Sunday, May 2, 2021
I John 4: 7 – 20
Donald M Seekins
Two important points:
- The Concept of “God is Love” is extremely difficult to understand, given the way the world and human society operates; and,
- However, it is close to, or is, the core teaching of the Christian religion.
The 14 verses from I John 4 can perhaps be summarized as: God is love; His love is revealed through Jesus, his only Son; the point is not that we love God, but that He loves us; and –to quote in full – “If anyone says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” In other words, the idea that God loves us requires not (or not only) that we love Him, but that we love other people because He loves us.
Also: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love (v. 18).”
As I recall, way back in Sunday School, we were taught that “love” is translated from the Greek word Agape, which, in the words of one Biblical scholar, can be translated as “unconditional, self-sacrificing love, charity, God’s love for humanity.” This is contrasted with the Greek word eros, which means “attraction,” “attachment,” “desire” and “infatuation with beauty.” We are attracted to that which seems to us beautiful, whether it is another person, a work of art, or perhaps an expensive sports car. This meaning is contained in the way English-speakers use the word “erotic,” but also forms the basis of “romantic” love.
Philia in Greek means “brotherly love,” as Philadelphia (the original being located in Asia Minor, not Pennsylvania) is the “city of brotherly love” and “philosophy” is the love of knowledge. Storge, a less familiar term, means the affection or natural empathy we feel toward our family or country.
It should be evident that ancient Greek contains more precise words for “love” than modern English, since we use “love” to refer to our feelings not only about our spouses or family members, or our pets, but anything we feel a positive attraction toward, such as rum raisin or green tea ice cream. And of course, we are all still taught to “love” our country – even if our country often behaves in very unlovable ways. In Chinese and Japanese, “patriotism” is translated as aiguo, or aikoku, 愛国, which supposedly is a good and healthy thing, while guojiajui or kokkashugi, “nationalism” is a bad thing, and is usually used to describe foreign countries, e.g., Rossiya no kokkashugi, or Russian nationalism. Russians are bad because they are nationalists, but we are good because we are patriots. Not a rational or intelligent but historically a very compelling notion.
The character ai 愛 in the East Asian languages is interesting because, like “love,” it has multiple meanings in different contexts. For example, I was surprised to learn that in communist China, airen 愛人 can mean “spouse” while the term in earlier times had the disreputable connotation of “mistress.” The ancient Chinese philosopher Moh Tzu taught boai 博愛 or “universal love,” love of all mankind or all the world,” while Confucianists taught jian ai, “graded love,” meaning that one should love one’s family, neighbors, friends and country more than strangers.
The connection of “love” to religions around the world is complex and often difficult to understand. The ancient Greeks and Romans, and before them the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, might have loved some of their gods and goddesses, but probably hated or feared many others, such has Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld, or Ares, the mad and destructive god of war. Moreover, their relationship toward the more benign deities was what, in Latin, is described as do ut des, which means, “I give, in order that you may give.” In other words, this was a reciprocal relationship between the deity and his/her worshippers, which was usually expressed by mortal men in animal (and sometimes human) sacrifices. Ancient Greek and Roman cities had patron gods, such as Rome’s trio of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, who were venerated at a large temple on the Capitoline Hill. Such offerings were given in order to ensure that the gods favoured Rome and its fortunes, especially in war. Individual citizens also made sacrifices to the gods in order to obtain good fortune, and around temples in Rome one could find people who sold sacrificial victims, everything from a chicken to an ox. However, there was nothing in the ancient polytheistic religions that required loving a certain deity, although gods and goddesses could be “bribed.”
Love is central to Buddhism because the seeker after Enlightenment must embody the highest feelings: metta, loving kindness, which was extended to all living things and not only humans, karuna, compassion, feelings of pity for those who suffer, and mudita, or pleasure at the happiness of others, the opposite of envy. At the same time, the Buddhist emphasis on non-attachment to the things of the world meant that such love was supposed to be cool, calm and rational.
Atheists, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, author of a book titled God is Not Great, argued not (or not only) that religions are fairy tales, but also that they are the greatest stimulus to hate and violence in human history. Thus, against a background of violent religious strife over thousands of years, it might seem ironical that I John 4 says “God is Love.” However, I think that Hitchens is wrong on one very important point: religion may be a pretext for man’s inhumanity to man, but it is not the underlying cause. In other words, humans have bred into them, since at least the time of our ape-like ancestors, the tendency to justify and indeed promote violence against Outsiders, the so-called Us versus Them mentality. The “Other” is usually defined as evil, and being an “infidel” is only one was of othering them. In our own time, genocide or ethnocide usually has a racial-ethnic, not religious, motivation.
Continuing with this concept of Us versus Them, it often seems that loving A means hating B, and the more intensely one loves the first, the more intensely one hates the second. In terms of patriotism/nationalism, this is easy to understand. Love of country means not only defending friends and family, but being willing to kill those people who happen to be the enemy. We are reminded of the “Two Minutes of Hate” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, or a story I once read about Frank Capra’s creation of the World War II propaganda film, Know Your Enemy: Japan. In his original script, he wished to describe how ordinary Japanese people were oppressed and exploited by the militarists, but the US Army censored it because such a view would dilute the hatred Americans would/should feel for their new enemies across the Pacific.
Clearly, this sort of love, which feeds off hate, is not meant by the verses found in I John 4.
We’ve wandered a bit from the original discussion of I John 4. A point I would like to bring up here is that the feeling of love/agape, and the acts that it inspires, are based on freedom. In other words, we cannot be forced or compelled to love anyone or anything. Or, one might call forced or manipulated love “pseudo-love.” For example, dysfunctional parents might beat or starve their children, but tell them ceaselessly that they “love” them and are preparing them for a harsh world. Indeed, the more intense this pseudo-love is, as contrasted with mere indifference, the more destructive it tends to be. I have read that during the Pacific War, officers of the Imperial Japanese Army routinely beat and abused the members of the rank-and-file, and called such beating “strokes of love.” And in George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, the tragic hero, Winston Smith, is confined and brutally tortured. In the end, the very last words of this novel, Orwell said: Smith realized “He loved Big Brother.”
If God’s love is great, as is the love which humans hold for each other, this sort of manipulated “love” seems to me to be a great evil. Perhaps the greatest evil, because it cloaks its cruelty in the words of love, perverted.
Perhaps I should close my comments here. Clearly, it is easier to say what “God is love” is NOT, than to discover what it is – since it is so alien to the world we live in.