If we want to know whether a person is good, we should ask neither what his or her beliefs are nor what he or she hopes for. Rather, we should ask what the person loves. So taught St. Augustine. He was in good company, of course, since Jesus summarized morality as “love God and love your neighbor.” Indeed, most Christians would say that while the practice of Christian love is very demanding, the idea of Christian love could not be any plainer. Wrong.
Consider these contrasting Christian claims. Love is an emotion. No, it is not. Loving your neighbor “as yourself” requires us to love ourselves. No, it actually forbids self-love. Love for God is most important. Not so, unless love for God just means love your neighbor. We should have a special love for our family and friends. No, we should love all human beings equally. Love promotes tolerance. No, out of love, we should force people to do what is best and punish them if they don’t do it.
Contemporary Christians usually praise a pagan mother who lovingly nurses her baby, but an earlier age judged her sinful for loving the creature instead of the creator. And how should Christians evaluate Heloïse, whose devoted self-sacrificing love prompted her to write from her convent cell that she would rather be Abelard’s whore than the properly married but unloved wife of the emperor? Again, how should Christians evaluate Abelard, who, having fathered a child by Heloïse, refused to respond personally to her and instead wrote a few formal letters to a “sister in Christ”?
Bernard Brady, a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, has selected multiple primary texts on Christian love from quite different eras and schools of theology. For the most part, Brady lets the texts speak for themselves. He provides background rather than analysis. He carefully orchestrates his selections, occasionally offering longer tracts such as the whole Song of Songs. His book is a treasure-trove of both familiar and forgotten delights.
In Brady’s Old Testament there are several different kinds of loves, ranging from a general love of persons and things, through covenant fidelity to friendship and romantic love. By portraying various conflicts, the Old Testament helpfully dispels any notion that love of itself will bring about a harmonious world. In the New Testament, agape, like the English word love, has diverse applications: God, neighbor, friends, but also enemies, sinners and “places of honor in the synagogue.”
Of the 12 classical and 10 contemporary authors Brady studies, he rightfully gives Augustine the most extensive treatment. Augustine’s ideas reflect his shifting loves. Before his conversion, Augustine pushed away the love of his mother and welcomed the love of his mistress. Afterward he reversed this pattern. Then, love for God dominated or even jealously excluded all other loves, as in his famous distinction between “using” and “enjoying.” Augustine’s more enduring insight is that each of us must develop an ordered hierarchy of loves.
Where some contemporary authors can make no sense out of a specific “love for God,” the mystics indicate that direct union with God is Christian perfection. Bernard of Clairvaux’s “stages of kissing” advance, through prayer, into an even deeper relationship with God. Hadewijch developed a “love mysticism” that grows through 12 “unspeakable hours.” Julian of Norwich, for whom “all shall be well,” invited Christians to feed on “Mother Jesus.” About the same time, however, Capallanus proposed not one but two sets of rules for courtly romance.
Thomas Aquinas explained how differences in closeness and worthiness justify different degrees of love--for, say, a sinful parent and for a virtuous stranger. By contrast, Luther says that Christian love for others should be independent of their worth. The epitome of Christian love, for Thomas, was friendship for God, whereas Luther emphasized obedience to God’s word. While Thomas made self-love central, Luther considered it sinful.
According to Kierkegaard and Anders Nygren, pagans love their family and friends, but Christians love their “neighbor.” The difference is most clear when Christians love people who offer nothing but abuse in return for kind-ness. Reinhold Niebuhr claimed that Christian love realistically does not work in political or economic contexts. Other Christians disagree, however, as can be seen in Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence, Mother Teresa’s care for the poor and John Paul II’s world-engaging personalism.
Finally, after presenting brief contemporary selections from Gene Outka, Jules Toner, S.J., Gustavo Gutiérrez, Martin D’Arcy, S.J., Margaret Farley, R.S.M., myself and Don Browning, Brady very succinctly offers his own understanding: Christian love is an affective affirmation, responsive and responsible, steadfastly uniting the lover with the beloved.
All should agree that describing Christian love is much less important than practicing it. Still, this fine book raises the question: how will we know that we are practicing Christian love if our tradition has such divergent ideas about its very meaning?