Wonder Woman: Is Love Really All We Need?
At the climax of the 2017 film Wonder Woman, the eponymous superheroine must decide whether humanity deserves to be saved. Ares, the Greek god of war, encourages mankind to destroy themselves by tempting them to violence, orchestrating the brutalities of World War I. Wonder Woman has the opportunity to save humanity, but, especially in light of the human cruelty she witnesses in battle, she struggles with the fact that humans freely choose to commit such atrocities to each other. However, when Ares tells her to let humans destroy each other because they do not deserve to be saved, she shifts her focus from the original question. She responds, “It’s not about deserving. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” With these words, she takes up her sword and fights to save humanity.
Wonder Woman’s conclusion is the latest in a long line of popular assertions that all the most important aspects of a meaningful life point back to love. Love is the motivation, the happy ending. Love is, as the Beatles famously sang, “all we need.”[i] Love is so often depicted as both the end and the means. These claims are usually accepted as simply as they are presented: audiences take as self-evident the notions that love can motivate people through the most difficult of situations and that love is a pleasant and desired ending. No further reasoning is offered because most recognize the centrality of love in human life without much thought.
This article will show that the assertions regarding the importance of love that appear so frequently in popular culture ring truest when viewed through a Christian lens: one that explains true love as unconditional and self-giving, reveals love’s intimate relationship with freedom and joy, and shows that all we need is love simply because “God is love.”[ii]
I. Classical Terminological Distinctions
Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, the discussion of the philosophy of love has considered three separate notions of love: eros, philia, and agape. Though usually eros refers to passionate desire, philia to friendship, and agape to God’s love, contemporary discussions frequently blur the distinctions.iii For the purposes of this article, I will discuss the notion of love most typically termed agape, or charity, in its theological sense, meaning God’s love for us, our love for God, and, by extension, our love for each other in the most fraternal or spiritual sense.
II. The Doctrine of Mercy: “It’s not about deserving.”
Wonder Woman shifts her focus from the question of whether or not humans deserve to be saved to a declaration of her belief in love. This belief moves her to fight for humanity despite its infractions against her and against itself. The shift proves consistent with a Christian understanding of love.
Her original deliberations are relatable: for most, the tendency to act in accordance with the notion of justice, of what is deserved, comes most easily. Christianity, however, considers most significantly not the question of deserving, but the constant certainty of love. According to scripture, we have all sinned, and therefore all deserve death. [iv,v] Instead of condemning all humans to die, as we deserve, Jesus chose to die for us—an act of his infinite love and mercy. As the Apostle Paul writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”[vi] For sinners, Jesus’s act was not a just one but a merciful one: the act was not an answer to a question of deserving, but a declaration of love. Deserving implies a reward contingent upon action, but Christ gave us his love with no action necessary on humanity’s part; giving love because the recipient earned it based on some action would be conditional love, but true love—Christ’s love—is unconditional. Though humans struggle with sin, commit atrocities daily, and do not deserve to be saved because of this sin, Christians believe that Jesus saved us from death through his infinite love, so that we might have eternal life.[vii]
According to Christian theology, not only did God grant us the chance for life in Heaven through Christ’s ultimate act of love, but he also instilled in us the capacity to show love to others unconditionally while on Earth. In loving our neighbor, Christ also teaches us that “it’s not about deserving.”[viii] Just as he shows us unconditional love, Jesus commands that we love all of our neighbors, regardless of whether we feel they deserve that love. He tells us to love even our enemies, and in that way to reflect God’s love for us, who in his consideration for each one of us as his child “makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”[ix]
Wonder Woman’s decision to shift her focus from a question of deserving to a declaration of love resembles the Christian call to mercy. Christians believe that Jesus so loves us that he saved us despite our sin and that he asks us to show this same unconditional love to others while on Earth. In a similar way, despite the atrocities humans committed against themselves, despite the fact that they perhaps did not deserve to be saved, Wonder Woman chooses to fight for them.
