Deus Caritas Est
Updated: Jan 10
We begin a new year with the world in a real mess, with issues, problems, threats and dangers on the local, national and global levels too many (and too depressing) to count. Would that we could find a single, simple answer to cut through it all and lead us back to some semblance of rationality and normalcy.
That wish may not be as naive as it sounds.
For most of human history, philosophers and scientists have sought to develop a framework within which to understand how, why and to what purpose the universe exists. Ever since Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1915, the field of physics has been consumed with the search for a “theory of everything” that would unify all of the fundamental interactions of nature. The best minds on the planet have made it their lives’ work.
As lofty and potentially complex as that task might appear, it is being pursued in the context of desiring simplicity in expression, best encapsulated in the principle known as the rule of “Occam’s Razor,” attributed to the 14th century Franciscan friar William of Ockham (a village in Surrey, England, where he was born). Sometimes referred to as the Principle of Economy or Law of Parsimony, Isaac Newton stated it as follows: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” It is often shortened to the statement "as between two competing theories, the simpler explanation is to be preferred." In modern vernacular, it has been transmogrified into the “KISS Principle” (keep it simple, stupid). It finds expression in the elegance of argument, efficiency of design and beauty of art. Somehow, for some reason, we often experience something of the divine in its successful application.
Could it be that the answer to all that perplexes, vexes, frightens and threatens us is something so simple, so singular, so fundamental that we should “know it when we see it?” And could it be that that solution has been with us, constantly, hidden in plain sight, all of our lives?
In 1965, lyricist Hal David and composer Burt Bacharach wrote a song entitled “What the World Needs Now is Love.” First recorded by singer Jackie DeShannon, it is probably best known through Dionne Warwick’s magical interpretation, which Hal David described as his “favorite.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5Chxe89O6c
The lyrics seem simple, perhaps even saccharine, but the song was uncharacteristically difficult for David to finish, and almost never was. In it, David effectively captures the angst we feel today: “Lord, we don’t need another mountain; there are mountains and hillsides enough to climb. There are oceans and rivers enough to cross, enough to last till the end of time.” And provides a simple solution: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love; it’s the only thing that there’s much too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love, no not just for some but for everyone.”
But what exactly is this love that we need so badly, and where (as the title character in the movie Oliver! asks so plaintively) can it be found?
Not surprisingly, this topic has been the subject of much thought through the millennia. The ancient Greeks went so far as to define eight separate types of love:
· Eros – physical, romantic, sexual love
· Philia – affectionate love; as in friendship
· Agape – selfless, unconditional, universal love, e.g., for strangers or God
· Storge – familiar love; as between family members
· Mania – obsessive love
· Ludus – playful love; as in having a crush
· Pragma – enduring love, built on commitment and understanding
· Philautia – self-love; in order to care for others, we must first learn to care for ourselves
Of these, agape has the greatest potential to provide the basis for answering the question and filling the need.
Agape love is love at its highest level. It is a love of choice, not born of attraction or obligation. It seeks good for others without requiring recompense in return; as such, it is selflessness in action. It often comes at cost to the giver; to that extent it is also considered sacrificial love. In many ways it is counter-intuitive love, for human nature tends to be self-centered, self-protective and self-promotional. Agape love builds, connects, unifies, heals. It is not transitory, as eros or ludus may be, nor expected, as philia and storge most often are, nor is it rooted in possessiveness, as mania can be. It is not a denial of philautia, but rather an intentional reprioritization of the needs of others over the needs of self. In its highest expression, it can incorporate the enduring aspects of pragma. In the Judeo-Christian faith tradition, it is the love of God for humanity and the reciprocal love God wishes to receive in return.
I believe that this is the “needed” love which Hal David felt there is “too little of.”
So there it is: the simple, universal answer and solution to all of our problems. In all honesty, it really should not have come as a surprise to anyone.
In the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth is recorded as summarizing the entire Judaic law in the simple admonition: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). This other-centered “Golden Rule” is pure agape. And, as Christians believe Jesus was God incarnate on earth, it would be difficult to imagine a more reliable source for the teaching (“And they will be taught by God” John 6:45).
To make this point in a manner most unforgettable, Jesus voluntarily submitted to a cruel, violent and humiliating death for love of humanity; innocence accepted punishment for the transgressions of others and in so doing destroyed the stranglehold of sin and restored the originally-intended relationship between God and humanity. This was the ultimate expression of agape love.
We all are likely familiar with the image of a lone street proselytizer shouting “Repent -- the end of the world is near!” to passersby. Without addressing the timing of world destruction, it is worthwhile to focus on the significance of his call to repent.
In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the word for repentance is “shub,” which means “to return or turn back.” In the New Testament’s original Greek, the word is “metanoeo,” which translates as “a change of mind, thought or thinking so powerful that it changes one’s very way of life.” While repentance is generally associated with a turning away from sin, the concept is potentially much broader.
Here is my simple suggestion for trying to find a way out of the mess we are in: we all should "turn away" from the failed policies, presumptions, animosities, grudges, hatreds, ambitions, ambivalences, habits, opinions and selfishness that have contributed to the current very sorry state of the world, and seek to embrace the spirit of other-centered love, of agape. To be focused, even for a bit, on the well-being of our neighbors will inevitably translate into action that can have a positive impact on the world’s betterment.
In the Hebrew language, the word “mitzvah” has come to mean “an individual act of human kindness in accordance with the law.” In other words, an act in expression of agape love. And not coincidentally, an act entirely in the spirit of the Golden Rule.
So, what can we do, individually, to help address the world’s woes? Well, we can try to set aside the noise and worries that surround us and cloud our perspective (remember that God came to Elijah in a gentle whisper – 1 Kings 19:11-13), focus on how we might embrace the spirit of agape love to feed the need of others, and seek to perform (be?) mitzvah for the world. Each act of love, no matter how small, has great value in the sight of God (Matthew 25:40), who in the end is the source of our greatest hope. For when we love others, we invite God, who is love (deus caritas est), to be more tangibly present in the created world. And since "all things are possible with God" (Matthew 19:26; see also 1 Samuel 14:6, Job 42:2, Jeremiah 32:17, 27), then there could never be any mess we could ever make that could not be set right with his help.
The old Chinese proverb reminds us, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And as the street proselytizer would urge, the time to act is now. Hillel the Elder, a Jewish religious leader and sage who lived two thousand years ago, put it so very memorably well: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Let’s all give it a shot. What, collectively, have we got to lose?
“There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord's hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).”
― Pope Benedict XVI, God Is Love: Deus Caritas Est