, is this: “Acting lovingly” without loving is not acting lovingly. It’s obedience to behavioral guidelines, but it’s emotionally fake. It’s better than acting violently, but it’s not love. We’ve long been confusing love and charity. In Latin, caritas is a broadly embracing word. But in today’s contextual English, it’s not. It’s not that they are the same. It’s that they should be.

Charity in the sense of heartfelt help to those who need it should be driven by love. Ideally, charity is simply one visible form of love. In reality, giving money to charity for show or for a tax break, serving people and finding them disgusting is not love.

Conversely, “feeling” love without acting on it is impossible. Loving people and watching them starve when you can share is not loving. This is a well-understood truth. Feeling and action flow into each other. Thought and feeling and action flow into each other. Pain and joy and action flow.

This framework, in which I am operating right now, is not exactly new or unique, though I am stretching it to something of an extreme. Essentially, we are talking a “virtue ethic”: an ethics system that does not undertake to regulate actions or mechanisms for arriving at moral decisions in any specific situations. It is not concerned with your proximate motives for this or that decision or with predicting likely consequences of it. It does not dare posit a clear set of rules. Instead, a virtue ethic endeavors to cultivate a person – a person in her entirety so good that she will do good, naturally, in every situation. A virtue ethic identifies what is good and offers you – not to do that – to become that. Because we do what we are. No set of guidelines can predict an answer to every moral question that will arise in the future, only a living guideline we carry inside our hearts – and a virtue ethicist sets out to create one. He sees a person as a whole: Feelings flow into thoughts. Thoughts flow into actions. This is Plato. This is Aristotle. This is Jesus of Nazareth.

When I turned to a Dominican sister and asked if love could be an obligation, her answer was immediate, with a hint of surprise at hearing my doubt.

She said, “The two greatest commandments are to love!”

It is true. The two “greatest commandments” were a teaching to which Jesus subscribed (with his own, quite crucial twist) and preserved in the Gospel narratives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I had read those passages at least twice a month for years, taught that lesson to my students for even more years, and it had never bothered me before – just because the word “obligation” never stood next to the word “love” on the page. Funny how our minds work sometimes.

The Law of Moses seems mostly action-based. With the possible exception of envy (a whole other conversation), all God’s instructions in the 10 Commandments are for prescribed or forbidden actions. But in fact, though the emphasis is still on the outward, what we now call “actions” and what we now call “feelings and thoughts” are somewhat mixed in the 613 detailed commandments of the Pentateuch. Achievable ideaAncient Israel, you see, had a pretty holistic concept of person; they didn’t divide a person into a mind-body dichotomy. When Greek dualisms began to affect Judah in the 4th c. BC, pharisaic/rabbinic movements concordantly began to explain – yes, interpret – the Law for their newly summary-requiring audience, which enterprise produced by the 1st century the most popular teaching of the time: the set of “Two Greatest Commandments,” a boiling down of the whole Law, its gist, to two commandments, one from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus. Interestingly, both are minor and contextual in their original right: the command to love God from Deuteronomy is part of a repetitive series that follows the retelling of the Ten Commandments, a series that becomes important only much later in Rabbinic Judaism; the command to love neighbor in Leviticus is not even its own sentence but an afterthought to a prohibition against revenge and grudge-holding. It’s not their place in the scripture. It’s their poignant, all-embracing spirit and phrasing that earned them the honor of getting pulled out of context and placed for all time on the proverbial banner of biblical cliff notes.

The Two Commandments contain it all: action and feeling. Heart and strength. And they tell us to love. And along comes the Nazarene and merges them together, and he says “Love one another as I have loved you.” And he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (For more on this, see “On Being Friends with God.”) He entwines friendship, understanding, and obedience – that place where love and law conflate – and he takes apart the Law, commandment by commandment, and goes even further. Adultery is forbidden, he says, but lust is not all right. Murder is forbidden, but anger is not all right. He digs into the spirit that underlies every forbidden action, and he says, “Don’t,” and apologizes for it none at all. There’s still seventeen centuries to go until modernity.

Ten Commandments

It is ironic, I think, that, in our modern care for the human person, we have regressed to chopping up that person into isolated aspects and always ignoring at least one of those. Not that we aren’t getting a little better at this, especially with the influences of the Eastern traditions and the post-modernist push-back against – well – everything modern.

