A Critique of Love
Testament Reading: 1 Samuel 18:1-4
Testament Reading: Romans 5:6-11
I choose love as
my theme this morning; or rather, someone else has chosen it for
me. I have been asked to speak, perhaps in the event, to prate,
about love. And no one is more aware than I that whatever I say about such
a topic will be no more than a fly's momentary lighting on the foot of
Everest. Herewith, my buzzing.
I'm sure all of you have heard the
traditional trisection of love. I mean the claim, a sermon outline
contained in a single sentence, that there are three words in the Greek
language, the language of the New Testament, for love. Three Greek words
that are rendered by the single English word "love." They are eros,
phileia, and agape. Actually there are four, the fourth
Eros, not used in the New
Testament (whether to the credit or the blame of either the word or the
New Testament, I will not say) is the root of both our words "romantic"
and "erotic." This is supposedly the basest and most selfish love, as it
is called forth by the inherent desirability of the object of desire,
which we want for ourselves.
Phileia is the love of friends,
reciprocated love based on common interests, but not involving the element
of desire, or at least not of possessiveness. But, like eros, it is
essentially love of the loveable.
Storge is the love of kin and
nation. It is more fundamental than the others, though less freely chosen.
You might wish you had the option of choosing your relatives, but
you don't. And unless some great offense erupts you will probably feel a
genuine affection borne of duty for those whose connection to you is
simply genetic, fellow members of the same litter.
But agape, we are told in
sermons like this one, is a higher kind of love that emulates the love of
God for his wayward creatures. It is the love, often unrequited, of
the estranged, the strange, the unlovable. God showed it for his people
when they wandered. He charges them with adultery and whoredom against him
but wants them back anyway. He compares them to wayward children whom he
cannot cease to love. He sends his Son to die at our hands in order to win
us back. There is no length to which he will not go, and that to bridge
the distance between himself and those who will not move an inch in his
direction. Not, at least, until they behold the demonstration of his
agape love, the "love divine, all loves excelling."
And we are charged with recapitulating
this love. We are told it will blossom forth from us as the Spirit's hold
on us increases.
Let me halt this paean to agape
right here. I must take issue with some features of this admiring sketch
of "love's body."
In the first place, I must strenuously
reject the injustice done to blushing eros. For myself, I can see
not a thing wrong with either romantic or erotic love. According to the
Priestly writer in his creation story, it was the inherent beauty of the
world that made God love it. He took one look at it and pronounced it
good. God so loved the world not despite the world but because
of its excellence.
And as for eros being somehow
base, again I beg to differ. Plato tells us that it is properly called
eros when we think of the mind's instinctive love for truth.
And thus I say that the love of a human
being for God himself is eros, not agape. Even if we have
been so far sanctified that we have come to love God for his own sake, and
not for some benefit we imagine we will gain from him, it is ero
to love him for his inherent excellence!
Let me say, as a parenthesis, in a
whisper, that there may be a day when you and I love God with agape
love. It will be that day when tragedy strikes and all is gone from us but
God, and if we are like Job we will love the deity despite himself
if we love him at all! That will be the day when we echo Job's words in
the King James Version: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him!"
Eros is a high and noble thing,
and furthermore there is no distinct line to be drawn between it and
phileia. For in loving your friend, you love an echo of your own self.
You and he or she get along so well because of similar interests and
Of course it works both ways! The more
clearly you see your own faults reflected (though you do not
recognize them as your own!), the more irritated you become! But at
least you find the reflection of your positive traits and interests
beautiful to behold.
What about the distinction between
phileia and agape? I believe that, lexically, this is
overdrawn. The two words are used pretty much as synonyms in the New
Testament, as they were in secular Greek. God is said to love us with
phileia interchangeably with agape.
In the passage from John I read, the
two love-words are used interchangeably. Over the years I have heard much
based on the alleged difference between the two words in the passage.
Jesus asks Peter if he loves him and Peter says yes. But in the first two
questions and the first two answers, John has Jesus and Peter use
phileo. In the third set he has them use agape. The idea is
supposed to be that Jesus admits Peter loves him as a friend, but
so what! Does he love him with love divine, all loves excelling?
Now I am not sure what this is even
supposed to mean! Does Jesus want Peter to love him despite
himself? Because he is unlovable? Nonsense! No such thing is in view.
It would certainly be interesting if
John had Peter and Jesus trading nuances based on word distinctions in the
Greek language which neither of them spoke!
Do you want to know the difference
between the two words? They are simply synonyms, but the less common
agape began to replace phileia in Greek usage once phileia
had come to be used as a euphemism for "kiss," because in turn, the Greek
word for "kiss" had come to be used as a synonym for "to have sexual
intercourse with"! So people began to use the word agape when they meant
"love" because they didn't want to be mistaken as talking about kissing!
