Monday 31 December 2018

The 'problem' of love and Christianity (gnosticism is an unavoidable consequence of organisation)

Love* is the basis of real Christianity; but in practice Christianity is seldom real.

As I said yesterday, if we regard gnosticism as the replacement of love by knowledge, as the focus of Christianity; then this form of pseudo-Christianity has been and is usually dominant.

It is much easier to have a religion of knowledge than of love; and the less spiritual a society becomes - the more that this is the case. With knowledge at the centre; Christianity can become the subject of organisation - hierarchy and specialisation; of education and training, of initiation and ordination.

Churches often exclude, discipline and expelled people for inadequate or incorrect knowledge - but seldom or never for insufficient love; or for the opposite of love such as excessive fear, resentment or pride. Converts and aspirants are tested on their knowledge, not their love.

Christians, especially Christian leaders (and aspiring leaders), may falsely claim to be motivated by love. When asked for proof of love, people either suggest that it is wholly subjective, private and inaccessible - and therefore cannot or should not be judged and evaluated.

Or else (in trying to avoid such 'relativism') they invent 'proxy-measures of love', and thereby ignore the reality of love. Thus, people 'prove' their motivation-by-love, by (for example) doing impressive works of public charity, or performing extreme ascetic feats. In other words, but in a different way; they replace love with... knowledge... again.

What we can see is that any kind of institutional structure requires 'objective measures' and that real love is unsuitable to be such a measure. Therefore, any and every form of organisation is intrinsically gnostic.

(Of course, love and knowledge of love are two different things; a young child may love, but not know that he loves. Love may exist without knowledge. Nonetheless, Christianity can only be discussed if love can be known.)

It is a strange business and very different from the rest of life! For a Christian, love is not just real - but the reallest things of all; not just the proper focus of mortal life, but the actual basis of the creation of everything.

(Note: One who cannot love, cannot be a Christian - the implications of the two great commandments (to love God and neighbour) and the whole of the Fourth Gospel make that fact crystal clear. This formulation is seldom stated, perhaps because many people - unlike Jesus - have tried to make Christianity universal. Whether people actually exist who cannot love is a separate matter - but if they do exist, then they cannot be Christian, and could not have life everlasting - 'could not' simply because they would not follow Jesus through death to resurrection.)   

And yet love is apparently not amenable to detection and measurement... and yet it actually is. Love is knowable, indeed for a Christian love must be knowable; because the alternative is that love is subject to unlimited self-deception and unbounded false assertion.

As so often, all this mystery and problem is a consequence of inappropriate abstraction. Because love is a matter of common sense and common experience - within the family situation.

We may know of another's love, when that is a spouse, parent, sibling, son or daughter... We know of another's love when we are in a loving situation. Indeed, such known-love is as certain as anything can be, it is (when present) the most powerful motivator in the world - leading to extreme, even ultimate, forms of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation.

But love is not open-endedly scaleable. We can know of love in a loving family situation, and some analogous family-like situation; but can know of love only in such situations.

Love is straightforwardly knowable, and indeed 'measurable', within the family situation; but becomes an insoluble problem - is made an insoluble problem - when we try to make love the focus of an institution, a legal system, a polity...

In this sense gnosticism is an unavoidable consequence of organisation. 

*Love needs to be understood in a 'metaphysical' sense that includes 'creation'. It was Love that both motivated and enabled divine creation; love that enables creation both to have novelty and to cohere; to develop and evolve and remain aligned in purpose; love that enables many beings (each with free will, with 'agency') to participate in the unity of creation - and so on.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

When I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I find knowledge much more interesting than love and always have. Christianity doesn't come naturally to me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Ultimately - I suppose - it is about what someone wants for eternity.

Quite a lot of people seem bored or repelled by the idea of a heaven that entails living in any kind of loving extended family.

Since this is the basis (although far from the whole) of what Jesus offered, then there would be little reason to love him for having made such a gift, if such a gift gift was unwanted.

On the other hand, those of us who regard the loving earthly family (at its best) as the best thing we know, and the essential basis of participation in creation (which we also want); will naturally love Jesus (so long as we realise that this was indeed his gift, and are not distracted or confused by alternative theories).

wgmeisheid said...

There is a tension between Jesus' statement in John 13:35 "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" and Jude's statement in verse 3 "Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints."

Contending for the faith requires knowledge of that faith, as does Paul's admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."

I understand your concern for Gnostic intrusion where knowledge becomes the final arbiter, but how do you see the balance between the two needs? I often am reminded that Jesus was hung on the cross by both wrists as an image of balance, keeping everything centered.

Grace and peace,
Bill Meisheid

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - I suspect that there is no 'balance' between knowledge and love, and that to suppose that there is, may itself be a crucial first step towards gnosticism.

I think this is the message of the fourth gospel, and is a kind of master idea behind all of the best examples Christianity. I try to understand such matters from the persepctive of how our loving Father would try to arrange matters for the best of each of his children. And, given the range of people and conditions, I would infer that what he hopes from us must be absolutely simple and attainable to all who are capable.

So, the kingdom of heaven is a gift and offer to everyone capable of love.

A matter I remain unsure of is how this is managed for those who live without hearing about Jesus, or whose only knowledge is distorted and false? The possibility must be universal, even as 'the church' cannot be universal (at least, not universal in any meaningful sense).

I presume that what happens is that after death we are given, by Jesus, in person, a clear vision of reality and possibility; so that all will be given the best possibility of knowing what they are being offered and what it entails. But because of our free will, understanding cannot be imposed. Even such a clear presentation can bem will be - probably, misunderstood and rejected for that reason. But those who misunderstand and reject will be those incapable of love.

