Tuesday 20 October 2015

The Two Great Commandments - understanding their metaphysical significance

Matthew 22:36-40

36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

We are instructed to love God first, because that is the necessary first step to understanding God's 'system' - I mean, we must first acknowledge that God is loving towards us, well-intended, doing His best etc. 

Or, to be Christian, we must first agree with the aims and purposes of God's 'plan' for us; we must agree that this plan is benign - for our benefit: we must each of us join with God in this plan. 

The second commandment reinforces that that this is a system in which love is primary - and we must understand our situation in that light.

In sum - the two great commandments describe the 'metaphysics' of Life: the basic organization and principles of reality.

'All the laws and prophecies' - which also implies the many detailed and specific statements of scripture - should be interpreted in this light (i.e. they 'hang on' the two commandments), In other words, when their meaning, intention, provenance etc. are understood correctly, they cannot contradict these two commandments. 

And if we think that any particular law, prophecy or line of scripture does contradict either of the two great commandments, then we have in some way misunderstood that law, prophecy or scripture.

The two great commandments are a great simplicity at the heart of Christianity: comprehensible by almost anyone. 

Once grasped, they are of great value in discerning the specifics of what is true theology or doctrine, and what is false or mistaken . Even when errors of teaching or interpretation are backed-up by power, knowledge and/ or logic; when something violates the two great commandments, this tells us that we should reject it. 

The two commandments are, indeed, not intended as rules; but intended to be absorbed into the heart - to allow us to move spontaneously and surely through the complexities of life; directed by an inner guidance system that will err in specifics and temporarily - but over time, and in general, will keep us moving in the right direction. 


Note added: The two great commandments could perhaps usefully be summarized as The Love of God, and The Rule of Love.



Robert Brockman II said...

Yes, this is all correct.

Underlying this, however, is a greater mystery: as Jesus clearly states in the above passage, there is only one commandment.

Thank you for reminding me of this.

Have you noticed how easy it is to *forget* important spiritual things? I often wonder why this is. Luckily someone reminds me. :-)

The Crow said...

Fail in the first, and the second becomes impossible.
Failing to love God, one is unable to love oneself.
Loving one's neighbor then becomes a complete non starter.

Do you really see God as "...doing his best, etc."?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - Do you really see God as "...doing his best, etc."?

Yes, I do.

Bruce Charlton said...

@RBII - "Have you noticed how easy it is to *forget* important spiritual things? I often wonder why this is. "

It seems to be part of the nature of mortal life - and I infer it is related to the purpose of our lives; which is mostly about striving and experiencing and repenting - a sort of trial and error.

At any rate, it seems clear that we are not equipped to 'solve' the problems of this life. We should therefore not be too hard on our failures (and the failures of others) - but understand and repent them, and keep trying.

The real danger is that spiritual pride which refuses to admit our own imperfections, errors and wickedness - on the other hand, this realism should not make us despair as we also have that which is divine within us; and the odds are stacked in our favour by the power of repentance (the effectuality of which was the gift of Christ).

David said...

Agreed and I do try to live by these principles. But my goodness me, isn't the modern world fiendishly organised to prevent these basic and satisfying conditions?!

"Love thy neighbour as thyself." I would like to, but most of the neighbours I know don't want to be loved by their other neighbours. Is your street any different to mine? My neighbours don't talk to each other and live in self - contained bubbles. At best you may realise a faint smile or acknowledgement of existence when parking my car but anything attempted beyond this is regarded as unwelcome or soon re age schedule a stalemate.

If I try to love my neighbour through charity work or involvement in community. First, it soon becomes apparent their is no community to love or belong to and then it turns out the only way any 'loving of thy neighbour' can be done is by *donating money* to Oxfam or Red Cross or *insert name of leftist propaganda racket here* as, that rules that out doesn't insert?!

Finally, if I try to set about making my life and vocation as an expression of my guiding principle of 'love thy neighbour' at a larger level to reach out to the broader community, I end up working for a soul - destroying bureaucratic machine that attempts to indoctrinate people and slowly drive them (and me) insane with questionnaires and assessments of mood, sleep patterns, thought patterns, always avoiding what might actually be of value i.e. belonging to an actual community of people who prioritise 'love thy neighbour' rather than 'love thy self.'

