From The Mystical Way In Everyday Life
The topic [we are discussing here] is the unity of love of neighbor and love of God. Are these simply two things that stand next to each other, loosely connected through a commandment from God, so that one can only properly love God when the commandment of loving one’s neighbor is equally respected and carried out to the best of one’s ability? Or is there a closer relationship between the two?
One could assume that God has commanded all kinds of things and that obeying these various commandments is only a test and the concrete fulfillment of what he wants ultimately, namely that people love him, the eternal God, from their very core and with their entire heart and with all their strength. But that is actually not true. The love of God and the love of neighbor are in much closer relationship than is commonly assumed. And so, we want to reflect on that a little.
In addition to the importance of the subject matter itself, there is a critical point that relates to today’s situation. We Christians would be wrong to ignore this point, namely, that contemporary people have a hard time with the question of God. The world seems to be closed up, so to speak. To have a relationship with God – the living, otherworldly, eternal one – is not as easy for people today as it was in earlier days, when one had the possibly justified idea that one could positively identify the mysterious workings of God in the world.
People today live in a secular world. We need not reflect here on the dangers this poses and the degree to which this development also has its positive side. A secularized world is the fate of today’s Christian, and its causes, extent, and limitations should be anticipated and regarded as a welcome opportunity for examining one’s own relationship with God and for reflecting on what it means to be a Christian.
In summary, this is what is true for our current situation, which means that only where people have a genuine, loving, heartfelt relationship with others can they find God and convince others that this reality that we call God exists. All mere theoretical talk, ritualistic activity, or explicitly religious display no longer has any credibility with people today unless it is carried, framed, and corroborated by true love, a love between one human being and another. People today have an almost radical need to demythologize everything, to tear down all facades, to destroy all taboos, and to ask what it is that remains when all slogans are deleted and all ideologies destroyed. What truly remains is only what can be lived out in the act of loving another, provided this love is real.
Perhaps people of today do not practice such love, though they are aware of being obliged to do so and even are willing to acknowledge this obligation – this love – as the one true thing that remains, that is no mere ideology, that is something about which one does not merely make pious or edifying remarks in gatherings, but that is necessary in life, like business and bread. If we Christians are unaware that this love (which still remains despite all the demythologizing and destruction of taboos) is the essence of Christianity, though hidden as within a seed and as something that has yet to unfold and come to fruition; if we are unaware of this fact, then we are not equipped, in my opinion, to truly understand our Christian faith and to witness to it as something with staying power, as something that always springs up anew. Therefore, it seems to me timely and meaningful to say something about the unity of the love of God and the love of neighbor.
One finds this theme already in scripture, which makes mention of two commandments of which the second is of equal importance to the first: the commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Paul says that this love is the crown of perfection. He talks about love of neighbor when saying that whoever does it has fulfilled the law as a whole. And he says that this love is the better path. He warns us to keep in mind that this love and doing acts of mercy, as much as they belong together, are not the same. Even if I gave all my possessions to the poor and allowed my body to be burned, if I did not have love, I would amount to nothing. By that, he does not imply that some inner feeling or a devout disposition is enough. The inner disposition has to be expressed in life through tangible acts of love; otherwise it is all empty talk and we remain a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. We see repeatedly that Paul makes radically concrete the love of neighbor in very distinct terms and that he calls it the fulfillment of the law, the seal of perfection.
This is not necessarily a given. Rather, it is paradoxical and even seems a bit exaggerated, for it almost looks as if Paul is not thinking about God but is developing here an atheist ethic of Christianity.
Why has the law been fulfilled when I have loved my neighbor? Why is this love not just a piece of the whole but the entire seal of perfection? Why is it that by this love, according to the Lord, the entire law and the prophets are fulfilled? Everything else must have to be contained, then, in this love of neighbor, even and especially the whole, the ultimate, and the crucial: that God be loved. If we disregard John for the moment, scripture tells us that there are not two similar commandments, being of possibly equal importance, being somehow connected, but that one commandment is contained in the other. We can understand that one can love God only by loving one’s neighbor. But in Paul, it looks as if one already loves God when one loves one’s neighbor.
How is it possible? One gains more insight through the first letter of John, which asks how one can love God who is invisible when one does not love one’s brother who is visible. Of course, it is possible to say that this is a simplistic argument that does not say much: if you do not love your neighbor, who is concretely and practically there in your life, how will you be capable of loving the invisible God, who is far away from concrete life experience? It seems, however, that John is actually saying more than that, for in the fourth chapter of this letter one finds the strange statement that says God is in us. And obviously, this is the basis for the possibility of already loving God when loving one’s neighbor with true authenticity and wholehearted engagement. To put this in terms of scholastic theology, the thesis is that the love of God and the love of neighbor are mutually dependent, so that when people express themselves in selflessness, in absolute engagement, in true voluntary surrender of self to the other human “you” and are truly doing what love of neighbor entails, then they are already loving God, though they may not know it, though they may not be able to name it, though they may not make explicit mention of this so-called God as the motive of their neighborly love. The thesis aims at saying that when people truly love their neighbor, they drop into and penetrate the ultimate depths of their existence, the ultimate realities of the world and creation and are – without necessarily calling it this – mysteriously encountering the God of their eternal, supernatural salvation by virtue of their love.
