This was the first Christmas we celebrated without my father’s physical presence among us. His absence made the joy of celebrating Christ’s birth bittersweet. Though we all remarked on his physical absence, in spirit, we all felt that he was among us. We missed him most when the time came to say the prayer at the Christmas Eve dinner table. This had always been his task. Always eloquent in his prayers, he would enumerate our blessings and give thanks. Invariably, he would give praise for each family member and pray for togetherness. His prayers would always end with the same final words: “We pray this in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.”
We decided to re-publish his 2007 Christmas article, “Şi Totuşi Iubirea…” in part because we missed seeing his words printed in the newspaper, and in part because the article’s message uncovers new meanings in the present context. I have been having mental discussions with him lately, as we would often have when he was in life. You see, my father taught me the art of discourse, because he would always start with an interrogation of premises, followed by a Socratic method of questioning that would develop the exchange patiently. Usually, we would come to a communicative understanding or an impasse, depending on how the argumentation process would unravel. Few people appreciate this kind of engagement, because it requires a collaborative process. Like a game of chess, each argumentative move matters, and one cannot move on to the next phase until the other discussant agrees to move that way.
You will note that in Cristian Ioanide’s article, “Şi Totuşi Iubirea…,” he argues for Christianity’s uniqueness among the religions of the world using two principal arguments. The first, he says, is that Christ did not seek to prolong the time He lived among His disciples in order to perfect their understanding of His teachings. Rather, Christ came to spread His message and to suffer a premature death. (El a venit doar să-şi lanseze mesajul Său şi ca să sufere o moarte prematură şi năpraznică.) This message is found most summarily in John 3:16 and was sublimated in Christ’s resurrection in order to prove the message’s veracity. The second argument has to do with the fact that Christianity, unlike other religions, does not give a strict code of laws to follow. The divine logic embedded in the message is therefore much more mystical and ephemeral, though certainly not relativist:
“Credinţa creştină este singura religie care dă frâu liber discernământului. Iar discernământul este o pictură din măreţia lui Dumnezeu.Iar Dumnezeu este nesfârşita Dragoste.Iar Dragostea este mai presus de reguli, şi deci, de Lege.Apostolul Pavel, acel superb matematician al creştinismului, spune: Acum, deci, rămân acestea trei: credinţa, nădejdea şi dragostea; dar cea mai mare dintre ele este dragostea… iar dragostea nu va pieri niciodată.”
To recap the divine logic’s movement: the Christian faith encourages the exercise of free will and discernment; good discernment corresponds with an incarnation of the greatness of God; God is limitless Love; Love is higher than rules, and therefore above the Law. In the final calculation, as St. Paul states, there remain faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.
Indeed, the absence of strict rules and regulations in the Christian faith has made the practice of love uniquely susceptible to interpretation. I am reminded of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan undertakes a timeless philo-theological question: why would God, if He is a good God, allow the suffering of innocent children? This reality seemed particularly evil to Ivan because presumably children do not yet have the consciousness and intentionality of sinners. The most long-standing answer to this question has been as follows: for humans to truly possess free will entails that God cannot dictate or fully determine our actions. If this were the case, we would simply be automatons. Rather, we must choose to do good in the world and choose the practice of His commandments to love one another and to love God above all else. So, to answer Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, it is not so much that God allows the suffering of innocent children but that humans choose evil over the practice of love.
In abstraction, discerning the practice of love over evil appears to be relatively simple and straightforward. Placed in specific contexts, however, a number of complications may be raised. Take for example the current economic crisis prevalent throughout the world and in the United States. Clearly there are those who know that their actions have caused widespread suffering for others. Homelessness, displacement, the inability to sustain one’s family due to joblessness, hunger—these are not small evils to structurally instantiate at a political-economic level because of the exorbitant greed of a few. (Those who think that the culprits are not so clearly demarcated should read about the political corruption cases, pyramid schemes, people walking away with millions while claiming innocence, and a government that continues to provide bailouts without strict regulations to the banks and industries that got us here in the first place.) What does love look like vis-à-vis these purveyors of suffering? Should we forgive them? Should we recognize our own culpability in these structures? Should we accept the inevitability of greed’s consequences in the world and claim that nothing is new under the sun? Or would the practice of love actually require collective action whose aim is to establish conditions that are conducive to the proliferation of love, faith and hope?
My point is that a desperate socio-economic context creates deep paradoxes in the practice and instantiation of love. Put differently, some contexts encourage the practice of love while others perpetuate divisiveness, radical stratification and denigration. What, then, is our duty in the present moment? Is it primarily to our own families, to their well-being? Or, would the practice of love that Christ commands direct us to focus on saving the entire community? What if saving the community entails that our own family fares worse in some respects? To take another difficult socio-economic context, how might one instantiate the practice of love in the context of the present Israel-Palestinian war? What does the practice of love look like when radically unequal power relations structure a socio-political setting?
Often, people delimit the practical application of their love to a finite community. That community is defined in multiple ways: it might be as small as one’s immediate family or it might extend globally and transnationally. This raises another question: how should we define community? Do we define it as the Christian community? Do we define it locally? Do we define it as a group of people bound by a particular ideology and shared values?
In fact, Christ placed no limitation on the notion of community, insofar as He demanded that the practice of love be extended even toward one’s enemies. The elevation of Love above the Law eradicated the strict boundaries of community in place at the time of His coming. And as Cristian Ioanide mentions in his article, the apostles modeled the practice of love in a community as follows: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:42-47)
It is in times of difficulty, strife, scarcity and radical divisiveness that Christ calls upon us to practice love toward one another the most. It is in every day and in every act that He asks us to surpass our human tendencies and to choose the instantiation of love.
Reflections on the Practice of Love
- Scris de Paula Ioanide PhD
- Categorie: Paula Ioanide