“The Greatest of These Is Love”

outsideSupper1Paul’s famous Hymn of Love zeroes in on what love, as agape, is all about: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:4–6) In these qualities, we can see love as a deep renunciation of mimetic rivalry. Insisting on our own way, being resentful, rejoicing in the shortcomings of others, are all ways of putting ourselves on top of other people. Surely this short list is meant to stand for any attempt to put ourselves above other people. As long as we try to “win,” we lose at love. When we are willing to “lose,” we win at love.
In Works of Love, Kierkegaard plunges the depths of what it means for love to “believe all things” and “hope all things.” (1Cor. 13:7) Kierkegaard’s first axiom is: “Love believes all things—and yet is never deceived.” Believing all things is a tall order when we know, with the Psalmist, that “Everyone is a liar!” (Ps. 116:11) Kierkegaard examines the lengths we go to avoid being deceived by another. Such a one practices much cleverness in this task. For Kierkegaard, cleverness is not a good thing; cleverness is the trait that cuts us off from other people and, most particularly, from God. If we think we love while we calculate possible deceptions of the other, we are deceiving ourselves. If we abandon ourselves to love to the extent of believing the other person and that person deceives us, it is this other person who has deceived him or herself. A second axiom is: “Love hopes all things—and yet is never put to shame.”  As with believing all things, hope is hoping all things for oneself and other people. As with believing all things, Kierkegaard explores the cleverness with which we lower our standards in relationship with God and so are put to shame because we did not love enough to hope all things. If even the prodigal son should, in the end, be lost, the father who remains steadfast in love has not been put to shame. It is only the lost son who remained lost who is put to shame. In hoping for the salvation of other people, we are renouncing all mimetic rivalry that might tempt us to loosen this hope even a little bit. With these two axioms, Kierkegaard has shown us how love fulfills the other two theological virtues of faith and hope so that “the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)

Caring for the Dead (Thoughts for All Souls Day)

cemetery1The most solemn and moving chapter in Søren Kierkegaard’s remarkable book Works of Love is “The Work of Love in Remembering One Dead.” Throughout this Book, Kierkegaard models love on God’s agape, love that is not transactional and therefore requires nothing in return. After exploring such self-giving love in live human relationships at length, Kierkegaard avers that “the work of love of remembering one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love.” This love, according to Kierkegaard is the purest love because it is nonreciprocal; the dead “make no repayment.” This is in contrast with love for newborn children who also cannot repay as the love freely given to newborns has the potential of being repaid in the future as the child matures.

However, the dead are not as dead as Kierkegaard seems to think as the dead continue to live in us in a dynamic way that can be enriching. Caring for the dead, as does caring for any live person, tends to lower resentment if there happens to be any to start with. This often begins when a person dies. We often say we should not speak ill of the dead. The instinct behind this adage is that sympathy for the dead person, warts and all, tends to kick in automatically, making the release of resentment and forgiveness free gifts from God that we can pass on to the dead. There is something about death that helps us see that person as God sees him or her, and God sees everybody, without exception, with forgiveness and freely-given love.

Resentment makes any relationship destructively static. God is completely boxed out of the relationship. Which is a way of saying the resentment creates an idol out of the one who is resented. That is, the resented person becomes central to one’s life and God does not. The lessening of resentment allows a relationship to change. This is just as true of a relationship with a dead person as it is with that of a person still alive. This dynamic allows us to understand aspects of the person we had never understood before. Giving this dynamic free reign with a dead person frees the dead person to reciprocate in a way because the dynamic of increased sympathy and understanding is so rewarding.

Caring for the dead includes commending them to God. When we do this, we become more aware of how deeply God loves both the dead and the living and that this love spurs a desire for change until one has reached the fullest potential (teleios in Greek, a word suggesting finality). If this is what God desires, then it should be what we desire for the dead and the living, including for ourselves. Of course, it also follows that the dead desire the same. And so it is that the dead, living with God, can give us much more in return for our care than we can give them.

See also “Living with the Dead.”

Abraham out on Highway 61

sideAltarsIcons1The near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, the Father of Faith, is the most troubling of stories. It should be. Chaim Potok’s young protagonist Asher Lev remembers the shiver he felt when he first heard the story. What is most troubling is the suspicion that Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice his son. But was he? Jeremiah says Yahweh denounced the sacrifice of children, saying “that such a thing had never entered my mind.” (Jer. 19:5) Perhaps we are right to be troubled by any notion that Abraham was right to even let the idea enter his mind and even more troubled by any thought it ever entered into God’s mind.

Bob Dylan makes a bitter burlesque of the story in his song “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “god” who requires the sacrifice is a bully, warning Abraham that if he doesn’t comply: “Next time you see me, you’d better run.” To the question: “Where do you want to see this killing done? God said out on Highway 61”, the place for “a thousand telephones that don’t ring” and where to “put some bleachers out in the sun” to stage the start of the next world war. As with so many Dylan songs, the imagery reveals a society filled with mimetic rivalry and victimization where sacrifice and war become a spectator sport.

Soren Kierkegaard’s searing Fear and Trembling is at least as troubling as the biblical story. SK’s category of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” raises fears that the author celebrates Abraham’s willingness to do the deed. (What the fancy phrase means is: anything at all God says to do is right—end of story.) However, this troublesome category is coupled with what SK called “infinite resignation.” This is what Abraham had when he was willing to kill his son by God’s command. However, infinite resignation falls far short of faith and faith is what the biblical story and SK’s book is all about. Faith is receiving back what is given with infinite resignation “by virtue of the absurd.” Still troubled?

The most clear and piercing critique of this “infinite resignation” I know of comes in the powerful poem retelling this story by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Abraham builds parapets and trenches around the wood, suggesting the sacrifice of sons sent off to the war. But when the angel of the Lord admonishes Abraham to “slay the ram of pride instead of him . . . the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” This poet, one of many young victims of the war, and the creator of the bitter irony that poets like Bob Dylan use so well, has revealed once and for all the sacrificial horror of “infinite resignation.” That is, anyone infinitely resigned to sacrifice oneself without faith and will also sacrifice others, especially one’s own children, also without faith.

The typological interpretation of the story where it stands for God the Father’s being willing to sacrifice His only begotten son is also troubling. But Jesus did not go to the cross with infinite resignation. Rather, by “virtue of the absurd,” he believed that God, being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) St. Paul says we are saved by the faith of Christ, the faith that, on the cross, embraced not death, but the life of his heavenly father. The virtuous absurd, then, is the ecstatic embrace of God’s love so filled with life that there is no room for death for anybody.