How can one support such a thesis? One might begin by looking more closely at scholastic theology, which knows of three theological virtues. This is to say that scholastic theology knows of three ways by which human beings deal with God directly in the depths of their hearts and are guided by the Holy Spirit, by God’s spirit, and no longer merely by the realities of the world. In other words, there are three basic ways by which humans are ultimately oriented toward the God of eternal life in his own glory and sovereignty, ways by which we all can become the true, immediate partners of God. The three basic human acts by which people become directly involved with God – the triune God of eternal life – are faith, hope, and love. And, as Paul says, only these three remain.
But theology also says that our neighbor could and should be loved with the divine basic power of love, in which faith and hope are already contained and integrated. If as Christians we really love our neighbor in a salvific way, then this act is not merely the fulfillment of some divine commandment, managed with God’s help, but is an ultimate and completely eternal event in life, where we meet God directly.
Whenever we love our neighbor with the supernatural love of God, then and only then do salvation, justification, divine life, and eternity happen. Catholic theology leaves no doubt about the existence of such a divine virtue by which people find the other in the depths of their own being. Once again: this is not a matter of looking at others with a certain benevolent regard because one loves God and shies away from transgressing the commandments of one’s beloved God in relation to others. Instead, in a truly supernatural love of neighbor, one expresses God’s love by the power of God himself.
Saying this and interpreting Catholic theology in this way seems to mean that we already are where we want to be. But that is not totally correct. Of course, when someone loves another out of faith and from the motive of one’s love for God, then such charity, such a divine virtue of godly love, is already made concrete; all of this should be quite clear from what has been said so far. And Catholic theology would agree completely; it has agreed for hundreds of years and still does today, as briefly indicated earlier. But I would like to take this thesis still one step further.
I want to say that when one truly lets go of self and loves the other in absolute self-abandon, one has already encountered the silent, inexplicable mystery of God, and this act, then, is carried out by the type of divine self-communication that we call grace and assumes, in the light of such grace, a salvific and eternal meaning.
Let us look at it from another perspective. We meet many people who are not explicitly Christian and do not want to be. Let us assume that they were to love their neighbor, their brother or sister, or someone else in ultimate, radical selflessness. What happens there? Is it only something commendable that still lacks some substantial element, or is there already an ultimate relationship with God present, a relationship that has yet to unfold, that should somehow bear God’s name, that has yet to be measured and named in its final, inexpressible, yet given dimension with regard to God, while already existing? This is exactly what I mean by saying that wherever people are truly engaged with their whole being and give themselves away in an ultimate, true, and radical love for their neighbor, there exists always and everywhere the love of God, or charity. This is so not because the nature of such an act would force one to this conclusion, but because the act allows us to live under the general will of God’s salvation. We live in a world that is always and everywhere oriented toward the eternal life of God by the secret grace of God unless we are, through guilty disbelief, shutting ourselves off from this inner, supernatural, grace-filled dynamic of the world.
The act of loving one’s neighbor is not some ethical act, but actually the basic ethical act of human existence. Understanding means to live with one’s self, and freedom means ultimately that the free person takes command of self while aiming toward what is ultimate.
Both of these things can happen only in loving communication with the other, the “you.” To people in their nature as spiritual, personal subjects, the world is primarily a world with others. We do not live in an environment merely filled with all types of things. Rather, from the perspective of the subject and the reality that humans encounter, the world has an inner structure and is ultimately a communication of love with the other, the “you.” The entire material world we deal with, even in economic and social matters, for example, is basically only the material, the prerequisite, the effect of a loving communication with the other “you.” In the radical freedom that creates eternity, people may completely dispose of themselves, and this self-disposal is ultimately either a loving self-opening toward the human “you” or an ultimate self-refusal in egotism, which casts people into the condemning, deadly loneliness of being lost. Naturally, this basic act of self-disposal is possible only when people, on their part, are reaching for absolute reality and dealing with God in a non-thematic, non-reflexive way. For we do not start having dealings with God when we call upon God explicitly or when we are giving an explicit name to the mystery that we are ever walking toward and that ultimately offers us spiritual freedom and love. In the act of understanding and especially in the act of freedom, we are always and everywhere implicitly dealing with God. When people act in a loving way toward others as the basic act of their existence, then this basic act results from the general sanctifying and salvific will of God, which exists and works also outside the church, is carried out by God’s Holy Spirit, by God’s grace, and is at least implicitly, but truly, an act of charity, an act of the love of God.
