‘Oh, For The Love Of Christ,’ Exploring the Word αγάπη (Agapē) from Within Judeo-Christian Thought.

‘Oh, For The Love Of Christ,’ Exploring the Word αγάπη (Agapē) from Within Judeo-Christian Thought.

 

I love you even if you think that I don’t.

Sometimes I find you doubt my love for you but I don’t mind.

Why should I mind? Why should I mind? What is love anyway?

Does anybody love anybody anyway? What is love anyway?

Does anybody love anybody anyway?

Can anybody love anyone so much that they will never fear?

 – Howard Jones, What is Love?

 

It presupposes a considerable amount of difficulty to broach the subject; one which – among all the words of the English language – must surely be the most complex, nuanced, and even potentially misunderstood word that one can have at ones linguistical disposal: Love. ‘I love you’ seems so much to be an overly-worn phrase – endlessly recycled by pop-stars and poets alike; but as the British 80’s rocker Howard Jones introspectively asks, we must ourselves ask also – ‘does anybody love anybody anyway?’  Beyond the erotic-inhering, lustful passion casually offered up as such by our own culture (eros), and reaching past the feelings sometimes found between members of a community or that which grows between two friends (philia), we find, in the Greek, a term which would seem potentially denigrated by a natural association and subsequent confusion with all the former definitions: Agapē. What is Agapē – and is there a suitable context that we can apprehend, apply, and ascend to it? Within this essay I will attempt to map out a possible course by which these things can be attempted, while comparing and contrasting it within both philosophical and cultural continuities, using the Love of Christ (as understood in the Judeo-Christian Tradition) as a central reference point while engaging multiple contrasting philosophical points of view.

 

Before we can attempt this, however, the question must be asked – is it entirely legal to use the Christian canon (the Bible) as a reference point for understanding Agapē, or is this merely a presumptuous assertion on my part? It is generally accepted that while the understanding of the word is not exclusively Christian – in its definition/nature – the word itself was almost assuredly a neologism (an invented word) created by New Testament writers to differentiate the certain type of love expressed by God for His creation from the sexual and communal types of love understood within their own culture.

 

Agapē, a term much used in the New Testament, was probably coined by the biblical writers, party to avoid the sexual connotations of eros and partly to express a specific form of love that they held to be beyond both eros and philia: a love that is rooted in and issues from God and is to be found specifically within the Christian community wherever this is in a state of spiritual health. (Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy, Geddes MacGregor, pg. 12)

 

If we are to therefore accept that Agapē, as a word, is more or less a Christian term (at least in its origin) then the second question that must be asked follows in line with the last referenced sentence in MacGregor’s definition; what then does a Christian community “in a state of spiritual health” look like?

 

As I write these words, the world is somberly marking the 30th anniversary of the infamous Jonestown Massacre. In the preface of his book Raven, The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, Tim Reiterman (who was wounded in the air strip attack that killed U.S. Senator Leo Ryan) makes an attempt to address ten “enduring misconceptions” about Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple church.

 

Rather then social misfits, Jones’ followers generally were decent, hardworking, socially conscious people, some highly educated, who were drawn to the interracial church. Many wanted to help their fellow man and to serve God, not embrace a self-proclaimed deity on earth. (Raven, The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, Tim Reiterman, pg. x)

 

Reiterman’s book’s title Raven, comes from a Jim Jones quote, “I come with the black hair of a raven. I come as God Socialist!” Megalomaniacal imperatives aside, the heart of Jones’ Gospel was one of manifest Agapē; an attempt to build a community on the premise of unconditional love: an acceptance outside of race, gender, wealth, or any other cultural classification. Before Jones began his final descent into madness, thousands thronged to his meetings and politicians cheered him and held him in open close association. Willie Brown, Walter Mondale, Rosaline Carter, and Harvey Milk[1]; all held close ties with a man seen as completely revolutionizing the way that community was seen to be in the light of religious faith.  But even as ‘San Francisco’s gift to the world’[2] was picking up his bible and angrily throwing it across his church’s sanctuary – while verbally denigrating and rejecting it and Christianity as a “fly away religion” – others, elsewhere, also were also eagerly attempting to experience a sense of Agapē for themselves in their own communal interpretations. Indeed, the entire “hippie” generation of the 60’s can be seen as an attempt to find personal peace in the face of worldwide war, unconditional community in a time of social division, personal acceptance in the face of social stratification, and individual freedom in the light of apprehended-as monolithic social constraints. Concomitant to all these endeavors was one single word; the light by which, their leaders either genuinely or deceptively desperately sought to guide their ways to success: Agapē.

