Book Review: The Four Loves

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The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis

It’s refreshing to read a theological book that doesn’t make our experience of reality, emotion and life the baseline for reality and actuality. C.S. Lewis firmly belongs to another age of thought that still expected that our perceptions and experiences ought to be conformed and shaped by God, rather than assuming that our perceptions and experiences are first of all accurate, and second of all proper. Lewis assumes neither, and in fact assumes that left to our own devices, our experiences and perceptions cannot possibly be either accurate or proper.

Lewis discusses the four classical forms of friendship, which are somewhat referred to scripturally, through the four different Greek words used to describe love. Lewis seeks to discuss our four experiences of love; affection, friendship, romantic love, and charity. These are roughly and occasionally correlated to the Greek terms;storge, philia, eros, andagape.

Since culturally there is very little emphasis or attention paid to the loves of affectionand friendship, I found these very helpful. Not that I haven’t experienced them, but it gave me a good way of describing them and understanding the sometimes subtle distinctions between the two. Likewise, agape(unconditional love)has no real cultural focus or attention. But because our culture is so obsessed with eros(sexualized love) this discussion is also helpful. Useful is Lewis’ careful distinction between the physical aspect of eros(which is what our culture tends to focus on) and the emotional state as a whole.

I was rather perturbed by Lewis’ reliance on pagan mythology in his treatment of eros, emphasizing the re-enactment of pagan motifs such as the Sky-Father and the Earth-Mother. I can understand how these would come so readily to his mind based on his education and focus on literature and mythology, but they are very incongruous within the Christian context. The assertion that intimacy is a subconscious re-enactment of these deep myths is inappropriate. I would have thought a discussion of the New Testament description of the Church as the bride of Christ would be more helpful, or Paul’s linking of marriage itself to a representation of this more profound relationship between Christ and his Church.

Equally important is Lewis’ consistent emphasis on the distinction between the emotions themselves and their proper experience and expression in submission to the Lord that created and enabled them in the first place. Lewis firmly places the emotions in the role of tools which are intended by our creator for very specific things – and when we elevate the tools to the position of the tool master – when we allow our emotions to rule over us, or to think for us – we inevitably run into disaster. For Lewis, the loves are not experienced against or in lieu of God’s love, but are intended to be enjoyed as tools guided and wielded in the wisdom and grace of our creator.

Lewis’ observations and insights are much needed in our day and age. In a culture obsessed with sexuality instead of the commitment that it was designed to be enjoyed within, all of our love relationships become skewed and twisted. Why is it that we’re drawn to certain people inexplicably or perhaps even counter-intuitively (affection), and others seem to leap into our lives in sudden and amazing ways (friendship)? What is the difference between these two forms of love, and why is it that when we attempt to transmute their qualities, things often go awry? For that matter, why is it that sexuality is discovered to be so empty by many who attempt to enjoy it outside the proper marital relationship? And what is the nature of our instinct to help and be helped by those around us?

Some will be thrown, no doubt, by Lewis’ assumptions about gender roles. Remember that this was written 50 years ago (1960), by a man who was born before the turn of the 20thcentury. Just because something is no longer the way he describes it, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t true at the time, or might not be true today under different circumstances. While those under 40 have been duly indoctrinated to find distinctions between gender roles to be offensive, it should not be assumed that the indoctrination is either accurate, unbiased, or true in and of itself. Men and women are different. You may disagree with Lewis’ means of expressing this in parts of the book, but it is equally dangerous to assume that any assertion of difference between the gender is wrong or evil.

In congregational life (or any other community where people are around each other in some sort of intense form) these various loves can become confused. What begins appropriately as friendship can be mistaken for eros (sexual love). What one assumes to be affection can be interpreted by another as friendship or even charity. Feelings are easily hurt whenever we aren’t clear or appropriate in our interactions.
Congregational life is often obsessed with the proper experience and enjoyment oferosas within the marital relationship. And this is certainly a valid concern. However in my experience, far more attention could be paid to the proper experience and understanding of friendship. How should people conduct themselves when they discover someone else in the congregation that shares some mutual appreciation or understanding? What is the importance of avoiding the negative aspects of friendship? How do we teach that certain relationships of affection simply arise, and are not calculated efforts to exclude others, or a form of favoritism? Helping others understand that a common interest or experience can be changed into an exclusionary and condescending barrier to others is paramount in getting along in a congregation. We need to understand that our need to give and to receive love are equally valid and healthy, and need to find suitable expression within congregational life, or congregational life should provide the background and education for people to utilize this love in their life as a whole. All manner of hurts and injuries are easily given and received because of misunderstandings of these various forms of love, and particularly in bitterness as people become jealous or feel excluded or neglected. Cliques are deadly in congregations, yet they run rampant.

It is natural to focus on ourselves, or on our relationships to the exclusion of everyone else. However, Biblically we’re called to be an inclusive bunch, always welcoming, always open to others. Not that we won’t have some people that we’re closer to than others, but we need to be aware that people watch how we conduct ourselves every bit as much as wewatch how they conduct themselves. Satan is always looking for any excuse to drive a wedge between a group of people, to break off one or two or twenty from the whole, to drive us (in what they think is righteous indignation) from one congregation to another- never committing anywhere (and always finding human nature regardless of where we go).

There are different forms of love and this book helps us understand what the blessings and pitfalls of each of those ways are. Hopefully, The 4 Lovescan enable us to guard the boundaries of our relationships against inappropriate expressions and genuinely welcome people into our lives and communities just as our Lord did. Not because we’re so good on our own, but because the ultimate love of the Lord can be good through us and in spite of us.