So the difference between divine
agape and human phileia, I think, rests more on centuries of
Christian moral philosophy than on New Testament exegesis. But it still
may be a useful distinction, and I for one still propose to use it. It can
clear up some of the most serious practical problems of love and its
For example, I think there is a
definite distinction to be made between the love of the emotions
and the love that springs from duty. You may think this is some
abstract pettifoggery until you try to heed the biblical commands to love
your neighbor and to love your enemy.
When Jesus tells you to love your
enemies, is he asking the impossible of you? Does he want you to conjure
feelings for your persecutors that are alien and repulsive to your soul?
I believe you cannot command what must
be spontaneous. You cannot realistically command someone "Be happy!"
Emotions are the product of a delicate and largely fortuitous chemistry.
No magic wand will create them by fiat.
In my view this is the error that
vitiates charismatic Christianity. It makes feelings into the fruit of the
Spirit, into the badge of spirituality, and neurosis or disillusionment is
sure to follow.
And for the same reasons we cannot
command love insofar as love is a feeling. If Jesus commands it, he is far
more severe a taskmaster than Luther ever thought the Law was!
But insofar as love is an act of the
will it may indeed be commanded. If love is to act in the best
interests of another regardless of how we feel about him,
overcoming distaste and disgust, as Mother Theresa had to do with the
physical loathsomeness of her charges, the infested scarecrows of
Calcutta. As the Good Samaritan had to do when he swallowed three
centuries of prejudice to save the life of a wounded Jew, who may even
have reproached him for doing it, just as Iranian earthquake victims once
cursed the Americans who had pulled them from sure death!
If that's what love is, it is not easy,
but it may be commanded. And that commandment can be obeyed! It must
be obeyed, or Christianity is forfeited.
I believe that Christianity would not
be discredited even if the body of Jesus were discovered in some Qumran
cave. I believe that Christianity would not be any less true if it could
be shown that Jesus were a myth. But equally I believe Christianity is
debunked and discredited any time a Christian does not carry out this
command to love the unlovable: to act on their behalf regardless of one's
Do you feel the hypocrite if you feel
disgust or even animosity for those you help in the name of Christ? You
should not! Jesus says to love your enemies. He doesn't assume you
have no enemies!
It is for failure to recognize this
vital distinction between loving and liking, or if you prefer, between
agape and phileia, that Christianity has become a pious fraud
of sentimental hypocrisy that invited the scorn of honest haters like
I have talked to more than one troubled
Christian who felt guilt at the despair of not being able to feel loving
emotions for someone unlovable -- and this even though they might already
be engaged in acting in love toward them, in acting for their best good!
They had confused the love of the emotions with that of the will.
But the flip side is when someone is
clear that they must act for the unlovable, but they also share the
error that love always includes warm and sweet emotion. They equate love
The result is that Christian love
becomes mere benevolence, crumb-throwing. Agape translates as
condescension and as hypocrisy.
We tell ourselves that, like God, we
are loving the unlovable, but since we think love equals sentiment, we
secretly begin to sentimentalize the unlovable. We gladly accept falsely
positive stereotypes so that we will not loathe them so much as we
still do, if we would only admit it to ourselves. If we must feel
kindly disposed toward our enemies, then we must entertain delusions that
will make them seem less our enemies, less repulsive.
But there is a problem with this. Not
only is it untrue. It will backfire. This fantasy, that the unlovable whom
you must love in Christ are not so unlovable after all, is one day going
to be dispelled. One of your love-objects will betray you by proving just
how unlovable he really is, perhaps simply by seeming to take your help
for granted, by sullenly showing that he thinks you owe it to him.
And then you will hate him all the
more! For now he is more hateful than ever. Now, in addition to his other
crimes, he has shattered your middle-class Christian illusion. He has
shown you that sentimentality cannot survive in an unsentimental world.
This is what happens, I think, when
liberal people finally get exasperated with the homeless and want to hear
no more about them. It is what happens when a battered wife keeps going
back to her blackguard husband, foolishly persuaded that this time he's
really mended his ways.
And it is an especially bitter pill for
you to swallow, because you have identified Christianity with
sentimentality -- just like Nietzsche did! Only where he had the
sense to reject it, you have accepted it! But let me tell you: you
and your pal Nietzsche were wrong! Christianity is not
sentimentality! You just cannot cozy up to a splintered, bloody cross!
Christ commands you to love your
enemies, not to deny the fact that they are your enemies. He calls
you to engage the profane world as he did, without illusions of sweetness
and light, which only have the effect of making you less prepared for the
Remember the commandment that you must
love others as you love yourself? If you really love yourself you will not
be indulgent with yourself. You will not wish away and ignore your faults.
If you love yourself you will be ruthless with yourself. You will demand
repentance and reform of yourself precisely because you love
yourself. It is love that makes such harsh demands, not hate, not
After all, if Jesus Christ had not
loved you, he would not have been harsh enough to tell you the awful truth
that you must love your enemies. Had he been sentimental and indulgent
with you, he would have spared you that. But he left you an example to
follow: that of love without illusion, love without romanticism, love that
acts, whether or not it feels, on behalf of the
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