Love as Union: Defining a Concept

Anyone who seriously seeks to follow Jesus knows that he or she is called to love.  We are called to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31 and parallels).  We are called to love those who share our identity as followers of Christ (John 15:1-17, among many other texts).  We are called to love our spouses (Ephesians 5:24-33; Titus 2:3-5).  And we are called to love our enemies (Matthew 5:38-48).

But what does it mean to love?  How is love fleshed out in the attitudes, experiences, and actions of everyday people? Baylor University philosophy professor Alexander Pruss explores this topic in his book One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics and in an accompanying lecture.  Pruss’s proposal is worthy of consideration because of one specific feature, one that is, I suspect, often overlooked by many Protestant ministers and lay people.

Pursuing Union

Pruss contends that, despite the many and varied ways in which love is expressed, there is really only one kind of love.  That is because, according to Pruss, all genuine love comes from God.  He notes that love cannot be love without sincere appreciation and active benevolence.  

So far, Pruss has not said anything too surprising, even if not everyone would agree with him.  But then he asserts that love cannot be love unless it strives to create “union” between lover and loved.  The notion of union can be a bit challenging for Protestants.  It has played an important role in the development of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thought, but it has played a less prominent role in the development of many Protestant traditions (although some Protestant scholars have begun to recognize the biblical roots and theological potential of the concept).  

So, what do we mean when we use a term like “union”?  I readily admit that I have more to learn on this point (and I invite constructive feedback from people who understand the idea better than I).  But basically, union refers to the connection that exists between two personal entities.  When we experience union with Christ in salvation, for example, we participate in a process that binds us to him in a substantial way.  As rationalistic Westerners, we can easily reduce this idea of union to a mere process of knowing, and it certainly is that.  But it is also more than an intellectual process.  It is deeply personal, psychological, social, spiritual, and maybe even mysteriously ontological.

Formal Union

Pruss argues that love cannot be love unless it creates this kind of connection between the one expressing love and the one receiving love.  But what exactly does this union look like?  Pruss draws upon categories developed by Thomas Aquinas in order to flesh out what is meant by union.  All love expresses itself through “formal” union.  That is, all love motivates the lover to will good for the recipient of her or his love and enables the lover to understand how the recipient of love perceives both herself or himself and those things that would be good for her or him.  

The point is not to say that the lover evaluates what is good for the one who is loved only on the basis of how the beloved perceives what is good.  The lover is accountable to truth, and therefore he or she must act in a way that is genuinely good for the one who is loved whether that one perceives it as good or not.  Rather, the point is to facilitate a genuine interpenetration of persons through the act of appreciative knowing (remembering that appreciation and benevolence cannot be disentangled from union).  Love motivates the lover to take the beloved into her or his mind and will in such a way that the lover can (at some level) see reality from the perspective of the beloved.  This change of perspective causes an overlap of selves, at least in the experience of the one expressing love.

Real Union

All love also expresses itself through a striving for “real” union.  Formal union can always be achieved, even when the beloved does not reciprocate the love of the lover.  Real union, however, cannot exist without the loving cooperation of the beloved.  That is because real union consists in actions that are overt and external.  These actions seal the bond between lover and loved, but they also actualize that bond in a way that makes its existence and nature manifest.

Since love is an unmitigated good, are all expressions of real union good?  The answer to this question is “no.”  Expressions of real union must be appropriate to the individuals involved in the relationship, to the nature of the relationship itself, and to the culture in which the expression of real union takes place.  So, for example, we do not express our love for a colleague in exactly the same way that we express our love for a spouse.

Next Week

Not everyone will agree with Pruss about the importance of union for genuine love or about how union ought to be expressed in particular situations.  Nevertheless, I think that his proposal is worthy of further consideration.  Exploring the implications of union for our lives as agents of love can help us get a better handle on what union is and might also give us some ideas about how we can love others better.  We will explore some of these implications in our next blog post.

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