Warning. This post is longer than my previous posts. For your reading pleasure, however, I will include an intermission in which you can get popcorn, use the facilities, or continue the next day.
As an end, for now, to my posts on love, I came across a short piece I wrote in my last six months as a Christian over four years ago. I had been wrestling with the definition of love, as it had been discussed in my church. Paul’s First Corinthians gives many attributes of love, but never puts forth a succinct definition. I reflected, though, that 1 John provides perhaps the quintessential definition of love in the Christian faith. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (3.16). It seemed to me that the passage suggests a sort of imitation. The critical question is of what kind that imitation is. Essentially, my critique at the time was that we superimpose the literal death of Jesus over our metaphorical deaths and suppose it to be the same thing. In other words, we use the death of Christ to bring life to ourselves. The Christian does not seem to notice how problematic this makes the second half of the verse above. How do we lay down our lives for others if not in the sense that Jesus did? How can we justify believing we have done so if not through the testimony of our deaths? If we love, we do so differently.
I concluded that the discrepancy highlighted in the verse was due to a distinctly different understanding of love—one formed in the wake of Jesus’s death and necessary to Christian institutionalization—as an identity-forming, life-sustaining relationship between the believer and Christ, rather than laying down life. First John later states that God is love, and since God loved us, we ought to love each other. I argued that one cannot love in the way suggested by this verse in First John with our current definition of love. I suggested that another paradigm for understanding love, such as that of Thich Nhat Hanh, might be more appropriate. In Living Buddha, Living Christ, he suggests that one cannot love one’s enemy, because in love, any distinction between self and other is collapsed, making it impossible for the enemy to be enemy, or even to be ‘other.’ I suggested that our desire to limit and qualify love, as does the man who asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?,” is contrary to the open and excessive model of love defined by John’s Jesus. At the very least, it seemed to me that we should recognize that our definition of love was really not that of John’s Jesus because taken in a literal sense, it would entail our deaths ‘for’ one another, or in a more metaphorical sense, an open-ended outflowing of self. John’s two examples, love as death and love as God, are intimately connected. Thus, I reasoned, love, death, and a search for divinity are there in the death of Jesus, but our imitation is something entirely different.
Looking back now, I was clinging to what seemed to me to be the most important element of Christianity, the death of Christ, while expanding the definition of Christianity beyond the Western Protestant boundaries I had grown up in. Love, I was trying to say, is bigger than Christianity, and part of the love that First John actually implies (though I certainly don’t think this is what the author intended) means exceeding and destroying the Christian boundaries within which the verse is brought to our attention. At the time, I was still very invested in those boundaries.
My investment, some four years removed, has lessened but has not been completely liquidated. Nor will it likely ever be. My field of study, over and above my three-decade-plus social inculcation, ensures that my reflection on Christianity and the Western tradition will be a lifelong habit. In any case, the verse in First John seems even more revealing than it did to me years ago. I would now locate the nature of the problem in the first sentence of the verse above. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” The first and definitive act of interpretation is inherent in conveying the nature of the act itself. The author conveys the historical and existential fact of death, but does so in a non-empirical way. Jesus’s death is given an equivalence. It was a loss for our gain. The excessiveness of the act of death is given the status of an economic exchange in order to explain it, to circumscribe its meaning. I do not suggest the author was being intentionally deceitful here; nonetheless, his explanation attempts to render uncontrollable death controllable once again.
Death is the ultimate paradox: the limit of life, a finality to be avoided as long as possible, yet an inevitable and existential reality. There have been innumerable responses to the mandate of death, yet all exhibit a notion of control over it, or at least an attempt to lessen its sting. Thus, when someone embraces death, even welcomes it before absolutely necessary, it thwarts the very ground of our existence and demands a re-equalization. The language of sacrifice becomes prevalent. Jesus sacrificed himself, gave up life in order to benefit ours. In the Christian tradition, Jesus’s death removes the sting, the finality, of our own deaths. In one fell swoop, we thus have explained the unexplainable and rendered all of life under our control, because even in the beyond of death, where we have no being to explain, we have established continuance of life. This is what we call faith. And while it may very well be a form of faith-as-imitation, it is not love.
It is not love because such a paradigm conserves, it preserves; in short, it does the opposite of death. Even when death comes, as it does to us all, we tell ourselves, that it has only altered our physical form, but not our lives. We use the example of Christ to do exactly the opposite, despite the words of First John. As a result, both love and death become the language of commonplace exchange. Christians conquer death and love everybody all the time.
Consider the act of death from the perspective of Jesus, from the perspective of many a charismatic leader. It does not flow from the logic of economic exchange. It is motivated by such an excess of quality that death comes as a byproduct and a surprise, and yet is irrelevant. If we are to believe that love is God, and that its epitome is the death of Jesus, then Christianity has little ground on which to stand. Why? Because the institution exists to preserve itself, to preserve those whom it protects. The model of Jesus is an excess of love, a giving of oneself that ends inevitably in death. We see evidence of this throughout history, and we immortalize it in literature and film. Yet in our everyday lives we conclude that those tragic figures were subject to some sort of temporal equation, when their deaths were actually evidence that they exceeded temporal mathematics all together.
The martyrs of early Christianity understood the excess of love perhaps better than most. But I think that even the martyrs, though they have taken the weight of the verses of First John more seriously, fail to grasp the divinity of the equation. Under the social influence of Christianity, they accept that the love to which the author refers is located, not in the excess of life resulting in death itself, but in relationship with Christ. As a result, they reach for divinity after death instead of seeing its equivalence in death itself, in the act of loving. If the death of Jesus is a byproduct of love, is a godly status, there is nothing in the act to suggest to us that it is historically unique. Instead, we can see it in the beauty of many a leader, an artist, a philosopher. Single-minded dedication, unwavering desire will result in death because it loves too much. It exceeds all social norms and must be controlled for society to function properly. Yet our appropriation of such excess as the standards of normativity, the prime example of which is American Christianity, deviously corrupts excess, perhaps lessening the anxiety of death, perhaps preventing some of the violence that results from divinity, but certainly placing limits around our understanding of love.
I would “love” to hear your thoughts. In fact, if you post a comment, I’ll put you in a drawing for an only slightly used copy of Living Buddha, Living Christ. Shameless, just shameless.