Can I Believe?

Note: Robert Royal will join Fr. Gerald Murray and Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s “The World Over” at 8 PM ET Thursday night. Consult local listings for re-broadcasts. EWTN shows are also available shortly after broadcast on the EWTN YouTube channel.

 “Such is the character of. . .divine revelation that the reality it affirms is, in a peculiar fashion, identical with the act of revelation and also with its witness.  This is a situation almost without parallel anywhere else in the world. The ‘almost’ is intended to leave room for the possibly sole exception, for the situation in which a person turns to another and says: ‘I love you.’  That statement, too, is not primarily supposed to inform another person of an objective fact separable from the speaker. Rather, it is a kind of self-witnessing. . . .And in keeping with this condition, the only way the partner can become aware of the love that is offered is by taking what is said into himself. . . .[H]e can truly ‘know’ it only by hearing the verbal avowal and ‘believing’ it; only then will the other’s love become truly present to him; only then will he truly partake of it.” (Josef Pieper) 

“I love you,” said the man to the woman.  “That is an interesting statement,” replied the woman, “but I’m unsure what it means or how I should respond” Being unsure, she turned to experts for help.

“Let’s study the phrase ‘I love you’ in multiple cultural expressions,” said one expert.  “In French, they say ‘Je t’aime.’ In German, ‘Ich liebe dich.’  In Indonesian, they say ‘Saya cinta padamu.’ And among the Hopi peoples, ‘Nu’ umi unangwa’ta,’ which literally means ‘I-you-heart-much.’ Perhaps a study of various cultural practices expressing love will help you understand the statement and illuminate the credibility of this expression.”

“It is important to realize, for example, that men in many cultures express love, but don’t mean it. Or they mean various things depending upon their cultural circumstances.”

Finding all of this very learned and even somewhat interesting, but not especially helpful in her own particular case, the woman sought out other experts.  One suggested that the statement “I love you” was simply another way of saying she should participate in the worldwide movement of communist-socialism.  Another said, “I love you” means, “I will not judge you regardless of what you do.”  A third insisted that the statement “I love you” was simply an expression of the desire to procreate and pass on one’s genetic material.

A more “experienced” friend of hers insisted that, “When a man says, ‘I love you,’ it means nothing more than ‘I desire to have sex with you.’  Don’t read any more into it than that.  If you consent, fine, say ‘okay.’ Ask nothing more. This is ‘modern love.’  Accepting this fact will be empowering.”

A scientist wondered whether there might any test that could be performed to validate the reality of this “love.”  Perhaps electrodes could be hooked up to the young man’s brain and/or blood drawn when the woman was present versus when she was absent to see whether any scientifically significant variables could be detected to lend credibility to this “love,” if such a thing really exists.

Thinking that perhaps theologians might know something about love, the woman went to one theologian who told her that “I love you” is simply the way in which the man was choosing to reveal himself to her. But since knowledge of him and his will would always be beyond her grasp, she should just forget trying to understand either him or his love and just learn to love herself more fully, because that was the only meaning of “I love you” that could possibly be relevant to her.


So instead of understanding the emphasis of the phrase this way, “love you,” since the “I” uttering the phrase would always be ultimately unknowable, she should focus her attention this way: “I love you.”  That is to say, you are loveable.  Learn your loveableness.

This sounded nice and was reassuring in its own way, but still didn’t give the woman the answer she sought.  “I may be ‘love-able,’ but am I loved?” she wondered.  “Does he love me?  Or are these words empty and meaningless in an empty and meaningless world?”

A German theologian, appreciating the gravity of her question, told the woman that it would be necessary to translate this crude, archaic expression into an idiom more credible to modern, educated persons.  It would make more sense, he insisted, to describe “love” as the fundamental horizon within which all desires for benefit to the other as other ought to be understood.

To say “I love you,” therefore, is to associate oneself with this fundamental ground of all reality and will-to-existence in such a way as to fundamentally affirm the existence of the other while refusing to “thematize” that person’s essence-existence into one’s own a priori categories.

“I love you,” he continued, is an expression that, although expressing a reality that is timeless, can only be experienced in this life in time, in flux.  Hence the possibility that it may ebb and flow, and yet still, in its Ur-state, remain stable and unchanging.  The expression of love, thus, is more or less authentic to the extent that it approximates this ideal, although it can never be realized fully in this life.

This sounded learned, but the since the woman wasn’t sure what most of it meant, she decided that perhaps she wasn’t one of the “modern, educated persons” to whom this sort of appeal would make love more “credible.” And so she decided to ask someone else.

Coming upon her grandmother one day, she asked how she could understand the words “I love you” and how she could believe them to be true. “Oh, my dear,” said her grandmother:

You cannot know love the way you know what kind of butterfly this is or the way you know details of the War of 1812.  You can only know love and understand love by loving.  You cannot understand it neutrally, from the outside, and then decide to be in it. You must first believe in it, accept its possibility, and then partake of it. But there is no way of assessing it neutrally, from the outside.  You have to risk. You have to open your heart and your mind to it at least as a possibility.  And then you live it.  But if you aren’t willing to risk its truth, you will never know whether it is true or not.

This sounded decidedly less learned to the woman, but struck her as wiser in the end, especially since her grandmother had always revealed herself to be a person who understood and embraced love fully.  So she chose to believe in her grandmother and the witness of her grandmother’s life and took the risk.

And that, as the poet Robert Frost once wrote, “has made all the difference.”


*Image: Birthday by Marc Chagall, 1915 [Museum of Modern Art, New York]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.