Sunday, October 08, 2006

Letter to Dennis Prager

I agree with much of what Dennis Prager says, but sometimes I think he's way off. Such as the time he took on the concept of unconditional love, opining that it's not a good thing because then we end up rewarding people for bad behavior. His callers all objected, most (I bet) being Christians and therefore having been told that unconditional love is a virtue one ought to cultivate.

But neither Dennis nor his callers caught on to the fact that they weren't talking about the same thing. The show was some time ago (don't remember when); I wrote this today and e-mailed it to him.

*****

Dennis:

I love your guts and all, but when you argue against unconditional love, it drives me straight up the wall, especially when you deal with callers.

Because you're totally talking past each other. The word "love" in English is extremely problematic. It encompasses so many different things that it's almost useless, as illustrated in the child's joke that goes, "I love chocolate pudding." "Oh yeah, then why don't you marry it?"

I think it would be useful for the sake of argument to break down "love" into the four loves of Greek philosophy: eros, philos, storge, and agape. The former two loves are conditional, and the latter two are unconditional. Or to put it another way, the former two arise from the merits of the object of love, and the latter two arise from the merits of the one who loves.

Eros, of course, is based on the merits (perceived or real) of the beloved. If the beloved is found wanting, or if the beloved mistreats the lover, eros can evaporate. (Battered wives who stay with their husbands do so not because they love their husbands but because they so desperately need to be loved by their husbands that they consider the abuse a reasonable price to pay for it, even though that "love" is of very low quality.)

Likewise, philos, friendship, is based on the merits of the object of our friendship. Philos requires trustworthiness, admirability, nobility, and enjoyment of that person's company. Philos doesn't have to be mutual, because we can have a great deal of admiration for people we have never met. I would say that any affections one might have for the Founders or Lincoln fall into the category of philos. (Or at least it does for the sake of my argument.) If you were to find out that Washington was a traitor, your philos for him would vanish. Not because of a fault in you, but because of a fault in him.

Storge is the ultimate in unmerited love. Parents love their children from the moment they are born, but newborns have done absolutely nothing to merit that love. You can of course attribute this love to the powerful hormones and neurochemicals that accompany birth. This is not to degrade it, just to explain it. If a parent fails to love a child, it is because there is something wrong with the parent, not with the child.

Agape arises entirely from the merits of the one who loves. It is a virtue to be cultivated in one's own soul. It requires that the one who loves possess empathy, compassion, patience, and be free from envy, prejudices, vanity, and selfishness. To acquire agape, you must see others the way God sees them and love them the way God loves them. God loves us because He is good, not because we are.

When you argue against unconditional love, you say that you worry that people are loving those who don't merit it, thus condoning bad behavior or bad character. But storge and agape don't work like that. Let me provide some examples:

Here in Utah, there were two families that lived in the same neighborhood, the Hackings and the Soareses. They were good friends, and to their delight, Mark Hacking and Lori Soares fell in love and got married, making their two families one. They were all excited when Mark announced that he had been admitted to medical school in North Carolina. Lori enthusiastically prepared for the move. But then one day she mysteriously disappeared during her morning jog.

Volunteers fanned out to look for her, but then disturbing facts came out. Mark had not been admitted to med school, and in fact he hadn't worked at the medical facility where he said he worked. It was all a lie. Eventually, Mark confessed that he had shot Lori when she discovered the lie and tossed her body into a dumpster. He was arrested and encarcerated.

The Hacking and Soares families were of course devastated. But at no time did they stop loving Mark. Mark's confession was to his own brother, and his brother went to the police with that confession. Not because he had stopped loving Mark, but because he knew that it was in Mark's best interest to face the music and suffer the consequences of his actions. They stood by Mark during his trial to offer moral support, but at no time did they attempt to shield him from facing justice, nor did they lie for him or thwart the police investigation.

They still love Mark, though I'm sure they've had to mourn the loss of the Mark they thought they knew and learn to accept the Mark that sits in that jail cell. They don't admire Mark. They don't trust him. But they do value his soul and they want what's best for him. And what's best for Mark is that he be in jail.