In the end one begins to 'give in' fighting unwinnable battles and focus on family, who can actually be loved effectively, and the neighbours are only loved inwardly and in theory or personal prayer prayer but rarely if ever in actual real life situations of any substance. I imagine it must be very satisfying to just belong to such a group of people. Modern conditions do not really allow it. The only exception I am aware of is the Mormon Church and my family are not going to join that I am fairly certain and so I am an outsider still through my love of them. Although that itself is hard to explain here.

Bruce B. said...

Isn’t a lot of contemporary, progressive Christianity about overemphasizing and distorting the 2nd great commandment while largely ignoring the 1st?
Contemporary Christian morality only seems to care about sins that cause direct and immediate harm to others. E.g. it is tolerant of homosexuality (since it is consensual and causes no immediate harm to either person and can even be spoken of as “love”). But being “mean” is of course, a significant sin since it causes immediate psychic harm to another.
Contemporary Christian morality resembles libertarian morality.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Well, yes - We would agree that unless the First commandment is acknowledged, then we don't have Christianity.

The two commandments make a unitary sense - neither is dispensable because the one clarifies what the other intends.

But I think a problem is that modern people misunderstand Love as a feeling; therefore assume that 'loving God' means having a feeling of Love towards Him; probably at all times; and the same thing towards the whole human species...

From this people infer that 'all you need is [the feeling of] love' - directed towards everything' - and they understand *this* to mean that if you have this feeling, then you don't really need to take specific consideration of God and his intentions for us.

Whereas we both know that this is a profound misunderstanding of love in the Christian sense.

When the commandments say that all the Laws and Prophecies hang upon these commandments, this means that we are dealing with a fundamental description of *the nature of reality* (and not merely a 'feeling', which is unstable, usually ephemeral).

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Maybe my comment to BB makes clearer what is meant by love - it is much more than a feeling - and indeed does not even need the feeling - so long as we know we ought to love, and repent our inability.

Nathaniel said...

1 John 5:3 "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous."

I think the modern liberal thinks they can love God without practicing obedience to God or desiring His will first and foremost.

Bruce B. said...

Yes, I agree that “love” is misunderstood. I’m sure Greek to English doesn’t help.

But I just thought it was noteworthy that contemporary Christian morality apes libertarian morality in that “victimless” sin is not a real big deal. I observed this mentality first hand during a discussion with my deacon.

GFC said...

Nathaniel, I came here to post that, more or less. In my own Catholic religious life, I have encountered numerous people who equate love with their sentiments and act accordingly. They find condemnations of sinful behavior to be personally mean or distasteful, ergo they don't count as love, so they for example affirm homosexuality (which we are reminded biblically is an abomination in the sight of the Lord) because it would hurt the feelings of homosexuals to condemn the practice. I would say this mindset has taken firm hold in the large majority of American and European Catholics.

David said...

So what then is love? If it's not something I need to necessarily feel or something I can even do as an act what then? How am I supposed to practically love my neighbours in a wicked modern world that is contrived to prevent me from doing it? I feel like the basic set-up of my life is of a frustrated soul with a heart of spontaneous love and goodwill for both God and other people (although, like other flawed humans I find evil and wicked thoughts and intentions arise spontaneously as well) that has been thrust into a kind of hell that is so far removed from my imagined perfection of heaven and a happy, joyful existence (which I trust God has planned as the hoped for end-point) for us I can barely tolerate the contrast and the constant barrage of daily suffering in my life but mostly the lives of others (objectively mine is not that bad, a lot to be grateful for), of death, bereavement, mental illness, loneliness, alienation, existential angst, crying/hopeless depressed or chronically ill patients, people denying even the hope of meaning on a daily and inescapable and direct basis, both to me when I offer hope or solace and everyone else.

