Commentary

What is Christian Love?

As Christians, we are inclined to think that Jesus’ passion begins with the carrying of the cross and His crucifixion. If one looks at the language of John’s account of the Last Supper, however, we find something different. As he says, 

“Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. And during supper, when the Devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel.…” (John 13:1–4 ESV).

In this passage, John ties Jesus’ prophesied “hour” with the Last Supper, wherein Judas departs and betrays Jesus. In addition, as professor Brand Pitre observed, John also describes the supper as a banquet of love. This is especially profound in light of the fact that Jesus is celebrating His wedding banquet—divine consummation—as He prepares for His passion and, ultimately, His death.1

When reading this passage, I can’t help but ask myself, “How could anybody love so sacrificially that are willing to approach their death with such repose, with such grace, that the thought of dying does not scare them?” Jesus’ actions are so alien to us because we cling to the world, not the world beyond. Even though we are created in the image of God, the fall has tainted our souls, weakening our understanding of the eternal law and the supreme law-giver Who Himself is, as 1 John 4:16 states: pure Love itself

As the Son of God—-the bridegroom in the divine marriage between the Lord and His creation—Jesus exhibited love to the very end. It is an eternal love that “bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7)–even mankind’s sin. Christ’s passion reveals the nature of Christian love itself. We are called to “take up our cross” and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24-26), where we will find all our answers. When it comes to love, however—what is the answer we are looking for? What does it mean to love as a Christian? 

To answer this, it is important to recognize that Jesus’ trust in the Lord wasn’t always there, or so it seems. To us, this sounds absurd—God the Father and His Son have always existed in an eternal relationship with nothing ever coming between them. As John said in the above passage, Jesus knew that the “Father had given all things into His hands.” This makes it all the more mysterious that Christ would cry out to the Lord, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The Lord has always loved His Son; what purer relationship has ever existed? Their bond was, and is, eternal—written into the very fabric of the universe (John 1:1). So how could God have “forsaken” His own Son? 

When Jesus was on the cross, He bore the sin of all mankind in His body (1 Pet 2:24). As 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us.” As Christ hung on the Cross, it appeared as though God had abandoned Him. In a state of pure pain and despair—brought upon Him by the agony of crucifixion—and with the weight of the world’s sin completely on His shoulders—a separation came between the Father and the Son. Though sin cannot pollute God, as He is Perfect and omniscient, it can drive a wedge between Him and us, even between Him and his own begotten Son.

Despite knowing that He would be raised from the dead and that God never left Him, the pain of being human—of understanding what it’s like to be separated from the Lord in our broken condition—led Him to despair yet again. But this wasn’t just Christ despairing. As author Jeremy Myers says, “His cry, “My God, my God, Why have You forsaken Me?2 is not the cry of the God-forsaken God, but is the cry of every single human being on earth. It is the cry we have been voicing since the beginning when we fell into sin.” In other words, God incarnated Himself to experience all of our pain, our fear, our anguish, through His own Son. 

But why would a perfect, all-knowing being choose to do something like that? For that we must ask ourselves: “What is one thing that an omniscient being, like God, lacks?” It’s limitation. As Jordan Peterson writes, “If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being.”3

With this in mind, Christ’s cry out to the Lord shows us that Christ wasn’t just sacrificing Himself for mankind—and all our sin—but also that God Himself became a sacrifice out of pure love and understanding for His own people. By limiting himself to our broken condition in that moment of Christ’s despair and by looking at His own creation through the lens of our fallen eyes, He paradoxically grew closer to us; through that, we grew closer to Him. In that moment of despair there was a divine coalescence between God and His creation through the very act of separation itself. To me, this reveals that true love requires giving up something; it is a form of sacrifice or self-negation for the sake of something greater than ourselves. A part of us has to die in order for something new to be reborn. 

God demonstrates the self-sacrificial nature of love in incredible ways. As a personal example, following the death of my grandfather, despite her grief, my grandmother would go on to honor his legacy by taking care of the family–– even going so far as to help raise me while my mom was in nursing school. By continuing to carry out her duties as a wife and as a mother, she demonstrated that love comes to its greatest fruition through sacrifice––by giving oneself up entirely to the marital covenant which transcends both husband and wife. Even though her husband was gone, she was still in love with him, even if he wasn’t there to “give” her anything. And that, I think, elucidates the nature of God’s love. He is invisible, yet always present. But even though He can’t grant our materialistic wishes like a genie, His love is eternally bountiful. The silver lining, then, in losing a loved one is recognizing that the closest analogy to our relationship with God is a relationship with somebody who has passed on. They may not be able to give us what they want, since we have lost them, but by loving others as they would, we can discover what we’ve lost in the eyes of those we still have. 

When people expect something in return for the love they show another, it is not love in the Christian sense of the word. Love transcends the wants and needs of both parties in any relationship, as demonstrated through grandmother’s marriage. According to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, often called the “Father of Existentialism,” humanity is often guided by the intensity of feelings, emotions, and impulses, rather than by divine obligations. When love is a duty–guided by God rather than the Ego–it is a love motivated not out of a concern for ourselves or what we desire out of a relationship, but by our conscience and what we can do for the sake of someone else. Erotic love, as Kierkegaard calls it, is a form of self-love. It divides rather than unites, destroys rather than builds. When we love inauthentically, we view people as objects; things to be used rather than loved. We may not realize this at times, since selfish love excels at appearing authentic. In the end, however, it will always be revealed for what it truly is.

One useful way of understanding erotic love from a deeper, psychological perspective is through Martin Buber’s seminal work I and Thou. In it he explains how there are a couple of “stances that make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’”4 towards the world. These two basic modes of existence are the I-It and the I-Thou. The I-It mode is guided by a form of instrumentalism; it looks at the world through the lens of the ego, perceiving people as objects separate from oneself who can be used for selfish purposes. “Its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard.” The I-Thou mode, on the other hand, perceives the world through the lens of relationships; it is inherently reciprocal. Within the I-Thou mode, “A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it.” Rather than an object to be used, humans are looked at as beings created in the Image of God who must be loved. 

During face-to-face encounters with other people, we step into an intersubjective space in which two people are mutually responsible for one another—a space Buber calls “The Between”. We confront a living presence, a connection which transcends the relationship. In the loving gaze, as Iain McGilchrist states, “the seeing and the seen take part in another’s being,” forming something that exists over and above both lovers.”5 Plato illustrates this perfectly in the Timaeus, when he writes that “a smooth, dense stream of gentle light from the purest fire within us merges with the light from what it sees, so that ‘one body’ is formed between ourselves and the object of our vision, conveying the ‘motions’ of what is seen into every part of our own body and soul.”6 

The Between shows us that empathy grounds not just our interpersonal relations, but our understanding of the world in general and the way in which we see ourselves within it. McGilchrist notes, “In the case of intersubjectivity, much of the convergence centres on the realization that one’s consciousness of oneself as an embodied individual in the world is founded on empathy–on one’s empathic cognition of others, and others’ empathic cognition of oneself.”7 According to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the face is “the ground for the objectivity of any perception because, if the other did not face me and call my experience into question, I would never encounter a “sense of the normative, of standards against which the validity of my experiences can be judged.”8 This intersubjective space forms the basis of our rights and moral duties. As Roger Scruton says: “the eyes of the others address us with an unavoidable question, the question ‘why?’ On this fact is built the edifice of rights and duties . . . our freedom consists in the responsibility to account for what we do.” In our intersubjective spaces we are mutually accountable to one another, answerable to each other’s concerns and disagreements. This is where our objective moral standards for right and wrong are found. As C.S. Lewis recognized in The Abolition of Man, our quarrelshowever insignificantpresuppose a moral law that exists over and above us. There is, after all, no point in arguing with somebody if there isn’t already a general agreement as to what is right and wrong in the first place. 

All of this proves that our intersubjective space—the Betweenwhich is to be discovered through the I-Thou relation, is sacred. When we look through the windows of our loved one’s souls—through their eyes—we find evidence of God. As Levinas said, “In the face lies the supreme authority that commands . . . The human face is the conduit for the word of God. There is the word of God in the Other, speech without a theme.”9 God Himself is the eternal Thou, “always escaping the objectifying impulse of the I-It stance.” 

When love is no longer guided by the I-It stance, by objectification and egoism, it can imitate God’s way of loving us and His creation. This pure form of eternal love is one that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It forms the basis of God’s covenant with His people, as well as the most divine act of empathy ever, in which God was able step in between Himself and His creation and look at the world through us to see our pain, our suffering, and our fear. It is what distinguishes what Saint Augustine called the City of God–a society built upon the love of The Lord–from the City of Man–a society built upon the love of self. 

