“Love” is a word that everyone loves to hear and speak of. It is the topic of numerous songs, the plot to many romantic movies and novels; it is the platform of many socio-political movements. It can evoke images of parental nurture and direction. It unites friends together. Love litters the landscape of our larger Western culture. There is so much that we think we know about love, but at the end of the day, there are many different expressions of love that each are subtly different. In the end, we are apt to proejct our definitions of love onto other’s definitions of love, and so we become unaware of the true power and nature of love. Our knowledge about love is based upon simply our personal experiences of love, but we fail to see the wider power of love in its various forms. That is not to mention the tension love has with desire; both love and desire are intricately related to each other, and yet love and desire are not coterminous. As such, what we know about love is often times overly specific to our own experiences and thus often times is more about ourselves and our own desires than it is about that which we love. However, I would suggest that love is more than an experience, a feel, or even a behavior. Love is a form of knowledge; love is epistemic in which we both know about a person or object as they relate to our own desires and about the desires that person has or the reality of the object that goes beyond immediate gratification of our desires.
In his chapter on epistemology in The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright attempts to outline a brand of critical realism for addressing the study of Biblical texts, which he calls a hermeneut of love. Wright says,
In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed. 1
Wright’s framework operates to allow both the existence and power of the interpreter and the one or thing being interpreted. While it primarily functions to justify his own exegetical and theological work, Wright hits on something that is more existentially fundamental about the nature of love. On the one hand, there is the desire the lover has for the beloved that frames how the beloved is seen, the power of the love and the reality of their desire impacts engagement, understanding, and knowing about the beloved. However, this type of love extends beyond simply egocentricity where the beloved is understood simply in terms of the egocentric desire of the lover, but that the lover also recognizes the independence of the beloved that goes beyond that immediate desire. Therefore, the lover also comes to want to be aware of what it is the beloved desires and wats, and therefore the lover comes to desire what the beloved desires in what I would refer to as empathetic desire. However, this is certainly idealized, as the difficulties and realities of life certainly cut short this twofold power of both lover and beloved, where the lover has, for whatever reason, been caught up in ceasing to be concerned about the desires of the beloved, or becoming unaware of their own desire and being subservient to the desire of the beloved. In the end, this idealization of love is all too frequently short-circuited by various events, including even the passage of time, that breaks apart the delicate tension that exists between the power of both lover and beloved. But while the tension is maintained or when it is restored once again after it has been lost, there occurs dramatic changes in the lover 2, such that what the person thinks, believes, feels, and knows is altered.
However, this is not the only way two people may relate to each other. They may see each other as rivals in which their interests and the other’s interests are in conflict with one another; this can often time be the case even in marital relationships. Both the power and reality of both persons are accepted as real, and yet it produces a very different form of understanding. Instead of knowing the other person’s desire as something that is good for oneself, one knows that person’s desire as somehow against themselves and their own desires. In this pattern, the very same thing about the other person can be understood and known in a very different way. Instead, the person may seek to force the other person to fit into the categories of desire they have for them, whether it be through trying to “fix” the person in accordance to what is desired, avoiding them because the desire is entire avoidance, etc.
I point these two patterns out to illustrate how knowledge can be tightly bound up with our desire and the persons or objects that our desire causes us to focus upon. Both ways of relating have their own potential epistemic base; it may indeed be beneficial for me to desire what my beloved desires and it can be the case that what another desires could be seen as to my detriment; sometimes both can be potentially true in the same instance. Then, where it gets even more messy is that two people may relate to each other with opposite perspectives, and often times in that case the actions of the other is projectively construed in terms of one’s own perspective, thereby missing the real motivation of the other person.
Thus, love, fear, compassion, anger, etc. all impact not just what we do and what we feel, but what it is we pay attention to in other people and objects and how we interpret that which we notice. At the core, our knowledge about other persons and the world is built upon the framework of our desires and how we see other person’s and object relating to those desires. Put more provocatively, knowledge boils down to desiderata3 and the observations we make aout how things do or do not conform to desiderata. This is not to submerge all knowledge simply to subjectivity and to allow no objective element to knowledge. It is simply to recognize that whatever it is we “objectively” notice is due to the relevance it has for our desires.
This brings the Biblical message about love within a new perspective. Love is not just behavior or feelings. Love is a way of knowing God and knowing others. For instance, when Adam “knows” Eve, it entails Eve being the appropriate mate for what Adam needs,4 so that when Adam “knows” Eve, it is not to be reduced merely to a euphemism for sex or even for emotional intimacy, but it is coming to know about the person in relationship to one’s desire. Desire forms knowledge through the motivation to act towards another, elicting a response from the other that is then observed, interpreted, and understood as either consonant or dissonant with one’s desire. This relationship between knowledge and desire becomes more explicit in Genesis 3, where it the desire of Eve to eat the tree of knowledge of good and evil that leads to the fateful event that leading to Adam’s disobedience;5 it is Eve’s love of her own life through her own desire to be wise that contributed to the action. And indeed, she gained the knowledge that the serpent pointed out to them, they would become like God and they would not die on the very day they ate.6 In other words, when the lover and the beloved are the same person, we may gain a particular form of knowledge, but it it is a form of knowledge that breaks down the relationship with others.
This becomes even more evident within Israel’s story, as it is Israel’s love of their own life that makes them immediately fearful of the trials they faced in the wilderness. They consistently grumble in a way that they would rather go back to Egypt than be lead through the wilderness to the land that God had promised them. It wasn’t the grumbling or disappointment that serves as the fundamental problem, however; God was all too willing to meets the concerns of the Israelites such as providing manna in the wilderness. Rather, the problem rested in what it was that they most wanted and loved. They so valued their own life, which is an all too natural reality, that they were quick to observe and notice potential threats to their own lives to the extent that it fundamentally conflicted with their trust in the God who had delivered them from Egypt. This was not merely the grumbling of the lament psalms where one is expresses strong emotions of fear, complaint, anger, and abandonment towards God but yet still feels a fundamental reliance upon God and His instruction. Rather, it is the intensity of fixation of one’s own life and desires that enslaves and controls what one thinks to the point that it leads to the breakdown of faith and faithfulness. This is a form of knowing God that is all to consistent with modern religiosity: God only matters insofar as he addresses the immediate concerns we have. This becomes most evident in the problem of evil is an effective argument against unbelief because far from simply lamenting God’s lack of action in the face of evil, the problem of evil is taken as evidence of the fundamental distrust in this idea of a loving, powerful God such that we either must a) change our definitions about God, love, and/or power or b) reject the existence of this God. Our desire for peace, joy, and freedom from suffering and death so takes precedence that the type of knowledge we have about God is framed by the intensity of that desire, such that the existence of great suffering and evil goes beyond motivating lament and pursuits of justice but active changes in what one believes, knows, and trust about God. It is the love of self, whether it be direct thinking about myself or thinking about the others and their experiences in such a way where I project my pain, fears, onto them, it is the nature of the desires of the flesh that Paul refers to, that fundamentally breaks down the relationship God would have with the world and His people. While human desire is not inherently evil or bad, when my own egocentric desires are taken as supreme and of most important, it can motivate actions and beliefs/knowledge that can resist and distrust God’s loving work in them, through them, and for them. God either becomes objectified as an object for fulfillment, God becomes avoided as one who does not comply, or God’s existence is denied.7
Thus, when Deuteronomy recounts Israel’s lack of trust and obedience to God8, it makes a renewed call for obedience through the intercession of Moses9 that climaxes in the the great Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”10 The answer to disobedience and distrust ultimately calls upon renew the very foundation upon which obedience and trust are built; a love for God that encapsulates the entire person, including their desire. Love becomes the foundation upon which then God’s instruction will be known in the heart of the person.11 It is this type of love that will be attentive to the desires of God the Beloved expressed through the occasional voice speaking from the heavens and more frequently through the voice of Moses.
Understood in this light, when Jesus lifts up the love of God and the love of neighbor as the two most important commandments, he is not engaging in some ethical reductionism echoed in the Beatles’ song “All You Need is Love.” Jesus speaks of these two commandments not as all you need to know, but rather he says the whole Torah and the Prophets “hang” on these two commandments.12. This metaphor is similar to the metaphor of “foundation” that informs certain forms of epistemology where all knowledge is directly or indirectly justified by certain, bedrock ideas known as self-evident beliefs. However, where Jesus differs from foundationalism is that Jesus grounds all that is known about God in the Torah and Prophets based upon an affective, relatonal attitude towards God and then towards others, and not simply an idea or belief. Thus, love is not the completion of knowledge, including our moral knowledge, rather this relational bond of love is the all essential foundation for the start of knowing about God and the wisdom of God has about the world, including people. That if one loves God in such a way that one pays attention to Him and His instruction, one will do the things God asks and instructs; that if one loves other people, one will come to observe and understand these people in terms of their own well-being, although with God’s instruction taking precedence over another person’s expectations if the two are in conflict.
