Agape and eros are central concepts in explaining the relationship between humans and the divine in many of the world's major religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism (This paper will focus mainly on Christianity and Buddhism, the topics of study for 2 specific readings: “Agape and Eros”, by Nygren, and 'The Mahayana Religious Ideal”). The nuances of how agapal or erotic love is defined in each major religion sheds light on key differences between each system of belief, but also implies a common core of spiritual love.
Agape is portrayed as divine and unconditional love in all major religions. It is “spontaneous and unmotivated.” In Christianity, agape is most strongly represented by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ's life for the sake of ransoming humanity from their sins. The words “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, which Jesus utters during his suffering, are completely selfless. There is no extrinsic reason that would motivate Jesus or God to love humanity—therefore, agape is independent of the value of its object.
Agape is a judgment on the giver, not the receiver. Agape flows to all without discrimination; Tao de Ching describes divine agape to be “like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain.” Divine agape is not indiscriminate in the sense that it is arbitrary and completely random; “when it is said that God loves man, this is not a judgment on what man is like, but on what God is like” (Nygren). The agape of the Bodhisattva monks--their vow to bear the suffering and lead all beings--is in fact the attribute of their extraordinary sainthood.
Agape is divine love, but in humanity's striving towards the divine, humans seek to extend their wisdom along with their ability to express altruistic, unconditional, and unselfish love. "Salvation is attained not by subscription to metaphysical dogmas, but solely by the love of God that fulfills itself in action. This is the cardinal truth of Judaism." (Chasdai Crescas, 1410). A Hindu prayer goes thus: “Lord, I do not want wealth, nor children, nor learning. If it be Thy will I will go to a hundred hells, but grant me this, that I may love Thee without the hope of reward, unselfishly love for love's sake.” Chapter 13 of the Tao te Ching shows the same sentiment: “Accept being unimportant. Do not be concerned with loss or gain... Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.” Furthermore, in Buddhism, the Bodhisattva are saints that refrain from entering Nirvana until they have led all beings to Enlightenment: “My own being and my pleasures, all my righteousness in the past, present, and future, I surrender indifferently, that all creatures may win through to their end.”
The goal of agape is to create value in the receiver. Instead of satisfying any material needs and desires, many major religions maintain that the highest love is shown by the passing of knowledge, understanding and enlightenment. Nygren (from the reading “Agape and Eros”) aptly describes: ”Agape has nothing to do with the kind of love that depends on the recognition of a valuable quality in its object; Agape does not recognize value, but creates it. Agape loves, and imparts value by loving. The man who is loved by God has no value in himself; what gives him value is precisely the fact that God loves him. Agape is a value-creating principle” (Nygren). Although agapal love is not controlled by the value of the loved object, but rather for the goal of creating value in the object, agapal love is often expressed by the divine, who possess great understanding and compassion—through recognition and empathy, a giver of agape can more readily create value. Oftentimes, in order to gain the understanding that can further the goal of agape, the proponents of agape have to suffer or commit to some form of sacrifice. In order to lead and redeem mankind, Jesus was born unto the flesh and suffer all the trials and tribulations of human life. Likewise, the Bodhisattva also vow: “I myself must grapple with the whole mass of suffering of all beings... I am resolved to abide each single state of woe for numberless eons; and so I will help all beings to freedom, in all the states of woe that may be found in any world system whatsoever.” Religions have a principle path that leads from the human to the divine, and those who have traversed the length of the paths can serve as selfless guides to lead others to greater value. Therefore, agape comes from the giver's wealth and plenty, be it plenty of wisdom, compassion, or other virtues.
While unmotivated agape is attributed to the Divine, motivated love, represented as Eros, is human. Particularly in Christianity and Buddhism, eros is represented as lesser than agape, though it is not necessarily described as so by the other major religions. Eros is acquisitive love—a desire, a longing, a striving, springing from the deep inner needs of humans. Christianity sometimes depicts eros as distracting mankind from achieving religious union with God, since eros has connotations with lust, coveting, and greed: “a kind of acquisitive love that drags the soul downwards and only binds it the more firmly to things temporal” (Nygren). Christianity and Judaism attest that mankind is in a "fallen state," having fallen away from "the grace of God," of which man must repent and find forgiveness and salvation. Likewise, Buddhism holds the belief that human sorrow is caused by the fact human beings are ruled by desire—mankind ordinarily is lost in a state of "samsara," or impermanence and suffering. The Mahayana Religious Ideal describes it thus: “Eager to escape sorrow, men rush into sorrow; from desire of happiness they blindly slay their own happiness, enemies to themselves; they hunger for happiness and suffer manifold pains...” (Mahayana). The words “Eager” “desire” and “hunger” clearly refer to human eros, which is portrayed as the enemy of mankind, causing humans to lose sense of judgment, to rush blindly and suffer. The Mahayana religious Ideal emphasizes the unending contention with desire: “I will grapple with them, will wrathfully make war on them all except the passion that makes for the destruction of the passions.” Even as eros is directed upwards, it maintains a selfish, acquisitive outlook.
Eros wants what it does not have, directs itself towards objects that it deems to have value. However, eros can also serve as a mediator between Divine and human life (in a different manner than agape); eros is “a love that is directed upwards” (although, as mentioned before, it can also be “a kind of acquisitive love that drags the soul downwards”). Eros recognizes value in the loved object and realizes the need for the value it sees; eros is mankind's key to the divine. Nygren also describes “Eros is itself a form of flight from the world.” Comparing Nygren's statement with Four noble truths of Buddhism: “Dukka—all worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, containing suffering; Samudaya—there is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (eros) rooted in ignorance; Nirodha—there is an end to suffering, which is Nirvana; Marga—there is a path that leads out of suffering, known as the Noble Eightfold Path.” It is most often through suffering and lacking that mankind becomes familiar with its need for religion. While agape does not actively seek value and is not influenced by extrinsic influence, eros is the essence, the core of emotional drive that humans need to be able to move forwards to accomplishment/change. Through great disasters such as war, plague, and famine, the followers of both Christianity and Buddhism increase in number; eros is indeed a mediator between Divine and human life.
Another aspect of eros is that it is ephemeral (as are many aspects of the human condition). Once the object of love is acquired, eros dies away; therefore, mankind is left in the state of always hungering, never achieving full satisfaction. Agape, on the other hand, is abiding and does not heed desire: “I do not heed my own inclinations. I have made the vow to save all beings.” Eros is temporal, and for many religions, which believe in the preservation of human essence (be it in life after death, reincarnation), anything temporal appears to be a hindrance, or of secondary importance. One must remember that eros does have just as much importance as agape, when it comes to describing the relationship between mankind and the divine.
It seems to be more than coincidence that agape and eros are such important ideas in major religions. Agape challenges humans seeking higher spiritual development to open themselves to loving all beings without thought of compensation/return. Eros delineates the human predicament, the need and desire for value, meaning, and leaving suffering, that directs us toward the divine. As followers of each religion realize the similarities and common core their religions have upon love, a sense of common humanity and understanding can be developed. The religious tradition of transcending from eros to agape continues to inspire many who are learning to nourish their love and compassion for all beings.