Haven’t been around for a while but just found some time (ha!) to take a look at Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, which I paid too much for when in one of those need-to-buy-a-book moods. Despite some philosophical jargon, it’s quite accessible. I’ve been reading it slowly to stimulate my thoughts on love, which brings me to the current post, recasting some previous thoughts on the subject. It should also be noted that this is almost primarily a textual exercise, working in the ideal, as my experience in both love romantic and love universal is lacking.
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Love in the New Testament is first defined in relation to God: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1Jn 4:10).¹ Paul has similar thoughts, demonstrating God’s initiation and humility in love: “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Although divine love is founded on an unequal relationship, human love should be equal and reciprocal, as is shown in the Jesus’ words on the greatest commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). To points can be made here. Firstly, love of yourself provides the measure by which your neighbour should be loved. To put it negatively, hate of others is firstly hate of self. Slavoj Žižek makes this related observation:
I don’t think that the so-called fundamentalist Islamic terror is grounded in the terrorist’s conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilisation and so on and so on … The problem with … fundamentalist terrorists is not that we consider them inferior to us but rather that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.
Secondly, at least regarding the romantic, love to be love requires reciprocity. It’s cliche but: in love there is the desire to love and be loved, so to truly love others we must allow them to love us too. To love another is love yourself is to accept another’s love for you.
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Yet love is not always reciprocated! As shown above, love comes first from God and then overflows into human relationships. Further, not only does God’s love for us inform these relationships but in Christianity the self’s love for another is an extension of their primary love for God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt 22:37-39). John also makes this connection in suggesting that hating another is equivalent to hating God: “I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness” (1Jn 2:8-9).
What is not reciprocated in human love is already there in abundance in divine-human love. This is how the golden rule, as an adaption of the neighbour-love commandment, can also ignore reciprocity: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). Rather than basing neigbour-love on self-love, neighbour-love here is based on an ideal. Regardless of whether you are treated the way you would most like to be, treat others in this way. The call to enemy-love in the New Testament is an even clearer illustration of this sacrificing human reciprocity to express divine love (Mt 5:43-48; Rom 12:19-21).
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Finally, although love requires two giving parties, two places in the Bible I can think of make room for the consummation of the dialectic, when two become one. Paul writes, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3). This is akin to Moses’ words, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written” (Ex 32:31-32). Here self-giving love is not only not reciprocated by others but, out of love, sunders itself from the power which makes it possible. God gives his love so completely that the one who receives this love can only also give themselves completely, so completely that the self initiates its own annihilation in the other. The standard characterisation of love as exclusive and preferential can be expanded here: Precisely because of love’s exclusivity with and preferentiality for the divine, it overflows to the inclusive and universal.
But to what extent, as the utmost expression of love, is self-annihilation its end? Jesus’ paradoxical call to follow him contains a surprise twist: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25). Following Jesus here is a complete self-denial; any hint of intentions towards self-preservation in one’s acts and one is not really following him. It is self-annihilation in the other. But the paradox is that salvation comes only through this act of self-annihilation. Completely forsaking one’s rights, privileges and self is paradoxically the only way one comes by them in the first place. Even when the self cuts off all reciprocity through sacrifice, it miraculously receives it back. This is evident in the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11:
Though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
God dies. He sacrifices all there is to sacrifice, in complete self-annihilation. Yet he receives it all back and more. The obvious difficulty with this is that self-annihilation is not really self-annihilation if the self sees some reward coming to it after implementing its actions. But this is to miss the point of the paradox: In complete devotion to the other, the self forsakes all consideration of its own preservation, cutting itsself off in the state of giving, not the anticipation of receiving. The self’s reception of salvation is not transactional; but rather the Lord, who gave so that it could give, justifies it out of a desire to keep on giving.
In the passage to which this hymn is connected, Paul admonishes the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Php 2:3). The picture of divine love is replicated in the Christian community. Here, as in the above examples, reciprocity is suspended through the sacrifice of putting others’ needs before one’s own, yet the action is reciprocated, as other members of the community treat their others in the same way.
Love is a dialectic: sacrifice is not made first possible through the love already received from the other to which the sacrifice is directed, but it ‘leaps’ forward on the basis of divine love, seeking to express this love with another but with no guarantee of the love’s return or reciprocation. Yet it is reciprocated, and in this way it is contained in divine love.
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¹All citations from the NRSV