Despite the fact that according to the Beatles, it’s all you need, I don’t like “love.” It is anemic, washed out, sold out, domesticated, banal, and boring. What does “love” even mean? It is either too vague or too precise. It can mean everything, which usually means it means nothing. I “love” green onions. I “love” my cat. I “love” my daughter. What are these “loves”? Surely, they are not the same – but the same word is used.

Let me be a little more exact in what I am saying. A careful reader will have noted my (overuse of) scare-quotes around the word in the previous paragraph. This is because my problem is with the four-letter word “love.” – L-O-V-E. It is the word that I have problems with. Sometimes words gather up so much meaning into themselves that they get overloaded and begin to break down. Another example of this is the word “God,” which is so overloaded as to almost have a magical quality. It’s just a word amongst words. Anglican Bishop and scholar J. A. T. Robinson once suggested that we go a generation without using the word “God.” It’s not that he had a problem with the notion of the divine, but rather that this word was becoming too comfortable. It was beginning to seem that the word was fully adequate as an expression of the referent to which it referred. I think the same is true of the word “love.”

I acknowledge that from a New Testament ethics perspective, the word “love” has a special place. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that the actual word(s) used in the New Testament was not the English word “love,” but rather some Greek counterpart. In any event, we are told by Jesus that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. Love stands as a chief ethical issue.

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Christians sometimes feel that the sentiment of loving one neighbour as oneself is a unique teaching to Jesus. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Jesus didn’t come up with the idea himself, as he is quoting the Hebrew Scriptures: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). Furthermore, the idea wasn’t only found with Jewish traditions, it is commonly found also in Greco-Roman philosophical circles:

Pittacus of Mytilene: “Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him.”
Thales: “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.”
Sextus the Pythagorean: “What you wish your neighbors to be to you, such be also to them.”
Isocrates: “Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others.”
Epictetus: “What you avoid suffering yourself seek not to impose on others.”

Clearly Jesus was treading common ground. Furthermore, similar teachings are found in most of the world’s religions:

Confucianism (Analects XV.24): Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.
Taoism (T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien): Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.
Islam (The Prophet Muhammad): None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.
Judaism (Hillel): That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

This might be a close to a perennial code of ethics as we can get. The core seems to be something about “love.” So, what is wrong with “love” anyways?

Turning back to the New Testament… The Greek word used for “love” in the great commandments is agapao (ἀγαπάω), which is the verbal form of agape (ἀγάπη). Much has been written about this word. Many years ago, I heard agape defined as “disinterested benevolence.” This rather lofty notion states that love is a concern for the other that has no desire for reciprocation or reward. Agape is utter gift. This a nice albeit rather abstract ideal. Unfortunately, it really isn’t the definition of the Greek word! Before I get to that, let me introduce some modern reactions to the Golden Rule:

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George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw (Maxims for Revolutionists): “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

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Karl Popper

Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2): “The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by.”

I think Shaw and Popper put their fingers on the biggest danger of “love.” It can become an imperialistic rationale to do unto others for their own good, whether they want it or not. Colonial entities always conquer in the name of the good, whether it is actually any good or not. What better way to justify stealing the land of the first nations peoples than by claiming that it is done for their own good. We are bringing civilization and salvation to these lost souls. Cultural genocide always comes in the name of love.

Consider Westboro Baptist Church. Within their worldview, everyone who thinks differently from them is going to eternal hell. If we accept this (very dubious) premise, much of what they do might begin to make sense. They do odious and offensive things in the name of “love” – that is, they are seeking to make some repent and be saved from hell. They aren’t doing these awful things for gain, because all they get is shame from the culture. “Love” is the linchpin for their activities.

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I come back to agape. If this word is defined as disinterested benevolence, then love become a strategy, and love is not a strategy. It is not a plan of action: it is far more immediate than that. If it is not to be defined as “disinterest benevolence,” how should it be defined? To answer the question, I turn to the authoritative Greek-English dictionary, Frederick W. Danker, & Walter Bauer’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). This dictionary is affectionately known as BDAG by New Testament scholars. How does BDAG define agape?

It is “the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, affection, regard, love (without limitation to very intimate relationships, and very seldom in general Greek of sexual attraction).” The word “love” is in the definition, but so are other more telling words. It is a “warm regard.” It is not a calculated ethical strategy. It is closer to a feeling. I would say it is deeper than emotion. It is closer to the core of one’s desiring volitional self. When I translate the word agape I prefer the word “affection.” Agape is a connection between people that brings them together affectionately. Affection is existentially prior to calculation. To love one’s neighbour as one’s self is to be affectionate. It is to really care, not to calculate. To show agape is to demonstrate affection. It is often a small thing – a smiling eye, a kind word, a gentle manner. It is simple and often small, but it is the basic building block of community. Without it a collection of people will be isolated and alone, regardless of how many people are present. With it, the world changes. Let’s give it a try. Set aside “love,” and make room for affection.

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And to conclude, just because…

One comment

  1. Agree that the overuse of the word love renders it almost anemic

    Distinguishing the term would help, to use another writer’s description of Eros, “the love we feel at the beginning of a love affair, as involuntary an impulse as a physical fall and very close to death,” makes that flavor of love feel much more ‘full-bodied’ and far different from what I feel for my cat.


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