As you may recognise, I regard salvation (to Heaven) as simple and easy - but far from universal (especially in the modern West); and the difficulties for most of us is 'theosis' - experiencing; learning from experience; and moving higher, towards divinity.

In my use of love here, I reject the possibility of 'self-love' - all love is between actual beings - although we need to recognise that beings is a much, much wider category than materialists would have it - inclding the dead, and that creation is made of beings.

Love is what makes creation cohere, because creation is beings and love between beings is that which aligns beings. Without love would be primal chaos.

But all that explanation of mine is knowledge, and inessential!

wgmeisheid said...

Re: I suspect that there is no 'balance' between knowledge and love...
Then how do you deal with Philippians 1:9-11? "9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, 10 that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, 11 being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."

This directly calls for a balance in which knowledge and discernment separate love from license keeping that love pure and blameless. I have studied Gnosticism in the past and a root of all Gnostic traditions is two-fold: denial of goodness in the physical creation and hidden knowledge, there for the special few to gain access to, who have been freed from the blindness the physical order brings to our being. Gnosticism is countered by the truth and truth is known through rightly dividing the Word of Truth, or righteous knowing.

I agree that love has primacy, as 1 Corinthians 13 points out, especially in verses 2 and 8 where having knowledge is not enough and knowledge will pass away (at least our incomplete knowledge) but love supports knowledge in the first case and supercedes in the second, provided love (agape) is properly understood for what it is, biblically (requiring knowledge) and that is supported by Paul's argument in Philippians. Agape is personal self sacrifice, giving worth where it is undeserved or just because you want to give it, as in opposition to Eros that sees worth and wants to possess it. Giving versus taking. This understanding (knowledge) is crucial to right loving and avoiding error and self-delusion as Paul warns.

I believe the real issue with Gnostic temptations is claiming special knowledge or interpretations that go against the standard of rightly dividing the Word of Truth. This can be done and has been done by denying problematic scriptural commands such as those against homosexuality, women in church leadership, head coverings, and other things that go against modern liberal sensibilities and in this you are correct. But a problem for you is that those doing this often falsely appeal to love as a basis for their rewriting the rules, which Paul would have us deal with by applying right knowledge of love, not its distorted modern redesign to meet the desires of the day.

So, I believe a balance is absolutely necessary and either without the other opens the door to Gnostic reinterpretation or Pharisaic legalism bereft of biblical love.

My two cents.

Grace and peace,
Bill Meishei

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - As I said, I can't make sense of the usual way of defining and distinguishing gnosticism. Mainstream Christianity has often lapsed into regarding the phsyical creation, and the body - as evil or the source of evil. And one aspect of priesthood and church hierarchy is esoteric knowledge - scripture itself was esoteric for most of the history of Christianity.

Of course, everything depends on the understanding of Love. Secular love is just a type of emotion, hence labile - whereas love in the Fourth Gospel has a metaphysical and eternal function, as the ultimate beasis of created reality.

But that is abstract; and I think we are supposed to regard this ultimate divine love quite simply; as qualitatively the same as the love in families - raised to a divine level. And (when/ because people are natually animistic), in a universe of 'beings', it is love that enables creation.

As for the quote from Paul; I'm afraid I regard Paul has himself haveing taken the early steps into gnosticism, by making Christianity an 'experts' subject, extremely abstract, and full of intrinsically difficult/ paradoxical concepts. Going by the Fourth Gospel, it was not supposed to be that way.

Unknown said...

Dear Bruce,

I have been enjoying your blog! You have some very interesting content, most of which I find myself in agreement with.

Not this post, however!

If we take love to be something like care for the well-being of a person, then it seems to be impossible to separate a love of knowledge with a love of others. If I love my children I will seek to help them to be wise which entails seeking that they have knowledge. But I must also love knowledge to know this and impart knowledge to them.

I think the SJWs have flipped the script. Most churches, it seems to me, lack love for lack of love of knowledge. The love that they have for others is thus (if we want to call it love) a defective sort of love. They have inverted the order of the task of apostles and deacons in Acts; feeding "the poor" (and LGBTQQALIEN, etc.) takes precedent over prayer and the Word.

Sed contra, "Man shall not live by bread alone."

wgmeisheid said...

I would suggest reading C.S. Lewis' excellent book on the four loves (the four Greek words of which only three are used in Scripture). The misuse/misunderstanding of agape is at the root of so much error. This is an area I have studied for over 40 years (doesn't guarantee correctness.

I find problematic your dismissal of Paul where he moderates your argument. As to the 4th Gospel, its use of agape, the unique word for God's love and combined with its use in John's epistles follows closely after Lewis' usage, as he submits his understanding to the Scriptures. I don't see the problem that you argue for in the Bible. I do see the problem in the church and throughout history since the beginning.

Just how do you expect to differentiate between love and license biblically without rightly dividing the Word of Truth by studying to show yourself approved and as Jude said, contending for the faith once delivered?

As God has said, "Come let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18) and Jesus taught continuously, which is a rational exercise. Agape is the crown of all God's action in creation, but He has revealed himself through the Scriptures which are studied and a rightly divided and Romans 12:1-2 tell us to 1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service [a true act of agape]. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.[righteous understanding and knowledge}. Righteous knowledge of the Truth is the handmaiden of agape and keeps us on the straight and narrow.

How else can be know how to keep His commandments which he said we must do to show that we love him?

Grace and peace,
Bill Meisheid

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - Answers are what this blog has been (mostly) 'about' for the last 9 or so years; too big a topic for a comment!