Contested Love (3) love as the supreme virtue

9780300118308I’m skipping on in Simon May’s Love: A History to an important chapter on the evolution of love within Christianity.

A question: what is Christian love? How would you define it? What is distinctive about Christian love as compared say to love in our wider culture today?

I had quite a few quibbles with May in the this chapter. Not surprising I guess, he is venturing into detailed areas of Christian theology and painting with a broad brush. There are half-truths and generalisations, but the overall thesis is intriguing.

He argues that two major shifts in the history of love happen that are intimately linked to how love comes to be understood within Christianity.

  1. Love is elevated to become the supreme virtue. There is no better thing than to love and be loved. The idea of love as eternal and supreme is everywhere in the West.
  1. Love as divine: in love we are united to the divine. And this experience of divinity is radically democratic – open to all ordinary people.

He traces this development, beginning with Jesus. (and this is one place that it is ‘Yes, but’)

Jesus is not linked to the two developments above. He is firmly located within OT categories of love as command and obedience. May says Jesus speaks little of love – I think this is overplayed with significant elements of love within the life and teaching of Jesus passed by.

May pits Jesus against John (love as divine) and Paul (love as supreme). Again, I am not convinced that there is such a wedge between Jesus, John and Paul when it comes to love.

[And there are links here back to our discussion of the New / Old Perspective on Paul – with love in the apostle’s teaching seen in some frameworks as part of Christianity’s love / grace / freedom set over against the law / legalism / slavery of Judaism.]

May argues that the claims made for love by Paul are uniquely extravagant in the history of love – love fulfils the law. [But I would argue that love is deeply rooted within the law – Deuteronomy 6]. May sees a radical disjuncture of OT to NT (Paul) in terms of love. A sort of Old / New Perspective on Love.

“one thing that is obviously happening is the creation of a new morality – based on so great an intensification of Old Testament morality that a genuine revolution in values has occurred.” 87.

What do you think? Is love within Paul a ‘new morality’ and ‘revolution’ compared to love in the OT?

Moving on, it is Augustine, May argues, where love becomes the greatest virtue and from which all actions and morality flow.  But what happens is how love not only answers questions of flourishing and ethics, but deeper questions of existence and meaning.

“love is to be the lodestar of our lives and, if blessed with the capacity to exercise it, we can aspire to imitate God. It was only a matter of time before the outrageous conclusion was drawn that through love we, ordinary men and women, can ourselves become divine.” 87

A bit of a villain in the historical exaltation and divinisation of love is Martin Luther who he quotes as saying “we are gods through love.” He acknowledges that Luther is well aware of potential heresy here – again I think this is overplayed.

But things get really interesting in how May perceptively links Christianity’s elevation of love as the supreme virtue WITH a deep awareness of the need for humility within Christian spirituality.

To fill in what I think he means here: if we are commanded to imitate the love of God, such love is only possible because of grace, the gift of forgiveness, the Spirit and God’s enabling.  Love is always first from God.

If Augustine is the theologian of love, he is also the theologian of grace: we are not self-sufficient. “The Grace of God makes a willing man out of an unwilling one.” 90

We find our fulfilment in God (Augustine’s restless heart).  May sees Augustine as very Platonic – the ladder of ascent to the divine. It is by grace that humans can ascend to caritas (divine love, selfless love, eternal love) rather than cupiditas – lower love, without reference to God.

It is this unique combination within Christianity of an ascent to divine love combined with a deep emphasis on humility, that is so powerful and enduring. Such love is hard – it requires obedience and persistence and discipline.

The implication I think is that he means love only comes slowly, it needs character, it is a virtue that is the fruit of moral integrity and dependence on God.

“This view of love expresses the reality that exaltation and abasement are related to each other in a profound dialectic – a dialectic incomparably revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. ‘Wanting to be gods’ is inseparable from wanting to go the way of the Cross. The crucifixion of the incarnate God is not a gruesome paradox, as Nietzsche was to characterise it, but rather speaks a deep truth: if you want to be ‘Gods and Saviours of the world’ you have to be (and not merely appear) humble.   (92)

How convincing do you find this?

What are the essential requirements for love to flourish?