III. Freedom and Faith: “It’s about what you believe.”
Though God loves us despite our sin and calls us also to love others unconditionally, Catholic theology holds that people freely choose to accept God’s merciful gift, offered on his part through love and accepted on our part through love. Though Wonder Woman asserts that “it’s about what you believe,” more accurately, according to Catholic thought, our paths depend on the freely chosen action that follows the belief. As Wonder Woman learns, all humans simultaneously possess the capacity for both good and evil, and their actions’ accordance with one or the other is, as she phrases it, “A choice each must make for themselves.”[x] Through our actions, which express our choice, we turn toward God in love, or turn away from him in arrogance, hate, or apathy. Freely choosing to turn toward God, to believe and to act in love, increases our capacity for love as well as for freedom.
Writing from a secular perspective, philosopher Erich Fromm proposes in his book The Art of Loving that love is “the answer to the problem of human existence.”[xi] Because man has reason, Fromm argues, he is aware of himself as in individual and separate mortal entity, and the human awareness of the “unbearable prison” of our separateness from each other is the source of all human misery.[xii] He asserts, “The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness,” arguing that “the full answer lies…in love.”[xiii,xiv] Love is the answer in the search for meaning. Fromm’s concept of love is “an active power in man” that can be exercised only in freedom.[xv] According to Fromm, love and freedom have an interdependent and mutually increasing relationship: a person cannot truly love if she is not free in the choice and act to love, and a person’s love provides the means of liberating herself from the prison of her aloneness, leading in turn to more freedom and a greater capacity to love. Freedom used to pursue love leads to a positive feedback loop that increases both one’s freedom and capacity for love.
Fromm’s account of love is compatible with a Christian understanding of love. By God’s mercy, we already have the blessing of sharing in “the glorious freedom of the children of God.”[xvi] By Fromm’s account, this freedom is the prerequisite for love in its proper sense; because we have this freedom, we are able to make the free decision to love. Furthermore, just as Fromm asserts we are motivated to find meaning in love, Paul writes that we are called to use our freedom for love: “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.”[xvii] Christ granted us freedom, and Christians are called to use this freedom to serve one another in love. Moreover, just as Fromm suggests, the Bible shows that in loving others, we attain greater freedom. John writes, “God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.”[xviii] We unite ourselves more closely with God through loving others, and in doing so, we find more freedom: “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”[xix] The Catechism of the Catholic Church similarly states that the more one aligns with God, “the freer one becomes.”[xx]
Importantly, both scripture and the Catechism associate love with “service” to others, which may seem paradoxical to the many who associate freedom with a lack of obligations to others.[xxi] Christianity calls into question that understanding of freedom. Instead of a negative freedom—freedom from obligations or servitude—Christianity challenges people to consider positive freedom: freedom to love, to turn toward God, and to pursue the joy found in helping others. Rather than restricting us through its obligations, self-giving love furthers spiritual freedom.
Acts based on deserving are conditional, restricted, reactionary. Ares justifies his pursuit of power with the assertion that humans do not deserve to rule the planet; any human struggling for power in this way makes an idol of power and yokes himself to it, forcing himself to rely only on conditional notions such as deserving rather than the unconditional notions like the love that comes from God alone. Such a person who prioritizes a campaign for power turns away from God, from unconditional love, and therein decreases her freedom and limits herself to reactionary notions such as deserving. Conversely, those people who consider only whether others deserve their assistance also restrict themselves: they turn away from God’s call to unconditional love and leave their path to be determined by the actions of others, as all their actions depend on whether or not others earn their consideration. Whether a person first turns from God and must therefore rely on conditional notions such as deserving, or else first freely chooses to only consider deserving and to turn from God in that way, the result is decreased freedom for the individual.
