How Important is Love? (5) Jesus and Love

aliandninoIf love is hugely important in Paul, how important is love in Jesus?

The best book that I’ve come across over the last couple of years of reading a lot on love is Simon May’s, Love: A History.

It is excellent: his writing is a pleasure to read, his overall argument is exceptionally well made, and he paints fascinating portraits of philosophers and theologians who have written about love through the centuries.

But when it comes to Jesus and love, May argues that love just wasn’t that important for the Messiah as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Certainly not in the way it was for the two major theologians of love in the NT – Paul and John, nor compared to how love came to be elevated in later Christian theology, especially from Augustine on.

Jesus, his argument goes, does not make love the ultimate virtue. He does not say ‘God is love’. He basically reaffirms OT love commands: love of God and love of neighbour is fulfilment of the law.

Even the radical innovation of enemy love is a sub-set of neighbour love – the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that your enemy is your neighbour.

Does this sound surprising?  Isn’t Jesus the anti-establishment prophet who shows love to all and makes love the defining characteristic of Christianity (as opposed to the legalism of the Pharisees and the OT law generally)?

Certainly in some strands of Christian theology, Jesus is held up as the one whose way of love liberates us from OT ‘law’ (Anders Nygren). But such ‘love versus the law’ theology is unsustainable. It is almost Marcionite in its negative view of the OT. It doesn’t fit Jesus, nor Paul. Both see love as a fulfilment of the law.

So I want to agree and disagree with May.

Yes, Jesus’ teaching on love fits fairly and squarely within the OT.

But I don’t see a chasm between Jesus and Paul & John when it comes to love. Love is critically important to Jesus. The entire goal of the law and prophets is fulfilled in love for God and neighbour. Those who love are greatly commended.

What May, I think, downplays, is how there is a development of theology of love in the NT.

It is not that Paul and John can be compared to Jesus as if all three were independent ancient philosophers of love, and that Paul and John, in very distinct ways, are responsible for ‘inventing’ Christian love and taking it to places that are foreign to the teaching of Jesus.

Rather, as I see it, the theologies of love in Paul and John undergo radical development in light of Jesus – and most especially in the shadow of the cross and in the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.

The cross is reinterpreted not as a shameful defeat, but as a glorious demonstration of divine love.

The Spirit is the empowering presence of God who enables spiritual transformation – the most significant aspect of which is love.

It is these two developments that give shape to a NT theology of love. It is not that Paul and John are going off on a totally new tangent of their own. Nothing they say is incompatible with Jesus’ teaching on love.

What both of them see, in different ways, is how love is both the motive for God’s saving work in Christ (the cross) and the desired outcome of that saving work (a life of love lived in the Spirit).

It is to the unique importance of love in John that we turn next – tune in!

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

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How Important is Love? (2): ‘Love Alone’ theology

aliandninoThis is a second of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the last post we talked about the relegation of love within the theological priorities of post-Reformational traditions where love comes in a very definite second to faith.

In this post we’ll look at the opposite trend: how in (some) contemporary Christianity love is celebrated and extolled, prioritised and spoken about in terms that elevate it to such a degree that it becomes a goal in itself.

By this I mean that love takes on a sentimental and even mystical nature, that when experienced you have reached a higher spiritual existence.

Love itself becomes divine – the ground of our being.

This links back to a post on how, in contemporary culture, we have shifted from John’s famous statement, ‘God is love’ to ‘Love is God’. Where love itself is idolised and revered as that alone which gives life meaning.

As the fab 4 sang, ‘All you need is love’.

This is all quite subtle and hard to pin down, after all, you have to be a miserable old curmudgeon to be anti-love don’t you?

‘Love Alone’ theology

Here are some symptoms of what I call ‘Love Alone’ theology

1. Love is spoken and sung about in ways that it is detached from the narrative of the Bible. Love becomes what we want it to be. Yet, in contrast, Christian love has a particular character – it is shaped by God’s self-giving love in Christ. It calls for a wholehearted response of obedience to God. It requires humility and repentance. It depends on God’s grace. It entails deep cost to the self.

2. The ‘content’ of love is assumed – the assumption being ‘sure we all know what love is don’t we?’. That content tends to be sentimentalised – love is warm, inclusive, feel-good, fulfilling. It is that which meets our deepest needs.

3. The difficulty of love is downplayed  – it is assumed that love is automatic and easy. Little or nothing is said about our own distorted loves and sinful desires.

4. The cost of love is ignored – love is that which brings happiness and joy, not that which often involves pain and sacrifice.

5. The focus of love tends to be individualistic – faith in God is what gives ‘me’ an experience of God’s love that brings me comfort and hope.

