|Head to Head
The Church preaches about how
we're supposed to live. One of the most important directives is the "Love
God, love your neighbour" rule. But does it make sense? What about the
everyday struggle to survive? Rick and Mick
go head-to-head on the subject.
Mick: As you know, Rick, I'm deeply
concerned that the Church is failing to bring Jesus of Nazareth into the
21st century. One of my gripes is that traditional theology if taken
seriously makes ordinary life impossible for Christians. That's why so
few today want anything to do with Jesus.
I refer in particular to the need to survive. Survival requires each of
us to compete to live. Sometimes we have to kill or be killed. The weak go
the wall - though, once they're there, Christians are encouraged to be
kind to them.
I have never come across an official Christian doctrine about
day-to-day survival. It is as though we are expected to live in two
worlds. One is secular, where we live normally. The other is religious,
where we are holy.
The Church's central message, if I understand correctly, is that we
should "Love God with everything we've got, and others as we love
ourselves" (Mark 12.-29-31). Now, anyone who has ever been in business (or
war) knows all-too-well that this not only doesn't, but cannot work.
In other words, this important rule for being a "good" Christian is
full of holes. What do you make of it?
Rick: The issues you raise impinge on
the basic questions, "Is human life meaningful, does it have purpose and
can we obtain happiness in this life?" If the answer is yes, how can we
bring this about?
I believe that the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth provide a
critical guide in this quest.
What is meant by survival? Perhaps it means personal success on a
physical, economic or prestige level, derived at the expense of others. If
so, we are talking about a Darwinian animal-world, not one made up of
conscious, rational humans who have the capacity for moral action.
If the principle of "love your neighbour" is no longer relevant how are
we different from animals and what other principle could supplant it?
Competition cannot and should not be eliminated. It is a fundamental
human quality. If leavened by moral responsibility it can be a force for
good. To be sure, we have not yet achieved perfection. We wage war and
kill, we cheat, we dominate, we do not love.
These imperfections used to be included under the rubric of sin. How do
we bring these faults and imperfections to a conscious level so we can
take effective remedial measures.
Mick: I'm not going to be
side-tracked into discussing sin. That way there be dragons. Let's stay
I agree that competition is a "fundamental human quality". But aren't
you still avoiding reality? It doesn't make sense to step aside for those
who are less able than me. Even in the sacred sanctuaries of the Church,
clergy compete for power like anyone else. They preach "love your
neighbour" - but nevertheless strive to be top-dog.
A just society is one where the playing field is as level as possible.
I admit that there should be social equity. But not equality. If I'm
fitter, I am right to shoulder the less-fit aside. That's the way God made
the world, as the whole of nature witnesses. We are animals, set
apart only by superior intelligence. The latter does not liberate us from
the demands of survival, though it does give us an advantage over other
I maintain that the old Hebrew "Love your neighbour" rule reiterated by
Jesus has to be understood anew. If not, it must be dismissed as nonsense.
Rick: About 50 years ago, one of my
professors of philosophy gave a talk about Christian love. He pointed to
colleagues in the audience and said there were some he didn�t like - but
that he loved them all. He distinguished personal affection from the need
to treat his fellow humans with concern and justice. Maybe the meaning of
the word "love" is a sticking point.
When we compete, as we often must, we should be mindful of this
principle. If love and affection occur together it's wonderful. It is not
disaster when they don't coincide.
The "Love your neighbour" rule is already dismissed by many as
nonsense. But that hardly justifies abandoning it. Maybe distinguishing
love from affection will help some to survive competition with a sense of
Mick: Perhaps we're getting somewhere.
I want to take up two points.
First, may I test you on the phrase "Christian love"? It seems to me
that love is just love. There is nothing specially Christian about it.
People love whether or not they are Christian. Love is independent of the
Church. Jesus didn't invent love. It wasn't absent before his birth and
somehow present afterwards.
Second, I maintain that love and survival are complimentary. It's not
true that when we love others we're good, and that we're bad when we do
what we must to survive. Those who love best, survive best. To survive
best, it is best to love well.
Your philosophy professor presumably knew that. After all he was a
professor. He was paid more; had greater prestige and power; like the
Centurion he was able to tell others to come and go. I bet he knew that
some listening to him would have taken his job with hardly a backward
But to advance a little. Are you equating "love" with "concern and
Rick: Christians do not have a corner
on love. Nor does any religion. Each religion lives on different flanks of
the same great mountain called God. Each sees the mountain from an
individual perspective. All contemplate the same mountain. As individuals
we reside on one side of the mountain by accident of birth or
circumstance. Choice may move one from one side to another. Hence, when I
speak of "Christian love" I refer to the version exemplified by the life
of Christ. That is my particular view of that great mountain. It is the
light I was handed to illuminate my particular path through darkness.
