God is Love — August 28, 2014 at 8:44 pm

“The first person I see” – Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Ethics of Love (C. Stephen Evans)


[by C. Stephen Evans – from Cornerstone Archives, Issue 116]

Everyone agrees that Love lies at the Center of the Christian Life.

There can be no intellectual task more important for the Church than the task of developing an understanding of the nature of Christian love, and what that love demands from us in the form of action. This is precisely what Soren Kierkegaard attempts to provide in Works of Love. Throughout the book Kierkegaard assumes that God is love and is the foundation of all human love. God is the source both of the command to love and the source of the power to fulfill that command. The book is not primarily about love for God, but love for the neighbor. Yet it is introduced emphatically by a Trinitarian prayer in which Kierkegaard says that one cannot speak rightly about love without thinking of the Father as the source of all love in heaven and on earth, the Son who shows God’s love by giving his life to become our Savior and Redeemer, and the Spirit, who continually reminds believers of God’s love and empowers them to act.

After an introductory chapter which stresses the paradoxical character of love as something that is in its essence hidden and inward but which nevertheless is recognizable by its outward fruits, the first part of Works of Love is an exploration of the meaning of the great command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Kierkegaard wishes to argue that Christian love is fundamentally neighbor love, and that love is not identical with any natural love, such as romantic love, friendship love, parental love, or patriotic love. Nor is the neighbor love the Christian must exhibit simply another love that must be added to these natural loves.

How does neighbor love differ from these natural loves? First of all in being something that is commanded: You shall love. The kind of person that Kierkegaard describes as an “unspoiled pagan” thinks of love as something spontaneous and simply cannot understand how love can be commanded and be a duty. For Kierkegaard, however, it is only when love is a duty, is grounded in God’s command, that it can be secure. Love which is dependent on natural human inclinations comes and goes and cannot be trusted. Even natural human lovers sense this insecurity, and thus such lovers try to secure their loves through vows and promises, but only the eternal, changeless command of God can secure love against despair.

Only a love that is commanded can take us beyond self-love. Christianity does not wish to abolish self-love; indeed it presupposes it by commanding us to love our neighbors as ourselves. However, the command strips away any possibility of partiality and favoritism, and thereby teaches us not only what it means to love our neighbor but also what it means to love ourselves in the right way. No purely human authority could serve as a foundation for love in this way; nor can humans truly become an authority for themselves and create a moral law that allows them to transcend their own selfishness.

The second striking distinguishing characteristic of Christian love its object: you shall love the neighbor. As Kierkegaard sees it, natural human loves, no matter how selfless they may seem to be, always select their objects in a preferential manner, and the preference betrays a fundamental partiality. I love my children, my wife, my community, my friends, and my country because they are mine. Christian neighbor love forbids this kind of partiality. The neighbor is not an abstraction and must not be identified with “the human race” or “mankind;” the neighbor is always “the first person I see.” Nevertheless, no person I see (or don’t see) can be excluded from the category of neighbor. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor”, hoping thereby to exclude some people, Jesus refused to draw any such lines. Instead, he told the story of the good Samaritan, and in the end answered the young man’s question by asking one of his own: “Who [in the story] showed himself to be a neighbor?”

The third distinguishing mark of Christian neighbor love is the equality linked to the fact that the command is directed to each one of us: You shall love your neighbor. The command is directed to rich and poor, educated and uneducated, powerful and insignificant. Each person has the capacity to love; each person has the need for love. God has put this “in the foundation” of every human being. We do not have to be extraordinary to love, nor do we need to seek what is extraordinary to have a worthy object of love.

Worldly love thrives on distinctions. Some want to love only the rich and powerful. Others, in the name of justice, scorn the rich and powerful, and say that only the poor and needy should be loved. Kierkegaard thinks that the Christian understands such distinctions, and does not think that one can abolish all such distinctions and establish a utopia of strict human equality. The Christian does care about injustice and rejoices that such evils as slavery have been abolished. Nevertheless, the Christian does not expect that strict equality with respect to worldly distinctions can ever be achieved. The Christian is then required to have the ability to look beyond and around all such worldly differences, to refuse to allow them to distract from the task of loving the neighbor. The rich must love the poor and the poor the rich, though what is required by love may of course be different for each. Fundamentally, love is a capacity to care for the well-being of the other and to do what one can for the other’s good, whether that be much or little in an external sense. The greatest good I can do for my neighbor is to help my neighbor become more loving!

Much of the second part of the book consists of meditations on parts of the great hymn to love in I Corinthians 13. In what sense, for example, can it be true that “love believes all things?” Will not such a love be continually deceived? Can we distinguish love from gullibility?

It might seem that we could protect ourselves against all deception by taking a tough-minded stance that refuses to believe in the other. Do we not in this way reduce our risk of being disappointed? Such thoughts are a worldly illusion, according to Kierkegaard. We can be deceived in a finite sense when we believe in another and the other lets us down. However, in an infinite and eternal sense we are deceived when we refuse to love. If our belief in the other is fundamentally a belief in the value and meaning of love, then it is fundamentally a belief in God. Such a belief is never disappointed, and when we believe in love our faith is a faith what abides eternally. In a similar sense, Christian hope, motivated by love, cannot be disappointed—ultimately and eternally—for it is a hope in a faithful God whose promises will be kept. The person who refuses to believe in the other person and hope for the other person is the person who is deceived about life and its meaning.