6. Love trumps all – if something is loving, the presence of love trumps all.  So, for example, a couple in love who want a baby to love pay a woman to rent her womb. Love trumps any ethical concerns over surrogacy. The outcome (love) justifies the means.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Contested Love (5) the deadliest opponent of love?

9780300118308Getting back, eventually, to Simon May’s fascinating book Love: A History.

We are in chapter 7 on ‘Why Christian Love is not Unconditional’

We don’t tend to link thinking about money with thinking about love. They are very distinct things are they not? What has one to do with the other? We assume that wealth, and the things that go with it, are benign, if not actively good. It does not have much to say, one way or the other, about our loves lives does it?

May writes as a philosopher looking in to Christian theology and ethics from the outside. While I don’t agree with some rather sweeping generalisations, he nails the Bible’s warnings about the spiritual danger of wealth and its connection to pride.

Pride destroys our capacity for love. Thus it is the deadliest sin of all.

Jesus’ greatest enemies, he says, are money, pride and hypocrisy. They feed into vanity, greed, selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and a vain morality that pretends to be for the good of others but is about making ourselves feel good.

Love, in contrast, is a determined focus on the good of the other.

“Jesus’ tremendous focus on money and the vices of pride – hypocrisy and self-righteousness – returns us to a central theme of this book: the precondition for love … is submission to the real presence of the other; submission to her individual lawfulness and what she calls on us to do …

And this is why money and the pride and self-sufficiency it fosters, are Jesus’ main target in his prophetic denunciations within the Gospels

… pride and the some of the conditions of wealth-accumulation can be huge impediments. Pride is about self-protection, self-sufficiency, barricading oneself against one’s neighbour, absorption in, or the business of self-esteem, a myopic dedication to one’s own prestige and power that darkness the mind to the reality of others – all attitudes that exclude submission; while the pursuit of wealth necessarily places the impersonal demand of utility at the centre of our relations with those caught up in this ambition – a far cry from the attentiveness that is at the heart of love …

This theme is so overwhelmingly pervasive in Jesus, that May asks this question.

What might your answer to it be ?

Why then has Jesus’ message been so perverted? Why has Christianised civilisation been so concerned with sex, and so much less inhibited by Jesus’ preaching against pride, possessions and power? Whether we are talking about the historical Church, the ‘civilising mission’ of Victorian Britain, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the atheistic embodiment of the deeply religious Russian nation) and its unspeakable vanity of bringing revolution to the whole world, the ‘manifest  destiny’ with which American ‘Anglo-Protestantism’ dignifies itself, or the Christian fundamentalism that gives it such strident voice today – in all these cases intense sexual prudery is combined with ruthless pursuit of power and property, flaunted with the very pride, the very self-congratulatory lording it over others, to which Jesus’ whole life and death are a standing reproach …

He concludes with this stinger.

it is remarkable how often people who seek to civilise the world by force, often in the name of Christianity and with a sense of being guided by God, themselves profess a hierarchy of values so completely at variance with those of Jesus.”

pp. 105-6.

Do you agree – is pride the greatest opponent of love? What else makes the flourishing of love all but impossible?

Contested Love (4) idealistic optimists versus pesky pessimists

Some questions about love.

What sort of characteristics or virtues are necessary for love to take root and grow? Do you see love as that which requires discipline and hard work? What does such work look like in practice?

Or is love natural, easy, automatic and instantly available to all? Add a bit of passion and voilà! Love is in the air!

Are you an optimist or a pessimist concerning love?

These are the sorts of questions raised by reading Simon May’s excellent Love: a History.

Today, optimism rules regarding love.  In the West love is:

  • like God, eternal, overcoming death, as that which lives on after us
  • gives meaning to ordinary life
  • sacred – it connects us to a higher realm
  • the source and measure of true happiness

May says this modern idea of love as the grounding of meaning has no grounding itself – it has become an object of faith.

As we saw last time, historically Christian love has had two dimensions: love as divine and love as humility.

To love in Christian theology is to be recipients of God’s love and grace. Grace is gift which leads to a deep sense of humility. May does not really develop this, but love is primarily a work of the Spirit. The believer is empowered to love. Love does not come easily or naturally. It takes the discipline to ‘walk in the Spirit’ and ‘keep in step with the Spirit’.

Modern love has become detached from classical Christian love – the two sides of love (love as divine and humility necessary to love) have become ‘unstuck’.

Now we have love as divine – but without the humility.

“Without an all-powerful God to hold them together and serve as a standing reminder of how severely hard love is, as well as fundamentally beyond our control, they have simply gone their own separate ways, producing extremes of optimism and pessimism about love, both of which have damaged it.” 93

The optimists are in the majority: we all want to believe in love don’t we? But this is a love that is easy, romantic, lovely, and that which brings happiness. This is the radically democratic, universally available love that is celebrated, sought after, idolised, worshipped and pursued.

