What is Love?

What is love? Can we define it? Should we even try? Maybe it’s something that we can only, essentially, feel. Poets, thinkers, philosophers, artists, lovers – even scientists – have all attempted from time immemorial to capture the essence of what love is. Have any of them ever succeeded?

The Greeks, of course, had a word for it. Actually they had four. To one kind of love – love of country – they gave one word. To love of family and kinsmen they gave another. Erotic love received yet another, different, word. So did the kind of selfless, self-giving love that might lead a man to lay down his life for others: even his enemies. Is this really all there is to say, then? Is there nothing more to love than these four ‘types’ would lead us to believe?

Several years ago I was commissioned to write a book about love. Specifically, my remit was to explore religious and spiritual experiences involving love in order to establish whether love might, in any sense, survive death. Might those we love continue to love us from beyond the grave? I added another, second, question to this: might there be dimensions to love that transcend this world altogether? In order to attempt to answer these questions I explored the archives of the Religious Experience Research Centre, housed at what was then the University of Wales, Lampeter. These archives contain over 6000 accounts of religious, spiritual and paranormal experience, and as I sought to discover the possibility of the existence of the ‘otherworldly love’ I was seeking I was increasingly drawn to a large number of accounts I found there – numbering in the hundreds – which led me to the conclusion that the Greeks hadn’t got it quite right. That they had, in fact, missed a crucial aspect of love: a type of love that was wholly different to anything contained in the four categories within which they sought to define it. In fact, what I ultimately discovered led to my coining a new term – the fifth love – which I used to describe a love that didn’t fit into any of the ‘categories’ or match any of the existing definitions.

This was a love described by many people – young, old, male, female, believer, non-believer, agnostic – that seemed to occur at just the time they needed it most: often in the darkness of depression and despair. It didn’t seem to come from any earthly source and was rarely accompanied by a vision or a voice (although occasionally it was accompanied by a light). It was, in fact, almost always felt, not touched or seen, and the feeling – and the fruits – that it produced suggested strongly to its grateful recipients that it had no earthly origin. And having felt it, those who were touched by it were never the same again. They moved on from their experiences not just comforted but changed, and full of an often newly-found conviction that love is indeed stronger than death and that this world is not all there is.

No description of this kind of love can ever be better that that given by those who have actually felt it. That’s why I gave a significant part of my study over to the actual descriptions of this love given by those who had experienced it and who had sent their experiences to the archive I used. The result of my study of their experiences became my recent book, The Fifth Love: Exploring Accounts of the Extraordinary. In it, I present many of the testimonies that provided the basis for my research and I attempt to draw some conclusions to which these apparently widespread experiences lead. For me, the research was life-changing. Although I haven’t had such an experience myself, I am now persuaded that there are very many who have, and that there is a love that is stronger than death and which points the way towards a realisation that this world is not all that there is.