How many songs have we heard in our lifetimes that are about love? How many poems have we read that have something to do with love – love lost or love gained? How many stories that have touched our hearts have had love as their central theme? It seems that we, as a human family, are desperate for love. We long for it when we don’t have it. We celebrate it when we do. And we are brought to tears when a relationship ends. So when we read in 1 John 4 that “God is love,” our hearts reverberate. We bask in it, and we should. Here is a love that transcends our little loves. Here is a divine love that is better than our attempts to love well. We drink it in. And then (as life sets in), we read in 1 John 4:20, “If you say you love God but hate your sister or brother, you are a liar. For you cannot love God, whom you have not seen, if you hate your neighbor, whom you have seen.” It seems that divine love, love of God, and neighbor-love are intimately intertwined. In this post, I’d like to explore that relationship in conversation with Soren Kierkegaard’s work.
In Works of Love, Kierkegaard writes about the difference between the love we find in poetry and song, and the love we speak of in Christianity (trans. Hong & Hong, New York: Harper & Row). He says that when we think of love in the regular senses—romantic love, or love of a friend—we think of a love that is sometimes out of reach. He says, “when a [person] will go out into the world, [s]he can go a long way—and go in vain—[s]he can wander the world around—and in vain—all in order to find the beloved or the friend.”
Kierkegaard may have been writing in the 19th century, but we all know that it is still a real struggle to find a romantic partner and even to find good friends – at least as adults. When we are children, our friends are usually thrust upon us, in some way; we’re friends with those in our classes, churches, or sports. In college, we become friends with those in our dorms or clubs. Once we enter the workforce, we might meet friends or at least good acquaintances through our jobs, but it is difficult to find good friends who we truly get along with, enjoy being around, who we can have meaningful conversations with, and who are there for us when times are tough. This is not to mention the difficulty in finding romantic love. Sometimes we just can’t find, or haven’t yet found, those special people.
“But Christianity,” Kierkegaard says, “never suffers a [person] to go in vain, not even a single step, for when you open the door which you shut in order to pray to God, the first person you meet as you go out is your neighbor whom you shall love” (64). In contrast to the love of a romantic partner or the love of a friend, Kierkegaard thinks the opportunity for Christian love is always there because our neighbors are always with us. Even death itself, Kierkegaard says, “cannot deprive you of your neighbor…, for if it takes one [neighbor], life immediately gives you another” (76). Because Christian love, or love of neighbor, is always available to us, Kierkegaard writes that if “you have lost everything of erotic love and friendship, [or] if you have never had any of this happiness—in loving your neighbor you still have the best left” (76).
Now it’s probably a lot easier to believe Kierkegaard on this if one already has friendship, romantic love, and/or familial love. It is also made much easier if we think of our neighbors abstractly, if we just sit in our offices or in our churches and think about the concept of “our neighbors.” “Ah yes,” we might say, “we should always love our neighbors. It doesn’t matter who the person might be—it doesn’t matter what color skin they have, what their sexual orientation is, whether they’re tall or short, brown haired or blonde, whether they are nice or mean, poor or rich, whether they are classy or unrefined. Whatever else they might be, they are our neighbors and we should love them.”
But when we get up close to people, when we actually see their flaws–the ways their chew their food, the ways they sabatoge their relationships, or the ways they undermine shared goals; when we actually see how they dismiss our feelings, or how self-absorbed they are; when we see their imperfections, then it is much harder to nod along. Kierkegaard writes that “only God knows, how many recognize [their neighbors] in actuality, that is, close at hand. … At a distance,” he says, “every[one] recognizes [their] neighbor, and yet, it is impossible to see [one’s neighbor] at a distance.”
When we see our neighbors up close, the relationship between divine love, neighbor-love, and love of God becomes important to examine because it is in encounters with these neighbors that our love of God is tested. 1 John 4 says that we cannot love the invisible God, the force of Love and Wisdom that is responsible for the universe, if we do not love our actual neighbors who live next door. Kierkegaard emphasizes the high command and duty to love, which serves to humble the Christian so that she will rely on God’s love and grace. This is one way to go about parsing the relationship between God’s love, our love of God, and neighbor-love. But what if we were rather to look at the relationship between these three as an extension of the incarnation? Just as divine Love was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, so too does Love dwell within Christians in and through Jesus’s Spirit in the church, creating us anew. As a result, we are enabled to love both God and our neighbors. We cannot really get behind the fact of this creative indwelling, to explain exactly how the incarnation occurs or just how sanctification takes root in any one individual. But we can indicate that Love enables our loving, in whatever form it takes. Divine Love equips and empowers us to love our actual neighbors, and our actual neighbors might well include our families, friends, and romantic partners.
I conclude this brief series on the question, “What is God?”, then, by returning to the problem of theological epistemology. How could we possibly know what God is? It might just be that we know the Source of Life who is Love and Wisdom by the indwelling of this God within us, in and through the Spirit of Christ.