Love and Its Myths:
This summary draws attention to contours of the course, namely to love and its forms in the
world’s religions. The summary is not exhaustive; it simply offers some points of reference with which
we may study our lecture notes in more detail. That said, what have we learned about love?
1. Religion (our context)
One context for understanding love is religion, a set of symbolic world views, theories of
action and institutions that relate people to whatever they consider to be ultimate reality. Each
religion consists of several “dimensions,” including belief, ritual, institutions and ethics or
codes of behaviour. That is to say: Religions shape and determine their ideas of love (cp. p.
3). Of course, religion is not the only context that influences love, but it is an important one.
The study of religion or religious studies examines religion as a human phenomenon,
something which shapes—and is shaped by—human life, especially human cultures.
Religious studies differs from the theological or confessional study of religion (disciplines
which assume that religion is inspired and is fundamentally necessary). Religious studies
brackets these assumptions; it does not argue that religion is true or false, or that it is good or
bad. Within religious studies, there are several approaches to understanding religion, for
example historical and sociological approaches.
2. Love (our focus)
To speak generally, love is the human effort to achieve “union with someone or
something,” and has qualities of “sharing,” “care,” “responsibility” and “respect” (Erich
Fromm). A big part of its significance is as a “solution to the problem of human existence,”
that is, the problem of human isolation and its attendant insecurity. Love aims to heal or
remove such isolation, such loneliness, and as such it is an eminently human behaviour; all
people, across time, cultures and religions, feel love in some way in their lives.
Significantly, love can take many different forms; we introduced three:
(i) Erotic love (or eros) is an effort to unite exclusively with something or someone
and to have that something or someone unite exclusively with you. In other
words, erotic love is possessive. This is not to say that erotic love is “bad,” but
simply that it is self-oriented. Erotic love includes, for instance, romantic love
(the effort to unite exclusively with someone in emotional, affectionate terms);
and sexual love (the effort to unite in physical terms). Generally speaking,
religions tend to acknowledge or even celebrate, erotic love, but often (a) within
a religiously sanctified institution of marriage; and (b) as a symbol or allegory
for the human love of God.
1 (ii) Divine love is an effort to unite with whatever one considers divine (God, a god,
goddess, spirit), though it can also denote love of the divine for humans. Divine
love tends to lack the possessive quality of erotic love; entails joy and/or fear;
and is typically understood as a basis for compassionate love, that is, selfless love
of others. To be sure, divine love takes different forms in Western and in Eastern
religions: In Western religions, love is honour and obedience and praise of divine
goodness (e.g., “God is merciful, God is just”); in Eastern religions, love tends to
a feeling of personal union. These different expressions of divine love are
grounded in differing worldviews: Western religions have dualistic worldviews
(i.e., everything must be understood as good or evil), making it easier to visualize
God as good; Eastern religions tend to employ paradoxes to describe the divine
(“Brahman is the creator; Brahman is the destroyer; Brahman is life; Brahman is
death”), making it harder to praise the divine, and preferable to seek a feeling of
(iii) Compassionate love (or altruism) is an effort to unite with other people for their
well-being. Like divine love, compassionate love tends to lack the possessive
quality of erotic love. That is to say, compassion has a universal quality. It also
has an unconditional and empathic quality. As historians of religion, we can trace
the development of compassion pa