What do you mean, “God is love”? (Part One: dilectio and agape with St Augustine)

When I was 15, there was a very popular Barq’s rootbeer commercial where one of the characters, out of sight of another, proclaims, ‘What do you mean, “Barq’s has bite”?’ Here it is in all its glory:

That summer at camp, I was involved in a parody of that ad, only the guy standing at the booth was saying, ‘God is love,’ and Johnny was saying, ‘What do you mean, “God is love”?’ Johnny was handed a New Testament, took a look, and said, ‘Amen!’ instead of, ‘Ouch!’ (I think?)

The question has recently jumped into prominence for me because of St Augustine, De Trinitate, and the Church of England’s ‘Pilgrim Course’. Today I’ll deal only with Augustine.

IMG_2219In Books 8 and 9 of De Trin, St Augustine discusses love and knowledge, and how one can love that which one does not know. He also says that love is a potential analogy for the Holy Trinity, since love requires a lover, a beloved, and the love itself. He later rejects this analogy on the grounds that in order to love onself, lover and beloved are both the same. He later makes some other analogies from human psychology.

So — what do you mean, ‘God is love’?

The first thing we need to sort is ‘love’. When I was working for IVCF/IFES in Cyprus, we were reminded to be careful with how we use that famous phrase. A lot of the Nepali Hindus we met were liable to switch subject and predicate and then equate sex with love, producing a highly distorted view of what 1 John 4 is talking about!

St Augustine in these books of De Trin uses multiple words for love, annoyingly. When he actually cites, ‘God is love,’ he does so in a version of 1 John 4:16 that runs:

Deus dilectio est, et qui manet in dilectione, in Deo manet. (De Trin 8.VII (10))

God is love, and the person who remains in love, remains in God.

The Greek of the relevant portion is is:

Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστὶν

God is agape. The Weber-Gryson edition of the Vulgate gives us caritas where Augustine has dilectio and the Greek agape. Caritas is the normal Latin translation of agape — hence older English Bibles with charity. I found myself perplexed by Augustine yesterday, no less so when he suddenly switched from dilectio to amor in Book 9, using it in much the same way! He did use caritas at one point in Book 9, to distinguish between it and cupiditas.

Semantics matter if we’re trying to figure out what somebody means.

It turns out that I may have a watered-down vision of dilectio, probably from some of the uses of its cognate verb diligo that seem weak in English — ‘to esteem’. Also, it is used commonly in late Latin letter-writing as ‘tua dilectio’ so frequently that any force of substantive love has been sucked out of it.o

Nonetheless, I learned from Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary that this is a late Latin word and that Tertullian uses dilectio dei to refer to the love of God, and it is not entirely absent from the Vulgate. The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, in fact, cites nothing earlier than Tertullian for this word. According to that esteemed dictionary, dilectio is used in it primary sense as a synonym for the Greek agape and the Latin caritas.

So that settled what Augustine meant by dilectio. He meant love as in agape as in caritas.

Caritas/agape has traditionally been rendered into English as charity — observe the King James translation of 1 Corinthians 13.

This is the word that Lancelot Andrewes and his team chose to signify the highest form of love there is. Sadly, because of how we act/view ‘charitable’ deeds and almsgiving, charity in English tends to mean someone else’s leftovers that they really don’t want. It should, rather, mean a super-powerful love that is powerful enough to love the unlovely and unloveable. It is, after all, modelled upon the love of God — a love so large that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Ro 5:8).

A prime example of what has happened to the word charity is that famous sermon Bono preached to then-President G. W. Bush several years ago. He said that Africa and the developing world don’t need charity — they need justice. And went on to press the President to improve the quality and quantity of American foreign aid.

In fact, actually, Africa doesn’t need justice. True charity is preferable to justice. Every time. Ra’s al Ghul may have had dastardly methods to execute what he felt was justice, but he was not wrong in declaring that justice is balance in Batman Begins. This is what the retributive justice system is about. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

Charity, on the other hand, looks at your deserts and chooses to give you better. In a universe shot through with charity, the Judge looks at you and takes your penalty. In a universe shot through with charity, the Father embraces you, knowing that you have a knife in your hand to stab Him in the back.

Augustine’s dilectio is meant to carry the same weight, although I didn’t quite get it without the lexicographical wonders of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

But this is only one of the many ramifications of what is meant by “God is love”…

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Humility, the foster mother of charity (Catherine of Siena)

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

I am in Rome for about a month, starting earlier this week. One my wild research trips. Two days ago, I went into the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva — Rome’s only Gothic church, run by Dominicans. While there, I saw the tombs of St Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico. Because of my week in Florence, I am already well-acquainted with Beato Angelico, but St Catherine of Siena? Merely a name.

So I downloaded a (somewhat garbled) copy of her ‘Dialogue‘ onto my Nook eReader and have been perusing the works of the Sienese saint. The first section was essentially all about the necessity of persevering at prayer, and how God makes himself known to us through prayer, and that we need to clear our minds to pray.

Tonight at supper, I came across this striking passage:

No virtue, my daughter, can have life in itself except through charity, and humility, which is the foster mother and nurse of charity. (trans. Algar Labouchere Thorold)

I like the image of humility as charity’s foster mother and nurse.

Every once in a while I think about charity, and not just because Leo the Great has a habit of addressing people as tua/uestra caritas, but because charity, as understood properly, is one of the great theological virtues.

