|Path Home: Empathy, Altruism and Agape | Presenters or Itinerary
On a recent safari in the Okavango Delta of Botswana my wife and I saw what we interpret as an expression of cross-species maternal concern, between a waterbuck doe and a hippopotamus cow. This causes me to ask why I interpret that display of animal behavior as a disclosure of love in the pre-human stage of the phylogenetic system.
To make such an interpretation I use a principle of interpretation that I have received from the Christian revelation, which is in turn dependent on the Bible and its traditions. Methodologically I am doing what anyone who desires to understand must do, bringing to the specific situation a principle of classification derived from outside the situation, in this case, from the body of Christian theology that the believer accepts as revealed. My interpretation of the waterbuck episode is a form of faith seeking understanding, of an assumption seeking to interpret events so as to make sense to me. The assumption I bring to the situation is that there is such a thing as radical love and that it is the fundamental reality of the world of existing things.
The biblical tradition gave the world the word agape in the sense of radical love. I take the story of the binding of Isaac, (The Akedah) in Genesis 22 as a starting point for considering the biblical traditions. It is a foundational text for Judaism, Christianity and Islam; Abraham is a pivotal figure for all three religions, usually seen as an exemplar of faith. In the story God requires him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, and stays the knife only at Isaacıs throat.
Anthropologically the story is a command to end human sacrifice in Israel. The great religions begin where human sacrifice ends.
Theologically the story is an account of radical love. Abraham loves God more than his only son, more than himself. In this he foreshadows the act of God in Christ, who loves humanity with an even greater radicality than Abraham, since he does not spare his only son but gives him up for the life of the world. Nevertheless, radical love first appears in the Bible as the radical faith of Abraham. The great religions begin when radical love appears.
The Apostle Paul identifies faith and hope as subsets of love, so the celebration of Abraham as the exemplar of faith in Judaism and the exemplar of submission to God in Islam are both celebrations of radical love.
I have been influenced by the Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard in my reading of the biblical tradition. Girard emphasizes the role of sacrifice in the foundation of human culture. I give a brief account of his theory and demonstrate how the three foundation stones of culture - ritual, prohibition and myth - are laid by the spontaneous discovery of the surrogate victim mechanism for the control of violence in mimetically rivalrous groups of hominids. The ritualization of surrogate victimage as sacrifice, the formulation of prohibitions on behavior that promotes rivalry, and the mythic telling of the story of origins play an essential part in the transformation of hominids into humans. There was an essential cultural element in the transition to humanness, namely, ritual sacrifice and its corollaries of prohibition and myth.
The Bible contains the revelation of the foundational surrogate victim in the Lamb of God slain as the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). The New Testament refutes the necessity for human sacrifice more emphatically than Genesis. It reverses the direction of sacrifice, from the god to the humans rather than vice versa; we do not give God our first born sons, He gives us His. In this way He hopes to shame us into ending sacrifice altogether. Since that time sacrifice for Christians has been the communal eating of bread and drinking of wine in remembrance of the death of Christ, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, a celebration of the radical love of God. It is precisely the most cannibalistic features of the Eucharist, eating his flesh and drinking his blood that are the most liberating moments for humanity. Where else can we confess our bloodlust so frankly and defiantly except in a context where it has been defanged, transformed into a fellowship meal of bread and wine?
Scapegoating and victimage, which we see all around us in the personal and political worlds (cf. The Serbs as the victim nation); mimetic violence, which we see so clearly in the cycles of revenge (cf. The Albanians doing to the Serbs what the Serbs did to them), are ongoing signs of the operation of the surrogate victim mechanism. The way to break the cycle, to stop the victimage is to forgo vengeance and love the enemy. Jesusı teaching is remarkable not for its advocacy of love in general, but love of the enemy in particular. You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you....For if you love those who love you what right have you to claim any credit?...You must therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43ff). Love of enemies is the essence of agape; it crosses all boundaries, and loves human beings not for their affinity to us, or their evident or hidden merit, but because they are human and as such in the image of God. Therefore, inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brothers you have done it to me, says Jesus to the saved and the damned on the day of judgment (Matthew 26:40). To love the humanity of the human is to love the divine image, the God incarnate in all flesh, and in all nature.
Radical love in the Bible is a transformation of the idea of sacrifice, from the offering of the other to the offering of the self. It is a transformation of the mimetic situation from the imitation of each otherıs desires to the imitation of the divine desire, or more traditionally, to love radically is to do the will of God, and that is the command of all the great Western religions.
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