Care and Union

Alexander R. Pruss


            If I love someone, I care for and about her.  The care for her manifests itself in solicitude for her good, where her good is understood broadly enough to include such goods as her acting well, her being justly treated, her experiencing various goods, her succeeding in fulfilling those ends that it is appropriate for me to promote, her not being deceived, and even the goods of her friends.  My care about her manifests itself in a recognition of the goods and bads that she suffers as mine. 

            But there is another, interwoven, aspect.  Love is both nourished by and comprises an appreciation of the ways in which the other is good—most basically, the good of existence, but in the case where the other is a person, also the potentiality and actuality for virtue and union with God, her nature, her participation in God’s life, and a whole slew of highly contingent goods, like particular mannerisms, abilities or character traits.  This appreciation manifests itself in care, but also, and perhaps especially, a seeking of union.  Whether this disagrees with Professor Wolterstorff or not, I do not know.  I sense in his talk of “caring about” a unitive component, and so I may not be at all disagreeing.

            I will argue for this tendency to union as an essential feature of agapê, both natural and supernatural.  Linguistically, the natural loves are just as much described as agapê in Biblical Greek as supernatural charity.  A vivid example: In the Septuagint translation of the Song of Songs the erotic love is described with the verb agapao.  The word agapê just means “love” and has the full range of meanings “love” does in English, and maybe even more.  The particular love between friends, between spouses, between parents, these are all natural agapê.  This agapê can become supernatural—one can come to love a human other not just as a fellow creature, but as an actual or potential fellow participant in the Kingdom.  But the supernatural agapê does not lose the distinctive shape of the natural agapê it is based on.  Children who, by God’s grace, have supernatural agapê for their parents exhibit that agapê in the respectful form of filial love no less than children who have merely natural agapê for their parents.  And the distinctively parental aspect of the natural agapê for children is if in anything highlighted when the children are also loved as people for whom Christ died. 

God’s love

            Let us start with the paradigm case of agapê.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  Now, the damned live forever, too, and it is not this kind of life that the text is talking about.  Rather, it is an eternal life of knowing God, of living in the Father and the Son (cf. John 17:21). 

            God’s love is manifested in his acting that we might be reconciled and united with God.  Now we can understand God’s intentions in two ways, which can be conveniently expressed by imagining God telling us of his intention.

(1)   “I intend your reconciliation and union with God.”

(2)   “I intend your reconciliation and union with me.”

Of course, “me” and “God” in these imagined speeches has the same referent, but there is a crucial difference. 

            On the first version, we can understand this as follows.  God, being omniscient, knows that Patricia’s highest good is union with God.  And being loving, he intends that Patricia achieve that highest good.  In this, God has an intention we can all have in the same way.  We can all seek Patricia’s highest good, and we can all pursue Patricia’s reconciliation and union with God.  As it happens, God is the one who can pursue it most effectively.  But that does not imply a difference in intention.

            On the second version, however, what God pursues is Patricia’s union with him, best indicated by Castañeda’s quasi-indicator “him*”.  When we pursue Patricia’s union with God, we are pursuing something essentially different from what God is pursuing. 

            The distinction is easy to see in other contexts.  There is a world of difference between drill sergeant who wants to train the soldiers to obey him, and the drill sergeant who wants to train the soldiers to obey their superior, which in this case happens to be the drill sergeant.  (The distinction would remain even if the drill sergeant necessarily was their superior.)  In the case of the drill sergeant, what is preferable is that he train soldiers to obey their superior

            However, love differs here from obedience.  For there is something incomplete about a husband’s love if he desires merely that his wife love her spouse, reasoning, perhaps, that it is a good thing for a married person to love the spouse, and his wife is a married person, hence it is good for her to love her spouse.  Granted, that is a good, and so he should desire this good for his wife.  But he should, over and beyond that, desire that his wife love him*.  And if his wife does not love him, it is a sign of something deeply lacking in his love for her if he is merely saddened that his wife is not a spouse-loving person.

            Our reconciliation and union with God is a good thing, and being good, it is something that God pursues.  But he does not pursue it impersonally.  God pursues it in love, in the way that a husband loves his wife, as Scripture emphasizes.  He desires our reconciliation and union with him*.  I do not have a proof text for this claim.  But think what would happen if in all the texts in which God lovingly, often sadly, uses the phrase “my people”.  Now replace this with “God’s people”.  For instance, in Zechariah, God says: “they shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness” (8:8).  Consider the replacement: “they shall be God’s people, and God (or haShem) will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness.”  That would still be happy news, but the lover essentially speaks in the first person, except perhaps as a joke. 

