“Love is patient, love is kind…It does not seek its own interests… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophesies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing…So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13: 4 – 13)
This excerpt from the writings of St. Paul is among the best known passages from Judeo-Christian scripture. Who has not heard it at a wedding, perhaps even at one’s own? But what does it really mean?
When we think of faith, we think of belief in the existence of a benevolent God; but if we reduce faith to belief in God, we are putting the cart way in front of the horse.
First and foremost, faith is the belief that there are objective, transcendent values operating in the world that command our attention: beauty, truth, justice, et al. – virtues that roll up into our concept of ‘Good’. Faith is the belief that these values are universally normative. They would apply in any possible universe, no matter how alien from our own. They are valid for our spatiotemporal world but they transcend that world; they are eternal. They are the ‘non-negotiable demands’ of Being.
Second, faith is the belief that each and every actual entity that comprises our world exhibits these values, albeit in widely varying ways and to vastly different degrees. To ‘be’ at all is to appropriate and reflect these values. This aspect of faith in turn underpins the allied virtues of hope and love.
Third, faith is more than mere belief. To have faith is not just to give passive intellectual assent to a series of propositions but rather to live our lives as though these propositions were actually true. Faith then provides the measure by which we may, nay must, judge our own lives.
Faith is not contrary to doubt. We will always question our beliefs. After all, we are human. It is the nature of the human condition that we can never know with absolute certainty our existential fate. But from “the crucible of doubt” (Dostoevsky), we constantly recover and reaffirm our core beliefs (faith).
Faith does put us at odds with a host of modern thinkers – existentialists like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre; analytics like Ayer and Wittgenstein. These thinkers directly challenge the core proposition itself. They deny the possibility of objective, transcendent values. What you see is what you get! Whatever is is entirely contained in the actual entities and events that make up our world; there is nothing beyond. No matter how much they may sugar coat it, they place us squarely in the mouth of the abyss.
Hope confronts this terrible abyss – the abyss of nothingness. We are born, we live our lives, we have experiences, we acquire knowledge, we make decisions, and then we die. Everything is wiped out, as if by a giant cosmic eraser. It is as if we had never been born. Whatever meaning we thought our lives might have had is wiped away in the process.
Imagine that your life is a pattern on an Etch-a-Sketch. One shake and it’s gone…forever. That is our life…without hope.
We are like characters in Shakespeare’s Tempest:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air; and—like the baseless fabric of this vision— the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Marxists and pragmatists (James?) find hope in the idea that our lives contribute to the up-building of social structures, to the welfare of future generations, to ‘progress’ generally. Well and good, but science has now shown us that all social structures, every human generation, even the cosmos itself will one day pass away. So this sort of collective hope is ultimately just a ‘bad faith’ attempt to find solace in what is merely a stay of execution.
Still others are content with saying that we create our own meaning. Sounds cool, but what does it mean? ‘To mean’, by definition, is to refer to something outside, something beyond. But if there is nothing outside, nothing beyond this “mortal coil”, then our so-called ‘meaning’ can be nothing but make-believe.
As children many of us have been fortunate enough to create mini-subcultures with our friends, complete with rules and rituals. These have great meaning for us…until mom calls us home for supper.
Real hope accepts the truth of personal and cosmic mortality but does not despair. Hope resides in the conviction that there is something about this world that does not pass way. Hope asserts that there is an a-temporal (eternal) dimension to being.
Finally, we come to the ‘greatest’ of these virtues: love. Love stares into the most terrible abyss of all, the abyss of isolation. What if there is just me…and none beside me? What if I am the whole world…or utterly alone in it?
Love stares into the abyss of isolation…and finds ‘the other’. The virtue of love affirms that there is at least one being other than me who is independent of me and who enjoys the same ontological status as me. Love solves philosophy’s “other minds problem”. Who in love doubts the reality of his lover?
But loves comes with a terrible price tag. If I love, I must love my neighbor as myself. Not like myself, as myself! I have no ontological priority over the other. I should even be prepared to lay down my life for the other.