Wonder Woman, on the other hand, freely chooses to act in unconditional love, to fight for others in spite of their injustices to her and to each other. She thereby increases her freedom: her realization releases her from her inner turmoil regarding the conditional worthiness of humanity, she stops entertaining Ares’s tempting words, and she finds herself able to defeat him. She is then literally freer to love humanity, as Ares is gone and humans are still alive. From a Christian perspective, she is also then spiritually freer to love humanity once she freely chooses to act out of love.
We freely choose to believe and act in love, which increases our freedom and, in turn, our capacity to love more greatly, leading us to greater freedom and a still greater capacity for love. Progressing in this positive feedback cycle, we find ourselves closer to God, a fact that solidifies the meaning associated with Fromm’s solution to “the problem of human existence.”[xxii] Unconditional love is the answer because God is the answer: people find meaning through love only because the free choice to love brings them closer to God.
IV. The Example of Jesus: “And I believe in love.”
Wonder Woman declares her belief in love after Steve Trevor sacrifices himself to ensure the survival of his comrades. This sequence suggests that she discovers what love truly means only after witnessing Steve’s act of sacrifice, an act consistent with the Christian understanding of love. Jesus tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[xxiii] This sentiment calls to mind Christ’s own ultimate sacrifice to redeem all of humankind. Of course, it is important to recognize the differences: to start, Steve’s sacrifice redeemed humanity’s reputation in the eyes of Wonder Woman, inspiring her to also show that love in risking herself to fight for humans’ safety, while Christ’s act of love in enduring humiliation and pain until death atoned for the sins of all humanity so that we may have eternal life. That said, the comparison exists in that both Christianity and the conclusion of the film support an understanding of love that is self-giving.
Christians strive to reflect Jesus’ self-giving love. According to Scripture, Jesus “emptied” and “humbled” himself to better allow the perfect love of God to flow through him to those around him, and to enable him to better serve others.[xxiv] His disciples are likewise called to follow this example.[xxv] Not only does giving of the self in love actually increase the self in God’s eyes, but such love also allows for greater freedom, as previously discussed, and for joy.[xxvi]
In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples that he loves them and that they will remain in his love if they keep his commandments. He then continues, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”[xxvii] Thomas Aquinas reasons in Summa Theologica that man can reach incomplete happiness on his own by cultivating the limited measure of virtue available through natural human aptitude; however, man can reach complete happiness only through God. According to Aquinas, complete happiness is “a happiness surpassing man’s nature, and which man can obtain by the power of God alone…it is necessary for man to receive from God some additional principles whereby he may be directed to supernatural happiness.”[xxviii] These additional principles, according to Aquinas, are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and, according to the Apostle Paul, “The greatest of these is love.”[xxviii] Love, a gift from God and perfectly exemplified in Christ’s life, enables people to find a greater joy than they could otherwise ever attain.
Love is the summit of human life. Jesus tells us that love is the most important of his commandments. Loving God is “the greatest and the first” commandment, loving neighbor is the second, and “the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”[xxix] Paul writes that everything, even the pursuit of virtue and obedience to the other commandments, is meaningless without love.[xxx] From this perspective, in everything that God’s law demands, the most important aspect is that his law is followed with the intention of and by means consistent with love for God and for others. Not only does Christian love better enable us to find eternal life with God after death, but it also allows us to grow closer to God—and to find more freedom and joy as a result—during life on Earth.
Jesus also commands, “Love one another as I love you.”[xxxi] He asks that we do more than love each other as we would love ourselves in asking us to love each other as he loves us—that is, to love each other perfectly: God asks us to strive for perfection so that we might find perfection through his love. John writes, “If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.”[xxxii] The more perfectly we love others—the more we follow Jesus’ example in loving others unconditionally and through giving of ourselves—the more our ability to love improves, and the more freedom and joy we find.