 

But in the end, so much of it was merely an elusive dream. A mea culpa admitting such, aptly titled “My Elusive Dream,” can be found, air brushed from the floor to the ceiling, in the sandwich deli, The Yellow Deli, which lies on the fringe the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus. Self-professed hippies from the 60’s & 70’s, the leaders of the 12 Tribes religious movement, who run the store, admit to their own disillusionment in their own pursuit of an Agapē-based communal utopia.

 

If Jim Jones instilled an unwavering dedication in his followers to his own God-like/professed personality to exert order and control, the 12 Tribes church uses a interesting mix of Peoples Temple-like shared, closed-loop group socialism, informed by a dedication to a self-styled Judiac-centric Christian theology. Deeply suspicioned as a cult, and practically driven out of Chattanooga at least once before (after several members were “abducted” and sent to “deprogrammers”), the church makes no claim other then that they are essentially the modern-day manifestation of the biblically spoken of 12 tribes of Israel.  Jones and his automatons perpetually spoke of social justice and equality – whereas 12 Tribes, describes trying to “get back to the Garden[3],” in their quest for their own hoped for respective Agapē utopia[4]. With each group, different control/guidance methods were/are used to achieve similarly intended social control over their constituents and those (outside of the community) in direct relation to their affluence.

 

Laura Kipnis in her polemically-geared book, Against Love, argues that Love is itself a system of social control[5]. Kipnis argues that the essence of Love actually serves as an excellent societal control mechanism, in that it is an internally-geared one[6], as apposed to an external force that would try to exert conformity within a given social structure. Whereas Kipnis merely relegates Love to a control methodology, the German philosopher Schopenhauer relegates Love, not as the controlling agent employed by a given person for control of another, but rather as Nature herself, enforcing and maintaining her own edict: that of our own specieial propagation[7]. Nietzsche tried to dig even deeper, pushing aside Agapē  – and the Christianity that tried to define it – declaring that it was nothing more then the exaltation of weakness, and a control mechanism of the weak to control and manipulate the strong. Having deposed the pursuit of Agapē as a foundational existential concept – he tried to replace it with what he termed “The Will” of the individual[8]. In terms of an ontological progression, Nietzsche sought to replace the Christian theological dichotomy with various other mechanisms by which “the will” could be understood, and ascended to. Nietzche sought to use the music of Richard Wagner as a suitable social structure by which he could bring about the “Übermensch,” (roughly translated ‘overman’ or superior person): his neologistic personal archetype for one who had set aside the idea of Agapē, along with the church that had created it. Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, however – seems to acquiesce to notion that humanity is not quite ready for the “death of God.”

This prodigious event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves. (trans. Walter Kaufmann, The Gay Science, sect. 125)

 

But is God dead yet, in our own present age or is He alive and well? Obviously, it would appear – by nature of the ongoing propagation of best-selling polemical works by writers such as Christopher Hitchens,[9] Richard Dawkins,[10] and Sam Harris –[11] that God is in fact alive and well in the metaphysical fabric of our present society, and that the attempts at His profligation have thus far been unsuccessful – as Hitchens and others seem comfortable to continue engaging in their own Nietzschean attemps to ‘off’ him, as if it is somehow still necessary – perhaps more tellingly – it is still thought possible to do so. Nietzsche and his watchman would be proud.

 

Schopenhauer would consider Agapē to be a mask for other forces, whereas both Kipnis and Nietzsche (and his modern counterparts) would argue that any manifestation of not just Christianity, but it’s attendant and intrinsic concept of Agapē are inherently broken, and that the previously discussed examples of attempts at communally expressed Agapē are merely examples of it’s failure and intrinsic fallibility. But is this a fair assessment? Is it possible to see wholeness even among the weakness, brokenness, spiritual carnage and shipwrecked lives resultant from failed attempts at communal expressions of Agapē such as these?

 

It would indeed seem that the whole affair of attempting to demonstrate Agapē either personally or within a structured philosophy or religious environment is intrinsically potentially fraught with danger. Even those who seek to demonstrate Christianity through a practical and applicable theology that follows along more open, traditional lines – even among their number, there is on certain levels inherent conflict and non-cohesion.

