The Asymptote of Love

From Mundane to Religious to God's Love

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James Kellenberger
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , November
     2018.
     184 pages.
     $80.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438471778.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“A what?” asked someone in my household when they saw the cover of this book. An asymptote, James Kellenberger’s The Asymptote of Love: From Mundane to Religious to God’s Love explains, is “a line that approaches a point, ever drawing nearer, but reaching its endpoint only at infinity” (xi), a zenith which “in the theistic traditions is God’s love” (73). Mundane love strives through religious expressions toward godly horizons. The asymptote of love is an apt metaphor, if a disastrous book title. Only a university press would agree to it. Luckily the content fares much better.

The starting point is language. People use the word love in too many senses for an obvious genus of love to arise. Rather, love is “a multifarious concept that resists an essentialist definition” (xiii). But some elements are accepted as more or less essential. Love is relational, self-giving, and rational, among other things. After all, says Kellenberger, love is “less like a cake and more like an orange.” Though love resists an essentialist definition, we cannot dissect it arbitrarily whatever way we please, as we would a cake; rather, love, like an orange, “has segments that naturally divide it” (1).

This does not, however, prove that love has no essence. It only means that the author does not feel comfortable nailing it down. The possibility that an essence nonetheless exists remains prevalent, however, in the author’s belief that “love can be distinguished from closely related states” (8), for example. How could this be, unless love has a distinctive core after all? It can be difficult to capture the “essence” of fruit given the multifariousness of fruits; just think of an orange and a banana. But it is possible to distinguish both oranges and bananas from cakes precisely because cakes lack essential fruitlike qualities.

The Asymptote of Love is best described as an introduction to the study of love in religion: as a textbook for religious studies, philosophy of religion, or theology students. Stylistically, it is analytical and clear—although bloodless—with a structure that supports well the progression from mundane to religious to godly love. It succeeds at achieving clarity but at the expense of literary enjoyment. It is concise, at only 158 pages, but not narrow: it is wide-ranging and consults a wealth of material.

Most of the sources are Christian, above all the New Testament. Jewish and Islamic scriptures are also consulted, as are—to a lesser extent but in an uncontrived manner—Buddhist and Hindu traditions. One of the study’s two primary strengths is its reliance on primary sources. The Dalai Lama speaks directly, not through his commentators. The author’s main sources are works by Augustine, Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux, Immanuel Kant, and Anders Nygren. Other sources include Dionysius, Eckhart, Simone Weil, and C. S. Lewis. John Calvin is discussed briefly, but peculiarly never Martin Luther, apart from one superficial reference (148).

The book’s other primary virtue is that it asks all the right questions. Does love create or find value in its object? Is there a duty to love? Must we love God? How can God be loved? Can God be loved through loving others? Is it possible to love universally, literally everyone, even distant strangers? In this case, given the book’s brevity, the ten chapters are worth listing: “The Varieties of Love,” “Love’s Relationships,” “Love of Others,” “Knowledge of God and Love of God,” “The Command to Love,” “Love of God,” “God’s Love,” “The Circle of Love,” “The Depth of Love,” and “The Asymptote of Love.”

Though the book asks all the right questions, there is a glaring omission. The natural place of enemy love would have been in chapter 8, “The Circle of Love.” Enemy love is arguably the most difficult test both theoretically and practically for anyone seeking to expand the scope of love. It could also have been discussed in the section on “undeserved love” (150–54). If anyone does not deserve love, it is one’s enemies, who actively harbor and practice ill will against one. Nonhuman “enemies” such as disease-causing viruses are discussed, but not human enemies. Enemy love is not even indexed. The issue is so central to religious treatises of love that its omission must be by design. But why? Ironically, on the rare occasion “enemy” is mentioned, it is in connection to “loving to see one’s enemies suffer” (8).

It would also be interesting to understand a little more precisely what the author means by agape. Four different and not entirely commensurate descriptions are offered. First, agape is love given “without any thought of return” (20). Second, agape “asks for nothing in return” (114). Third, agape is giving “without the requirement of return” (127). Last, agape is loving “utterly without condition” (139). But surely these mean different things?

First, to suggest that “true love” does not even hope for reciprocity erects a false ideal. Not even God’s love, the zenith and exemplar of love, is like that. Humans can love without asking for a return of love, but a person who does not even hope for it loves unresponsively. Unilateral beneficence or philanthropy that remains secure and invulnerable is deficient love. In this sense the author could have taken his otherwise helpful critique of Nygren’s caricature of agape even further. Second, in all Abrahamic religions, God explicitly asks for, even demands, our love. The third and fourth descriptions are better. God may demand our love, but he does not require it as a precondition for his love. His love is not conditional in that sense. This is a model and ideal of love that is humanly possible and laudable to emulate and imitate.

What is certain is that petty critique has no place in agape, not even in a book review. We should not judge books by their covers, let alone their titles. The Asymptote of Love is a decent introduction to the study of love in religion. Kellenberger concludes: “God’s love as the endpoint of the asymptote of love is infinitely remote and though approachable never fully attainable or even fully comprehendible” (140). As unlikely as it may seem, by the time the reader arrives at this summary sentence in the final chapter, it actually makes sense.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason Lepojärvi is assistant professor of religious studies at Thorneloe University at Laurentian.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Kellenberger is emeritus professor of philosophy at California State University, Northridge and the author of God’s Goodness and God’s Evil.

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