About four months ago, while sitting in a weekly Bible study class, I was struck by a realization that love actually demonstrates many characteristics that distinguish a living organism from something non-living. I was challenged by one of my peers to write an essay based on this observation after I shared my musings with the group. What follows is my response to her welcome challenge.
The renowned physicist, Erwin Schroedinger, gave a series of lectures at Dublin College in 1943 entitled, “What is Life?” Not only were the lectures remarkable for how well they were attended, but also because a physicist gave such succinct insights into the construction of life that his ideas echoed into the following hundred years of molecular biological research. However, Dr. Schroedinger was neither the first, nor was he the last, person to ask that one simple question – what is life? Or, stated another way, what does it mean to say that something is alive?
The question seems so ridiculously simple. A rock is not alive, but a bird is. A house is not alive, but a tree is. Water is not alive, but a fish is. As a woman fascinated with biology, who studied it for seven years after high school, before performing more research on living organisms for another five years after that, I remember being struck by the following two distinct ironies in the field of biology: 1) Biologists struggle to define life and 2) biologists have to make something “un-alive” (e.g. kill it) to study life.
As to the second, I don’t have much to say other than researchers are making great strides in using in vivo (which in Latin means, “in living”) techniques to study animals. But the vast majority of the great discoveries are being made in organisms that were once alive and now dead.
As far as the first irony is concerned, most high school, maybe even middle school, biology students are taught the seven characteristics of life.
- Organization: living things are highly organized and complex
- Metabolism: living things use many chemical reactions to provide themselves with power
- Homeostasis (gotta love those big science words): living things are able to regulate themselves
- Growth: again, regulated, controlled, but living things are always growing
- Reproduction: living things always make more of themselves
- Response: living things are able to respond to their surroundings
- Evolution: living things can adapt and change
Biologists debate if organisms must exhibit all of these characteristics, or are five enough? Or three? For example, the common cold virus. A virus is organized into a highly stable “package,” but not very complex. They are able to reproduce, evolve, and respond to changes in surroundings, but they are not able to survive outside of a host cell for any great length of time. Are they alive?
And what does it mean when a creature dies? The organism is no longer able to regulate itself, grow, reproduce, produce power, and so on. But how does this happen? Many biologists who study life on a small scale see no reason why cells could not go on reproducing indefinitely, provided with a sufficient energy source, which we have on our planet courtesy of our sun. So what is aging? How does it happen? How does the cellular machinery just stop working? Serious trauma or being eaten would naturally lead to death, but in the absence of any outside intervention, why does life not just continue on?
What does any of this have to do with love, you might ask? It occurred to me recently, as I pondered the characteristics of love, that love matches up almost exactly with life. Love grows – we all know that. Love is not finite or discreet, rather it is infinite and abounding. Having four children does not mean they are all loved less than an only child. Love is life perfected, it never dies, but continues to grow bigger, stronger, like a mighty tree towering over the lands below, like a sheer mountain peak growing taller with each snowfall rather than succumbing to erosion. Love reproduces – it makes copies of itself everywhere it goes. Love responds to its surroundings, morphing and changing into the absolute best response, the action, the answer that a hurting soul needs the most. One might argue that responsiveness is a supreme characteristic of love – it cannot sit idly by and watch hurt and pain; it must act. And love evolves. Anyone who has a deep friendship, an adoring spouse, a long-time relationship will attest to the unassailable fact that their love has changed, has evolved, has deepened. The roots of the towering tree have thrust themselves further and further down into our hearts and changed us, just as love has changed the other person. Love can evolve from passion and fury and fire to comfortable and calm and deep.
The Greeks understood love more completely than we modern people. They had four names for four kinds of love. However, they still missed the observation that love carries almost all of the characteristics of a living creature. I’ve laid out a case for four of the seven characteristics, but the last is metabolism. Human beings throughout time and space have recognized the indelible, unassailable, undaunted, unrelenting power of love. We cannot write about it enough, sing about it enough, talk about it enough. All the words that we use, all the feelings welling within us, cannot express the outlandish power we feel in the presence of love. It is a force that drowns us and defines us, that overwhelms us and saves us. Nothing known has been able to contend with the power of love – its metabolism is unique, unfettered, and everlasting.
I leave you with this thought – love is alive. Therefore, the statement that God is love makes logical sense. God is a being and love is a being. Love displays all of the characteristics of a living organism made in the image of a living God, the One Who breathed life in the first place. Perhaps another way to say it would be – “and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of love, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
But three things remain – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love
Copyright © 2020 by Heather Morris