Love is the touch of intangible joy

Today’s hymn, as we move on from the Presentation and towards Lent, is titled “Love is the touch of intangible joy” by the Scottish composer Alison Robertson. 

John Hartley has indicated that he preferred not to include this in a service of worship, and I will be interested to hear his reasons.  I found a recording of it online where it is set to a tune by John Bell.  The notes there say that “one of Mrs Robertson’s aims in this hymn was to write something that people who may not subscribe to the Christian faith could still assent to and be helped by”, which might tally with John’s hesitation – I will be interested to find out. 

Leaving aside the refrain “God is where love is, for love is of God” and the Trinitarian reference in verse 4, which clearly are Christian statements, could a humanist agree with this hymn? The illustrations of love given here are mostly passive, things that make life’s problems more bearable for us, such as “the goodness we gladly applaud”, “the hope that can make us rejoice” or “the light in the tunnel of pain, the will to be whole once again”.   The same notes referred to above interpret “love is the lilt in a lingering voice” in verse 2 as referring to “the voices of those who have gone before and still matter to us”. One would hope this just means the memory of our beloved dead and not that they communicate to us, which is not consistent with Christian theology. 

What seems to be missing here is the outgoing, practical and sometimes risky kind of love that Jesus taught in his parables and demonstrated in his life: the Good Samaritan giving of his time and money to help an enemy in need, his countrywoman at the well giving Jesus a drink, Jesus himself spending time with the outcasts of society, challenging prejudice and healing diseases in the face of vocal opposition and ultimately giving his life that we might live.  That is where Christianity comes in – the challenge that “greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend”. It is the challenge that we must consider during the approaching season of Lent.

1 thought on “Love is the touch of intangible joy”

  1. It took me a while to decide not to sing this hymn as part of Morning Prayer this morning, as it is clearly inspired by a bible verse: 1 John 4:16b “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him/her”. (Nowadays many translations opt to avoid the non-gender inclusive language of “and God in him” by putting verses like this in the plural so that the pronoun can be “them”, but I put it in the singular to emphasise that it’s in the singular in the Greek.)

    The problem with this bible verse is that a moment’s thought shows it isn’t true. There are many people who experience love but have no time for God in their lives. Unfortunately, we Christians know we aren’t supposed simply to say that Bible verses aren’t true, so most people balk when a vicar like me says this bible verse is false.

    Of course, what I mean is that when it is translated out of the Greek into another language, and the Greek word “agape” therefore gets another word (be it “caritas” in Latin or “love” in English, the meaning is changed. Books like C S Lewis’ “The four loves”, or indeed almost any bible dictionary, will explain that the cluster of meanings around our modern word “love” are much wider than those around the Greek word “agape”. For there are other words which also translate into “love”, in particular eros, which is the kind of “love” which is to do with romance, intimacy, founding a family, and emotional intensity; and phileo, which is to do with friendship, fellowship, mutual cooperation, liking and agreement. Both of these are based on reciprocity – we love in the expectation of receiving love in return. Only “agape” is the love which consists in the desire for the best for the beloved, irrespective of whether the beloved returns any “love” to the lover.

    I think the damage to the verse done by translation can be kept tolerable if we take care to keep the verse in its context. 1 John 4:16b comes in a careful context. First John defines explicitly what love is (verses 9-12) – love is not our feelings/actions towards God, but is rather the way in which God loves us by giving up himself for our benefit (the expiation for our sins, or however one wants to translate v10). Second, he sets up (v13-16a) that this love creates the possibility of an abiding which consists of receiving the Spirit, acknowledging the Son as Saviour, and thus knowing (experiencing) the love which God has for us – and this is the meaning of “love” which makes it true to say that those who live in love live in God.

    But in this hymn neither of those considerations have been taken into account. Instead, rather like the Taize chant “Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est” (which I also think is false), this hymn defines love by a cluster of emotionalisms and thus makes the final statement of each verse false.

    A cluster of emotionalisms? Well, yes! Nowhere does the hymn say that love is the desire for the best for the other, irrespective of response. Nowhere does it say that love is action. Nowhere does it say that love is a decision of the will rather than a feeling in the emotion. Instead it has a number of statements which, when analysed, are really odd. Isn’t “the touch of intangible joy” – isn’t that “happiness” rather than “love”? Isn’t “softness” or “gentleness” the lilt in a lingering voice? (Or maybe “nostalgia” if Stephen’s quote above is taken seriously?) Isn’t “hope” the light in the tunnel of pain? Isn’t “friendship” or “reliability” the trust of a friend on the road?

    So, in conclusion, I think this hymn is sentimental twaddle. Maybe even dangerous? If it leads people to an off-balance view of who God is and where he lives, is that a constructive thing for it to do?

    – – –

    OK, people like me throw stones from our glass houses. What kind of hymn would be a good one about love? Well, here’s what I substituted in Morning Prayer this morning. It’s from the same chapter of the bible, but of course majors on the earlier verses cited above. The first and last verses are lifted almost directly from verses 10 and 12, and I wanted to finish it with a way which forced the listener to review it (“… when we do?” Do what? Ah, yes, I have to go back and re-read it to remind myself what the “do” is referring to). The middle three verses attempt to unpack what the “atoning sacrifice” or “expiation” or whatever means in v10. To me, we hymnwriters have a responsibility to be as clear as possible in providing words which help teach what the scripture actually says on the subject we are tackling.

    This is how God showed his love:
    he sent his only Son
    into this world, that we might live
    through him, the Holy One.

    Love is not that we loved God.
    Our faint and poor response
    is nought compared with his great deed
    upon the cross just once.

    All mankind was trapped in sin,
    with rescue too high-priced
    for us to pay: so God’s own Son
    was sent to be our Christ.

    On that cross he took for us
    the death we should have paid,
    so life is ours and death was his.
    This covenant he made.

    God so loved us, therefore we
    should love each other too.
    For God cannot be seen, but he
    lives in us when we do.

    Words and tune copyright © John Hartley 2007.
    Based on 1 John 4:9-12.

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