Naturally, one would have to describe more specifically what love of neighbor is and to demonstrate that this love always borders on the mystery of God, even when it is not intended to do so or specifically aimed at it. When we keep quiet, when we forgive, when we give ourselves fully without expectation of reward and step back from ourselves, then we always reach into an infinity that no longer can be described and is nameless, and we are thereby moving toward the divine mystery that permeates and carries our existence and hence are dealing with God. Something like this always happens in the free, loving act of a truly radical self-opening toward one’s neighbor, so that this act is already carried out in the present order of God’s salvific will by God’s grace, and hence is charity.
Wherever people open themselves up to their neighbor in true personal freedom, they have already done more than merely loved this one neighbor, since the act is borne by God’s grace. By loving one’s neighbor, one has already loved God. One cannot meet one’s neighbor in a loving way unless the dynamic of one’s spiritual freedom, borne by God’s grace, is already the dynamic of the unspeakable holy mystery that we call God.
This does not mean that human love, as it commonly appears, is the equivalent of the specific believing and hoping love of Christians. It only means that in human love one already carries out divine love. Yet the latter needs a point of reference and should make explicit the aim toward which this love is moving, an aim that should be called upon, named, implored, and worshiped explicitly in faith, hope, and love. Human love, which at its deepest level is already divine love by God’s grace, should be an explicit love of the named, the explicitly called upon, the God that is meant by it, and the inner unfolding that is implanted in all love by God’s grace. This love is compelled to unfold into the explicitly named Christian love of divine charity. Conversely, it is true also that the explicit divine love for the God who is named, even though one does not see him, is already given in the love of neighbor whom one can see.
It is the case that many people are already saved, justified, and sanctified by God’s grace, even though they may not know it, and it is also the case that we as Christians believe, hope, and gratefully acknowledge something that is provided to all people by God’s supernatural, free, unconditional grace as being offered and as being potentially accepted, even though many do not see themselves as Christians or believers. Still, in the depth of their nature, people can be Christian, specifically whenever they manage with their whole heart and in complete selflessness to love the neighbor, the one they see. We do not know that about ourselves. After all, we are ever those who in our activities and in our lives are trying to love God and neighbor as one. Whether we manage to summon this ultimate strength by the efficacious grace of God or whether all we do is shape only a beautiful façade behind which lies and reigns a deep, unacknowledged egotism will be decided at the great divine tribunal. But at least we have begun to try to love God in deed and truth by trying to love our neighbor. All that we experience – our disappointment, our effort, our turmoil – is ultimately only a way of trying to move away from ourselves to the other and to God.
Doing so is difficult and is the ultimate step and the hardest task of our lives. We can always be deceived about it, but when we have managed to get away from ourselves and to our neighbor in a loving way, we have not done so by our own strength but have moved by God’s grace toward God; then God, who loves us in order that we might love our neighbor, as John says, has truly grasped us, has pulled us away from ourselves, and has given us in one piece what our eternity is, the arriving at the “you,” in whom we also arrive at God.
We can also look at this from a different angle. Jesus says: “Whatever you have done to one of the least of these, you have done unto me.” How often we have heard this expression and used it in our own devout, pious speeches! But let us ask ourselves: Is it really possible for Jesus to say that? Is this not legal speech, saying: I give you credit as if you had done unto me what you have done for one of the least of these people? No, this is not legal speech or moral discourse or a bargaining method, for it is truly the case that we encounter in the other person the word of God made flesh because God himself truly lives in the other. And when we love the other and do not block the dynamic of this love by being guilty of rerouting it back to ourselves, then the divine descent into human flesh happens, so that God is where we are and is looking at us through the other person. The divine descent progresses through us and has the effect that we, on account of God’s love, are loving our neighbor and are already loving God by loving our neighbor, since we are not able to summon this kind of love apart from the divine love that carries us and that has manifested itself in our neighbor. The so-called Christian side of neighborly love should be taken seriously in word and deed. Whenever another person meets me, there is Christ present asking: Do you desire to love me, the word of God become flesh? And when I answer, “Yes,” then he replies: Here I am, in the least of my brothers and sisters.
A theological note may be added for clarity. When we take seriously the Christian incarnation, then the word of God become flesh will be the agency, the gateway, the bridge, God’s concreteness for us in the same way as in eternity, when we will see God face-to-face. The humanity of Jesus is neither a barrier between us and God’s transcendent grace, nor is it something that happened once in human history so as to be forgotten thereafter. We will always be dealing with the one God who himself became human. In all of eternity, there is no theology that is not also anthropology.
Is it not true that we Christians have not yet fully understood our Christian faith, that the individual doctrinal statements about our faith, that the individual doctrinal statements about our faith, as much as we might confess and accept them, are too far apart from one another, so that we have the impression of living in a vastly complicated world of statements, doctrines, and precepts? In reality, it is simply like this: God has become human, and therefore the love of God is love of people, and vice versa. However, this presupposes that, by allowing the deepest movement of human love to develop to its fullest, we allow it to reach its ultimate, radical aim. