Foundations of Democracy: Agape Love Revisited

The Apostle Paul Contributes to a Moral Revolution, brainy quotes from brilliant Oxford scholar Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014). A few powerful statements from the book speaks to the transforming power of agapelove. It provides individuals with a whole new identity. Also see Gord Carkner’s comments on this topic below the quotes.

At the core of the ancient world, there is the assumption of inequality. Whether in the domestic sphere, in public life or when contemplating the cosmos, Greeks and Romans did not see anything like a level playing field. Rather, they instinctively saw a hierarchy or pyramid…. Reason or logos provided the key to both social and natural order. It was an aristocratic model, rule by the citizen class.

*Jesus followers very soon perceived his crucifixion as a moral earthquake. And the aftershocks of that earthquake continue into our own time. Followers of Jesus began to claim that his sacrificial life and death amounted to a dramatic intervention in history, a new revolution of God’s will. Understanding that revelation would, in due course, provide crucial underpinning for what we understand as the nature and claims of the individual. It provided the individual with a hold on reality. (58)

Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience of grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality…. Paul spoke of the Christ as offering salvation to all humanity. ‘The Christ’ stood for the presence of God in the world…. Paul felt he had discovered something crucial—the supreme moral fact about humans—which provided the basis for reconstructing human identity, opening the way to what he called ‘a new creation’…. In Paul’s eyes, the Christ reveals God acting through human agency and redeeming it. (58-9)

Through an act of faith in the Christ, human agency can become the medium of God’s love–which Paul sometimes calls ‘faith acting through love’. The faith accepting that love amounted to an inner crucifixion, from which could emerge a transformed will, embodied in the person of Jesus. For Paul it was a personal transaction, the creation of another, better self…. It is an invitation to see a deeper self, an inner union with God. It offers to give reason itself a new depth. Rationality loses its aristocratic connotations. It is associated not with status and pride but with a humility which liberates.  (59, 60)

Paul wagers on human equality. It is a wager that turns on transparency, that we can and should see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves. It reveals the universal availability of a God-given foundation for human action, the free action of love…. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus amounted to the discovery of human freedom–of a moral agency potentially available to each individual. (60)

Paul grafts a new abstractness onto Jewish thought. It is an abstractness that would foster Christian understanding of community as the free association of the wills of morally equal agents,… the ‘body of Christ’. The metaphor conjures up a mystical union which moralizes individual wills by relating them to the source of their being. (61)

What Paul did, in effect, was to combine the abstracting potential of later Hellenistic philosophy—its speculations about a universal or ‘human’ nature—with Judaism’s preoccupation with conformity with a higher or divine will. In order to do so, Paul ceases to think of that will as an external, coercive agency. For him, the death of Christ provides the symbol and the means of an inner crucifixion, of leaving behind the life of ‘the flesh’ for the life of ‘the spirit’, that is, leaving behind inclinations and desires that will die with the flesh…. Paul overturns the assumption of natural inequality by creating an inner link between the divine will and human agency…. That fusion marks the birth of a ‘truly’ individual will, through the creation of conscience. (61)

Paul claims to have found this standard and force for individual agency. Now the identity of individuals is no longer exhausted by the social roles they happen to occupy. The gap marks the advent of the new freedom, freedom of conscience. But it also introduces moral obligations that follow from recognizing that all humans are children of God…. Paul creates a new basis for human association, a voluntary basis—joining humans through loving wills guided by an equal belief. In his eyes, the motivating power of love is the touch of divinity within each of us…. Love creates what Paul calls the mystical union in the body of Christ. (62)

Paul thus attaches to the historical figure of Jesus a crucial moment in the development of human self-consciousness…. Paul’s Christ carries a revolutionary moral message. The Christ is a God-given challenge to humans to transform their concept of themselves and reach for moral universality. Through faith, they can achieve a moral rebirth…. It provided an ontological foundation for ‘the individual’, through the promise that humans have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group…. The self can and must be reconstructed…. It called for human relationships in which charity overcomes all other motives. (63)

Since the time of Paul, Christian thought had been directed to the status and claims of humans as such, quite apart from the roles that they might occupy in a particular society. It is hardly too much to say that Paul’s conception of deity provided the individual with a freehold in reality. It laid a normative foundation for individual conscience and its claims. (152)

Dr. Gordon Carkner’s Comments, GFCF Committee: Professor Siedentop, an Oxford scholar of note, shows how liberal democracy finds its roots in the ancient world with the Apostle Paul’s revolutionary concept of agapelove. I recommend his book, Inventing the Individual. It is important in our day to remember the roots of our identity both as Christians and Westerners who believe in the dignity of the individual. This fall we are studying the book of Romans as a counter-cultural document, subversive to the Roman Empire with its oppressive, exploitive approach to governance.  Another political philosopher Glenn Tinder, whose comments on this point went viral in the Atlantic Monthly, writes:

