Lesson 14: Love in a Theology of the Cross

baby in a mangerIf Christian love is unconditional, it is also ubiquitous. St. Paul describes it as the only virtue that is essential in all Christian actions. In I Corinthians 12- 14, he is describing the Church as a community in which each individual shares her spiritual gifts with others.
In the very middle of the passage, he maintains these gifts are utilized according to God’s will only if they are used in love. The apostle’s dramatic wording makes clear how critical he regards this. He writes that you could give your life in martyrdom, give away every one of your possessions, know absolutely everything there is to know, and have enough faith to actually move a mountain; yet it would be nothing unless done in love.

When I think of the ubiquitous nature of love, I remember writing with my son a passage from our book, Faith, Hope, and Love in the Technological Society.  Let me quote it at length: ‘David Bentley Hart, a Greek Orthodox theologian, thinks a conversation in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov epitomizes unconditional Christian love. Ivan, the intellectual brother, engages Father Zosima, a monk revered as a spiritual guide or staretz. When Ivan claims that he is able to love some people and admire some human deeds some of the time, Zosima insists that love cannot be selective. It must be universal and concrete at the same time. In response, Ivan professes that he might be able to love humans in general, but he still hates them in particular. It is precisely the neighbor with “bad breath, foolish face, ill manners” that he cannot love.

The staretz maintains that Christian love is not love in general, but loving the neighbor before us in need. “Do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”

“Hart reflects on how this unconditional love is essential for understanding the gospel message. Only by beginning with this virtue can humans find realistic meaning and purpose. However, because they must live in the here and now, they must apply this kind of love to the real challenges and tragedies that they encounter. To see the world as it should be seen, and so to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love. Maximus the Confessor taught that it is only when one has learned to look upon the world with selfless charity that one sees the true inner essence—the logos—of any created thing, and sees how that thing shines with the light of the one divine Logos that gives it being. But what the Christian should see, then, is not simply one reality . . . . Rather, the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation”: an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death. It is to see the creation in chains but beautiful as is the beginning of days.”

The passage from Dostoevsky and Hart’s treatment of it are rooted in the incarnational theology of the Eastern Church. I come to much the same point using the theology of the cross from the Western side. What the world needs now is the unconditional love that Jesus taught and lived.

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