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I’m not a huge fan of Paul Krugman, which is to say that I have significant criticisms of him, his politics, and of Keynesians in general. That said he has done something recently that improved my opinion of him. He’s been pointing out all of the many problems with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). I particularly liked the subtitle of one of his recent articles: “Trying to get this debate beyond Calvinball.”
Calvinball is a reference to Calvin and Hobbes, the greatest comic strip ever (this point is not up for debate) and in the strip the rules to Calvinball are made up as you go along, which in Krugman’s opinion is how it feels to debate MMT advocates. But, it was as I was reading Krugman’s MMT articles that I was reminded of something else he does. On blog posts where he gets into economic minutia he’ll put “(Wonkish)” at the end of the title to alert people to the fact that the post might not be for everyone.
All of the preceding has been my way of introducing something similar to my blog a “(Religious)” tag for posts that delve deeply into issues of Christianity, and in particular the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). And to identify posts which may be of less interest to any atheists who happen to be reading. That said, in this particular post, though much of my reasoning will be religious, I hope to touch on non-religious arguments as well.
The subject I want to talk about is: love. See I have a problem with love. One of my employees will often ask me, in an exaggerated fashion, when I decided to “Love hate and hate love.” Particularly when ask him to do something hard. But humor aside, I don’t hate love, however I do think we’ve put far too much emphasis on it, making it the ultimate value, above and beyond all others. In doing this we have stretched its meaning to the point where love, as most people practice it, is a long way away from its Christian ideal or even its humanist ideal. We’ve done this in many different ways, I’m going to start with the most obvious and then work back from there.
A year or so ago I mentioned an observation John Michael Greer had made to the effect that hate is to modern sensibilities what sex was to Victorian sensibilities, i.e. during the Victorian era sex was the root of all evil, today it’s hate. As he points out:
If you want to slap the worst imaginable label on an organization, you call it a hate group. If you want to push a category of discourse straight into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, you call it hate speech. If you’re speaking in public and you want to be sure that everyone in the crowd will beam approval at you, all you have to do is denounce hate.
First, he’s basically saying the same thing I am, if love has become the ultimate value, then hate (as its opposite) must therefore be the ultimate evil. But, beyond that, by tying it back to Victorian sensibilities, he’s making an additional point. The Victorians weren’t against all sex, they were against particular varieties of sex. In the final analysis it was exceptionally class-based. In the same fashion modern sensibilities aren’t against all hate (or in favor of all love.) They’re against certain varieties of hate. And it might be more accurate to speak about it in terms of tolerance vs. intolerance, which is part of what I mean when I talk about stretching the definition of love well beyond whatever Christian foundation it might have once had. Finally while acceptable sex was entirely based on class in Victorian times, now acceptable hate is heavily based on ideology. Even the mildest intolerance of the LGBT community is among the worst things you can be accused of. While flaming hatred of Trump and his supporters is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged.
(You can certainly see, for those who’ve been following along, how this ties back into my last post there is no safe level of intolerance. Particularly certain kinds of intolerance.)
This twisting of love and hate into tolerance and intolerance has been fairly well documented, and detailed at some length by better people than me. But it makes a good jumping off point for, as promised, bringing in religion. As I said people are increasingly making love into the ultimate value, and I think many if not most of these people justify this by bringing in Christ and Christianity. Some of these people are actively involved in an organized Christian church. Some self-identify as Christian, with varying levels of commitment, but with minimal actual church attendance. Others put forth love as the ultimate value with no real reference to Christ except perhaps as one wise person among many. And finally there are people who use their interpretation of Christian ideology as a club to beat up on Christians for being insufficiently tolerate, at least according to their completely subjective interpretation of it.
Given that everyone is referencing Christ and Christianity in some fashion, most of them pretty directly, what did Christ have to say about love? In particular what did he say about it being the ultimate value? Interestingly enough, just last Sunday, as I was sitting in church, the Sunday School teacher asked the members of the class what their core principle was, and someone said love. And in support of that offered up the phrase “God is love”. Perhaps even more interesting this was not the genesis of this post, it was just a happy coincidence, I had already started writing when this happened. But this phrase is a great place to start.
