|Path Home: Empathy, Altruism and Agape | Presenters or Itinerary
For the purposes of brevity I would like to focus my comments on the differences between two dominant ideal types displayed in Christian literature on love: the dialectical and the sacramental. The dialectical type opposes non-Christian and Christian love or agape: private good vs. common good, self-concern vs. self-sacrifice, egocentrism vs. altruism, etc. The writings of Tertullian, Luther, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and R. Niebuhr illustrate this opposition, though they exhibit other tendencies as well. Today this position strikes a heroic cord, repudiates cheap accommodation, and calls for loyalty to a distinctive religious community against secular culture.
This approach is usually contrasted with what can be called a sacramental interpretation of love, which regards all human relationships as potentially sacred, as potentially ordered by grace to the glory of God. It holds that creation is redeemed rather than obliterated by God, that nature is healed, and not destroyed, by grace. The powerful reality of human sin underscores the obstacles to its actualization, but a counterbalancing affirmation of the goodness of the creation upholds our awareness of its constructive potentiality. Just as any and all human relationships can be corrupted, so they can be healed by and ordered to grace. It appreciates the difference between legitimate and illegitimate self-love, ordered and disordered love of others, and proper and improper love of God. It need not identify all erotic desire with sin, or all forms of self-concern with unbounded egocentrism. The writings of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Rahner illustrate this position.
This approach is able to assimilate relevant studies from the sciences on love. One paradigm is Aquinas' critical appropriation of Aristotelian biology within his account of the graded relations of responsibility and affection known as the order of charity. Dialectically-minded thinkers alert us to dangers but, at their worst, they tend to dismiss scientific studies as having nothing to do with the radical demands of the cross. The sacramental approach, in contrast, can be informed about ways in which the affective imagination of Christians might have been stilted by social conditions, cultural assumptions, or personal biases and, conversely, how in the future it might be expanded by various means to encompass those who in the past have not been its spontaneous recipients.
In this view both science and theology pertain to our understanding of love, at least as long as what claims to be science is in fact genuinely scientific rather than journalistic evolutionary moralizing. Evolutionary theories of kinship, reciprocity, cooperation, and parental investment can be critically appropriated by those seeking to understand aspects of the human psyche that can be enlisted to support intimacy and commitment in marriage, stable and loving families, loyal friendships, etc. Sociobiology of course has not always functioned in a detached scientific vein, but when it does offer legitimate empirical information and insights into the natural underpinnings of human conduct, it ought to be appropriated. Conversely, evolutionary theories of xenophobia, aggression and violence, sexual opportunism, deception and manipulation point to other natural possibilities which need to be anticipated and to conditions which might be modified.
It is important to avoid misunderstanding sacramentality as simply domesticating agape. The Christian character of sacramentality requires conversion, discipleship, and a way of life marked by an ever deepening, self-transcending love. Sacramentality finds grace in ordinary kinds of relationships but it also requires that these relationships manifest divine love. Because of our propensity to disordered self-love, properly ordered love is most poignantly expressed as a demand to completely deny oneself, to hate our brothers and sisters, and so forth. But Jesus himself blessed the woman who anointed him, loved his disciples as friends, and suffered and died for the reconciliation of humanity with God. There is no doubt a crucially important dialectical subplot within the more encompassing sacramental narrative, but the former should not be allowed to overwhelm the latter.
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