 

Take for instance, the very understanding of the word Agapē; for some it means a literally unbounded, limitless expression of love and forgiveness. Others – attach conditions to it, citing that if it is treated with a casual disregard and token appreciation; it becomes, as coined by Bonhoeffer, “a cheap grace[12].” Within the phone directories of most mid-size cities, it is possible to find a church such as the Congregational Church; which prides itself in the liberal tradition of seeking social justice and equality, and welcomes anyone regardless of race or sexual persuasion. On the same street you might find a Church of Christ congregation; wherein you will find weekly hell-fire sermons regarding just how fast drinking, dancing and playing cards can consign you to the fires of hell. To each congregation, the view is that the other congregation is the one driving the bus straight to hell.

 

This liberal vs. conservative dichotomatic split, according to Helmut Thielicke, in his book The Evangelical Faith – Volume One: Prolegomena, The Relation of Theology to Modern Thought Forms, is nothing less then the churches divergent applications of Agapē, pursuant to their own understanding and application of God’s knowledge and the revelation of Himself in light of our own applied reason. Both Thielicke and later Paul C. McClasson in his own book, An Invitation to Dogmatic Theology – A Canonical Approach, assert that after the Enlightenment’s dawn of Cartesian reason, one group asserted that Agapē was best demonstrated by the exertion of a soteriological – or salvation-centric[13] – gospel, whereas the other side saw Agapē as best manifest in terms of social justice and equality.

 

A very good example of this is the issue of homosexuality. Liberals see the conservative’s definition of biblical Agapē as oppressive, conditional and rules-oriented, whereas the conservatives see the Liberals has embracing a reinvented Antinomianism[14]. This theological divergence can further be seen in a Stoic vs. Aristotelian light, in that Liberals tend to see a God with little or no Anger manifesting in a modern sense. Jesus Christ was a wise-teacher who taught peace and hope and a host of other warm and fuzzy things – a deity (if indeed it is granted that He is seen as such, as some Liberals discount the actual deity of Christ and view him as having value only from with a mythological sense) who has little if not a complete absence of Anger in his personality. Some movements in church history, such as the Manichean[15] Gnostics, considered these stark differences between the Christ of the New Testament and the God of the Old to be so shocking in terms of their revealed character, as they pertain to Anger, that they suggested that the God of the Old Testament was perhaps a ‘demi’ or a lesser God then that of the greater, more truly holy God of the New. Within mainstream theology – an Aristotelian view of God’s potential for having anger is generally accepted, and the opposing Stoicist interpretation largely relegated to the theological dustbin. It should be pointed out, however, that in certain branches of conservative Christianity, great emphasis on holiness and what is sometimes termed “Clothesline Preaching[16],” A high and exacting behavioral standard is often expected; and it is beyond the scope of this present paper to do justice to what this present writer would view as correct vs. incorrect holiness teaching – but it must be conceded, that certain elements within the tradition either directly or indirectly espouse a ‘four minute mile’ approach to becoming a better, ‘more holy’ christian. In it’s extreme forms, an outsider looking in would seem to observe individuals trying to make it a ‘two second mile.’ Even this question in regards to the nature of the personal holiness of the believer, comes back to ones apprehension of God’s Agapē-centric relation to man. Questions related to the salvation of man, for Christians, begin with the sobering realization of a mighty, omniscient God who was swept off His feet by His own creation[17]. Theologians, often when wresting with the heavy-hitting terms like ‘Vicarious’ or ‘Atonement,’ begin with the comment that Salvation is a unique possibility for Humanity within the scope of all Creation[18]; the angels never captured God’s heart in the way that we did.

 

A common refutation to extreme holiness teaching is a reminder that the salvation that is offered to man comes from an Agapē love, which means that while it is not a pie-in-the-sky, carnival candy idea, it is a soul-shaking, beyond belief Love that is anchored in far more then our capacity to earn it or be worthy of it. The Christian concept of Agapē is anchored – in the very character of God.

 

But if the foundations of this place and all places begin to crumble, cynicism itself crumbles with them. And only two alternatives remain — despair, which is the certainty of eternal destruction, or faith, which is the certainty of eternal salvation.  “The world itself shall crumble, but, my salvation knows no end,” says the Lord.” This is the alternative for which the prophets stood. This is what we should call religion, or more precisely, the religious ground for all religion. When the earth grows old and wears out, when nations and cultures die, the Eternal changes the garments of His infinite being. He is the foundation on which all foundations are laid; and this foundation cannot be shaken…This is what we should call religion, or more precisely, the religious ground for all religion.  (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations [http://www.religion-online.org/showbook.asp?title=378] )

 

To experience Agapē is to experience something more then the desire to make love to your spouse. It is more then the desire to hang out with a good friend. It is more then the way you would feel if you participate in a neighborhood beautification project. It is the recognition of something that you probably did not deserve, could not have earned, and in no way ever expected.

