October 3, 2008

On Love

What is love? Few of us will be tempted to consult a dictionary on the subject. We know that we want those we love to be happy. We feel compassion for their suffering. When love is really effective — that is, really felt, rather than merely imagined — we cannot help sharing in the joy of those we love, and in their anguish as well. The disposition of love entails the loss, at least to some degree, of our utter self-absorption — and this is surely one of the clues as to why this state of mind is so pleasurable. — Sam Harris in The End of Faith
The above is a quote from one of our current-day fiery atheist writers. Impressive sentiment, and all the more so, so far as I am concerned, because in his definition of love, which comes dropped pretty much out of the blue in his book, Harris's instinct is to focus on giving/feeling love, not on the receipt of it. {Note, though, that Harris means to poke a stick at theists when he writes of love being "felt [i.e., directed toward people], rather than merely imagined [i.e., directed toward Jesus/God]."}

Speaking about love is difficult for the preachers who give sermons at the Union Gospel Mission. Certainly, they will tell the constantly-shifting congregants that God loves them or Jesus loves them, but mighty felt love of other people (i.e., our neighbors, whom Jesus tells us includes even our enemies, far away) remains a topic unexplored. This seems odd to me since Paul did something kind of weird and very bold in his epistles, that appear as many of the books in the New Testament: He adapted the then rarely-used Koine Greek word agapē to represent the powerful, encompassing, expansive Christian idea of love extended to all. [The New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek, btw.] By finding and adapting a rare word, Paul raised the stakes, making the claim that this Christian love was something new and significant. [In his Sermon on the Mound, Jesus tells us, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. (Matthew 5:43:44) Other books in the New Testament, written later, adapted Paul's usage of agapē.

In his book Good and Evil, humanist philosopher Richard Taylor writes briefly of the revolutionary quality of this new love-thing that Jesus introduced and Paul eloquently embraced:
It is fairly common to find love treated as a virtue, particularly by moralists who are influenced by religion. It was considered by St. Paul to be the highest virtue, surpassing both faith and hope. [Taylor is referring to a short letter to the Corinthians by Paul, 1 Corinthians 13.] Whatever may have been the fortunes of other Christian teachings, this one at least has persisted. Even depisers of religion are apt to stay their criticism of this teaching, however severely they may wish to deal with the rest.

It was not generally conceived to be a virtue by the ancients, prior to the rise and spread of Christianity. Most ancient moralists did, to be sure, devote considerable attention to friendship, but this was thought of more as a blessing than as a virtue and it was never, I believe, represented as one of the cardinal virtues. They thought of love or friendship as among the great goods of life, belonging to the same category as health, learning, honor, and the like, and their thinking was directed to analyzing its different forms and discovering the means to its attainment. They rarely thought of it as a unique incentive to noble and vituous conduct generally, or as anything one should try to extend to all humankind.
Adapted from Wikipedia:
The Christian usage of the term agapē comes almost directly from the canonical Gospels' account of the teachings of Jesus. When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus said unto him, "Thou shalt love (agapao) the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love (agapao) thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40)
Though agapē is a powerful Christian thing [just as metta, the practice of universal loving-kindness, is powerful in Buddhism], the UGM preachers seem to have an aversion toward it.

Jimmy Roughton speaking before the Union Gospel Mission congregation.
Jimmy Roughton, whom I've previously praised and called my favorite mission preacher -- because of his showmanship and because his sermons have had a theme and arc that builds over the course of thirty minutes to make a point -- gave a sermon supposedly on Love recently, but then seven minutes in, abandoned the course of what he was saying, and went back to his old stuff to deliver hellfire-and-brimstone promides, use the reasoning of Pascal's wager, and mock atheists. [Very disappointing and sadly ironic. Roughton evokes the idea of love briefly, then winds his way toward mocking others.] In a comment on the Atheists, he said he couldn't understand why, with their view, they bother to write books attacking Christianity. The answer to that is easy: (1) Of course, they make money from their books; (2) they believe what they are writing; and (3) they believe they are doing good in the world by saving people from religion. Roughton should have the integrity to give the devil his due, and the same to atheists. Please understand: I am not an atheist, I'm pro-religion, and I fault the new atheist writers for their flatland thinking. [See Flatland described on the list of Wilber concepts here.]

Another recent preacher at the mission even cited lines in Matthew about separating the sheep from the goats to buttress his argument that we must believe in Jesus to save ourselves from hell, while ignoring the context of what Jesus was saying. Here are the lines the preacher quoted, from Matthew 25:
32: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left
41: Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels
The preacher strangely ignored the point Jesus was making that determined the separation of the sheep from the goats, which was this, from the intervening lines:
34: Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37: Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38: When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39: Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40: And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
A third preacher in the past week gave a sermon on Faith, using the first few lines of 1 Corinthians 13 to make his argument, but ignored the whole point of the epistle he was quoting, which was this, that came in the last line: "But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

Arrrrgh! Love deserves better treatment! It should be possible for one of the Christian preachers at the mission to tell the congregation how terrific loving someone else and embarking on the journey of loving everyone feels*! Paul writes, "Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth."

I suppose that fire-and-brimstone makes for the most-straightforward sermon to save a mission congregant, and that "love" would seem to be a girly topic for a seemingly hardened, overwhelmingly-male mission audience populated by many tattooed felons, drug- and alcohol-addicts and glass-window breakers. But the audience at the mission is really pretty smart and savvy and wise in ways beyond being streetwise. Give love a chance, you preachers. When we are told in the Book of John that "God is love," that statement doesn't mean that God loves us. The full quote is "He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love." Thus, the imperative is to love.

* Late note: As Richard E. Watts writes in his Mar92 article in the Journal of Individual Psychology, 'Biblical Agape as a Model of Social Interest,' "Agape is the highest form of love and is primarily volitional and self-giving rather than emotional and self-centered." Thus while agape can feel good, the love that comes is "consciously developed" for others, driven wholly by desire for others' welfare.

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