The early Christian theologian Tertullian, when asked how he could believe in a God who allowed himself to suffer the supreme humiliation of crucifixion, is said to have answered: Credo quia absurdum–I believe it because it is absurd.

This statement makes a central point, not just about Christianity, but about religion in general. Western intellectuals, heirs of the Enlightenment, are generally impatient with the “absurdities” of religion: virgin birth, resurrection, reincarnation, heaven and hell, all these seem transparent projections of our wishes and fears rather than testable hypotheses about reality. Nor does even the epistemological refinement of generative anthropology, which “brackets” the non-anthropological elements of theology, make it a more acceptable substitute for religious faith than the cruder anthropologies of the philosophes. Even the most satisfactory explanation of religious phenomena can only explain why they are effective, not explain away their effectiveness.

Conversely, the rationalized theologies that have been developed in the hope of converting intellectuals to religious faith have had little effect. To believe in reason is not to believe at all. God exists not to resolve intellectual dilemmas, but to help us in crises, that is, in predicaments to which no rational solution is apparent. If reason could prevail, there would be no crisis, and therefore no need for faith. Science and technology have provided means to reinterpret crises involving natural phenomena like disease and earthquakes, but the fundamental model of crisis is human, not natural, and after all the rational solutions have been exhausted and the threat of violence still looms, we need belief, not reason.

But this column is not really about religion, but about love.

Love is a form of faith. It is no coincidence that the word love, taken by itself, is assumed to refer to its most exalted form. Parents’ love for their children probably absorbs ten times as much energy as the romantic love we hear so much about, but we take our definition from the latter, not the former. This is because we understand that the most human form of love is that which is most absurd: most like faith and least like animal instinct. It is more absurd to love another with whom one has at first no family ties than to love those who share one’s genetic heritage. Romantic love has its social and biological functions, but it makes these functions dependent on its leap of faith.

Thus the truest love is not between persons whom everyone sees as ideally suited to each other. To love someone else is not to love oneself in the mirror. It is the difference of the other that we love, because we cannot ever comprehend it from within. We love the other in her or his unassimilable otherness. Each moment is a stab in the dark, a test of our faith that we will act in the interest of this person whose interests we are so far from understanding directly.

The infinite difference of the beloved teaches us in the human sphere the same lesson as our infinite difference from God. The Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance understood human love, such as that of Dante for Beatrice or Petrarch for Laura, as an intimation of immortality, a worldly prefiguration of divine love. But the secularizing force of history allows us to invert this hierarchy: love of God may be seen as a prefiguration of human love, not love of humanity in general, but of our Other, the one we love.

Love for an individual person cannot come first; the human is in the first place cultural, communal. God as the originary object of human love is also the originary person. But from the minimalist perspective of generative anthropology, this originary person is not understood as human. Personhood is not in the first place characteristic of me, but of the sacred Other whose humanity is not primordial, as our romantico-existentialists would have us believe, but derived. Like the equality of the sexes which a hasty feminism would situate at the origin, the humanity of the Other gains rather than loses by being deferred, by standing at the end rather than the beginning of history as a horizon that can never quite be attained because it can never be fully understood and defined.

What does it really mean to love another person absurdly, as the church father loved his crucified God? It means to attribute to that person, without the possibility of full understanding, and in the face of her/his demonstrated vulnerability, the infinite power, not to stay the sun or part the Red Sea, but to give meaning to my world. I cannot inhabit my beloved’s mind, see the world through her eyes. But through dialogue and observation, I can come to share with her a mutual world of meaning. What matters is not simply learning how she sees the world, but her knowing that my actions reflect my desire and effort for this learning.

But here is where human love shows itself superior to divine. The absurdity of human love cannot exist without reciprocation. To learn to share the other’s perceptions would be mere idolatry without the belief that s/he too is learning to share mine. The dialogue of words and acts that makes human love worthwhile–and in comparison with which, as Manon‘s lover the Chevalier des Grieux already knew, our dialogue with God is thin indeed–can only maintain itself if both partners share its absurd adventure.

The reciprocity of love is not something we can observe from without as a sterile symmetry. The central fact of my leap of faith is that I am loved in return, that each of us, in perhaps very different ways, serves as an extraworldly source of value to the other. It is the foundation of the intimate world within which we affirm our own significance in the face of the impersonal world of the marketplace–an affirmation without which the dynamic of market society itself could not operate.

But human love should not be seen as serving the marketplace any more than as serving God. It is as much the end of human existence as a means to the survival of our species. To rationalize it is to forget its roots in the originary leap of faith by which humanity constituted itself by transcending its “rational” appetitive goals. Love can function only thus:

Amo quia absurdum.