I want to talk about love.
See, I have a problem with love. One of my employees will often sarcastically ask me when I decided to “Love hate and hate love.” Particularly when I ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do. Perhaps he’s on to something, but to be clear I don’t hate love.
I do, however, think we’ve put far too much emphasis on it, making it the ultimate value, above and beyond all others. In doing so we have stretched its meaning to the point where love, as most people practice it, is a long way away from its Christian or even its humanist ideal. We’ve done this in many different ways, I’m going to start with the most obvious and then work back from there.
Many years ago I came across an observation by author John Michael Greer that has stayed with me. He noted that hate is to modern sensibilities what sex was to Victorian sensibilities. That is, during the Victorian era sex was the root of all evil, today hate is. As he points out:
If you want to slap the worst imaginable label on an organization, you call it a hate group. If you want to push a category of discourse straight into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, you call it hate speech. If you’re speaking in public and you want to be sure that everyone in the crowd will beam approval at you, all you have to do is denounce hate.
First, he’s basically saying the same thing I am, if love has become the ultimate value, then hate (as its opposite) must therefore be the value most to be abhorred. But, beyond that, by tying it back to Victorian sensibilities, he’s making an additional point: The Victorians, especially the upper class, weren’t against all sex, they were against sex as practiced by people other than themselves. In the same fashion, modern sensibilities don’t oppose all hate nor are they in favor of all love. Rather, they’re against certain varieties of hate. It helps to recognize that if we replace love with tolerance and hate with intolerance, even that only closes part of the distance. Because just as acceptable sex was entirely based on class in Victorian times, now tolerance and intolerance is heavily based on ideology. Even the mildest intolerance of the LGBT community is among the worst things of which you can be accused. While on the other hand rabid hatred of Trump and his supporters is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged.
This twisting of love and hate into tolerance and intolerance has been well-documented and detailed at some length by better people than me. But it makes a good place to bring in religion. People often justify making love into the ultimate value by bringing in Christ and Christianity. Some are actively involved in an organized Christian church. Some self-identify as Christian, with varying levels of commitment, but with minimal actual church attendance. Others put forth love as the ultimate value with no real reference to Christ except perhaps as one wise person among many. Finally there are people who use their interpretation of Christian ideology as a club to beat up on Christians for being insufficiently tolerant, at least according to their completely subjective interpretation of it.
Given that all these individuals are referencing Christ and Christianity, what did Christ have to say about love? In particular, what did he say about it being the ultimate value? One phrase that’s frequently mentioned in this context is from 1 John 4:16: “God is love”.
This seems pretty clear, it’s not even something like God commands us to love, or God values love, God is love. And yet if it’s as important as all that, why does this phrase only appear in one place in the Bible? If this is a critical part of Christianity you’d expect it to actually appear in one of the four Gospels, right? Also the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Are we sure that this phrase has the same connotation as the one we’re giving it? The difference between the various Greek words for love is a whole discussion I don’t have space to get into, but there’s a strong argument to be made that “God is self-sacrifice” would be closer to the original meaning than “God is infinitely tolerant.”
The next best piece of evidence for the importance of love is Matthew 22:36-40:
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Once again we’ve got a strong prima facie case for love’s status within Christianity. But most people pushing to make love the ultimate value aren’t pushing to make love of God their primary value. They’re skipping the first commandment and moving straight to the second (given their actual behavior, even this interpretation is rather generous). But presumably the first commandment is first for a reason. Just as skipping the first step: “Turn on the oven” will be fatal to any attempt to bake, skipping “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind” is almost certainly fatal to exercising Christian love.
All of this is a problem; even if people today are using love in the same sense Christ was when he issued the original proclamation in Aramaic. But I don’t think that’s the case either. Not only is there more sacrifice implied in the original, but also a greater sense of commitment implied, and far less selfishness as well. To be fair “love thy neighbor” still sits in second position for a great many people, but that’s not because they have put love of God first. Instead their first commandment is “Love yourself above all else.” We can also call this self-actualization, and it’s a long way from the love of God Jesus was referring to 2,000 years ago.