            I am not entirely happy with this argument, because of my intuition that all choices are or at least should be motivated by the good, and that seems to make it hard to model God’s choosing people’s union with him*, rather than with God (it is plainly a good that people are united with God; and it is hard to see what further good there is in people uniting with God).  This may indicate a limitation of the thesis that one chooses (or at least should choose) for the sake of the good.  Maybe one should choose on account of love for the good, or maybe the lovability of the good?  In any case, even if God intends only our reconciliation and union with God, the love is still substantively unitive.

The good Samaritan

            When I think of the parable of the good Samaritan, I suspect that the priest and Levite probably did have some good will for the person by the side of the road, and in anemic way they may have cared about the person.  If by saying a word of prayer, they could ensure that God would have healed the bloodied half-dead guy without them having to deal with him, I bet they would have muttered that prayer.  In fact, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if they did say a prayer for him as they walked past, hoping that God would do something for him (as unbeknownst to them God did, by bringing in the Samaritan!)  It seems to me that besides not wanting to spend time and money, risk ritual impurity, and put oneself at risk by slowing down in an area where there are robbers, there was also the issue of just not wanting to deal with the fellow.  I cannot point to a part of the text that says this, and maybe I am only projecting my own faults on the priest and Levite, but I will say that such a motive would in no way be surprising, and so I can supplement the story for my purposes with this.

            If so, then in my variant, the priest and Levite do care about the wounded man, just not very much, and they just might even care for him slightly by saying a prayer—let’s now add that explicitly to my variant.  So, they care about and for him.  Do they love him?  Well, if they do, the degree of the love is defective by far.  They certainly do not love him as they love themselves.

            But I think in my story it is not just the degree of love that is defective.  We have a qualitative defect.  They want to have nothing to do with the man.  They do not want to deal with him.  And in this lies a serious defect.  They want to avoid union with their neighbor.  Thus, not only do they both fail in the care aspect of love—they are more solicitous of their own good than of his—but each prefers his own company to that of the robbers’ victim.  The good Samaritan, however, spends the night with the man.

Avoiding help that is demeaning

            In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI directs a challenge to the staff of humanitarian organizations: “while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient.  We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care.  They need humanity.  They need heartfelt concern.”[1]  This heartfelt concern arises from an “encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others.”[2]  I take this opening of one’s spirit to the other to be something unitive.

            This aspect of agapê helps one avoid the danger of helping another out of superiority—out of a “white man’s burden”—a form of “help” that demeans the recipient in a way contrary to our basic human fellowship.  It can be humiliating to be the recipient of “charity” in the cold and narrow sense.  But it does not demean us to receive gifts from someone seeking loving communion with us, someone who makes him or herself vulnerable to our rejection of that offer of communion.  It is this aim at reciprocation, for Christian brotherhood (and hence a component of evangelization is always appropriately present in agapê for neighbor), and for communion with another that makes agapê the opposite of the attitude that C. S. Lewis describes where “spiteful people will pretend to be loving us with Charity precisely because they know it will wound us.”[3]

            As Aristotle noted in the special case of friendship, love pulls towards equality.  Jennifer Whiting in a talk recommended the film My First Mister (2001) as an illustration of the drive to equality.  But this drive to equality is closely tied to and explained by the unitive component of love.


            There already is an account of love that incorporates both the aspects of care and those of union, and it is that of St. Thomas.  On Thomas’s story, love always involves good will.  However, beyond good will, there is a unitive component to love, which has two aspects. 

            According to Aquinas, the lover always enters within the beloved both by will and by intellect.  The lover enters the beloved by intellect, because the lover strive to understand the beloved from the inside, seeing the beloved’s goals and nature from the beloved’s own point of view.  In love, this understanding leads to willing the other’s good, and not just the abstract good of the other, but the other’s particular good as it is found in the goals that the other pursues.  Thus, the lover leaves him or herself and lives outside of him or herself; this is ek-stasis.[4]  The beloved comes to be in the lover’s my mind, because the lover thinks about the beloved, but at the same time the lover is in the beloved because “the lover is not satisfied with a superficial apprehension of the beloved, but strives to gain an intimate knowledge of everything pertaining to the beloved, so as to penetrate into his very soul.”  In the lover’s will, goods and bads happening to the beloved are treated as happening to the lover, and the beloved’s will as if it were the lover’s own.  Thus it is as if the beloved were in the beloved by means of will.  Moreover the lover acts for the sake of the beloved as if the beloved were him or herself, and so the beloved comes to be in the lover.[5]  Simply by loving someone, one dwells inside the person intellectually and in will, and the beloved dwells in one’s intellect and will.  Even unreciprocated love involves this four-fold indwelling union of lover with beloved.