Language is often weak and ineffective in defining concepts such as
love. I include "concern and justice". But descriptors such as clemency
and patience are among many possible others. Love is a state of mind. It
shapes our actions toward others. It maximizes the possibilities of
fruitful life and happiness, not only for the loved but for the lover as
I don�t think that showing love necessarily results in a good outcome.
By proffering love we are not buying an indulgence. If our motive for
giving love is to manipulate others for our own advantage it is no longer
As for my professor, from the perspective of 50 years I think he would
chuckle at the idea he was exercising power or prestige or that anyone
would want his meagrely-salaried position.
Mick: Do I understand you properly,
- The need to survive is indeed a fact of life.
- Jesus of Nazareth lived a loving life.
- Christians follow Jesus. So they also should love others.
- Love is a state of mind. It shapes how we behave.
- It issues in concern, justice, clemency, patience and other good
- It excludes manipulation for personal advantage such as survival.
- Love may not lead to a "good outcome".
With reservations, I think I can go along with you up to the final
point. Will you explain what you mean by it, please?
Rick: Yes, Mick, you have fairly
represented my position. Implicit in my previous remarks are the criteria
by which I would judge the "outcomes" of love. I begin by excluding love
exercised for personal gain. It is not the kind of love demonstrated by
Christ. To reiterate, love is fundamentally a state of mind geared to "...
maximize the possibilities of fruitful life and happiness, not only for
the loved but for the lover as well."
The love equation is first and foremost composed of two persons, the
lover and the loved. For the equation to be balanced, the lover must be
genuine, selfless and with pure intention. The loved should demonstrate
evidence of the effect, namely a fruitful and happy life. It is this
binary relationship of two persons that constitutes the cells of which
other bodies are made such as society, churches and complex organizations.
If the lover is unsuccessful in eliciting the hoped-for result, solace
may still be found in having fought the good fight, finished the race and
kept the faith.
In closing I once more cite the example of Christ. He is the genuine
lover. But many of the loved have not responded.
Mick: Fair enough. Now, you'll recall
that I wondered why the Church has no doctrine of survival. It does teach
about "love" and I wondered if survival and love are compatible.
I think we agree at one level. Goodwill as a "state of mind" must
precede loving action, both interpersonal and social. The latter
application of love we call "justice".
At another level I sense we differ radically. Yes, love must be
generous, giving, caring, clement, patient and so on. But just producing
at list of loving actions will not do. What of the exceptions?
Maximising life requires hard choices.
In war it may be right to decimate one city to save two. Cutting jobs
to overcome or contain competition may be a just action in business. A
marriage may be rightly broken to save children. Murder may be right to
keep others alive. It may be right to take a professorship at the expense
of the less-competent. It might even be life-giving to give your life
I say that we love when we first calculate and then take the most
life-giving action. Augustine of Hippo wrote: "Dilige et quod vis, fac".
That is, "Take loving care - and then what you decide, do." So provided I
have goodwill, and when I have weighed up the options as best I can,
whatever I choose is loving and therefore right.
That is also most likely to result in individual and corporate
Rick: Your thoughts bring to mind
words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
It is worse to be evil than to do evil.
The quality of moral action and the responsibility for it finally
resides with the individual. Moral decisions ought not be the result of
going down a check list but should be tailored to fit the real-time
circumstance. A survival plan or plan for living cannot be formulated into
a stagnant doctrine with check lists, just as love cannot be.
I find an analogy in my experience as a physician.
After a long and pedantic education I was abruptly sent out to treat
patients. My encounters were never structured and clear cut. I was
expected to act appropriately and get a good result for the patient.
Although I had been given many facts and check lists to follow, they were
for the most part in the subconscious as I acted intuitively in real time.
I was given immense freedom of action by the public I served, with their
implicit understanding I possessed sufficient knowledge and character
for the task.
Is it not similar in our daily lives?
Through our learning and nurture as children we develop our
personalities and character. Hopefully we are mature by the time we are
cut loose to survive. With fingers crossed we hope to meet each moral and
survival challenge as it arises in a manner consistent with our character.
The only standard to be applied in our decisions is the example of Christ.