The idea for this post actually came to me as I was reading Alma 29. For any non-Mormons who may have made it this far, Alma the Younger is a major figure in the Book of Mormon and in Chapter 29, Alma mentions that if he could have “the wish of his heart” he would want to be an angel. What would he do if he were an angel and could travel the world and speak with a “voice to shake the earth”? He would preach repentance, not love.
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.
The word love doesn’t appear in the chapter. In fact, if you compare occurrences of “repentance” to occurrences of “love” in the Book of Mormon, you’ll find that the word love appears 60 times but the word repentance appears 92 times. Why is this important? You would expect that Alma has a pretty good idea of what the world most needs to hear, and in his mind, if he could reach every soul, he would be declaring the need to repent not the need for more love. Now it’s possible that things have changed, and whatever was most important in Alma’s time is not what is most important in our time. That there’s no longer any need for people to repent, but that hardly seems likely…
Another place we might turn is the Articles of Faith. While they don’t cover every nook and cranny of LDS theology, anything that’s really important should be included there. Turning to them, the closest we get to the word love is “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” On the other hand, though it only appears once, repentance is on the list of “first principles,” right after faith.
We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
This emphasis on repentance is not just an LDS fascination. Even if we restrict ourselves to the New Testament you still have scriptures like Luke 24:46-47:
46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:
47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Similar to Alma’s wish, it’s repentance that gets preached among all nations, not love, and certainly not tolerance.
None of this is to say that love isn’t important, or even very important, but when you prioritize it above everything else, then you risk losing other important principles, particularly if those principles clash with your expanded and prioritized vision of love’s meaning. If love takes on the meaning of infinite tolerance then what place does repentance have which has intolerance for sin baked right into the definition?
What if we ignore religion? Let’s say that although you’re an atheist who has nothing but disdain for Christianity, you’re still trying to make a good faith effort to live as well as possible. Where should you prioritize love? Insofar as love leads to cooperation and cooperation makes things easier to accomplish, I can still see placing a very high value on it. That said, whatever the modern definition of love, it doesn’t seem especially good at fostering greater cooperation. A focus on love and tolerance with a corresponding abhorrence of hate has, seemingly, only brought greater division. As one example The Economist reports that:
A survey of American adults conducted between June 27th and July 4th [of 2022] by the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, found that 62% of Republicans have a very unfavourable view of Democrats, up from 21% in 1994. The share of Democrats with similar views of Republicans has increased from 17% to 54% during the same period. You might suppose that independent voters who are unaffiliated with a party but “lean” towards one side would hold more positive views of the other. In fact they are nearly as negative.
I’ve pointed out how the case for a singular prioritization of love and tolerance is not supported by religion, but the case for tolerance is even weaker if you’re expecting salvation through science or human effort. Under a religious framework you could at least imagine that even if we get the balance wrong, say too much tolerance, or too little, that in the end, if there’s a God that he might still very well be merciful. But if you don’t believe there’s a God willing to excuse our mistakes. If you believe we have to succeed or fail entirely on our own merits — that, if we flunk the test, that there’s no higher power to appeal to for mercy, then the issue of tolerance becomes very fraught indeed.
If we must achieve salvation through our own efforts then there are right answers and there are wrong answers. And before we can even consider which answers are right we have to figure out what secular salvation actually is. What question is being asked of us? Will we be saved if we can make it off planet in a sustainable fashion? Must we master technology rather than being mastered by it? Is survival the only thing that’s required or do we need to flourish? What are we trying to accomplish and how will tolerance help us get there?
If, as an example, the only right answer is to make it off the planet, then tolerating people who aren’t interested in that becomes a fatal mistake. This is the same whether you think the right answer is creating a benevolent superintelligent AI, or solving global warming or creating a socialist utopia. The variety and importance of these goals may be the reason why a greater push for tolerance has led to a society that’s actually far more divided. If there is a God around to show us mercy then we can afford to be charitable to views we disagree with. On the other hand, if there is no God then we can’t afford that charity. We have to be right.
My main point is a religious one, but even outside of that, something is clearly going on with love and tolerance, particularly the way in which modern tolerance can be so expansive, while at the same time being so incredibly narrow. I’m reminded of the words of The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I end by repeating my contention that self-proclaimed believers are increasingly minimizing the injunction to repent while stretching and distorting the admonition to love. To these people I would emphasize and conclude with the words of Matthew 4:17:
From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.