In our modern Neoliberal system we prioritize what Gilles Deleuze would call the “desiring machine,” which incentivizes individuals to blindly pursue pleasure and success at all costs. Everything becomes a tool–an object to be used to achieve these narcissistic ends. The I-It mode of relating to the world—the love of self—reigns supreme. The end result of living in this City of Man, as Byung Hul Chan recognized, is depression. 

“Depression,” as he says, “is a narcissistic malady” which derives itself from “overwrought, pathologically distorted self-reference.”10 In a society plagued by what he called “the violence of the positive,” negativity is avoided at all costs. But as Alain Ejrenberg recognized, the success of depression is based on a lost connection to conflict. If we lose suffering, negativity, death—all things that force us to step outside of our comfort zone—meaning is lost. If we are trapped in a hall of mirrors, locked in a conflict-averse world where everything is mediated through the self, it becomes impossible to renounce ourselves and discover what is beyond our limited scope of understanding. Eliminating all negativity, society is overcome by the Inferno of the Same—meaning is sucked away from everything. “One travels everywhere, yet does not experience anything. One catches sight of everything, yet reaches no insight. One accumulates information and data, yet does not attain knowledge. One lusts after adventures and stimulation, but always remains the same. One accumulates online ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, yet never encounters another person.”11 To occupy that sacred intersubjective space, an individual must be vulnerable–willing to pick up his or her cross. To do so is to recognize that death, suffering, and limitation energizes creation and love itself.

 Christian Love, Politics and Abortion

The family as an institution is built upon love. It reveals the limits of our political system. For example, the idea that a mother and son are in competition with one anotherlike economic agents is absurd. A mother does not maximize her self-interest when she decides to have children. As Marc Barnes writes, “the family is the persistent evidence that another social order is possible, and so the family is the object of liberalism’s most aggressive tactics of re-education — an immense hodgepodge of legal fictions, technologies, and narratives which aim at re-describing family life as a merely biologically necessary incubation period for “real life” as a rights-bearing individual.”12 Liberalism is able to overcome the limits imposed upon it by the family through abortion. Abortion effectively “realizes” liberalism within the family, subordinating love—an other-oriented instinct—to power. 

A woman’s love for a child is construed out to be private and voluntaristic, rather than self-sacrificial. Somebody who prioritizes the decision of the mother to abort her baby above the child’s life itself effectively makes loving a child a matter of “choice.” Imagine, for a second, tucking your child into bed and telling them “I love you,” whilst also saying, in the same breath: “It would’ve been permissible for me to kill you while you were still in the womb, if I decided to do so.” This sounds absurd; no pro-choice mother would say something as cruel as this, but it is implicit in the act of justifying abortion. The child is re-described to be an individual in competition with the mother’s body and her ‘rights.’ As a human being, the mother herself is treated as private property. “Things like bodies, time, and happiness are construed as scarce resources which can only be owned to the detriment of another, never shared to the perfection of both.”13 All of this just goes to show that liberalism contains within it an internal logic that seeks to do away with any and all limitations to the individual’s freedom, including death. All of this results in, ironically, the elimination of life itself. 

The fact that abortion is guided by a capitalistic logic of competition over resources just goes to show that the central conflict in our political era isn’t between statism and free markets, or between Democrat and Republican. According to Augusto Del Noce, “The real clash is between the two ideas of man that Max Scheler had already described as the homo sapiens and the homo faber. In short, whether the religious dimension is recognized or not, whether in man we see the imago Dei, an irreducible link with transcendence, or the Marxian Gattungswesen, a “generic being” entirely shaped by its social circumstances.”14

The greatest form of rebellion against this “new totalitarianism,” which seeks to turn us into a society of objects—of robotic sheep—is to love somebody. Christian love is reactionary. It is an act of revolution against the secular establishment. But this must be a love that recognizes the stamp of God in every individual; it must look at people as beings requiring our love and responsibility. Humans aren’t tools to be used or objects to be dehumanized. To recognize that Christian love really is a form of self-sacrifice motivated by the I-Thou stance will enable us to overcome our present condition. Doing so will overcome the evils of previous political ideologies that, like the word itself reveals, have idolized certain aspects of creation in an attempt to glorify oneself over God–to Whom alone all glory is due. 

