In the debate over homosexual marriage, much is made of the emotional bond established by mutual consent. But all human friendship involves such a bond. No institution is required to regulate emotionally formed human friendships. Indeed, the element of coercion involved in institutionalizing an emotional relationship in some degree contradicts the freedom of choice and action that makes real friendship such a cherished (and rare?) experience. (Alan Keyes, “The Annihilation of Marriage — Part 1“)

Recently, on a site called The Science Forum, I found a comment questioning Christ’s understanding of love in no uncertain terms. It was posted several years ago by someone with the screen name “Gnostic Bishop,” under the title “Can you love on command?” It began with the observation that “Jesus should know … that an emotion like love cannot be commanded. …” Love on command does seem rather an oxymoron. As I wrote in 2009, “… coercion … contradicts the freedom of choice and action that makes real friendship such a cherished (and rare?) experience.”

Discovering that someone’s words and apparent acts of love derive from some form of compulsion is likely to provoke a sense of betrayal. That is apt to dissolve fond visions of romantic love. Those visions involve the comforting fantasy that we have found someone who loves us for our own sake; someone who shares with us, in mutual affection, the sense of being complete, accepted and made whole. The discovery that some other object of affection (like money, power, pride or sexual pleasure) is what actually fulfills them, intrudes upon that sense of perfection. This not only offends one’s self-regard, it impairs the sense of satisfaction and deep security that informs and steadies the sentimental eye of romantic love, even in the midst of passions deeply moved and moving.

The Gnostic Bishop’s sense of love, as freely given, thus seems, at first, like common sense. Why then does it also seem accurate to say that we have “fallen in love,” as if the freedom it entails is as imperative as the movement of a stone falling helplessly toward earth’s center of gravity? Why does it seem sensible to protest that we cannot turn love on and off, like a faucet? Part of the plea made on behalf of sexual relationships once disdained as “sinful” invokes the purported fact that “people can’t help who they fall in love with.” Isn’t this a way of admitting that love is indeed compulsory; that it responds to an imperative stronger than the faculty of choice; a forceful command, like animal instinct, that is overpowering?

As human beings, we are able consciously to recognize that animal instinct serves the purpose of sustaining and perpetuating the animal’s life, in particular and on the whole. But our human being, too, appears to be clothed, as it were, in animal skin. Though it does not appear to be all that we are, we inhabit a fleshly body, that both is and is not, subject to our choice. We feel its drives and affections to some degree, whether we will or no. Among them are the responses of heartbeat and brain with which we hail both danger and physical beauty, including the commanding attraction that draws us toward the promise of sexual pleasure and repletion, even before we have experienced it for ourselves.

In this respect, compulsion and love are intimately related; contrary to what seemed to be the Gnostic Bishop’s “common sense” assertion. The body conveys, as it were, commandments of love, fueled by such power that they seem irresistible. They move us to action. Before we realize it, we are inwardly moved to act on what we feel. It takes self-conscious practice, guided by experience that is often not our own, before we learn to submit those bodily commands to the scrutiny of practical, not to mention abstractly conceptual, reasoning.

Yet, in a way, isn’t instinct a kind of conceptual reasoning? At a certain age, we are drawn to see and respond to other human beings according to an imperative that impels us toward physical union. Though it seems almost by chance, and without forethought, people act to perpetuate their species (i.e., the guise or way of being in which they exist). The pleasure they are made to feel in this activity may thereafter become their conscious aim, but the purpose of their action transcends that aim. Extending beyond their individual bodies and experiences, that command looks to the whole they comprise, from a perspective that not only appreciates its individual form, but the form in which all such bodies are seen to form a whole that extends beyond the limited existence of any one of them.

Though he purports to be discussing Christ’s view of love’s command, the Gnostic Bishop doesn’t adequately reflect upon it. In its primordial form, it simply expresses the imperative of existence that is being itself; without reference to which existence (and every other term for being) is void of meaning. Apart from being, nothing is. Therefore, the imperative union of being, with being, in being, is absolute. Thus, all things exist, as it were, in the neighborhood of being. Since being constitutes that neighborhood, as the ground on which it stands, it is what makes someone your neighbor. But one cannot be your neighbor without being itself, first of all. But the being itself without which no other being exists is the One to whom we refer as God.

Thus, it is through union with God, which is the true meaning of love, that our neighbor exists. The two commands of love thus express the same imperative – which is union with God, and God alone. We have no choice but to respond to this imperative, for we exist only in God’s fulfillment of its command. Thus, to love our neighbor as ourselves is to accept the imperative of being as God intends – to fall, as it were, in love with God, toward the place where all things come together for good – which is their own only because of the prior determination of God’s being, which is His will respecting their existence.

Christ says that to love God is to obey His commandments. The first command of love therefore involves obeying God’s will for all existence, including our own. But isn’t this obedience the very paradigm of human liberty, reflecting the choice by which, in absolute freedom, God chooses to make way for our existence?

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