At the moment I feel so helpless and so futile in the face of this constant barrage, even if I manage to carry charity, goodwill, and patience in my heart for a few days it is soon eroded away and I just want to opt out, to have a long lie down and rest for a bit, but I cannot. I have to get up everyday and do it all over again to pay the bills. It is breaking me, leaving me tearful, defeated and struggling to find solace in prayer. I just want to be a good man and help God's plan but I cannot understand what he wants from me, the purpose of my constantly thwarted, futile mortal life and how to make it count in a way that will make him proud if me and will unequivocally validate the gift of my life instead of just shuffling ineffectually through this horror of modernity, in a daily pointless job that is destroying my mental health with few rewards except survival and servicing my financial obligations, where I am kept so busy I have no social contact with any colleagues or other people, and any prayers I make, if I trust are answered (which I earnestly try to do), only seem like implacable silence in response at the time I am making them. Any message of hope at this time would be richly appreciated. I'm struggling right now and could use the support and wisdom of other Christians. I know despair is a sin (although I don't if in honest understand why it is or how any person with a heart and Soul can escape it entirely in mortal life) and I am trying to fight it away. I just have to keep reminding myself what Jesus did and how he died for use. Above all else that is the only thought in this life that ever brings me any real solace in the face of my trials.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - There are a number of reasons why life may be unhappy that are not theological - illness, personality, general social situation, specific stresses etc - and these may or may not be changeable.

For example, some people I know have been able significantly to improve their happiness by careful self medication - others by changing their job - others by marriage/ children.

But in terms of Christianity and love - the fundamental aspect is knowledge rather than feelings. Christianity tells us the *fact* that love is the single most important thing in the universe.

But the extent to which individual people, ourselves and others, are capable of feeling constant love for God and fellow Men is extremely variable. It is what she should acknowledge to be good, strive for and (certainly) repent our failures - but Christ came to save sinners, not perfected people.

Conversely, the vast majority of people cannot prevent themselves from feeling pride, hatred, envy etc - indeed they may be mastered by such (sinful) feelings. These must be repented, and must not be defended or promoted - but cannot be prevented.

It seems that life is set up to present us with one challenge after another - and we fail many or most of these challenges; but what is important is that we acknowledge these failures and acknowledge the ideal.

So although we are indeed 'miserable sinners (as the Book of Common Prayer accurately terms it) this does not at all mean that we are supposed to *feel* miserable - rather, we are supposed to feel grateful and hopeful that - however badly we do, and however bad the world around us is - we are only one sincere act of repentance away from being washed-clean.

I think that the Gospel is supposed to give us knowledge of what is right and good - to inspire us with that vision; AND to liberate us from guilt at our recurrent inability to achieve this during our mortal lives.

Living as if 'not of this world' is supposed to mean that the fullness of life is not of this world - it is NOT supposed to mean either that this life is unimportant (on the one hand), or (on the other hand) that we should live in a constant state of misery at our failures.

My favourite expression of this is in the later parts of St John's Gospel: I am thinking especially of chapter 14. Some of these things Jesus says are addressed specifically to his Disciples - some to everyone. But part of the message is to be of good cheer - which I take to mean that we are given permission to be of good cheer. This is what it means to overcome the world.

1. Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.
2 In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; 17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. 18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.

26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. 27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

16: 33 These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

David said...

@Bruce - thank you, that helps. It's good to know that others believe in the Gospel and that Jesus really do what it is claimed he did. The testimony of others gives me Hope and strength. The world can leave a Christian very weary, feeling alone and cause doubts and despair to fester. Ideally belonging to a Church would help. I found it extremely enriching to attend LDS services especially but for various reasons I have not formally joined; yet. On reflection, this last few days has reminded me how I need the support of other Christians and I cannot expect to make at alone in the modern wilderness ad sometimes I had fantasised I might be able to: I'm just too weak but Jesus must be my strength.

Thanks for you kind reply.

William Wildblood said...

With regard to the excellent comments by Bruce B, Nathaniel and GFC, it seems to me that obeying the first commandment and loving God, which necessarily implies loving truth, means you might sometimes appear to disobey the second in that you are obliged to condemn falsehood where you see it, and not simply support your neighbour in his acts and beliefs regardless of what they are. The modern way is to interpret loving your neighbour as accepting him whatever he does or thinks, but this can easily amount to the denial of God. It is not love but sentimentality and moral relativism.

Love the sinner does not mean don’t recognize that he is a sinner. Of course, that is what we all are in our acts, but many people are today in their thoughts too. True love does not forbear to point this out. After all, what is the greater love, to encourage someone happily walking towards the edge of a cliff or to pull him back?