Question: How does love work?
Publication Month: June 2001
Dr. Cobb’s Response
Nelson Stringer has been teaching and preaching about love for many years. On Easter Sunday the church of which he is pastor was burned by an arsonist. Of course he has felt pain and sorrow about the loss. But, more important, he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support that he and others in his church have received. He has discovered that love is an even more powerful force than he had realized. I’ll reflect about that this month from a process perspective.
The experience we are considering is that of being loved by others, including God. This goes far beyond simply believing that others love us. It is an actual experience of that love.
From a process perspective this is in fact part of our experience all the time. We are prehending others in a way that internalizes their feeling in ourselves. A child who does not feel parents and/or caretakers in this way is permanently injured. If we can imagine feeling this love from no one, we must imagine a devastated condition. To be surrounded by people who hate you is a deeply destructive experience which one can surmount only if one still feels the love of others — ultimately, that of God.
Most of us take for granted a basic level of loving support from others. In the retirement community in which I live, all of us enjoy all the time the diffuse love of one another. It adds greatly to the quality of our life together. There is a good deal of this in families and in congregations, except in the most dysfunctional cases.
The feelings of each of us enter into the feelings of the others. We are members one of another. In Whitehead’s terminology we prehend one another, and what we prehend are the feelings of others including their subjective forms. The subjective forms are the emotions. When we feel these emotions as directed toward ourselves, their inclusion in our experience is intense and effective. Our emotions tend to conform to the emotions we prehend in others. When others love us, we are able to love ourselves. We are also able to love others.
But because the love of others in the community is normally diffuse and relatively constant, we tend not to notice it most of the time. We take for granted a certain level of happiness and enjoyment that this climate supports. Because we do not notice it, we do not always appreciate it.
In my community it happens again and again that when someone is ill or loses a spouse, or experiences some other tragedy, the diffuse love takes on a sharp focus. Acts of kindness, expressions of concern, and intercessory prayer, directed to that person, multiply. The person in question feels the love of the community in a new and dramatic way. This outpouring of loving thought does not bring the spouse back, but it does help greatly in the difficult transition to single life. If the problem is sickness, it often helps in the healing process.
Once one understands the power of love, one understands also the stupidity and evil of the many blocks we put in the way of its dominance in our feelings, its expression, and its reception. We understand more fully the high calling of our congregations as places of mutual love and caring and how that can increase their ability to minister to the world. We appreciate more deeply the importance of extending love to our “enemies,” both for their sake and because limiting our love reduces our ability to receive it from others.
I once spent a weekend in a program called The Walk to Emmaus. The whole purpose of that program is to give people an experience of being surrounded by unconditional love. In that context one feels lifted up and becomes a loving person. One catches a vision of what the church can be.
Whitehead’s account of how we internalize one another’s feelings allows us to understand all of this. He also helps us to understand that we are not wholly formed in this way. We also make decisions about how to respond. Because we prehend God as well as creatures we may not be totally destroyed by the lack of human love. We may even rise above the hostile context and forgive those who hate us and persecute us.
But for the most part our experience of the love of others and of the love of God go hand in hand. In the midst of the outpouring of the love of neighbors we are opened to experiencing God’s love as well. Our openness to God reinforces our openness to neighbors.
This can be stated in quite technical process ways. The prehension of the loving feelings of other human beings breaks through our defensiveness and self-protection. We are willing and able to be more trusting. God’s call, the initial aim, in that context is far easier to experience as one of love and to heed and follow. Embodying that aim more fully involves greater love of our neighbors and opennes to their love of us.
In small ways this is everyone’s experience. But not all have dramatic experiences like Nelson’s. Of course, in its intensity it passes. But it can leave a residue of trust and joy and of the knowledge of the power of love.