What does ‘love’ mean?

by Brandon Beck

Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, has Juliet ask, “What’s in a name?”  In what’s become a famous soliloquy (Act 2, Scene ii), Juliet wonders why her family and Romeo’s should keep their love from being known.

Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their use in communication and meaning making, has been applied by philosophers, linguists, anthropologists, theologians, and others. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1912) was a Swiss semiotician who worked in the subfield of semiology, focusing on the bilateral nature of the sign – the signifier and the signified. Saussure taught that words only have meaning in social context. What I say and think I mean only have meaning when you hear it and assign it value.

In The Princess Bride, a 1987 comedy-adventure film based on the 1973 book of the same name, Inigo Montoya says to Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Finnish academic Osmo Wiio’s somewhat satiric, yet accurate, laws of communication, state, “If communication can fail, it will.”

I live in Texas. Our Legislature meets every two years. In the last several sessions, one topic has held traction in the House and the Senate – anti-LGBTQ (especially anti-trans) legislation. Session after session, activists and advocates in the legislature, in the lobby, and in the public square have thwarted efforts to disenfranchise LGBTQ Texans. This year was different.

Texas, as of Friday 19 May 2023, is near enacting a law banning diversity offices in public universities. SB14 passed and will go to Gov Abbot, who says he will sign it. This bill bans minors from receiving trans-affirming medical care. The House has approved SB15 which bans transgender athletes from participating in sports based on gender. A bill that would have ended a law criminalizing homosexuality in Texas did not make it to the floor.

What’s in a name?

My name is Brandon. It hasn’t always been, but it is now.

He and She are signifiers of gender. The person to whom the pronoun refers is the signified. My pronouns are he/him. I am male.

How do you know what someone means when they use a word to describe a group of which you’re a part? Does the word really mean what you think it means?

Supporters of SB14, during the hearings, described transgender Texans as a “social contagion.”[1]

Communication fails.

Even Jesus’ Law of love:

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.[2]

We enter a covenant with Jesus and reaffirm it again and again at Baptism:

I will follow the apostles’ teaching; I will be in community, break bread, pray; I will resist evil, repent, return; I will proclaim by word and example the Good News; I will seek and serve Christ in ALL PERSONS; I will LOVE my neighbor as myself; I will strive for justice and peace among all people; I will respect the dignity of every human being.

This love that Jesus teaches – of whose name we seem to have forgotten, whose signified is nearly lost, whose meaning seems absent these days – this love of Jesus we have allowed to fail to be communicated to our neighbors In Biblical Greek “love” is ἀγάπη (agape), considered the highest form of love – that between God and God’s Son – incarnational love – sacrificial love – perichoretic love – mysterious love. Nothing should be desired more or shared more than the love we receive from heaven.

When we promise to live baptismally, repeating those words everytime we support a newly baptized sibling in Christ, what are we signifying? What do we really mean? Do our words and actions toward all our neighbors, no matter their name, demonstrate the love of God – Three-in-One?

In whatever name you call the Trinity –  

Mother, Child, Womb.

God, Logos, Sophia.

Love, Beloved, Lover.

Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit.


[1] https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/02/texas-trans-kids-health-care-ban/

[2] CEB, Matthew 5:43-48

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