Saturday, September 09, 2006

Works of Love (Part II): Against a Natural Theology of Love

In the first part of Works of Love, Kierkegaard stresses that the distinctive mark of Christian love is love of the neighbor, in contrast to paganism which only loves the beloved and the friend. And who is your neighbor? Simply put, everybody. Kierkegaard is unrelenting in his refusal to limit or tone-down the scope of Christ's command "to love the neighbor as yourself." Indeed, he suggests that even if there exists only one person who you feel is not deserving of your love (a nasty enemy, perhaps), then your love for all others is suspect, no matter how devoted it may be. The man who stubbornly hates his enemy proves that he doesn't understand the essentially Christian; that is, he fails to realize that God has not granted him a choice in the matter. His Christian duty is to love the neighbor, end of story.

However, Kierkegaard is at pains to emphasize that there is nothing natural about loving the neighbor. By contrast, erotic love and friendship are quite natural, since they are based on inclinations and drives that people are eager to satisfy. Here, Kierkegaard seems to anticipate arguments, made subsequently by evolutionary biologists, that romantic love and friendship primarily serve the needs for survival and self-propagation. For instance, he frequently calls friendship an "alliance of self-love" wherein like-minded folks band together to advance their emotional interests and build self-esteem. And, at one point, he goes as far as to compare erotic love and friendship to "idol worship", since they are alternative ways of loving the self at the expense of loving the neighbor.

These are harsh words, indeed, and they have led many to dismiss WoL as far too strident. But it is important to understand that Kierkegaard is not advocating an outright rejection of romantic love or friendship. Instead, he is trying to place these preferential loves on their proper foundation, which is the love of God:
"Worldly wisdom is of the opinion that love is a relationship between persons; Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: a person - God - a person, that is, that God is the middle term. However beautiful a relationship of love has been between two people or among many, however complete all their desire and all their bliss have been for themselves in mutual sacrifice and devotion, even though everyone has praised this relationship - if God and the relationship with God have been omitted, then this, in the Christian sense, has not been love but a mutually enchanting defraudation of love.... The fundamental untruth in the merely human view of love is that love is withdrawn from the relationship with God. "

The Christian understands that all love is an unmerited gift from God, who is Love. Just as we are not our own Creators, we do not create the love that exists in our relationships with the beloved or friends. The love of God must be the "middle term".

In my opinion, all of the hard words that WoL aims against preferential love are simply meant to discourage us from lapsing into a natural theology of love. Kierkegaard is adamant that, to understand the nature of love, we should not first consult the poet, who would likely regale us with tales of lovebirds and heroic friendship. Instead, we should first ponder how God loves, since "it was God who has placed love in the human being, and it is God who in every case will determine what is love." Specifically, we must remember that he gracefully loved us first, in Christ, even when we were despicable and sinful:
"Have you never thought about God's love? If it were love's excellence to love only the extraordinary, then God would be, if I dare say so, in an awkward position, since for him the extraordinary does not exist at all. The excellence of being able to love only the extraordinary is therefore more like an accusation, not against the extraordinary nor against the love, but against the love that is able to love only the extraordinary...

Insofar as you love the beloved, you are not like God, because for God there is no preference... But when you love the neighbor, then you are like God."

Only neighborly love conforms to divine love, and thus we must incorporate this love into all of our relationships, even the most intimate. As Kierkegaard says, "Love the beloved faithfully and tenderly, but let love for the neighbor be the sanctifying element in your union's covenant with God. Love your friend honestly and devotedly, but let love for the neighbor be what you learn from each other in your friendship's confidential relationship with God."


CPA said...

Very interesting, and I like your reading of Kierkegaard on that point (especially as it makes me want to actually read him, which I have several times tried and failed to do).

A missionary making a presentation to our small group once made the same point, I think. When one of our members emphasized how you needed to love the people you are trying to reach, he emphasized that the love can't be a particular love or infatuation, because it's guaranteed to be disappointed. You have to keep your eyes on how God sees them, not on how you see them yourself.

Of course, if you are not self-aware, this focus on God seeing could soon morph into the idea of seeing others only through "God's eyes," when "God's eyes" are simply a projection of your own abstract ideological and psychological needs.

There's a fine line between the divine and the demonic.

Thomas Adams said...

CPA -- Thanks for your comment. I think you're correct that such “God seeing” could easily be abused. The danger is that the neighbor is reduced to a stepping-stone or conduit for one’s relationship with God. In that case, you’re not really loving the neighbor; instead, you're using the neighbor to advance your own religious goals (something that must be a constant temptation in missionary situations). Kierkegaard’s remark that God is the “middle term” in love is not meant to suggest that we don’t love the neighbor directly and for his own sake. Instead, it indicates that God is the source and guardian of all love.

Kierkegaard is strongly opposed any situation in which we love the neighbor solely to gain reward, whether it be economic, social, or religious. He is incredibly sensitive to the many ways in which “loving” acts can be carried-out in an unloving fashion. For instance, he is critical of much of what passes for charity work, since such deeds are often done to enhance the self-satisfaction and superiority of the giver. Although the world may call such works loving, Christianity understands that loving never earns the lover any merit, since we all exist in an infinite debt to both God and our fellow humans.