Christianity, Liberalism, and Love of the Other, Part I

Mark Richardson at Oz Conservative has posted some interesting reflections on liberalism’s moral critique of group loyalty.  Some universalist arguments are obviously silly, such as the claim that loyalty to one group of people is really just masked hatred toward all outsiders.  To his credit, Richardson has chosen to engage with the more interesting and serious arguments presented by the other side.  He quotes Richard Rorty and South African writer Ryan Coetzee to the effect that group identification impedes true solidarity, not toward outsiders (as in the usual accusation) but toward insiders.  The argument is that, to the extent we identify with another person, our concern for that person becomes a form of selfishness.  Thus, counterintuitively, I can have a fuller, truer solidarity and compassion for a complete stranger than I can for my own children, who are, after all, “my own flesh and blood”.  Richardson doesn’t buy it, and neither do I, but the error involved is a pedagogically fruitful one; explaining why it is wrong illuminates key concepts of the conservative worldview.  In another post, Richardson analyses the central doctrinal reinterpretation Christian churches make when trying to accommodate the alien ideology of liberalism.  In order to keep a semblance of continuity with the Christian tradition, they identify Christian charity with liberal compassion and, following Coetzee’s logic, come to see particular attachments (and objective morals) as hindrances to a perfect Christ-like embrace of the Other.  I would not presume to try to improve on Richardson’s ongoing analysis, but since this topic is so central both to Christianity and to conservatism, I would like to share my own thoughts as well.

This will be a two-part post.  In part 1 below, I discuss the differences between real love and liberal Christianity’s “embrace of the Other”.  In part 2, I defend group loyalty from the charge that it is really a collective form of selfishness.

I agree that the main source of liberal Christian errors (the main intellectual source, at any rate) is their vague and overly sentimental understanding of love.  (This is why I prefer the writings of outright atheists, who are at least sometimes clear-headed, to those of liberal Christians, who write nothing but mush.)  I’m happy to let “solidarity” mean whatever the Left wishes, but “love” has a very definite meaning in the Christian and Western traditions.  Liberal Churches tend to equate love with compassion, a desire to alleviate suffering and promote happiness for all people.  Compassion is a fine, even necessary, thing, but it is not love.  Indeed, it is often the supreme virtue in those belief systems that reject love.  Compassion is quite compatible with liberalism.  It is naturally abstract and universal, since its true object is the pain itself, and not the sufferer who is merely its host.  Since pain is more or less the same in everyone, it is natural to extend compassion to all humanity.  Also, since suffering and contentment are the only matters of concern, objective standards can seem like obstacles to the merely compassionate man.

The object of love, in contrast, is always a particular person or group, not something abstract like a quality or essence.  If I value a person only for some quality he possesses, like intelligence or beauty, so that I would forget him if he lost those qualities or if I met someone smarter and more beautiful, this would be esteem, not love.  If I value a person on a principle that all humans are valuable, this would be justice (at least, a part of it), not love.  Love is always a recognition of a this; it sees beyond qualities and essence to the haecceity.  The only essence that can be the legitimate object of love is God Himself, since in Him nature and substance, essence and existence, are one, so the abstract essence of Divinity simply is the particular God Who actually exists.  I can know, abstractly, that all persons are precious and irreplaceable–that all persons, in other words, are loveable–but I can only actually love those who I know well enough to apprehend their unique loveliness.  Love is not so easily extendible as compassion, but it is a greater thing.  In heaven, there will be no need for compassion, but there will be love without end.

When one loves a person, one wills that person’s good.  This will often include alleviating suffering and increasing happiness, but it means more than that.  A compassionate man might be content to leave his neighbour content in ignorance, sin, and degradation, but not the man who loves.  Christ said to love our neighbor as we love ourselves; when we inspect our own hearts, we realize that for ourselves we would prefer honourable suffering to a shameful happiness and a distressing truth to a comfortable lie.  At least, we know that this is what we should want, if we truly value ourselves.  An uncritical acceptance of the Other would be a failure to love.

Christian theology takes this further.  The highest Christian virtue is charity, the supernaturally infused love of God.  Augustine said that all the virtues are applications of charity, and Aquinas called it the form of the virtues.  Although God is the primary object of charity, theologians like Augustine and Scotus pointed out that this virtue does require a sort of love for self and neighbour, in that our love of God should make us desire that He be loved by everyone.  Now, man is made to know and love God; this is his telos.  Thus, to want to love God and to want our neighbour to love God is to want for ourselves and for them the highest of all goods.  Whether we start from love of God or from love of another person, we end up with the same ultimate desire for them.

Before considering how love as Christians understand it relates to group loyalty and identification, we should remember an analogous debate that took place within Christian philosophical circles roughly a century ago over the relationship between eros (love that desires communion with the beloved) and agape (love that desires the other’s good).  Again, the question was whether much of what the Christian tradition identified as love is really a subtle form of selfishness.  Prompted perhaps by Anders Nygren’s too-stark contrast between the two loves, several prominent Christian writers undertook the task of explaining their proper harmony.  A particularly profound treatment of the Christian understanding of love, treating these and other issues, was Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love.  Von Hildebrand appreciated the force of the objection that eros and identification with the beloved deform love into a sort of higher selfishness.  Love, being a value response, must be directed at a recognized Other.  Still, he insisted that eros and attachment fulfil love rather than compromising it.  In my book review, I summarize his argument:

What then is love?  Above all else, love is a value response to a person.  The lover recognizes and responds to the inner beauty and preciousness of the beloved…love takes value response to a whole new level; it’s a “super value response”.  In love, I make the one I love a matter of my objective good, and not just a matter of disinterested value response.  I allow my happiness to become contingent on him returning my love and maintaining a relationship with me.  I concern myself with his objective good to such a degree that I come to relate to it in a way similar to how I respond to my own objective good.  Now, von Hildebrand insists that this new level of interest is not an intrusion of selfishness but an organic development of love.  The desire for union always bases itself on recognition of the beloved’s intrinsic value, and the value response and concern for the other’s good always take priority.  In fact, this “giving one’s heart away” so that one’s own happiness is tied to the beloved is the greatest tribute one could make to the other’s value.

Value response to a beloved and a desire to preserve a particular relationship with that person are organically connected.  Can we say something similar about our attachments to groups, to kin, culture, and nation?

6 thoughts on “Christianity, Liberalism, and Love of the Other, Part I

  1. Pingback: Eros, Agape, and Community | Front Porch Republic

  2. An interesting post. It reminded me of a passage from James Fitzjames Stephen (the 19th century antagonist of J.S.Mill), whom you may be familiar with:

    “There are many commonplaces about the connection between the decay of patriotism and the growth of luxury. No doubt they have their weak side, but to me they appear far more like the truth than the commonplaces which are now so common about the connection between civilization and the love of mankind. Civilization no doubt makes people hate the very thought of pain or discomfort either in their own persons or in the case of others. It also disposes them to talk and to potter about each other’s affairs in the way of mutual sympathy and compliment, and now and then to get into states of fierce excitement about them; but all this is not love nor anything like it. The real truth is that the human race is so big, so various, so little known, that no one can really love it. You can at most fancy that you love some imaginary representation of bits of it which when examined are only your own fancies personified. A progress which leads people to attach increased importance to phantoms is not a glorious thing, in my eyes at all events. It is a progress towards a huge Social Science Association embracing in itself all the Exeter Halls that ever were born or thought of.

    The general result of all this is that fraternity, mere love for the human race, is not fitted in itself to be a religion. That is to say, it is not fitted to take command of the human faculties, to give them their direction, and to assign to one faculty a rank in comparison with others which but for such interference it would not have.”

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