Stevie Wonder – As

For a song focused on love, it is surprisingly difficult to determine what type of love is described. I’ve previously mused on ambiguous songs that mix the sacred and the profane by presenting the object of love as divine, or which use religious language to describe an ordinary human being.

However, Wonder is presenting something rarer here. I’d say the song is about the Christian virtue of charity, or agape, as it was called in ancient Greece, something more universal, love of everything. It would probably be a stretch to imagine the narrator as a divine being, but at least the love described approaches the notion of divinity. The ambiguity comes from the use of images and assurances that are more common in very human romance.

Yet, the song isn’t usually considered to be gospel either, and even though concepts such as God and hell are used, it doesn’t refer to any particular denomination, nor does it propound faith as an ultimate solution. Rather, it’s all about defining true love, and the background which serves as a contrast is the idea of true love that has been presented in traditional love songs. Romantic love is shown as a beginning or a reference point, one that ultimately has to be transcended.

Transcendence and immanence are complex concepts that are sometimes seen as opposites, sometimes as overlapping. What is outside the human realm, and if we consider the realm of the senses, do we include the concept of the divine in it or restrict its use to the idea of the transcendent? Or is transcendence rather a movement, a permanent state of flux between two states? Etymologically the word comes from the idea of climbing over something. The transcendent may thus mean the abstract realm behind the wall of mundane experience, but it could also mean the act of climbing itself, the place where you have climbed on the wall and try to balance there, seeing both what the senses tell and what exists beyond, the idea of love profane and divine, words and their meanings.

In the context of this song such philosophical musings cease to matter, though the questions are still in the background. What matters is trying to live the best we can without making this world a hell for others, instead embracing this true love that stays certain, no matter what happens. This kind of love is at the same time worldly and divine, blurring the distinction between immanence and transcendence. Love itself becomes the definition of the divine, no matter what deity you might believe in.

But it has to be this love that asks for nothing and is steadfast through the ages. Even while staying very human, becoming unconditional, an ideal that may be difficult to reach, as the Louis Armstrong pastiche in the middle expresses, but which still should remain our goal, even when things look dark or meaningless. And that is still a good point. No matter whether the world has ultimate meaning or not, it is better for all of us to believe in some meaning, to have some goal of unity and charity, even if it were just a construct.