 

Recently, a co-worker told me the story of a medical lab tech she used to work with in a local hospital laboratory, who was an intensely hateful, bitterly vile person, who blamed every problem in the world on the derogatory term for African Americans. He was an alcoholic who spent much of his time drinking at a certain bar. The only person who ever associated with him there or anywhere, was a black man; a drinking buddy of sorts – who for some strange, perhaps alcohol-induced reason, was a friend to the man; at least within the confines of the walls of the bar. When the lab tech died, he was financially destitute and so despised that no one would come forward to claim his body or even pay for his funeral. Not even his family cared anything about him or wanted anything to do with him in life – or in death. To the absolute shock of everyone, the black man – from the bar – came forward and claimed his body, and paid all his bills; for the hospital stay, a decent funeral and even a respectable place for him to rest – besides the paupers grave he was headed for. Everyone at work was so completely blown way- they were literally speechless. Spontaneously, everyone took up a collection to try to defray the black man’s expenses – which everyone knew was very substantial; so much so that regardless of how much money they contributed, it would only put a small dent in what he had paid out of his own pocket. Had that man been able to look back from the grave – he would have seen Agapē love. He would have seen something incredibly extraordinary – if not out of this world: a love that was unconditional and in no way something that he even remotely deserved.

 

I have come to believe that if Schopenhauer is right, then life is merely a grueling, mechanized existence, made merely superficially tolerable via an illusory veneer that the hard realities of life are perpetually scraping off. I am convinced that if Kipnis is right, we are not just in a factory forever controlled by ones more crafty then ourselves, but we are also terminally resigned to a permanently selfish existence. If Nietzche is right, then I am among all men to be most pitied – not just because I have placed all my faith in a non-existent deity, but also because I am relationally autistic[19] and therefore I am not only just intrinsically weak, but – regardless of how strong a will I possess – I am terminally incapable of even trying to control those who would be considered “the strong,” were I even to attempt such a task. If Seneca[20] is right, then I must surely see a rope in my future, as to have embraced a concept such as Agapē, only to see it revealed as a farce, it is a despair that I know I would never be able to overcome.

 

In closing, I ask the forgiveness of the reader, for the gross over-simplification of the following story; which to fully recall and relate, would necessitate far more space and time then this present endeavor allows for here. Approximately 7 years ago, I left the church that I had more or less grown up in, an Assemblies of God affiliated church, to join an independent, non-denominational church that many of my closest friends had already been attending for about 7 years themselves. I joined the church, and began serving as their sound man, at the continued request of an Associate Pastor, whose name, he would request I probably not use. I found the main leader/head pastor of the church enthralling and found myself listening to more and more of his sermons. Having grown up my whole life in the AG church, and having spent countless hours debating the finer points of theology with friends, I had begun to find most pastors sermons shallow and boring. His were deep and complicated and I was deeply drawn to his teaching. The church and its affiliates were essentially their own denominational structure, and he was seen as the leader of all of them. I also had a close female friend, who was a secretary at the church. Unknown to us, the head pastor, began to attempt to pursue a sexual relationship with her. Eventually, she confided this reality to the associate pastor. Without counting the cost – he immediately confronted the head pastor. The associate pastor was removed from his position, and the church was essentially destroyed in the aftermath. The head pastor continued to enjoy acclaim and a steady following among those who both knew the reality of his sexual darkness/manipulation, and those who did not. Many simply chose not to care. The associate pastor became a pariah and an anathema within an amazingly interconnected maze of circles of relations and influences. Through careful and amazingly crafty, insidious means – the Associate Pastors Ministry was essentially destroyed. Today, he works for the Department of Human Services, and ghost writes books and sermons for some of Chattanooga and the surrounding areas most influential and well-known pastors. But as a pastor himself, he has virtually no pastoral ministry anymore.

 

The politics of personal destruction at work within the situation that unfolded was such that my mind and heart were both numbed and shocked to see and experience it: all that was done wrong – and all that was done right. All that should have never happened  – but all that did. All that no one in the world deserved to go through. A young woman, sent to a psychiatric hospital because she had convinced herself she was “Satan’s tool to destroy churches.” My own business – overnight – suddenly struggling to keep our doors open, because clients no longer wanted to even talk to us. The pain and disillusionment cannot be written in such a way as to even remotely, adequately describe it.

 

But I saw.