But with little sense of the need for the humility / obedience / discipline and the sheer hard work and stubborn covenant commitment required for love to last.

This makes much modern love superficial and thin. Everybody has a right to love and can love instantly. (And cease to love just as quickly) ‘Love’ can be emptied out to mean virtually anything.

But those pesky pessimists are a significant minority, throwing all sorts of dark and complicated spanners in the bright sparkly world of optimistic love:

The pessimists are those who have set about deconstructing the fantasies of optimists. So to the deep cynicism and pessimism about love in prophets of doom concerning love: atheists like Nietzsche and psychoanalysts like Freud (of more anon).

 

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?

 

Contested love (2) Aristotle

aristotle

We’re sketching ideas from Simon May’s Love: A History.

Another key Greek player in the history of love is Aristotle.

First, consider those whom you love – on what is your love based? Qualities in that person? Family blood and loyalty? Something indefinable? Attraction of opposites? Or attraction of like-mindeness? A decision of the ‘will to love’?

Apart from sex, is love for a friend different from love for a lover?

These are some questions raised by Aristotle’s view of love. For him the highest form of love is philia – friendship love.

Now, as a good Greek man, he means friendship with another man. A man obviously could not have a noble and equal friendship with a woman since she (along with a slave) could never be up the mark of equality with a man.

Philea is a more down to earth love than Plato’s ascent to the heavens.

Philea is most definitely not a sexual sort of love, since sex brings in all sorts of other lower motivations. It is unstable due to dependence on temporary qualities like pleasure or beauty. For Aristotle, sex is fairly irrelevant to a flourishing, virtuous life.

Aristotle also assumed that philea was conditional. It very much depends on who the other is. For example, love depends on:

1. the virtue of the friend – is he worthy of love? The two men need to be alike; to have similar virtues and interests. To both be concerned about excellence of character

2. the constant character of the friend. If he declines in virtue, love will die for you should drop an unvirtuous friend. Love can only love like.

It is through such love that we come to self-knowledge and fulfil our own potential. Philia helps us to love ourselves and know ourselves.

Love is a virtue that requires discipline and application. It is hard to know ourselves and we find it in love of another – like a mirror, the love of a friend helps us see ourselves. We should therefore choose friends wisely.

You can begin to see how the big A is pretty out of fashion these days.

Modern love is obsessed with sex as an essential requirement: for Aristotle it was pretty irrelevant to flourishing love

Modern ideas of love assume that love is unconditional; for Aristotle it is very much conditional

Modern love is often undisciplined and spontaneous – you can ‘fall in’ (and out of) love in an instant: for Aristotle it takes the discipline of a lifetime to learn and practice love.

Modern love assumes we know ourselves and ‘forget’ ourselves for the other; for Aristotle love is the key to self-knowledge

Modern love can be rooted in many things – beauty, personality, physical attraction, common interests etc: for Aristotle it is dependent on virtue in both parties

Modern love at least desires or dreams of ‘eternal togetherness’: Aristotle is more pragmatic, love can come and go dependent on virtue.

Modern love says we love ourselves first in order to love others: Aristotle says it is in philea that we find ourselves

What do you think we moderns have to learn from Aristotle when it comes to love?

Contested love (1) Diotima’s Ladder

9780300118308Simon May’s superb book Love: A History unpacks changing understandings of love through the centuries. It’s a tour de force; a scintillating journey with an expert and entertaining guide who introduces the reader to a fascinating list of characters, all of whom have a lot of (conflicting) things to say about love.

A few posts follow on key highlights of that journey.

The first stop on our journey is Diotima’s Ladder in Plato’s Symposium.

First, some questions: if asked, what would you say is the key to happiness? Would your answer include love? How do you think of love? Is it the supreme goal of life? Is it the true sign of spirituality and virtue? Is it that which makes you whole?

If you are answering yes to some of these then you are at least in part agreement with Plato.

Here’s a very clever little video (1.32) that captures Plato’s’ important idea of love as an ascent towards virtue: from physical lust to abstract morality; from this world to a higher plane; flesh to spirit.

The Symposium is the first extended philosophy of love in the Western world and has had immeasureable influence in the history of love.

This is Greek morality  – the ideal youth is male; sexual lust is not in mind here, it is beauty that is idealised and women were inferior, so male beauty is that which arouses ‘bottom rung of the ladder’ love.

What parallels do you see in the concept of love as a ladder with Christian theology? And / or with how our culture thinks about love today?