Monday 23 December 2019

Poetry: The Mathematical State of Love

Posted by Chengde Chen *

Some say love is mathematically positive
Like the state of ‘having’
Because only those who have can give
Man can love because he has feelings
God can love because He has power

Some say love is mathematically negative
Like the state of ‘owing’
The deeper one loves, the more one owes
Hence parents’ willing and uncomplaining
And lovers’ risking death for one another

In fact, the mathematical state of love is zero
When you are not giving, it doesn’t exist
When you are giving, it doesn’t decrease
Whether by multiplication or by division
It turns what is not into itself

* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.


Keith said...

Thank you, Chengde, for the chance to reflect on your interesting poem. One idea, among others, that grabbed me is this: ‘God can love because He has power’.

I wonder if a theist might be uneasy with the idea that God loves ‘because He has power’ — where the word ‘because’ seems to hold strong logical sway. Is the conclusion, therefore, that there’s a correlation or causation here, that is, that power is necessary for love? Without which God could not love? Would the same correlation or causation involving power implicitly apply to people’s ability to love, too (beyond the ‘feelings’ that your poem’s preceding line cites)?

Maybe some theists would think ‘power’ sullies the idealism and purity of ‘love’ and instead might prefer to notionally truncate the statement simply to ‘God loves’ — without power as a necessary precondition or explanation.

Martin Cohen said...

Re. Keith, we do talk often of 'the power of love' and there the world power is not seens as in anyway problematic, is it?

I think Chengde's poem is in amny ways rather obscure, classic Chinese obscurity, that is, nothing we Westerners can complain about. The phrase that struck me is "The deeper one loves, the more one owes" - which is a psychological statement surely... one that the poem retreates from later... but still, the thought is there. I think the poem is right, that to love is to owe, to pay a debt. And the idea that "god is love' makes God highly indebted! As well we might say HE is, given all the problems of existence.

All of which to me bears out that the state of recognising a debt is better than the state of not recognising one.

Keith said...

“Re. Keith, we do talk often of ‘the power of love’ and there the word power is not seen as in any way problematic, is it?” If I may, Martin, I’d like to respectfully address this central question. I see ‘the power of love’ and ‘God can love because He has power’ as very different, both semantically and substantively. In ‘the power of love’, the word ‘power’ qualifies ‘love’. And does so in a distinctly complimentary manner. So, to your question, in that particular case the word ‘power’ isn’t problematic. In ‘God can love because He has power’, the word ‘power’ qualifies a precondition (causative or correlative) in order for God to be able to love. (The word ‘can’ — be able to — adds, I believe, to that curious pre-conditionality.) Framed as such, the word ‘power’ seems to diminish the notion of love for its own sake — distinguishable, that is, from the implication of ‘power’ as a precondition to God’s ability to express love. Whether that’s problematic is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder.

docmartincohen said...

Chengde Chen, via email, writes:

"Thank you Keith for the comments. As you can read from that paragraph, it only wants to say that “to be able to love, one needs to have something”. The line “God can love because He has power” does suggest that God’s love is power-related, but it doesn’t mean all loves are power-related. If this was not made clear by the line, any clearer expressions you could suggest to that effect would be appreciated."

Keith said...

Thank you, Chengde, for offering this observation and clarification:

“ ‘God can love because He has power’ does suggest that God’s love is power-related, but it doesn’t mean all loves are power-related.”

As to the ‘any clearer expressions’ of that line you invite, perhaps I’d offer two alternatives — with the heavy caveat that I don’t pretend to be a poet.

You’ll see that, to make either of the suggested changes work, two lines are potentially affected: one bearing on ‘man’ and ‘love’; one bearing on ‘God’ and ‘love’.

One option might be:
‘Man loves because he can and sometimes does
God loves because He can and always does’

Another option might be:
‘Man loves because he can and does
God loves because He is and does’

Both options remove reference to the arguably problematic pre-conditionality of ‘power’ for love involving God, which I briefly explored in my comments above.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It is a pleasure to see a poem by Chengde Chen, and it is a thought-provoking one.

'God can love because He has power' stands at the centre of a great religious ... call it separation. To put it too simply, some say that God has the attitude of love towards 'his' creatures, while others say he demonstrates his love to them through his interventions, which is his power. One might put it like this: is God's love possible without his power?

This distinction hardly existed before, say, Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote, 'The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.'

Martin Cohen said...

Nicely put, Thomas!

Keith said...

I suspect there’s important wider context in which Alfred North Whitehead metaphorically said, ‘The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar’. My hesitation, though, is in the sentiment’s seemingly anthropomorphising God. That is, is there really gratification in assigning garden-variety human attributes to God, even those attributes of a person as august (no pun intended) as Caesar? In effect, a historically rooted imagining of a god in our image — well, in Caesar’s image, anyway.

I’ll throw my hat in with the conception of God as abstract, in every (in)conceivable way. Not us as an analogue if Him; not Him as an analogue of us. To me, the betting-man’s odds are that any such god is unimaginable. I realise that anthropomorphism makes God more easily relatable, and by extension conveniently ups the bar on mass appeal. Yet, might the Church, in assigning human attributes to God, have lowered the bar on His magnificence? If God shares the emotion of love with His minions, which other human emotions might He share? We saw how messy that got in Caesar’s day.

In some small way, that messiness gets caught up semantically in ‘God can love because He has power’. If the word ‘power’ is meant no more, no less than ‘to be able to’, then ‘God can love’ might suffice; it arguably says the same thing. Or, at the risk of slipping into reductionism, perhaps just ‘God loves’ — the latter seeming to capture the message of the original line in the poem. After all, God can’t love unless He has the ability to, right? Which might be what’s meant by ‘power’ here. (Hmm. Is reductionism a boon or bane of poetry?)

Anyway, to my mind, the sticky part of ‘God can love because He has power’ arises from preconditioning ‘love’ on ‘power’, as opposed to ‘love’ as a be-all (beginning and end) unto itself: again, just ‘God loves’. That doesn’t get us beyond the anthropomorphism mentioned above — that is, does an abstract god actually ‘love’? But the point does seem to obviate the need for the brassy ‘pre-conditionality of power’ that I see as at the heart of the quandary, logically teed up for us by the word ‘because’.

Post a Comment