Love and morality

The other day, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, I quite unexpectedly found a solution to a problem that has been bugging me ever since I became a Christian in my teens. There's nothing like a crisis for concentrating the mind!

I have always found the biblical instruction to love God and my neighbour problematical. Most religions require you only to believe X and to do Y. But Christianity seems to require, in addition to intellectual adherence to a creed and observance of a fairly strict moral code, an attitude or emotion called love which I simply do not experience. Whatever part of one's brain one loves with seems to be malfunctioning in mine. I assume this is somehow connected with my lifelong inability to guess what is going on in other people's minds. I suffer from a lack of empathy.

That does not of course make me a psychopath. Psychopaths and sociopaths are often said to lack empathy but what they actually lack is sympathy. Empathy is the cognitive ability to read or guess what someone is feeling. Sympathy is the willingness to care about it, which is a moral attitude and nothing to do with cognition. Sociopaths see other people merely as obstacles in their path or resources to be exploited. Psychopaths go further: they actively want to hurt people. But a sadistic psychopath like Fred West or Ian Brady would get no pleasure from the sufferings of his victims if he didn't know that they were suffering.

Neither a sociopath or a psychopath cares a hoot about anybody else's rights. I care deeply about other people's rights and always try not to hurt anyone. But that is not the same thing as actively feeling love for people. Or is it?

The biblical passage that I was reading that morning, as part of my lent observance, was a section of Psalm 119. It opened with the line "Righteous art Thou, O Lord, and upright are Thy judgements." My mind wandered to a remembered passage from C S Lewis's Reflections on the Psalms, in which he writes of 17th century disputes about whether God commands certain things because they are right, or certain things are right simply because God has commanded them. He pointed out that the psalmists always come down on what most people would regard as the correct side, namely that God Himself (and not just obedience to His commands) is righteous.

All the same, I could see the point the other side were making and I didn't feel that Lewis did full justice to it. They were genuinely worried because, if there is some external standard of goodness that God himself has to conform to, what becomes of His sovereignty? And where would such a standard come from anyway? From a superior God that God has to answer to? And then, as I was considering the matter, quite suddenly a solution popped into my mind.

"God is Love" has become practically a cliche and a sentimental one at that. But study it a bit more deeply and something rather odd pops up. For example, the Bible associates many different qualities with God — goodness, wisdom, justice, mercy, holiness, etc. — but love is the only quality that is ever actually equated with Him. The same is true in reverse. God is described as good, wise, just, and so forth, but He is never described as loving. Instead we are told that He is love. In other words, love is what He's made of, not a separate quality that He possesses.

For Christians, this immediately suggests the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the idea that God is not an indivisible mathematical unit (as both orthodox Judaism and Islam maintain) but a triad of Persons who love each other. Traditionally these "Persons" are called Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there are other biblical metaphors for their relationship, especially that between the first two Persons: Speaker and Word, Original and Image, Unmanifest and Manifest. My favorite is "Lover, Beloved and the Love between them".

Now this is a love between equals. But when it overflows into creation, it becomes a love between unequals, for nothing and no one in the created universe is remotely comparable with God in power. And we all know that any kind of love relationship between unequal parties is potentially an abusive one. We know a lot more now about the darker side of love than a lot of our forebears did. The worst abusers — the husbands who exercise "coercive control" and the "spiritual" abusers like Rasputin and Peter Ball — are always the most ready to invoke the name of love and to do so believably.

Conversely any true lover is aware of the possibility of hurting or betraying the beloved, and will do whatever it takes to avoid that. So genuine love automatically puts restraints on itself to avoid causing harm. There are things you simply do not do to someone you love. And — surprise, surprise! — they turn out to be the very things that common morality forbids you to do to anyone.

So that, I think now, is where God gets His moral code from. It is neither an external standard that He is obliged by His goodness to comply with, nor an arbitrary decision on His part that this will be commanded and that forbidden. It's just a natural consequence of the fact that He is Love and loves his creatures. Justice, mercy, wisdom and all the other divine virtues are simply the properties that divine Love automatically manifests when directed towards an inferior and therefore vulnerable object. In a way they are like the spikes on a coronavirus, an interface with the external world, whereas love is His DNA.

A further consequence is that He commands us to behave justly, kindly, mercifully and so on in order to prevent us from hurting each other. If we really loved our neighbours as we love ourselves, we would automatically behave in this way, just as God does. That is why St Paul says, "Love is the fulfillment of the Law." (Rom 13:10)

But is the reverse also true? Most people would say no and would quote another Pauline letter, I Cor 13:3. "If I give all my goods to feed the poor and if I even give my body to be burned and have not love, I gain nothing.". But this may not be quite what it seems. The hypothetical character Paul is describing is clearly hoping to gain something through his actions, presumably eternal life. He does not behave in this way simply because it is the right thing to do but because he expects to be rewarded for it. His two companions act from similarly dubious motives. One seeks to impress other people with flashy charismatic gifts. The other, a self-styled prophet and know-it-all, is driven by pure self-admiration. All three are appropriately punished by the failure of their ambitions: the speaker in tongues is dismissed by everyone as just a big noise, the great prophet is actually a complete nobody, and the man who treats charity as a long-term investment gains nothing.

Paul then goes on to define the correct attitude, which he calls love. And in this definition he makes no mention at all of warm empathetic emotions. Instead he lists a string of virtuous behaviours. We are to behave towards other people in a way that is patient, kind, generous, humble and courteous. If we do so, then apparently we shall be loving them in the only sense that matters. And we shall also be treating them as we would like to be treated ourselves and so obeying God's law. According to Paul, that is what love actually consists of and what the genuinely moral life looks like.

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