Conclusion 

I recently entered my first real relationship. These past couple of months have been some of the best times of my life. Despite this, I acknowledge that there can be real dangers. Something I’ve noticed in myself is that when we are overcome by limerence during that ‘honeymoon’ period, it becomes all too easy to forget that love should be guided by the conscience and not by one’s feelings. Being around our lover, hugging them, cherishing them, experiencing all the joys of love—can make it seem as though the idea of losing that person is equivalent to losing all of one’s purpose in life. It is tempting to think that without our significant other, we are nothing. This is erotic love—the type that, as we discussed earlier, is really a form of self-love. It is transient, since feelings come and go like the tides. One day we are lost in love, then the next we are not. 

In order to truly love somebody we must be willing to sacrifice a part of ourselves for them. Sometimes that means giving up the part that wishes to attach ourselves above all else. Every mother must learn to make this sacrifice. When a woman decides to bring a child into existence, she faces the harsh reality that the world is evil, cruel, and hostile to all life. This is her creation and it will inevitably, at some point, succumb to the same fate that befalls all living creatures. When a mother sacrifices everything for her child, her money, her time, her looks—there is always the risk that the child could be lost. Should that, however, prevent her from ever bringing new life into the world? Of course not. A mother must be willing to give her child up if she is going to create a new living being, as horrifying as that sounds. Like the story of Abraham and Isaac, a parent must be willing to dedicate themselves wholly, entirely, to love itself, even if it means giving up that child for God. 

As any grief-stricken mother will attest, losing a child is one of, if not the hardest thing anybody could go through. It is far easier to attach our sense of purpose to our children. They are, after all, literally an extension of ourselves–a product of our own being. We see ourselves in them—our habits, our idiosyncrasies, our longings, and more. When we lose them, we feel responsible for what happened. We were the ones, after all, who brought this beautiful child into the world in the first place. We want more than anything for our children to prosper, to be happy, and to not suffer. When they feel pain, we feel pain; we live vicariously through them. But all parents must let their children spread their wings at some point. If a parent shelters their child from the outside world, that parent is loving them selfishly. Children must suffer, they must struggle, and eventually, they must die. This thought is incredibly saddening. Michelangelo’s sculpture, the Pieta, beautifully illustrates how painful this thought can be for any parent. Mary sits contemplating the death of her Son, Jesus. She knew full well that this would happen eventually when she brought Him into the world. This is, in some sense, her fault. But she also knew that in order for mankind to be redeemed, in order for humanity to grow closer to God, He needed to die on the cross. She needed to be willing to give up her child for the sake of our loving God, who is pure love itself.

This is our lesson—the sword of death hangs above every lover. Our loved ones can never be completely secured. Even in our closest moments, when we are in sexual union with our spouse, they will never be fully ours. As Sharon Krishek concludes, “the counterpart of this painful acknowledgement is the realization of the beloved’s value, and the possibility of absolute joy in the beloved’s presence. Such a valuation, coupled with the edification to love unselfishly, makes death – despite all appearances – a vital player in genuine, lively love.”15  

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

Works Cited:

  1. Pitre, Brand, Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, Pg. 105
  2. https://redeeminggod.com/why-have-you-forsaken-me/
  3. Peterson, Jordan, 12 Rules For Life, Pg. 640
  4. Owen, M, M, I and Thou, https://aeon.co/essays/all-real-living-is-meeting-the-sacred-love-of-martin-buber
  5.  McGIlchrist, Iain, The Master and His Emissary, Pg. 404
  6. ibid.
  7. McGilchrist, Iain, The Master and His Emissary, Pg. 356
  8. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/levinas/
  9. http://www.diptyqueparis-memento.com/en/the-face-by-levinas/
  10. Han, Chul, Byung, The Agony of Eros, Pg. 2
  11. Han, Chul, Byung, The Expulsion of the Other, Pg. 10 
  12. Barnes, Marc, What Abortion Means, https://newpolity.com/blog/what-abortion-means
  13. ibid.
  14. Lancellotti, Carlo, Augusto De Noce On The “New Totalitarianism”, https://www.communio-icr.com/files/44.2_Lancellotti.pdf
  15. Krishek, Sharon, Kierkegaard’s Existential Lover, https://iai.tv/articles/kierkegaards-existential-lover-auid-1038

Categories: Commentary

Leave a Reply

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments