Opening Arguments: Love (Doesn’t) Conquer All

I recently participated in a couple of rounds of faculty debate for a fundraiser at Union University.  It was tremendously fun and intellectually stimulating.  In the second round, I had to argue against the proposition that love conquers all.  I am pasting in my opening argument from that debate because I never waste material!  See below.

Thank you to the judges. Thank you to the audience. Thank you to Dr. Drake (the debate coach) and to Dr. Huelin. This is a most challenging assignment. Not only must I argue against the statement that Love Conquers All, but I must also debate Dr. Huelin, who is the kind of scholar most able to offer a compelling case in favor of the proposition. A friend messaged me on Facebook to share her encouraging conviction that YOU’RE GONNA LOSE!

To defeat such a hearty combination of argument and arguer is almost too much for me to face, me a pooooooor po-lit-ick-al HACK. Yet, I say ALMOST. I will sally forth from the ranks and strive for victory for your edification, your entertainment, and the debate team’s fundraiser!

As you judge this debate, I ask that you think carefully whether it is really true that Love Conquers All. Weigh the evidence. I believe the balance may tilt against the proposition.

I have already encountered some persons who think the statement “Love Conquers All” is found in the Bible. It is not. However, we do find the sentence in the Eclogues by Virgil. In a piece of pastoral poetry, Virgil wrote “Love Conquers All. Let us all submit to love.” In the Latin (penalize not my pronunciation you students of classical Christian schools! I went to public school!), Amor Vincit Omnia.

The statement is hardly the centerpiece of the poem. Rather it makes for a nice line in selection X. I might begin the case by noting that Love wasn’t the only thing that Virgil claimed conquers all. He was about 30 when he wrote the Eclogues. As an older man, he wrote the Georgics. In that work, he penned this somewhat similar line: Labor Omnia Vincit – Work Conquers All. It happens that Work Conquers All is the state motto of Oklahoma!  “Virginia is for lovers.”  Maybe love conquers all in Virginia! Another famous formulation that has appeared in Latin is Veritas Omnia Vincit. Truth Conquers All. You may see a theme here. Rendered in the modern vernacular: Awesomeness Conquers All. We can be thankful that Virgil never hopped into a time machine and landed on Madison Avenue or we might be watching TV where an ad would declare – Tide Conquers All . . . stains . . . Let us all submit to Tide!

Here is the key point, if one thing conquers all, something else can’t conquer all. All means all and not all minus one. If love conquers all and work conquers all and truth conquers all, then what happens when love and truth collide, or love and work, or truth and work???

In the context of the poem, the Love that conquers all appears to be romantic love. Leontyne Bennett has argued that “Love conquers all” has served as an excuse for the rudeness of PDA’s, adulterous affairs, easy divorces, and abandoned children. One might recall Woody Allen’s relationship with his adopted daughter. “The heart wants what it wants,” he explained.  That, by the way, is a modern translation of “love conquers all.”

Virgil wrote Love Conquers All. All means good things as well as bad things. Love may conquer loneliness, but might it also not conquer good things such as peace and common sense? On this reading, Love conquers all is a warning. It is a warning not to always yield to the apparent demands of love.

With further regard to romantic love, I would look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, something of a patron saint of Union University who advised his dearest friend and his bride that “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”  Rather than putting his emphasis on the feeling of love, Bonhoeffer pointed to holy respect for the godly office of marriage.

I mentioned that some people think Love Conquers All is the in the Bible. It isn’t, but I have some familiar verses for you. You’ve heard them at nine out of ten Christian weddings. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.

I just want to point out that this is not exactly conquering language. Do you think of conquerors as patient and kind? The Americas are full of European influence. Why? Because Europeans effectively conquered the indigenous people groups and replaced their cultures with new ones. Where is the patience, kindness, refusal to dishonor, protection, hoping, and perseverance in conquest?

Let us also deal with something that might be considered a trump card in this debate. 1 John 4 twice tells us that God is love. Am I defeated at this point? If God is love, then how can I possibly say that it is not true that Love Conquers All? My answer is simple. To conquer something means to take it by force or to put the best possible light on it, to win something. But God is never in the position of needing to conquer anything. God is the rightful owner of all that has been created. How can you conquer something you already possess?

To summarize: First, There are multiple candidates for the “conquers all” title, which would seem to nullify the claim. Second, if we mean romantic love conquers all, it does have features of conquest in terms of the damage it can do, but fortunately it does not always prevail. Third, the language of First Corinthians does not suggest conquest. Finally, if God is love, there is no need to conquer. He has all things in his hand.