“God is love” seems pretty clear, it’s not even something like God commands us to love, or God values love, it’s God is love. And yet if it’s as important as all that why does this phrase only appear in one place in the Bible, 1 John chapter 4? If this is a critical part of Christianity you’d expect it to actually appear in one of the four Gospels, right? Also the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and are we sure whatever the original word was that it has the same connotation as the English it was translated into? That itself is a whole discussion I don’t have space to get into, but there’s a strong argument to be made that “God is self-sacrifice” would be closer to the original meaning than “God is infinitely tolerant.”
The next best piece of evidence for the importance of love is Matthew 22:36-40:
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Once again we’ve got a strong prima facie case for love’s primacy within Christianity. But as far as I can tell most of the people pushing to make love the ultimate value aren’t pushing to make love of God their primary value. They’re skipping the first commandment and moving straight to the second (and given their actual behavior even this interpretation might be generous). But presumably the first commandment is first for a reason. That just as skipping the first step: “Turn on the oven” will be fatal to any attempt to bake, skipping “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind” is almost certainly fatal to exercising Christian love.
All of this is a problem even if people today are using love in the same sense Christ was when he issued the original proclamation in Aramaic. But I don’t think that’s the case either. Not only is there more sacrifice implied in the original, I would also argue there was a greater sense of commitment implied, and far less selfishness as well. Lots of people seem to have added a third commandment, “Love yourself above all else.” And I doubt very much that Jesus would recognize anything in the modern conception of self-love, which might be more properly labeled “self-actualization” as a part of his original injunctions.
If anyone thinks there’s a stronger case for the primacy of love in general Christian theology, I’d be happy to speak to it. But my sense is that most of the New Testament examples are going to be similar to the two I already gave. Outside of the New Testament, I’m probably not qualified to speak for all branches of Christianity, nor everything that has happened since 33 AD (or thereabouts). So, let’s turned to an area where I do feel somewhat qualified to hold forth: LDS theology.
The idea for this post actually came to me quite a while go as I was reading Alma 29. For any non-Mormons who may have made it this far. Alma is one of the major figures in the Book of Mormon (Alma is the longest sub-book within the Book of Mormon) and in Chapter 29, Alma mentions that if he could have “the wish of his heart” he would want to be an angel. What would he do if he were an angel and could travel the world and speak with a “voice to shake the earth”? He would preach repentance, not love.
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.
The word love doesn’t appear in the chapter. In fact if you compare occurrences of “repentance” to appearances of “love” in the Book of Mormon, you’ll find that the word love appears 60 times but the word repentance appears 92 times. Why is this important? Well first off, you would expect that Alma has a pretty good idea of what the world most needs to hear, and in his mind, if he could reach every soul, he would be declaring the need to repent not the need for more love. Now it’s possible that things have changed, and whatever was most important in Alma’s time is not what is most important in our time. That there’s no longer any need for people to repent, but that hardly seems likely…
Another place we might turn is the Articles of Faith. And while they don’t cover every nook and cranny of LDS theology, you would think that anything that’s really important should be included there. Turning to them the closest we get to the word love is “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” On the other hand, though it only appears once, repentance is on the list of “first principles”, right after faith.
We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
This emphasis on repentance is not just an LDS fascination. I think the evidence might be clearer, but even if we restrict ourselves to the New Testament you still have scriptures like Luke 24:46-47:
46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:
47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Similar to Alma, it’s repentance that gets preached among all nations, not love, and certainly not tolerance.
None of this is to say that love isn’t important, or even very important, but when you prioritize it above everything else, then you risk losing losing other important principles, particularly if those principles clash with your expanded and prioritized vision of love’s meaning. If love takes on the meaning of infinite tolerance (and to be clear I also think tolerance has its place) then what place does a principle like repentance have which has intolerance for sin baked right into the definition?
Perhaps I can make the importance of both love and repentance clearer by examining the ultimate goals of existence. In LDS theology the ultimate goal is to become like God, and in the process take on god-like powers and responsibilities. Another word for this is theosis. And while I’m not sure how comfortable I feel speaking about other branches of Christianity, I have it on good authority that Eastern Orthodox Christianity also espouses a doctrine of theosis.