Another powerful chapter deals with the theme of love as victorious over evil persons only when it finally wins through to reconciliation with the one who is overcome. It is all too common for human beings who are fighting for some good cause to demonize their opponents, and implicitly deify themselves. The love of the Christian for the neighbor does not allow this. Even in winning a victory, the Christian should modestly step back and refuse to claim superiority. As the Christian humbles himself or herself before God and under God, the possibility of reconciliation with the vanquished one appears and is earnestly sought. Once more we can see how the fact that genuine love is grounded in God protects its truly humane character.

In a very moving chapter near the end of the book, Kierkegaard discusses the situation that he describes as the ultimate test of whether love is genuine: the work of love in remembering someone who is dead. Here Kierkegaard is very likely reflecting on his own devotion to his deceased father, and he argues that in this situation one can see clearly the character of one’s love. A dead person cannot compel you to love; he or she does not cry out for your attention. The dead person cannot repay you, so here there is no worry that love is secretly hoping for a payback. Also, if love diminishes, one cannot blame it on any change in the loved one; if the relation has changed, I must be the one who has changed.

If read superficially, Works of Love might seem to teach that there is a conflict between natural human love and Christian love, and that one must choose between these kinds of love. It is true that Christian love cannot merely be thought of as “one more love” to be added to all of the others. Love for God and the love for neighbor that is grounded in love for God must be supreme. However, Kierkegaard’s ultimate vision is that when Christian love is present, these natural human loves are not abolished but are transformed, purged of their selfishness and partiality:

Just as this commandment [to love your neighbor as yourself] will teach everyone how to love oneself, so it will also teach erotic love and friendship genuine love: in loving yourself, preserve love for the neighbor; in erotic love and friendship, preserve love for the neighbor. (pp. 61-62)

The Christian is not to flee from natural human relations but allow neighbor love to be the foundation of all such relations: “No, love the beloved faithfully and tenderly, but let love for the neighbor be the sanctifying element in your union’s covenant with God.” (p. 62)

Such a love is not antihuman, but ultimately provides a basis for the deepest and most genuine form of humanism. In married love, for example, both husband and wife can be tempted to make the spouse a god, or alternatively, tyrannically to attempt to become God and dominate the spouse. When God is the “middle term,” as must be the case for all neighbor love (for it is only when I see the other as equally God’s creature with myself that I can love the other as myself), then I am blocked from such idolatry and from self-deification. Both husband and wife must submit to God, and in so doing, humbly love each other.

The theme of love as selfless recurs throughout the book, and one might think that this also becomes antihuman in the end—that Kierkegaard joins his voice to much contemporary thinking that glorifies pure selfless giving with no thought of reward. From such an austere point of view, the Christian hope of heaven and resurrection looks like a “payment” that tarnishes the purity of love. Kierkegaard does not ultimately buy into this Buddhist-style renunciation of the self. The Christian’s task is to love God with all of one’s self and to love the neighbor as oneself; it is not to extinguish the self. The truth is that our own deepest happiness requires us to love. Were it not for our own sinful perversity, we should not need to be commanded to love. Kierkegaard imagines the Apostle John, who has told us, “Beloved, let us love one another,” speaking in the following manner:

Dear me, what is all this that would hinder you in loving, what is all this that you can win by self-love! The commandment is that you shall love, but ah, if you will understand yourself and life, then it seems that it should not need to be commanded, because to love people is the only thing worth living for, and without this love you are not really living. Moreover, to love people is the only blessed comfort both here and in the next world; and to love people is the only true sign that you are a Christian. (p. 375)

The Christian believes that the love God commands is commanded for our own good, and that happiness both in this life and the next is found in loving as God commands.

Does this Christian hope then contaminate the Christian’s love for the neighbor? Is it really love or just a refined, clever form of prudence? Christian love is genuine. It is true that when we give, we hope for to receive gifts as well. However, such gifts given with the hope of gifts received are still gifts, and the relation between the givers is not a disguised contractual relationship. This is so because the return is one that we know we cannot claim as a right, and it is one that we can put no time deadlines on. The return will not be fully realized until eternity, and thus it is now an object of faith and hope. These are not the attitudes of a crafty bargainer who shrewdly gives just to receive a return. The final Christian vision is not pure self-sacrifice: Christian life does not stop with the cross but goes through the empty tomb to the heavenly feast. The heavenly banquet is one where we will rejoice in giving and receiving. Christian love in this sinful world calls for the strongest form of self-denial; to be a Christian one must take up one’s cross daily, and this stands in clear antithesis towards the worldly selfishness of even the noblest of natural loves. Nevertheless, it is in the final analysis a love that is deeply humane. It is better to give than to receive, but it is better yet to be part of a community of faith, hope, and love where all can give and receive to each other—joyfully and freely.

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