We have stained the word with the idea of our cast-offs, our unwanted things for unwanted people. In that famous ‘sermon’ he gave to George W Bush a few years ago, Bono said that what Africa needs from the West is not ‘charity’ but ‘justice’ — a mere tithe of the US Gov’t’s cash would ‘solve’ a lot of problems, says Bono.

But is that justice? I’m not sure. Given that justice has both a restorative and retributive side, I don’t think Africa needs or wants justice. Africa, and everyone we meet, needs charity.

It has been remarked (in the Friendship Book of Francis Gay one year, I believe) that when the translators of the KJV those long years ago needed a word to express the great, boundless, unfathomable, unconditional love of Almighty God, they chose charity, from Latin caritas, the word commonly used in the Latin Bible for agape — as in I Corinthians 13.

Charity, in the Latin Christian tradition, comes to mean that supernatural love that can love the unlovely, moving beyond the bonds of mere affection or the uncontrolled/uncontrollable amor. It is, as C S Lewis observes in The Four Loves, to love the unlovely. To love the unloveable.

It is a great thought. A powerful thought. One often left as mere ‘sentiment’.

And why?

Lack of humility, I think.

Certainly this is what holds me back from acting and feeling charitably towards others. Charity and compassion for the poor beggars on the street, charity for tourists in the way everywhere you go, charity for library employees, charity for people whose dogs poop on the sidwalk, charity for late buses/subways/train, charity for other drivers in traffic, charity for loud Americans in Europe, charity for queue-jumpers…

If I didn’t think I was better behaved, or too busy, or better educated, or too important, or in too much of a rush, or any of a hundred other comparatives that put me above others in one way or another, perhaps I would have more charity.

So humility. It is a powerful theme that runs through so many of the Fathers and Mothers and spiritual masters of Christianity. Let’s hunt it down and get ourselves into it, into the foster mother and nurse of charity (and without charity, what am I?).

Tomb of St Catherine of Siena
Tomb of St Catherine of Siena

Fasting and Almsgiving

As I mentioned in this post, each month I’m spending some of my devotional energy on one of the spiritual disciplines discussed by Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. Last month was prayer, and the next chapter is fasting, so June has theoretically been the month of fasting.

Fasting is an interesting discipline, and can be hard to talk about. It is very seldom practised today, and has in the past been used as a demonstration of feats of devotion to Our Lord that lead to pride. So when people talk about their own fasting, they may feel pride. Or they may feel proud that they aren’t proud. Or they may feel proud about their honesty that they struggle with fasting. Or … and so forth.

For many, fasting is a source of spiritual breakthrough. No doubt it would be so for more, if only more of us actually fasted with some semblance of regularity.

But is fasting enough?

No.

Mortifying the flesh is never enough. This is the mainstream patristic consensus. We may have to mortify the flesh in order to gain a body (Sergei Bulgakov), but if fasting or vigils or standing on pillars or wearing hair shirts or inverted hedgehog vests is not combined with other disciplines, it is meaningless.

As one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (found here) relates:

A brother said to an old man: “There are two brothers. One of them stays in his cell quietly, fasting for six days at a time, and imposing on himself a good deal of discipline, and the other serves the sick. Which one of them is more acceptable to God?” The old man replied: “Even if the brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.” Here we learn that love is above fasting, that we must not presume to put our fasting above “the more excellent way,” the “new commandment” to love one another.

The Western Fathers, you will be pleased to know, agree. Leo the Great believes that fasting can help cover our sins (and whether you agree with that theology or not, the second half is important), but only when connected to acts of charity and compassion for the poor.

St Augustine is similar, maintaining that of the two, it is acts of mercy and charity that are more important. If you give alms without fasting, that can still be a good work. But fasting without the other virtues is mere flesh.

I do not write today’s post to discourage fasting. Far from it! Would that many more of us observed both fasts from all food and abstinences from others on a regular basis! But when we fast (as Our Lord says it, not if) we should ever be seeking the Giver of good gifts as well as to do good deeds ourselves.

One recommendation I read somewhere (I think it was in something by Richard Foster, but it seems not to have been Celebration of Discipline, so that could be a false attribution) was to pray about a specific topic when we fast. Say, a temptation that has besetting us. Or maybe you know of someone who has a big test or an important meeting at work — you could fast and pray for them that day. Or fast and pray for persecuted Christians.

And then, let us give up of our material possessions even as we give up eating. Leo, in fact, recommends his congregation to give what they did not eat to the poor. Imagine that, if we fasted, and reckoned what we saved, and either donated the money to a charity or the food to a food bank! That would be the sort of fasting the Lord wants to see:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6 NKJV)

A thought from Miroslav Volf

Inspired by my post on St. Leo the Great’s call to caritas without boundaries, I checked out the notes I took from Miroslav Volf’s book Exclusion and Embrace, a magnificent examination of the theme of its title. Volf calls Christians to a life of embrace, reminding us that God showed his love for us by dying for us when we were still his enemies. We are thus to have a radical life of love, even when that might mean being slain by those whom we embrace. Volf sees this as a way out of the violence and hatred and war of our fallen world. Here’s a passage:

I do not reject exclusion because of a contingent preference for a certain kind of society, so the one one in which people are ‘able to work out their private salvations, create their private self-images, reweave their webs of belief and desire in the light of whatever new people and books they happen to encounter’. I reject exclusion because the prophets, evangelists, and apostles tell me that this is a wrong way to treat human beings, any human being, anywhere, and I am persuaded to have good reasons to believe them. (p. 68)