Obviously a doctrine like theosis can take us into some pretty deep theological waters. So it might be helpful to look at how this works out in another area. In the past I have pointed out that once you assume mortal life is all about preparing intelligences to be gods that you end up arriving at a very similar position to people who are concerned with AI Risk. So what purpose would love serve in that context? The big worry behind discussions of AI Risk is that you’re going to end up with an AI who does things we don’t want it to do. But if it loves its creator (us) with all its heart, and with all its soul, and with all its mind. That would pretty much solve that problem. If it skips that step and just focuses on loving its fellow AIs, that’s not nearly as effective, and in fact might actually end up being the exact opposite of what we were hoping for. Beyond that, tolerance has very little value in this scenario. We need the AI to be perfectly moral before we can trust it. Tolerance, almost whatever form it takes, is at best unrelated and at worst the opposite of what we’re looking for.
There is, however, a place for repentance. Given the difficulties involved we might be very interested in allowing the AI to correct for past mistakes. And, in any event, we assume that when we move from considering AIs back to a consideration of human beings that God can afford to be far more charitable than we are. Not only allowing a greater latitude for repentance, but also a greater spirit of tolerance among all the various parties. But to be clear there’s nothing inherent in the scenario which requires infinite or even excessive tolerance in order for it to work.
At this point, in terms of Christianity, I don’t know that there’s much more I can say to sway those who are still undecided, and I may have already lost you with the detour into AI, but what about if we ignore religion? In the beginning I mentioned four foundations for prioritizing love:
- Christianity with organized religion.
- Christianity sans organized religion.
- Other religious or spiritual frameworks.
- As a club to beat up on Christians.
I think I’ve covered one and two, though I will add that I think two is objectively inferior to one on every metric, and not just from the standpoint of understanding Christian doctrine on love and tolerance.
As far as three, if someone claims that as their foundation, then I’d be curious which religious tradition they’re drawing on. I confess to not being an expert in all possible traditions, but my sense is that every religion of sufficient antiquity has a whole host of things it doesn’t tolerate. And that while altruism is a significant component of all religions, it is always altruism within a rigidly defined framework. Also I think if you trace most things back they’ll still end up intersecting with Christianity at some point.
As far as four, to begin with I think Christians should largely ignore people who accuse them of hypocrisy, since so much of it is done in bad faith, and also, to reiterate, even if we are engaged in a certain level of hypocrisy that just illustrates precisely why repentance is so important. But let’s say that although you’re an atheist who has nothing but disdain for Christianity, that you’re still trying to make a good faith effort to live as well as possible. Where should you prioritize love? Insofar as love leads to cooperation, and cooperation makes things easier to accomplish I can still see placing a very high value on it, but whatever the modern definition of love, it doesn’t seem particularly good at fostering greater cooperation. For example, something I just saw on Twitter:
The average Republican and Democrat suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis.
Each side thinks it is driven by benevolence, while the other is evil and motivated by hatred.
This is just one data point, but I think it’s clear that if we’re trying to engender greater cooperation that whatever we’re doing is not working. That a focus on love and tolerance with a corresponding abhorrence of hate has, seemingly, only brought greater division.
I’ve pointed out how the case for a singular prioritization of love and tolerance is not supported by religion, but the case for tolerance is even weaker if you’re expecting salvation through science or human effort. Under a religious framework you could at least imagine that even if we get the balance wrong, say too much tolerance, or too little, that in the end, if there’s a God that he might still very well be merciful. But if you don’t believe there’s a God willing to excuse our mistakes. If you believe we have to succeed or fail entirely on our own merits. That, if we flunk the test, that there’s no great power to appeal to for mercy, then the issue of tolerance becomes very fraught indeed.
In the salvation through our own efforts scenario, there are right answers and there are wrong answers. And if the only right answer is to make it off the planet, then tolerating people who aren’t interested in that becomes a potentially fatal mistake. This is the same whether you think the right answer is a superintelligent AI, or massive carbon capture or a socialist utopia. And of course, this may be the reason why a greater push for tolerance has lead to a society that’s actually far more divided. If there is a God around to show us mercy then we can afford to be charitable to views we disagree with. On the other hand, if there is no God then we can’t afford that charity. We have to be right.
My main point is a religious one, but outside of that, something is clearly going on with love and tolerance, particularly the way in which modern tolerance can be so expansive, while at the same time being so incredibly narrow. To them I would repeat the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Finally, turning back to religion, I end by repeating my contention that self-proclaimed believers are increasingly minimizing the injunction to repent while stretching and distorting the admonition to love. To these people I will only repeat the words of the Gospel, specifically Matthew 4:17
From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
I appreciate your infinite tolerance for these lame donation appeals. But I appreciate your donations even more. I guess I could call those who don’t donate to repentance, but that seems intolerant, right?