V. Choosing Love
Wonder Woman not only gives the impression that love is the center of a meaningful life, but the film also portrays an understanding of love that parallels the basic Gospel message. Wonder Woman’s decision to save humanity is not conditional on whether humanity deserves to be saved: it is unconditional, like Christian love. She recognizes the true nature of love when Steve Trevor sacrifices himself to ensure the survival of his comrades: it is self-giving, like Christian love. She freely makes her decision to love, increasing her freedom and ability to love in turn, in accordance with the Catholic perspective on love. The ending is understood as a happy one: she realizes the importance of love, finds herself more able to love, and therein finds some measure of joy. The film is one of many examples in popular culture that concludes with a message asserting the centrality of love, but the message solidifies even more when grounded in a recognition of the centrality of God.
Christians believe that God granted humanity’s ultimate redemption not because we deserved it, but rather because he is all-merciful. God’s love is not contingent upon our acts; rather, it is unconditional. That said, in accordance with the Catholic perspective, we freely choose to accept or reject God’s love. As he offers the gift through love, we accept the gift through love: first through unconditional love of God, shown by following his commandments no matter the circumstances, and second through unconditional love of and service to others, regardless of whether we feel they deserve it.[xxxiii]
Christians believe that God calls each and every person to, most of all, “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus’ words emphasize the idea that love is an intentional, freely made choice that requires the mind as well as the heart and soul. No matter the frustration felt toward our fellow humans, no matter the injustices we face, Jesus asks us to choose to accept the gift of his infinite, unconditional love and allow it to flow through us to others. If we freely choose to love, we increase our freedom and ability to love in a positive feedback loop. Through love, Christians unite themselves more closely with God, and therein find greater freedom and joy. In the end, “love is all we need” because “God is love.”[xxxiv,xxxv]
i. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “All You Need is Love” (London: Olympic Sound Studios, 1967)
John 4:16 (NABRE).
ii. “Love,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 9 July 2017, <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/love/>
See Ecclesiastes 7:20, Romans 3:23, and 1 John 1:8 (NABRE).
iii. See Romans 6:23 (NABRE).
iv. Romans 5:8 (NABRE).
v. John 3:16 (NABRE).
vi. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins (Burbank: Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., 2017).
vii, Matthew 5:43-45 (NABRE).
viii, Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins (Burbank: Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., 2017).
ix, Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), 7.
x. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), 7.
xi. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), 9.
xii. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), 18.
xiii. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), 19.
xiv. Romans 8:21 (NABRE); see also CCC 1741
xv. Galatians 5:13 (NABRE).
xvi. John 4:16 (NABRE).
xvii. 2 Corinthians 3:17.
xviii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1733, accessed 9 July 2017, <http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/ archive/catechism/p3s1c1a3.htm>.
xix. See Galatians 5:13 (NABRE) and Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1733, accessed 9 July 2017, <http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/ catechism/p3s1c1a3.htm>.
xx. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), 7.
xxi. John 15:13 (NABRE).
xxii. Philippians 2:7-8.
xxiii. Matthew 20:26-28 (NABRE).
xxiv. Matthew 20:26-28 (NABRE).
xxv. John 15:11 (NABRE).
xxvi. Aquinas, Summa Theologica 2.62.1.
xxvii. 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NABRE).
xxviii. Matthew 22:37-40 (NABRE).
xxix. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NABRE).
xxx. John 15:12 (NABRE).
xxxi. 1 John 4:12 (NABRE).
xxxii. See John 14:15, 1 John 5:2, and John 15:9-10
xxxiii. Matthew 22:37 (NABRE).
xxxiv. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “All You Need is Love” (London: Olympic Sound Studios, 1967)
xxxv. John 4:16 (NABRE).
Hailey Scherer ’20 is from Potomac Falls, Virginia. She is a prospective major in Cognitive Science with a double minor in Philosophy and Human- Centered Design.Tags: Aquinas, Catholicism, Erich Fromm, film, freedom, happiness, joy, love, mercy, paradox, reason, war, Wonder Woman