            Indeed as soon as one has recognized the beloved as a human person, one already has some intellectual grasp of the beloved and his or her motivations, and, to some extent, can see things from his or her point of view.  For by recognizing the beloved as a person, one recognizes that the beloved has a point of view, and by recognizing the beloved as a human, one realizes what certain central aspects of this point of view must be.  After all, every human, Aquinas insists, appreciates certain goods simply by virtue of being human, goods such as life and community.

            Observe that the volitional aspects of the formal union flow from the care, while the intellectual aspects of the formal union inform the care, by both highlighting the worth of the beloved and by pointing out what goods should be sought for the beloved.

            There is thus a union in love, even unreciprocated love, as soon as the beloved is recognized as a human person.  This union should increase as one gains knowledge of the beloved, since one will better understand the beloved’s point of view, both gaining an understanding of what is particularly good or bad for this particular beloved, as well as deepening, through example, one’s understanding of the general features of every human being.  Moreover, one’s will is united with the beloved’s in willing the beloved’s good.  Thus there is a union that is had simply in virtue of loving.  Without it, we can say there is no love.  Aquinas calls this union “formal union.”

            But in addition to the formal union that is always found in love, there is what Aquinas calls “real union”.  This is the particular form of togetherness to which one is called by the nature of a given form of love.  With a colleague, it may be exhibited, say, in cooperating on curriculum development; with a casual friend, in going to the movies together; with a spouse, in intercourse, verbal or sexual. 

            But love and formal union can exist without any reciprocation, physical presence or real union.  I can love someone half-way around the world, with whom I will never have any contact, simply because I have read something about this person.  (Such a love need not be entirely cheap; it might, for instance, include a commitment in favor of this person.)  But we know that when we love, we are not satisfied with absence, even though we love just as truly in absentia.  Absence makes the heart fonder, but it does so precisely by making the lover long for presence.  This is another way of seeing that love is not about its own growth: while absence makes love grow, what the lover desires is not absence, but presence.  Formal union can be had even with those who are completely absent (note that absence is not just a physical distance; there is a sense in which a comatose beloved is largely absent), but love impels us towards real union.  (Not that formal union isn’t real in the modern sense of the word!)


            There are several advantages to highlighting the unitive aspect of agapê.  The first comes in applications.  Even though the New Testament insists that in an important sense all moral rules flow from the duty of love, there are some moral rules that are difficult to explain simply in terms of the care aspect of love.  For instance, it is wrong to rape or torture someone even to save his life (think of a case where a nasty captor tells you to do it or else the victim will be killed).  It is very plausible, however, that at least in some cases, it is in an important sense preferable to be tortured or raped than to die (if one doesn’t share this intuition, then one can modify the case as follows: if you don’t rape or torture x, then the evil captor will rape x twice or torture x for twice as long).  So if we focus on the care aspect of love, it is difficult to explain what is wrong with all cases of rape and torture.  But rape is an ultimate perversion of a unitive aspect of love, while torture is about as contrary to the unitive aspect of love as is possible.  If we focus on the unitive aspect of love, then these anti-unitive actions are clearly contrary to love.  (It’s worth noting that this approach also helps one defend the unanimous traditional Christian opposition to contraception if one can argue, as I think one can, that contraception is anti-unitive.)

            The second advantage is that this approach exhibits the continuity between natural and supernatural loves.  A supernatural agapê for one’s spouse or sister or colleague has a unitive component that is shaped by the unitive component of the natural love (also agapê in Koinê) for spouse or sister or colleague.  It is a different thing to be united with one’s colleague as also a sister in Christ, but the way in which one is united with her as a sister in Christ still has a collegial shape to it.

            The third is that a focus on the unitive aspect fits well with Scriptural descriptions of God’s longing for his people to be faithful to him, a longing filled with a proper jealousy.  (Scripture says that love is not jealous, that God is love, and that God is not jealous.  I take it that we need to distinguish between what we ordinarily call “jealousy”, and something that one might call proper jealousy.)  It harmonizes, above all, with the constant Scriptural description of God as the lover and husband of his people.  And God’s love in the New Testament is shown precisely in his reaching out to us, at the cost of the Cross, to enable us to enter into communion with him.

            The fourth is that we recognize a qualitative defect where the unitive aspect of love is lacking.  To use a hackneyed example, it is one thing to desire the downtrodden to have a better station in life, and another to be happy about one of the downtrodden living in one’s neighborhood and marrying one’s daughter. 

            A final advantage, also related to the same hackneyed example, is that the unitive aspect is much of what is behind the drive towards equality in love, a drive necessary to overcome the danger of a so-called charity being a way of showing one’s superiority over the recipient of care.  It is natural that where there is a unitive love, gifts be given, and these gifts can be received gratefully and rather than demeaning the recipient, they can highlight the recipient’s worth.

[1] Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Section 31.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lewis, The Four Loves, 123.

[4] Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II.28.3.

[5] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II.28.2.