As a child I felt a strong pull to spirituality but was raised atheist and therefore thought these longings to be silly, potentially even simple-minded. But now, as an adult woman and mother navigating the turbulence of life, I see the immeasurable value of these explorations. Over the past year I have immersed myself in learning more about the monotheistic religions that rule our world today, the goddess and earth centered religions that have been in existence far longer (and continue to be practiced by many) and the impacts of these belief systems on our culture. With a feminist lens I am learning to see value in every religion and in the teachings of each prophet, and that’s what I hope to share with you here. I believe ultimately we are all seeking the same thing: an experience of the divine and the love it offers humanity. Here is one of the essays I wrote for a recent course on Love as explored through the texts of Plato, Sophocles, St. Augustine, and the Hebrew and Christian testament.
Note: I use the word “God” in this piece because it is the term used for the deity related to the scripture I’ve shared. But it need not be thought of as male. In fact, the “God” of Judaism, Christianity and Muslim was originally ungendered. It is only patriarchy and the limitations of language that turned this God into the male figure common in our culture today.
The teachings of Jesus appear to be clear and one may even say, simple. But easy to uphold, they are not. Jesus tells us that both loving God and loving thy neighbour are the most important of the Commandments. This is not easy love to give. This is not the eros of the Symposium, powered by lust and passion, (and which continues to dominate so much of our culture). Nor is it the familiar love philia of Antigone, which we can understand in our own natural love for those closest to us. This love of which Jesus speaks, agape, is the love that requires us to be more than our individual selves. It is the love that requires us to put our own needs aside for another’s, to see their struggle as worthy of our attention. It is love of humanity in its wholeness, the movement from me to we, which yes, ultimately includes our enemies too. It is a love for all, for God and all of her creatures as a whole.
We see the Love Commandment repeatedly in the Bible, from the Hebrew Scripture (Leviticus 19:18) to the Christian Testament (Matthew 22:39, Luke 10:27). For the purposes of this essay, we will look specifically at Mark 12:28-12:31:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
There are a number of important teachings in this piece of scripture. Jesus is impressing upon us that the most important thing we can do in our life is to love God, with all our heart, strength and mind. He is also here telling us that we must love our neighbour as we do ourselves, that this is integral to the experience of love. But more importantly, Jesus is linking these two Commandments, presenting the idea that it is through loving all that we may find ourselves able to truly love God so deeply, and perhaps for those who struggle to love all, it is through loving God that they are able to do so. This is repeated in The First Letter of John when John says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (John 4:12). This agape love is the love of humanity, the love of all of us and through that, we find God. This is reminiscent of the Ladder of Love proposed in the Symposium by Plato, and one may argue that to love all others is a descension on that ladder, but the steps, as we take them, still culminate in God/Good/Beauty.
Let us dissect this a bit further… what is meant by “neighbour”? Neighbour is the English translation of the Saxon word neaghebur, which literally means “near dweller” (Ward & Srigley, 2008). It may be easy for us modern folk to find this term limiting as our lives and human interactions reach much further than those who dwell near us but, to understand the meaning, one must take the perspective of the day. During the years of Jesus (and for most all of human existence for that matter), those who lived near were the entirety of one’s world. Few people traveled beyond their communities and even when they did, it was not that far that they were able to go. Thus, the term neighbour encompassed most, if not all, of the people with whom one would interact over a lifetime.
With that understanding, we can see how the meaning of Jesus’ words was to extend love to all humans, whether we like them or not. We are being called to love not just our friendly next door family but also the homeless person who sits on the street downtown, the person with whom you quarreled once upon a time who lives on the other side of town and the person whose political views are contrary to your own who keeps a tight hold on your local riding. In the First Corinthians, Paul furthers this idea of love, describing it as divine action and ultimately giving it greater value than hope or faith. Agape love, as described by Paul IS faith, as we act with love toward all in our community, the true essence of the Church and the community created among its members. In agape love, God is present and active.
Paul also speaks of the change that is possible through this form of love, that we may evolve from divided to whole. We saw this idea of love presented in the Symposium when Aristophanes shared the myth of a rounded whole being divided into two, and the pursuit of love was the pursuit of renewed wholeness. This idea permeates our culture today and modern thoughts on love. It is common to think of one’s partner as one’s better half, and of course, no one can forget the iconic Jerry Maguire quote: “You complete me”. But this simplistic completion of the whole is not what Paul, nor Jesus, is arguing for. Aristophanes’ concept of two halves meeting and becoming one is not agape, it is eros. Agape is a broader love and thus the wholeness that it brings is greater also.
In fact, the wholeness that Paul tells us is possible, is a divine wholeness of humanity. It is the love for community, and for humanity in its entirety. The scripture of Mary Magdalene tells us “Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other” (2:2). She is telling us that we are not separate from each other. The world, humans and all other species are God’s creation, we are one, not many. When we find this love, agape, we can then understand what it means to know God. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says “I am the one who comes from what is undivided.” Jesus understands this unity and takes deliberate and consistent action to offer compassion to those in need as he tends to the sick, gives to the poor and acts with disregard for the societal divisions based on power and oppression.
Although the Christian church is known for agape love, it doesn’t seem to have followed the teachings of Jesus very well. With the genocide of Indigenous people around the world and the erasure of the pagan culture, the Church sought power rather than love. It most definitely did not practice the commandment to love thy neighbour. Today, in a society deeply influenced by Christianity, we have great oppression and social division, with the “me-first” perspective being the attitude of most. Leaders who claim to be Christian argue for less social support and care within our countries, criticizing, belittling and demonizing those who fight for social equity.
Will we ever learn to love our neighbour as Jesus intended?
It is the spring of 2020, two thousand years since Jesus spoke of agape love and the importance of showing compassionate action toward all humans, and Covid-19 is rapidly spreading around the world. Today, and for the weeks and months to come, we are being asked to base our actions on the risk to the most vulnerable. To both those we do and do not know. As well as those we like and do not like. As a global community, we are being forced to take collective action or face devastating human loss. We are in a crash course on agape love. We must move beyond our “me first” attitude and put aside our own needs. We must deny ourselves both eros and philia love, the loves that are easy for humans, instinctual even, and instead practice agape, taking deliberate action to care for God’s creation in its entirety. Only if we place value on all lives, regardless of their supposed societal worth or our own personal preference, do we have the mindset needed to overcome this challenge faced by humanity. Perhaps God is giving us another chance to learn the most important love of all, to appreciate its complexity and have reverence for its beauty. Maybe through the global experience of Covid-19 we will learn to love our neighbour, friend or foe.
Plato. (1986). Symposium. In Dialogues of Plato (pp.257-320). New York: Bantam Dell.
Sophocles. (1982). Antigone. In The Three Theban Plays (pp.58-128). New York: Penguin.
Srigley, R. (2020). Course Pack: RLST 1116 EL 12: Ideas of Love 1. XanEdu Publishing.
Ward, B. & Srigley, S. (2008). Course Manual – RLST 1116 EL 12 – Ideas of Love I. [PDF document]. Thorneloe University
Watterson, M. (2019). Mary Magdalene Revealed: The First Apostle, Her Feminist Gospel & the Christianity We Haven’t Tried Yet. United States: Hay House.