Being Consumed (3) Libido dominandi

Continuing William Cavanaugh’s discussion of Being Consumed: economics and Christian Desire

If there is no such thing as the free autonomous individual and there is no objective good, in a free-market what we really have is sheer arbitrary power, one will against the other. This is what Augustine called libido dominandi – the lust for power.

Cavanaugh explores what this power struggle looks like in a free-market economy, particularly through the lens of the marketing industry.

On the one hand, advertising communicates information about products to consumers to enable them to make rational choices. Here the consumer is treated as free, autonomous and sovereign.

On the other hand, marketing manipulates the consumer to create desire while simultaneously hiding the fact that it is doing so.

Most advertising has long abandoned the link between mere information and a rational consumer choice. Instead, via memorable images, ideas and themes it links the product with deeper human desires – love, sex, friendship, beauty, self-esteem, success, happiness etc. And this questions the self-acceptability of the consumer.

This is what has been called the ‘organized creation of dissatisfaction.’

Any good examples come to mind?

This all brings to mind what Marva Dawn talked about when in Dublin with us – ‘we technologize our intimacy and itimacize our technology’ (not sure about how to spell those words!)

And this is very deliberate and highly researched. Companies (generally) don’t spend billions on stuff that doesn’t work (unless you are Anglo-Irish Bank). Cavanaugh quotes Marketing News, it is about,

“creating mythologies about their brands by humanizing them and giving them distinct personalities and cultural sensibilities.’

Ah, we may think, “I see through this nonsense. I know a car isn’t going to make me irresistible to the opposite sex. Most of this is, (to link back to a recent post) bullshit.” And so you have a whole genre of anti-advertising advertising that knowingly exposes the game of advertising and invites you, the consumer, to join with the anti-establishment movement connected with the product. For an example see this post on the consumer as freedom fighter.

But back to Cavanaugh’s main point – in our intensely commodified culture is an inbuilt imbalance of power in favour of the marketer. And we are hopelessly naive if we think that we are not deeply shaped and influenced by such power. Here are some examples:

  1. Companies withhold information about products to consumers that may be damaging to consumer confidence. Battles over transparent food labelling come to my mind here – feel welcome to add any examples of your own.
  2. The power of surveillance: companies gather vast amounts of detailed data about individual consumers and target those consumers using that ‘disequilibrium of knowledge’. Cavanaugh references Erik Larson’s famous 1992 book The Naked Consumer: How our Private Lives Become Public Commodities. What he describes – how purchasing patterns, births, deaths, political views, educational levels, credit histories, pet ownership, hobbies, illnesses and so on – are harvested from various sources, can only have increased exponentially in reach and sophistication since the arrival of Google and the Web.
  3. Companies saturate the social space of consumers with a torrent of images and messages. Everyone of us swims in this torrent every day and hardly notice. It represents ‘an almost total takeover of the domestic informational system for the purposes of selling goods and services.’ (Herbert Schiller)
  4. Concentration of power in enormous transnational corporations. In numerous industries, a few huge corporations dominate production and consumption – Cavanaugh lists meat production in the USA (4 companies have 80% of the market).  Smaller producers are put out of business, or are powerless to challenge the power of these corporations. Supermarkets like Tesco come to mind in the UK and Ireland.
  5. Increasing disparity of power between employer and employee: and here we are right into current hot issues of executive pay especially in banks that have helped wreck the economy. In 1980 says Cavanaugh, the average CEO made 42 times more than the average production worker. In 1999 that had risen to 475 to 1 and continued to rise. This represents increasing power of the ‘owners’ of capital.

And (rant alert) how the convenient naivety of the free-market about human-nature led to the wild excesses that led to the current Credit Crunch. Those with power and the access to capital misused that power for their own ends. Christians shouldn’t be surprised at this but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be outraged at the abuse of power either. And outraged at the seeming invincibility of the powerful from prosecution and conviction. Ireland, with her deeply authoritarian, paternalistic and enclosed ruling class  is one of the worst places in the West for such justice to be done in my opinion.

But the vast power of corporations also means deep insecurity and powerlessness for the employee. Ask former Dell factory workers in Limerick or countless other examples. If you know that your company can up-sticks and move to India (or wherever) and pay employees desperate to work for anything there a fraction of what they pay you, you are in a fatally weakened position. This is ‘free trade’. The only ‘end’ is the profit of the company. You are expendable and decidedly ‘unfree’.