Agape is a prophetic love. It refuses to equate anyone with his immediate observable being. A human being is not deeply and essentially the same as the one who is visible to the employer, neighbour, salesman, policeman, judge, friend or spouse. A human being is destined to live in eternity and is fully known only to God.  Agape is about the spiritual destiny of the individual; destiny is a spiritual drama. My destiny is my own selfhood given by God, but given not as an established reality, like a rock or a hill, but as a task lying under divine imperative…. Agape is simply the affirmation of this paradox and of this destiny underlying it. Agape looks beyond all marks of fallenness, all traits by which people are judged and ranked, and acknowledges the glory each person—as envisioned in Christian faith—gains from the creative mercy of God. It sets aside the most astute worldly judgment in behalf of destiny. (Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity, p. 25, 28)

What does agape mean for the search for home, identity and purpose among Millennials? Can such a love show us the path to the heart and depth of meaning, an exit from despair, an entrance to a whole new stance towards self and the world, through a strong transcendence? Could this be a light at the end of a tunnel that we humans have been seeking for a thousand years, the Holy Grail, the pearl of great price, a key part of the powerful troika: faith, hope and love? Yes, love surpasses all other values, includes all the best goods. Loyola Philosophy Professor Paul Moser thinks and writes profoundly on the subject: “God’s agape love directed at the human conscience is a deep invitational call to an existential depth.” Can such love wrestle our fears, anxieties and insecurities to the ground? Can fear be banished by love? Is this the space in which we can discover the truth, overcome alienation from the truth, address the root of our restlessness, and discover a resolution to our current crisis of identity? Is agape the hub of all virtues and values, the preeminent virtue in our hierarchy of values? How does gift love, agape, fit within a whole economy of God’s grace? Can it heal our broken relationships and meet us existentially at the centre of our pain, the heart of our angst?

James K. A. Smith writes that “we are what we love/desire”. We posit that love, agape love is a solution to a major crisis, a dilemma in the West: we are torn between self-hatred and spiritual lobotomy. We cannot seem to affirm both self and the world at the same time, because the world is so broken. It is called the crisis of affirmation, a demon that haunts us to this day and generation. Two choices seem open to us: a. We can blame the world for evil and suffering and tragedy, in order to preserve love of self—try to keep ourselves pure, blameless and above the fray. This posture leads to hatred, terrorism and violence; or b. We can open ourselves to grace. Because we accept a God of love, we can love self and the world despite its problems. And we can accept that we are also part of the problem of the world. But that is not the end of the story. There is forgiveness and possibility of transformation that makes the world better. Our moral choices, our spirituality and our identity are intertwined; thus the consequences of our stance are substantive. Philosopher/Apologist Peter Kreeft captures it:

One day everything will be made of agape. All those things that you made of agape in this world will last…; but nothing else. In fact, the only thing that will not be burned up in the Last Judgment is the one thing stronger than the fire of destruction: the fire of creation. For love is the fire of creation; God created sheerly out of love. Just as the only way to control a passion is by a stronger passion; just as the only way to conquer evil is by a stronger good love; so the only way to endure the world’s final fires is not by any water that tries to put it out, but by the only fire that is stronger still: agape, the very fire of God’s being. Only love is stronger than death. (Dr. Peter Kreeft, Philosophy Professor, Boston College)

Biblically, the theme of love traverses the entire narrative, from Genesis to Revelation: from the fire of creation, to covenant love of Abraham in shaping a community of love, to the prophetic love that turns straying people back to God’s care, to the exultation of God’s love in the Psalms (139), to the incarnate unparalleled love of Jesus of Nazareth (John 14: 16-18), to Paul’s teaching on love in his letters to young churches (I Corinthians 13; Romans 8: 31-39), to the promise of the new creation to come where our work on developing the language of love really pays off in eternity, face to face with Love Himself. Agape(Ahavrah in Hebrew) is the lingua franque of heaven. We have evidence from millennia of human history to prove its veracity. Agape creates infinite value in life, as the heart and soul, the hub of all values and virtues. It speaks of excellence. It is the end game, the ultimate purpose, of all life’s struggles and endeavours. It has big impact, enduring power, transforming society as well as the individual self. Practice agape; turn into love; open yourself to God’s love. It adds so much quality to life, containing within its purview the path to joy. Jamie Smith articulates the trajectory of love: “We all live and long for a social vision of what we think society should look like: some vision of the good life, some picture of flourishing. Our most fundamental orientation to the world is love. We adopt ways of life that are indexed to such visions—it captures our imagination. This is the weight of our love.”