r m p






A Critique of Love


Old Testament Reading: 1 Samuel 18:1-4

New Testament Reading: Romans 5:6-11

Text: John 21:15-17

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 being storge.

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 dispositions.

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 execution.

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 feelings.

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 Nietzsche.

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 with sentiment.

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 battle!

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 indifference.

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 unlovable.       




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