 

For in a moment, I saw it all – all as a great illusion, and religion and church as vain and deceptive ways and means of controlling weak people, conspired by those who are strong-willed, personality-capable and intelligently resourceful. I saw brokenness, weakness and absolutely shipwrecked lives. But through my own tears, and the tears of all the others who likewise survived; I saw something that restored my hope. Something that – in many ways, perhaps – is the reason I can still go to church, have faith, and still believe in my religion, my hope, my God, and most of all Love. I saw a man. I saw a man who chose to lay down everything that he had gone to undergraduate school and then seminary for years for, worked very hard for, and valued greatly: his job, his church, his respect & his reputation. I watched him lay it all down, to protect one – innocent – lamb – that he loved. I saw, and for the first time genuinely understood the weight of a word that early church fathers had tried so hard to express to a disbelieving, self-absorbed, controlling, altogether lost world: I saw the Love of Christ. I saw Agapē.

 

And maybe love is letting people be just what they want to be.

The door always must be left unlocked.


To love when circumstance may lead someone away from you.

And not to spend the time just doubting.

What is love anyway, does anybody Love anybody anyway?

– Howard Jones, What is Love

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

 

MacGregor, Geddes. Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy. New York, New York: Paragon House, 1991.

 

Reiterman, Tim. Raven, The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2008.

 

My Elusive Dream. Chattanooga, TN: 12 Tribes, 2008.

 

American Experience. Jonestown – The Life and Death of Jonestown. New York, New York: PBS, 2006. DVD.

 

“Asperger syndrome.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 23 Nov 2008, 01:22 UTC. 24 Nov 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Asperger_syndrome&oldid=253506224>.

 

Jones, Howard. What is Love? What is Love?, 1993. CD.

 

Theilicke, Helmut. The Evangelical Faith. Volume One: Prolegomena, The Relation of Theology to Modern Thought Forms. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmands Publishing Company, 1974.

C. McClasson, Paul. Invitation to Dogmatic Theology, A Canonical Approach. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006.

Tillich, Paul. The Shaking of the Foundations. New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955.

 

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated, Walter Kaufmann New York: new York:Vintage Books, 1974.

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

 

 


[1] PBS American Experience: Jonestown – The Life and Death of Jonestown (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3625536419231928674)

[2] This descriptive epithet is not my own. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall/locate the author who coined it. It is meant to emphasis that Jones was very much a part of the San Francisco political/religious scene, and in many ways, it was the culture and attitudes of San Francisco that provided a fertile environment wherein Jones could, at least for a time, build his self-serving cult under the appearance of both Christianity and Social Equality; all of which were ruses that he employed for his own means. Jones can be seen, here in this sense, to be a Nietzschean “Übermensch,” in that he was capable of using forces around him to control the weak and exert his will to his own purposes.

[3] My Elusive Dream, pgs 35-42.

[4] Both the mural and the tract that 12 Tribes hands out (which is associated with it), make reference to Thomas More’s Utopia.

[5] Against Love, Laura Kipnis, pgs. 35-41

[6] Against Love, Laura Kipnis, pg. 26

[7] Schopenhauer, pgs. 71-72

[8] Nietzsche For Beginners, pgs 68-77

[9] Author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

[10] Author of The God Delusion

[11] Author of Letter to a Christian Nation

[12] “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

[13] See proceeding footnote comparing Justification theology with Antinomian Theology.

[14] A theological term associated with theology that emphasizes a “no rules” approach to morality or biblical principles. The natural opposite of an Antinomianalist Theology would be one of Justification or Atonement Theology; which is an emphasis on the necessity for identification with Christ and his work on the Cross which grants Salvation. Antinomianism generally believes that Salvation has already been granted, and there is no process that is necessary, nor guidelines to be followed to attain/retain it. Sometimes associated with Universalism, which teaches that Christ’s sacrifice covers the sin of all mankind regardless of acceptance, faith, and obedience to the idea. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antinomianism)

[15] An early form of Gnosticism, founded by a Gnostic named Mani.

[16] A term used to describe preaching against wearing jewelry, makeup, watching television, drinking alcohol, playing cards, watching movies, and/or women wearing pants.

[17] It is the orthodox Christian view that the Song of Solomon is a love song between God and his Creation.

[18] There is, for example, no ‘plan of salvation’ for the Angels – only Judgment, Condemnation, and eventual destruction for those who rebelled against God. We are told that the Angels themselves look upon God’s Agapē for humanity and the plan of salvation He set aside for men and women with absolute utter amazement. (cf. Matthew 25:41; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6)

 

[20] Seneca, On Anger, Book 3, pg. 92

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About hollerscholar

I'm a theology & philosophy student, writer, web developer, and medical laboratory professional.
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