Religion is a loaded word. It is never a topic suitable for polite dinner conversation. When anyone does bring up the subject, everyone always has a strong reaction: either they believe in something, or they don’t. There is no right answer. At the foundation of any religion is faith, a belief in things unseen. Religion belongs to the realm of ideas where love is also found. Love, like religion, is a loaded word requiring faith to pronounce its existence. To do otherwise is to take love for granted. Love is the greatest intangible of all time. It can’t be measured, and when it is separated from feelings, nobody can agree on what love is, while simultaneously agreeing it’s an amazing, and even necessary aspect of life. Love tries our patience, and tests our faith. It changes our perception of the world.
Humans bear witness to love. The phenomenon of love is a centerfold in every culture and across human civilization. The appetite one has for love is influenced by a variety of factors, including religion, but it has been manifested over and over again throughout history, portrayed in literature, and it has been the subject of poetry. We are inextricably drawn to love as a deeply meaningful experience the way certain kinds of music pulls us in without ever truly knowing why. All kinds of moods color the word love from violent fits of passion and jealousy to entrancing states of euphoria and ecstasy. It drives strong women mad and spurs men to war. Crusades have been enacted in the name of love; it is a cause in and of itself, described as a battlefield and arena. Love is many things at once.
Love also has the ability to transform and change the way we see ourselves. Eat, Pray, Love combines these themes of love and spiritual transformation together in a memoir. Progress is hailed as a hallmark of our humanity, and humans are obsessed with attaining perfection being so inherently unhappy. Love alters perception and the world is seen anew. The promise of self-improvement becomes addictive and a way of life. Poetry offers models of love, while mythology and religion offer deities for worship. Love is expressed in poetry as a ruling emotion: “…there reigns Love and all Love’s loving parts” in Shakespeare’s sonnet 31, and “Love, that liveth and reigneth in my thought” in “Complaint of a Lover Rebuked” by Henry Howard. Love takes the place of a god in religion and is used to explain how someone could act the way they do in love.
Falling in love becomes a practice in idolatry. Nothing else comes first when new love begins. It is the only thing on your mind keeping you awake at night. We kneel in worship at the altar of love, believing there is nothing better in life. Falling in love represents the culmination of human experience, ending in an eternity, or nothing at all. Dying in the name of love is used as a mode of expression to convey the depth of feeling. The idea of death is preferable to the thought of losing the one person we love the most. Love is fragile and we do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t break. Nobody wants to stop falling in love, though very little is done to prolong the honeymoon phase that marks the beginning of a relationship.
Love takes faith, undivided attention, and commitment the way following a religion does. There are certain beliefs, practices, and rituals that keep love in a never-ending, flowing state. It is a source of life that stays in motion. True love is never inert; it is constant. Love is exhausting because it takes an unconscionable amount of energy to sustain. The process of love is similar to the way faith is described as being tested. It never only happens once. Faith is tested repeatedly. When grounded in anger, religion transforms into rabble-rousing, an energy that is only sustainable by the sheer number of followers. Love is a religion for one; it offers a land to inhabit when there is not a refuge anywhere else. This is how the poetry of love is inspired in solitude. It is created out of the same matter which maintains religion. It is a relationship, not love, that takes two, though love cannot exist without an object. Love without an object is the desire for possession. The expression “money makes the world go round” first started out with the idea of love. It is the insane desire to possess money, or something else, which tears people apart, with or without remorse. Love exists for its own sake whereas money is used as a means to achieve an end with other objects in mind. Love, above all things, is not made; it is created.
If love can be compared to a flame, then it requires kindling and stoking to keep it burning the way going to church reinforces faith, or attending a recovery program reinforces sobriety. In all cases, there are things that inevitably cause us to lose faith or stop going. The premature death of a loved one can cause someone to stop going to church as much as it can cause the next person to start going. In the same way, honoring the death of a loved one by staying in recovery can cause the next person to relapse. Love is born out of paradox, while faith is found somewhere in between yes and no.
The principle of eternity plays a role in religion with aspects of reincarnation included. Love can be thought of as eternal in that it is reincarnated time and time again. Though details change, the underlying structure is the same. The permanent couple, bound by love, is rare, even and especially in the animal kingdom. Humans fall in an altogether different category. Monogamy is institutionalized whereas love is a free-floating concept bound by very little to hold it back as a force of nature. For once, love makes a departure from religion, another institution, and evokes godlessness, nonetheless still requiring faith. Love can only be eternal if it does not strictly belong to two people, whether an eternity represents a lifetime, or continues on afterward. If the sole aim of life is the continuation of life, then love plays no role at all in human affairs, and the meaning of human experience is reduced to sexual reproduction. On the other hand, love is simply reproduced, seemingly for no reason at all, except to prove that it exists at all.
There is no institution of love making it nearly impossible to believe love is something other than a force of nature left, for the most part, unharnessed. That love is a force of nature can be seen in the way people act with reckless abandon when in love. We are more inhibited to talk about love than we are to act, and to live is to act, even if the choice is to do nothing at all. To live a life of love is to walk a life in faith. Believing in love takes as much strength of will as it does to believe in a higher power, whether there was a Big Bang or divine creation. Love only holds us more accountable; religion, at least, offers the possibility of salvation and forgiveness. There is a lot about love that will always be unknowable, but it’s this nature of love that keeps its song alive long after we’re gone.