Cavanaugh doesn’t go into this – but to take an example of a famous US multi-national in Leixlip in Ireland that makes computer chips – it also puts employees in an uncertain and competitive ‘market’ with each other within the company. You are constantly measured against your peers and if you are in the bottom x% of a bell curve of productivity you probably won’t last, even though you are doing your job. This is a ruthless use of power to increase productivity.

But in this ‘free-market’, many companies will say they have no choice but to act this way. If they don’t, their opposition will. They ‘have’ to search for cheap labour because if they don’t the company may not survive. Consumers want and expect the lowest price.

“In a world of consumption without ends, it is assumed that the consumer will want to maximize his or her own power at the expense of the labourer, and the manager does not feel free to resist this logic, lest his or her own corporation fall victim to competition from other corporations that are better positioned to take advantage of cheap labor.” (22)

But underpinning, and more important than, consumer demand for low prices is stockholder expectation of profit. Huge investment funds demand a return from corporations and put seemingly irresistible pressure on executives to deliver. If they don’t they are out – see the recent story of UK Tesco boss being forced to resign after 26 yrs of working there after a shock profit warning wiped £5 billion off the company’s share price . And those executives have added reason to maximize profit – they will gain personally from significant stock options.

6. Political power and the free-market. Cavanaugh unravels here the fascinating, and apparently contradictory, link between authoritarian regimes like China and free-market economics. How can Communism co-exist so comfortably with Capitalism?

The answer lies in a disciplined labour force which is highly attractive to business. The ‘employee’ is a small and powerless cog in the state machine. Political power is used to serve business, the individual is expendable. Lack of employee rights and muffling of free speech sits very well within a free-market economy. Cavanaugh quotes Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano speaking of the military dictatorships in Latin America of the 1970s and 80s,

“People were in prison so that prices could be free.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Being Consumed (2) Augustine and Desire

Augustine is the classic source for Christian reflection on desire. Cavanaugh has him in conversation with the two beliefs underpinning the free market.

How familiar personally and true to life do you find the following sketch about disordered desire and how consumerism works?

  1. Freedom is not just absence of interference from others (like the state) – what matters is what freedom is for.
  2. Rather than freedom being maximized when individuals can choose their own ends based on nothing but their own wants, the question for Augustine is to what end is the will moved?

Taking these in turn:

Freedom is found within the grace of God. It finds purpose within his will. To be left to ourselves, is to be left under the power and control of sin. It is grace that frees us from the sickness and slavery of sin, to be able to choose freely.

In other words, we can only choose freely when we are liberated from sin and are able to desire rightly. Such right desire is to love and please God. This means that free market thinking sketched in the last post is, at best, naive about human nature. There is no such thing as the free autonomous individual. That ‘self’ needs itself to be freed in order to live freely – just like a slave or addict cannot free himself or herself.

“Freedom is something received, not just exercised.”

This means that wants are not just neatly internally generated and then acted upon by the autonomous individual. For Augustine, it is more that the self is a battleground of competing loves, both internal and external.

So the bigger question (unasked by pure free-market thinking) is what kind of desires drive our choices? There are true and false desires and, says Cavanaugh, we need a telos, a bigger narrative purpose, to tell the difference between them.

Freedom depends, not purely on the autonomy of the will, but on the end to which that will is moved. And for Augustine, therefore we need liberated from the tyranny of our own wills. Such change comes from without, from the grace of God.

So to Augustine and the free market: for the latter the only thing that matters is free choice of the individual to pursue his / her own desires. Choice itself is inherently good and all that is necessary whatever the circumstances. For example, Cavanaugh puts it like this,

“when there is a recession we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.” (13)

But for Augustine such desire is cut off from their source and end in God. They become desires for ‘nothing’. We want without any reason for why we want what we want. This is disordered desire.

And it finds expression in (for example) the Western addiction to shopping. Addiction rates, says Cavanaugh,  for shopping outstrip those of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Fuelled by desire for more; leading to a purchase without meaning, leading to a repeated and endless cycle of buying.