At the core of Christian faith then is the epistemological foundation of a particular pattern of love; it is the desire for God’s will and then within the range of what is consistent with God’s will, it the desire for other people’s wellbeing. This entails an attunement to others and their desires, an attention to them such that we desire these things over and above ourselves. This is not to state we are the only ones who have knowledge when we love; there are other forms of knowledge that come through self-love, fear, hatred, etc. Rather, it is the state that when we love in the specific pattern that the Scriptures point to, most fully and visibly manifest in the self-giving, sacrificial love of Christ who saw others not in terms of what he could get from them but rather in what he could do for them, we are brought into a form of knowing something, or rather Someone, that will fundamentally alter the totality of life. Whatever other knowledge there may be, the knowing of God is a knowledge about the most important, fundamental nature of reality itself, the One who created, sustains, and will renew all there is.
It is like the different forms of knowledge about computers. Firstly, I can know about that technology in terms of what it does for me. For instance, I can know that the computer I am typing on can provide me a way to communicate with others via social media and email, can provide my videos for personal entertainment, and can provide a quick way to search for information that is related to my academic studies. Or I can learn how the technological fundamentally works and operates and thus understand the broadest range and potential of this piece of technology.13 In this case, I would understand theoretical knowledge about the computer programming and the hardware, and thus also understand how the software and hardware work together to interface with the users. This type of knowledge may initially be less connected to my immediate personal experience of gratification or frustration with the operation of the computer, but this knowledge can put my immediate experience into context, along with the immediate experiences of others. But this theoretical knowledge about computers will entail paying attention not simply to what the technology does for me immediately, but understanding its hardware and software even though such knowledge may not have an immediate payoff. But this will entail a desire for understanding technology in such a way that fundamentally recognizes computers can fulfill my desires through the “immanent” experience and usage of the computer while also recognizing it is something that “transcends” my desires that I must love for its own sake if I am to be able to learn about it fully. This deeper knowledge is more impactful and it pertains to more people than just myself and people like me; it is through my love of this technology that I can then begin to use that knowledge to help others using that technology. While God is certainly no object, the premise remains the same; it is this deeper, “theoretical” knowledge of God build upon the love of God that is attuned to Him through listening and learning that give us a knowledge that tells us more about the fundamental nature of our world that we live in and experience and that is more useful for putting other people’s experience in context so as to seek their well-being.
Biblical love is epistemological where the lover and the beloved are not the same. And in this sense, it is a form of epistemology that cuts against the epistemology of self-love, where lover and beloved are the same. Unwittingly undergirding the well-intentioned notion that you can not love another till you love yourself14 is that your desires for others which you label “love” will be determined by the desiderata that stems from self-love that justifies, highlights, feeds, and engorges one’s own desires. Putting Biblical visions of love into practice reverses this all too natural trend: it is a knowing of the other, most importantly the all-creating Other, in such a way where our own desires as related to the other no longer share center stage, but we come to know about the Other/other in ways that do not immediately address our own desires.
- Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1992), 64.
- and presumably in the beloved also, but this not automatic
- That which is desired.
- Genesis 2:18-24
- It is important to note that it was Adam, not Eve, who had been the command originally and thus it is Adam who is ultimately seen as bearing guilt throughout the Scriptures.
- I have to give thanks to Dru Johnson’s Biblical Knowing for providing the insight that the serpent in the garden spoke true knowledge.
- I want to make a note here that I am not saying that atheism is simply due to the lack of love of God. There are other philosophical objects one may have to the existence of God. I don’t mean to reduce atheism to simply being explained to the lack of love; this would be to miss my point. That love is a necessary to understanding God does not mean that love in and of itself is sufficient to come to know about God. There are other factors that can and do impinge on such beliefs about God.
- Deuteronomy 1-3
- Deuteronomy 4-5
- New American Standard Bible
- Deuteronomy 6:6
- Matthew 22:35-40
- As a side note, I was a computer science major for three years in my undergrad, hence my selection of this example.
- There are people who experience self-loathing, but this is more often than not due to either a) the absence of love given to them by others or b) the lack of recognition of that love extended to them. Appeals to loving oneself can in these instances reinforce a view of oneself where you are more apt to see and notice other people’s love for you, but in the end, our sense of our self is defined by what other people communicate to us about us. However, beyond this sense of opening oneself to see the love others have, notions of self-love can be damaging to relationships.