Love is the greatest of these virtues because it puts faith and hope into action. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14: 15) And what are those commandments: “Love one another.” (John 13: 34)
Love enjoins us to act out the values that faith affirms; it is the realization of that which hope anticipates. If we love another, we must behave toward the other in accordance with the values we discover and adopt through faith. Likewise, the eternity that we discover in hope enjoins us to care for others with a full realization that what we do today, we do forever.
Faith allows us to know the Kingdom, hope allows us to anticipate its realization, but love empowers us to instantiate the Kingdom in our tiny patch of spacetime.
In Greek mythology, Cerebos, a three headed dog, guards the gates of hell (Hades). For me, those ‘heads’ symbolize an unholy trinity: radical skepticism (vs. faith), nihilism (vs. hope) and solipsism (vs. love).
So now we are ready to return to our introductory quote:
“Love is patient, love is kind…It does not seek its own interests… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophesies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing…So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
So the spatiotemporal world is passing away. All that remains for us is our understanding of the Kingdom (faith), our expectation of the Kingdom (hope) and our realization of the Kingdom (love). When we truly love, the Kingdom has already “come”. Love is the in-breaking of the eternal into the spatiotemporal.
Faith, hope and love are called the three ‘theological virtues’ but so far we have made no mention of God. How come?
In theory at least, one can believe in objective values without believing in God; one can believe that Being has an eternal dimension without believing in God; and one can love and be loved without believing in God.
In theory! Practice makes this a bit more difficult. We said earlier that every actual entity in our world exhibits the objective values in some way and to some degree. According to British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, our world consists solely of ‘actual entities’, including the qualities (values) they display and the relations (‘prehensions’) that connect them.
For Whitehead, the universal objective values precede the actual world (and every possible actual world). However, these values cannot enter into an actual world and be operative there unless they constitute the essence of an actual entity. Of course, an entity whose essence consists precisely of all the objective, transcendent values (‘eternal objects’) is what we call “God”.
Therefore, for Whitehead, God is a necessary term. However, one could reject his axiom that values can only enter an actual world through an actual entity. That would require a different model but it’s not unthinkable.
Likewise, the a-temporal, eternal dimension of life, where we find the meaning of our lives, amounts to nothing more than an infinite present. According to the standard model of time, the present is an infinitesimal point. Actual entities, however, exist only in the present and their ‘presents’ have real duration; they transcend the timeline and disprove the standard model.
Interestingly, no one is more closely associated with the standard model of time than Sir Isaac Newton. Few realize, however, that he understood the absurdity of this model. He invoked God to bridge the gap between theory and actual experience:
“He is Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from Eternity to Eternity; his presence from Infinity to Infinity… He is not Eternity and Infinity, but Eternal and Infinite; he is not Duration and Space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and, by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes Duration and Space.”
Likewise, according to Whitehead, an infinite present can only ‘be a thing’ if there is an actual entity for which all other actual entities are present. This, of course, is also what we call “God”.
Finally, when we love, we discover the ‘other’ in our fellow human beings. Every human being is different but the other we discover in each one is always the same per se. In fact, it is a reflection of our self but NOT in the sense of Narcissus’ superficial reflection in the lake. What we see in others is a reflection of our ontological core. Love confirms for us that the other we see in our fellows is just as real as we are and totally independent of us.
What is the origin of the ‘other’? Judeo-Christian theology gives us a ready made explanation. There is an archetypical Other whose “image and likeness” is found in every human being (and perhaps elsewhere as well) and that archetypical other is, once again, what we call ‘God’.
Now at last we can understand the deep meaning of the Great Commandment:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matt. 22: 35 – 40)
“Like unto it…” Exactly! They are one and the same commandment, expressed differently. We do not refer to the ‘Great Commandments’ but to the Great Commandment.
So faith, hope and love do not begin with a belief in God, nor do they require it, but they may lead to it. If so, they are how we experience God in the world. God is essentially Good and the objective values are how Good manifests in our world. God is the eternal present and therefore the source of all meaning. To the extent that we experience the present and feel our lives have meaning, we experience God. And God is the archetypical other. When we encounter the other in fellow human beings, we encounter the image and likeness of God; and when we love the other in fellow human beings, we encounter God. For God is love!