Love/Eros for God 2: Beyond Commandments

In Matthew 22, Jesus reiterates the Old Testament commandment to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ It is, He says, the first and greatest commandment. But love, I think, should go beyond commandments.

Do you love your friends because you are commanded?

Do you love your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend because you are commanded?

Do you love your children because you are commanded?

Do you love your parents because you are commanded?

No, of course not.

Although the ongoing maintenance of love and the display of love in human relationships may be things that require conscious choices and thoughtful actions, the affection that tends to undergird our love relationships is a spontaneous response to something, usually something ineffable, in the other human person that draws us to them and causes us to wish the best for them, to spend time with them, to help them when they are troubled, to do all the things that love requires.

If we are to love God, then, we must do more than be faithful to the commandment. That is, in order truly to fulfil this commandment, we must move beyond commandments.

Indeed, ‘loving’ God as a commandment may be one of the most terrible things we can do. We go to church because we ‘love’ God, we help the poor because we ‘love’ God, we read the Bible because we ‘love’ God, we go to Bible study because we ‘love’ God, we pray because we ‘love’ God, but actually … actually … sometimes we do these things because we are commanded to. We do them out of obligation. And certainly, obedience to a friend or lover is a sign of love. But joyless obedience is not especially loving.

If we are possessed by divine eros, we do all these same things — but, at least from what I see in the Scriptures, the Fathers, the Saints, and the spiritual theologians, we do them because in them we find ourselves spending time with the God we love. God is there, so we are attracted to them.

Eros, as I learned reading Plato’s Symposium in Greek class back in 2007, is not simply ‘love’ or ‘sex’ or ‘romantic love’ or whatever simple and easy translations people have foisted on us in the past. As with all words, it is an idea with shades of nuance. Eros is desire for something. Longing. Passion. In the Symposium, Aristophanes makes it about romance and sex. And Socrates (inevitably?) makes it about to kalo, the Good.

According to Jesus, none is good but God alone (Mk 10:18). He is the ultimate quest of these Greek philosophers — to kallisto, the best, even. The summum bonum of the Latin interpreters.

I think our fulfilment of this commandment goes beyond commandment by urging us to find something better and deeper than commandment — this eros, this powerful love and desire that will pull us beyond ourselves and mere obedience to great joy and love for the God who is as near as our breath, in whom we live and move and have our being. And this is the insight of the mystics, as shall be seen as we move forward.

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Who is the rich man who will be saved?

There is abroad today a pernicious pestilence that believes that, while not every rich man is saved, every man who is saved is rich, for Christ came to give us, of all things, material prosperity.

As in, stuff. Good health, nice car, pure-bred dog, big house, ridiculously expensive clothes.

All you need is faith.  If you trust in Jesus, your problems of health and wealth will go away. If you see a big house on a hill, don’t say, “Too bad I’ll never live there.” No, indeed, according to Joel Osteen, that is the thought-life of defeat. You need, instead, to say, “I will live there.” Put your faith in God that He will provide you with the house. And He will.

This is the sort of idea one would expect, say, Charlemagne to comfortable with. I’m pretty sure that King of the Franks attributed his military success to the favour of God (and possibly the turning of the Wheel! of! Fortune!). And I’m certain the William the Bastard (aka Conqueror) directly attributed his conquest of England to God’s favour. The successors of Mohammed were known to say, do, and think similar things.

Of course, this isn’t the Middle Ages, anymore. So the modern prosperity heretic instead says that God will give you a big house and a nice car, not the better portion of Germany or North Africa. Same falsehood, new guise.

I’m being blunter than usual. This is because this teaching, this so-called “Prosperity Gospel” or “Health and Wealth Gospel” is pernicious and terrible and, quite frankly, pisses me off. And that’s righteous pissed-offness, if you’re wondering.

There are two issues we need to address here, my friends. One is: What is the “biblical” (orthodox? true?) view of wealth? What is the “b”(o?t?) view of salvation?

When trying to figure out a proper Christian view of something, the best place to start is not only the Bible, but the words of Jesus therein. What does Jesus say about wealth?

The core text for Jesus and money is Mark 10:17-31. This is the famous story of the Rich Young Ruler, a guy who wants to know how to be saved. Having told Jesus that he was good at fulfilling the law, he’s told that he lacks one thing: selling all his possessions and giving to the poor. If he were to do that, then he could go and follow Jesus.

Wait. According to Joel Osteen and his ilk, following Jesus makes me rich. But according to Jesus, this particular person should, necessarily, be poor. This doesn’t add up. I can understand people who rationalise this commandment, arguing that rich people can be saved, even if it be more difficult than a camel traversing the eye of a needle. The earliest known account of this is St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who wrote the beautiful treatise from which I stole this post’s name (at CCEL).

St. Clement demonstrates the uneasiness early Christian had with wealth, but encourages the wealthy to salvation nonetheless:

let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy.

And also:

a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened.

St. Clement’s treatise encourages all Christians to live lives of virtue, seeking the wealth and riches of good deeds and pure hearts rather than the temporal wealth of the world. And well he should, for the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

But wait, if we are only to serve God and not Mammon (Mt. 6:24), should we be desiring a bigger house, a nicer car, a bigger paycheque? Isn’t this just serving two masters (also Mt. 6:24)? And doesn’t it sound a lot like the Law of Attraction (The Secret)? And what about all that stuff about having your treasure in heaven? I’m not so sure Jesus will make us wealthy. In fact, as we’ll see in a later post, Jesus promises us something quite … different.

Rationalisations of Clement’s that allow Christians to have wealth usually work on me. This is no big surprise, since I am, on a global scale, wealthy. So, probably, are you. However, when we see Jesus has lots of things to say about money — and actual money, parables not counting as they are analogical and allegorical — I get a little worried. Maybe you should worry, too:

whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Happy 400th Birthday, KJV!)

I think Mr. Osteen has found a way to pack the pews, but not the path of righteousness.

If the evidence of the Fathers well allowable (I mean, besides St. Clement), the verdict against the Prosperity Gospel would be damning, for many of them were ascetics. St. Antony heard the call from Matthew’s version of the Rich Young Ruler and went and became a hermit. Similar stories for the rest of the Desert Fathers, really. The great theologian of the Trinity, St. Basil, was an ascetic as well. So was St. Augustine of Hippo. And St. Ambrose. Really, do I need to list them all? I know that sometimes the Fathers have wacky ideas, but I don’t think, “Lead a disciplined life and seek Christ through prayer and fasting — and avoid accumulating stuff,” is amongst them …