But we are still largely locked into a track of “dealing with feelings,” “acting” or “not acting” on them. Therapy can be good – crucial and irreplaceable, in fact, especially when our “feelings” have been very hurt or very confused. Finding a way for the hurt and confusion to roll down and soak in like water into the roots and branches of our being’s proverbial tree, under the light of thought and song, in the heat of dance, helping us grow through action in the world, is better – not necessarily exclusive of therapy. Feeding a steady diet of Ritalin to so many of our children is bad. But the very concept of a safe space to “let out feelings” conjures up imagery of a box in which we store them. That’s…very bad. We are not bodily containers filled with boxes for intellect, emotions, and soul. We are insanely complex, completely entangled, organic protrusions into this universe of an even more complex reality – not to be disentangled.

Dissolve Into One

And this, perhaps, is where lie part of my difficulty with the question of love as obligation and part of my answer. With all things said, I am still a modern person. The words “free will” to me are as much about creation and salvation as they are about democracy and human rights. My first, gut reaction was, “You can’t make me love or tell me how to love!” And I still agree with that. Our freedom to choose is a precious and inalienable quality no one can take away. In the most desperate bind, we have a choice, even if it’s a choice to hope or to despair. To exercise our free will is a right and responsibility, a privilege and an obligation at once – think love and voting.

So yes. Love must be freely given, or it’s not love. But then, commanding something does not yet make it so, especially commanding to love. Forced obedience is not obedience.

Upon reflection, then, my question was really, “Is it just, fair, or realistic to demand love?”

Or, perhaps, “Can love be owed?”

And upon reflection – thankfully, not a very long one – my answer is, “Yes.”


I have written quite a bit about the nature of Love, or at least my conception of it. I’ve written of Love as the active form of the Good, the nature of God that, by virtue of its temporality, underlies and holds together this universe/multiverse. Love, the most basic connectedness of all things through space and time in what we call “spirit,” is the fabric of reality, in the flow of which the temporal existence proceeds from its beginning through its growth and change to its ultimate purpose of having been created at the end of time to pass from temporality back into eternity. We all are “knitted” together into a vast, completely interconnected network in the fabric of Love, and most of us, I think, are connected by default, by being what we are, but the metaphorical strength, breadth, and quality of this connection can vary with the choices and efforts of our wills.

In other words – in the words we inherited from our ancestors – God loves us from the start. How well we love is up to us.

This is where the question of love as obligation changes. Because love is not just a feeling, not just an action. When I forget the casual, vernacular ways in which we use the word and think of its one real meaning, everything changes. To love my neighbor – to love humanity, animal life, plants, rocks, stars, wind, undiscovered nebula, and unimagined dimensions – is to be in the state of connectedness with Creation we are made to be. It is to be, by definition, what we are. How can I not? And to love God – that’s almost a redundancy, for God is Love, Love being God in temporal form. Within us, it is our divine nature. Our salvation. Our soul. How can I not?

clouds in California

Can love be an obligation?

No less than an obligation to respond to a greeting, because He loves first. No less than an obligation to repay a debt. Because He loves first. No less than an obligation to live. Because He is Love, and we are Him.

When I think of Love in its real meaning, I realize that all the commandments in the world try to say the same thing – some are more contextual than others and fluid in time and in culture, but all are aimed at the same goal: how to be good. And to be good is to be of God. And to be of God is to love. It’s the only commandment that depends neither on culture nor on time.

It might be the only obligation there is. Because all others stem and grow out of this one. Because all it really means is to open ourselves to life, to becoming fulfilled in our being to the last drop, to becoming the best of ourselves. Because “to love” means to belong as deeply as we can to each other and to the world in this stream of Good flowing through time from Beginning to End, where all things will come together again. And you can’t “act lovingly” for this one. You can’t fake it. That profoundly personal Ultimate Reality whom we call “God” and whom we know through the flow of Love that creates the temporal universe — He isn’t into sophistry.

This is what I think, feel, do, am, and say: In the end, nothing is about words. We owe love because without it we cannot be truly what we are. If we must be what we are, then we must love. And prophets of all ages keep reminding us of that.

Love as obligation 4


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