If we were to ask “what is the greatest Christian virtue” many would say “it is faith.” But faith is not the greatest Christian virtue. As Paul informs us in 1 Cor 13:2, “If I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love I am nothing.” Paul is pretty blunt about it. If you don’t love, you are nothing, and your life counts for nothing but wasted space.
It is often said that there are four Greek words for love. In a sense this is true; in a sense it is a misunderstanding. The four words are: eros (desire/physical love), storge (familial love), philia (fondness), and agapan. Agapan originally was just a synonym for philia in Classical Greek -nothing more. In ancient Greece, the birthplace of philosophy, the entire concept of agape as we understand it remained yet unborn and un-thought of…
Jesus and the NT authors had a concept so bold, so revolutionary, so far beyond what the great sages and philosophers had that they invented a new name for it: agape, as a noun -well, almost. Very rarely in Classical Greek the noun was used, but it never meant anything beyond philia until Jesus of Nazareth emerged on the scene. To understand how remarkably revolutionary this concept was, we can compare it to the highest form of love known to the pagan Greeks: philia.
As I said, philia is fondness. It is warmth, intimacy. It can refer to physical love; the verb philein can mean to caress or kiss, but even then philia is more than merely physical. Philia IS beautiful. But it is conditional. Aristotle wrote that only those who have attractive qualities can expect to be loved. He said that of people who desire to be loved but have no outstanding qualities, that they are being ridiculous. Aristotle insisted that no one can expect to be loved “if there is nothing in him to arouse affection.” Plato said it most succinctly: “love is for the lovely.”
By contrast, Christian love is an obligation and ability to love the unlovely. The leprous, the prisoner, the sinner, the beggar, the homeless, the tax-gatherers, the enemy.
Aristotle also said love cannot be widely diffused. The circle of friendship must be narrow. Christian love is the opposite. It is all embracing. Augustine said God loves all of us as if we were the only one. Philia is a reaction of the heart -it happens effortlessly. But mere sentimentality is love’s counterfeit. Agape can involve the heart, but it requires the whole personality. It requires in addition, the will: it can embrace even a hated enemy. At such times it can be more a conquest than sentimentality which involves a victory over the self. Eph 3:19 says it passes knowledge. If this sounds lofty and abstract it is not. It is simple and concrete, but still profound. We truly embrace it not through scholarship, but daily, listening closely as a child must learn:
Mk 10:15 says “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter at all.”
Prayer: Lord of the starfields, help us to bring love into our loveless world. Without love we are nothing and our lives count for nothing.
II. LOVE’S DEMONIC COUNTERFEIT
According to the Christian faith love is of God because God is love. But that is not true of all that is called love. There is a thing called love that is in reality a privation of love; it is love’s demonic counterfeit.
St. Augustine illustrated this brilliantly in an illuminating discussion of two diametrically opposed kinds of love and their eventual result. On the one hand there is a Love which is holy: agape, unselfish love. On the other hand a love which is unholy: a distorted love of the self, selfishness. Unselfish love is holy love, the love of God to the point of self-crucifixion where necessary, as contrasted to its opposite, love of self to the point of contempt of God and neighbor when these conflict. True agape -tacitly or explicitly- flows from God (Jn 3:19-21), and equates on the horizontal plane to love of neighbor as self. Genuine love will always return to a demand of a certain degree of self-crucifixion.
These *Two Loves* for Augustine will ultimately produce what he called *Two Cities* (communions): “The members of the Two Cities are intermingled in actual human societies on earth, throughout the course of time there were good men before Christ, and they belong in the City of God there are bad Christians and they belong to the other city” (Vernon Bourke; cf. many who say “Lord, Lord,” but never follow; Jesus’ parable of wheat and weeds growing together in the Kingdom, etc.). The “Other City” which Augustine calls City of Men “does not signify a state or nation, but all people whose end is not God” (Etienne Gilson). Two Loves, said Augustine, lead finally to two destinations: eternal life of enjoyment, or eternal separation and despair. Two choices: repentance or hostility.
The relationship of the type of love to the communion it would produce according to Augustine is comparable to the relationship of a tree to its fruit. How Augustine envisaged two antithetical communions might result from two antithetical loves can be seen clearly in the stark contrasts which may be drawn between the two (as derived from Augustine):
Love which is holy: Agape (unselfish love).
Love which is unholy: Distorted love of self; selfishness.
Love which is holy: Community, fellowship (Gk. koinonia).
Love which is unholy: Individualism (death of fellowship); loneliness.
Love which is holy: Desires for its neighbor what it would for itself.
Love which is unholy: Desirous of lording it over its neighbor; elitism.
Love which is holy: Peace; unity in diversity.
Love which is unholy: Tempestuousness, division, strife, domination.
Love which is holy: City of Peace (“Jerusalem”).
Love which is unholy: City of confusion (“Babel”/”Babylon”).
Love which is holy: Friendliness.
Love which is unholy: Envy, jealousy.
Love which is holy: Faithful.
Love which is unholy: Unfaithful; disloyal.
Love which is holy: True.
Love which is unholy: Untrustworthy.
Love which is holy: Justice.
Love which is unholy: Corruption, bribery, injustice.
Love which is holy: Freedom within structure; law of liberty.
Love which is unholy: Chaos.
Love which is holy: God freely allowed to rule.
Love which is unholy: Self rulers: dialectic of anarchy vs. totalitarianisms.
Love which is holy: Giving.
Love which is unholy: Taking, coveting, stealing.
Love which is holy: Prefers truthfulness to deceitful praises.
Love which is unholy: Utterly avid of praise.
Love which is holy: Love of God and others which unites.
Love which is unholy: Love of self which divides.
Love which is holy: Effort directed to God; neighbor’s good.
Love which is unholy: Effort directed to own good.
Love which is holy: Values common good.
Love which is unholy: Reduces commonweal to own ends
Love which is holy: City whose King is God.
Love which is unholy: City wherein the Devil reigns
Love which is holy: Subject to God
Love which is unholy: Hostile to God and contra true love of others
Love which is holy: Joy.
Love which is unholy: Despair
© katachriston, 2010
“Doctrine is not the only, not even the primary, activity of the church. The church worship’s God and serves mankind, it works for the transformation of this world and awaits the consummation of its hope in the next. ‘Faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ -love, not faith, and certainly not doctrine.” -Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol 1, p. 1.
“All true Orthodox theology is mystical; just as mysticism divorced from theology becomes subjective and heretical, so theology, when it is not mystical, degenerates into an arid scholasticism, ‘academic’ in the bad sense of the word. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed: a theologian, said Evagrius, is one who knows how to pray, and he who prays in spirit and in truth is by the very act a theologian. And doctrine, if it is to be prayed must also be lived; theology without action, as St. Maximus put it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced by the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided.’ This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love Him” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 207).