As a child of adoption I have lived most of my life around those with whom I share no physical characteristics. This was never really an issue for me: My adoptive parents—both of whom are around a foot shorter—gave me all the love any child requires. I have always had a profound sense of gratitude for my life and my family, if for no other reason than it could have been otherwise. Imagine the kind of life-altering event in which you survived and then you have a sense of my meaning. But, it’s more than that. My parents gave me what so many parents before and after have provided for their children—a home. On the surface it sounds so simple and yet it is an immense undertaking—the permanent creation of space in one’s life for another. It’s the continuous movement of love toward the other regardless of the circumstances of life. Words fail to express what such a gift means to one whose existence was “tentative.”

At the same time, I did not realize how important a biological connection was until I saw my own child come into the world. I remember just after she was born staring at her toes for the longest time. I was transfixed. For the first time in my life, I was staring at another human being who embodied my own features. She had my image. It was all there “in the toes” so to speak. On top of the profound bond that first-time parents instinctively possess with their child, I had the sense in the strongest emotional terms that I was no longer alone in the world because I was staring at a reflection who was gazing back at me with blue eyes—my eyes! There she was, my image, and I loved her both because she was my image and simply because she was.

In the Summa contra gentiles, Aquinas notes that God first wills and loves his own being as the final end. God is God’s own end. Thus when God loves humanity God loves first and foremost himself. At the same time, humanity, like all of creation, participates in God’s goodness by virtue of a likeness to God. In humanity, this likeness takes on a special relationship to God by virtue of the divine image given as a gift. In bestowing life and being to humans, God imprints his own characteristics onto human existence. The divine love for humanity is a recognition of the divine image in humanity. It is God’s way of saying, “She’s mine. I see myself in her toes.”

From this initial thought, Aquinas then explains how love unites. It begins with a likeness to oneself. The gravitational pull of the other initiates and sustains friendship, and on the day of my daughter’s birth the likeness of her physical features became magnetic. Aquinas also notes that the more intimate the source of union is to a lover, the more intense the love. God’s goodness is how all things are joined to God, which God freely bestows as a gift when he creates. Life itself is a good, the goodness of God as a gift poured into a human mould. Yet, what could be more intimate to God than God’s own goodness? What was more intimate to me on that day than to find myself reflected in my daughter? Because all of creation imitates God’s goodness by its sheer existence, God’s love is an enduring movement toward creation. It is Aquinas’ interpretation of the divine pronouncement in Genesis “and God saw that it was good.” When I saw my daughter’s toes, I saw that she was good.

For Aquinas, however, this is a mere beginning to love. True love requires that one will the good of another person as her good. When I stared at my daughter and recognized my toes and my eyes in her fragile frame, I also came to see that these features were expressed uniquely in and through her personal identity. While she reflected my physical characteristics, she did so in a unique form of existence, her personhood. For my love to blossom, it must reflect God’s love insofar as I will the good for her just as God wills that his image be realized in me according to my own personal identity. My love for my daughter can become a destructive force if I fail to love her good as a unique expression of being and existence in the world. If I am not careful, I will seek to assimilate her and thus destroy her in the process. Like a vampire, my love will not stop until it has removed all of the life in her. This kind of love Augustine called cupiditas, an unquenchable thirst that destroys all in its path. It objectifies and consumes.

When God wills that his goodness be realized in human lives, he does so in a way that both loves this goodness and the particular way we as persons reflect that goodness. At minimum, this means that humans cannot flourish if they deny the concrete life given to them by God. It is God’s goodness refracted through the image of God, and its realization requires a movement back toward God as one’s final end. Just as children need their parents to help them fulfill their potential, so humans will fail when they attempt to carve out an existence apart from God. If the intensity of love is not to devolve into the destructive force of cupiditas, it must be ordered toward God as the source of goodness. The family, then, is the first school of charity. It is the place within which love takes on the shape of justice as human desire conforms to the needs and personhood of the other.  

There is still a sense in which Aquinas has only spoken of love as an affective movement toward union with the other. This affective movement of love must lead to concrete action if a genuine union is going to occur. It is not enough for my love to remain interior to myself. Friendship cannot even get off the ground apart from concrete acts of love. Love, in other words, must become ecstatic. My love for my daughter must move out toward her in embrace, otherwise it dies immediately, having been deprived of the strength and nourishment borne of concrete action. And, this movement of love into action must occur daily as I seek to help her realize the gift of her personhood, a gift she received partly through me. As Aquinas states, “God moves all things to union, for, insofar as He gives them being and other perfections, He joins them to Himself in the manner in which this is possible.” Creation itself is the ecstatic movement of God’s Triune life bestowing and sharing life in the form of concrete gifts.

Finally, Aquinas thinks that God can love some things more than others because God wills a greater good for some parts of his creation. Humans, for example, as those who image God receive a greater share of God’s love because God wills a greater good for them: the good of sharing divine life. All human forms of friendship reflect and require that greater good of friendship with God as exemplar and source.

While my status as an adopted child reminds me that life is a fragile gift to be valued and protected, I have a profound appreciation for the biological connection to my own children. This connection has taught me how wide and deep is God’s love, which never fails because it is grounded in the constancy of God’s willing his glory and my good. This biological connection has also mystified me, however, because I think how much greater my parents’ love must have been for me, the child who did not share their biology. They loved that which seemed to be devoid of likeness, but that’s an exploration for another time.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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