(Many years before, Mark suffered a head injury, which may have damaged his brain. He is obviously a sociopath now, though he might not have been before the injury.)

At any rate, ask yourself: what if one of your sons turned out to be a sociopath? What if he suddenly murdered his wife without remorse? What if you found out? Your love for your son would not cease, though you would be horrifically disappointed in him, disillusioned beyond measure, and your heart would be broken into a thousand pieces. Would you turn him in? I have to believe that you would. Not because you didn't love him anymore, but because you did. Because you didn't want him to do any more harm.

Likewise, one who possesses agape would regard Osama bin Laden thus: He is a son of God and therefore his soul is of infinite value. However, he has also cultivated wicked desires in his heart and acted on them. He has wrought mayhem and murder on the face of the earth and encouraged others to do the same. Not only is it in the world's best interest that he be stopped, it is in his own best interest that he be stopped. Every day that he walks free, he accrues more horror to his account, and his soul becomes even more wretched and diminished. If he dies tomorrow, Judgment Day will be horrific enough; allowing him to make it worse by not stopping him is a disservice to bin Laden himself.

Agape would require that if we did capture him alive (and killing him outright would not be a bad thing), we would not subject him to gratuitous cruelty. We would also not allow him contact with the outside world, thus preventing him from continuing to wreak havoc. We would not allow him to manipulate us, nor would we spare him the consequences of his actions. We would not hate his guts; rather, we would feel deep sorrow at the terrible choices he has made, at the monster he has become, and at the suffering he has wrought.

A third example: From God's perspective, which was the greater tragedy during the Holocaust -- that the Jews et al. suffered and lost their lives, or that the Nazis lost their souls? Stopping the Nazis from doing further harm was an obvious benefit to the world, but it was also a benefit to the Nazis, to prevent them from degenerating further (supposing that were possible).

I know you cite examples from the Old Testament wherein the writer states that God hates those who do thus and so. But is that an accurate description of God's state of mind or is it a rhetorical device used by the writer? I suspect that that particular type of expression appears only during a certain era, not throughout the OT. It would seem to reflect the writer's attitude more than God's.

Furthermore, God describes his wrath coming down on sinners, but really, did He destroy Sodom and Gommorah because He has a hot temper or did He need to stop them from degenerating further? If, as I suspect, the inhabitants of S & G had degenerated so far that they were screwing everything that moved, including their own children, would allowing them to continue thus be the response of a loving God? Such destruction might feel like wrath from our point of view, but from His it's an act of pure mercy.

I think what worries you is that in our society, we continue to lavish attention and praise on celebrities despite their bad behavior. Or parents protect their children from experiencing the consequences of their actions by defending them against teachers' accusations of misbehavior, even when the teacher is right. Or friends don't tell on friends when they've done something wrong. I don't think that these are examples of unconditional love at all, but of misplaced loyalties or misjudgment, or in the case of celebrities, plain old idolatry and moral laziness. Or in the case of lefties for the "insurgents," co-dependency. :D

So maybe when you get the urge to rail against unconditional love, maybe you could change your terminology. You might be railing against misguided philos, but your listeners think you're railing against storge and agape. Maybe you should rail against "unconditional tolerance" or "unconditional acceptance." Or bad philos or moral laziness.

Something. Because there's no way you are going to convince your Christian listeners that unconditional love (agape) is a bad thing, because agape is at the core of Christian doctrine. John 3:16 and all that.

Cheers!

Dicentra spectabilis

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, your explanation is about other types of love, i.e. agape, eros etc. Non of which, by the way, are mentioned in the Bible. Dennis is talking about "unconditional love". I man made, feel good, Utopian love. Christ did not come into the world to demonstrate "unconditional love" but He came to die for you, me and Dennis. By many definitions, and yours, a form of Agape love, or Love in action that came at a cost and a condition...Jesus death on the Cross.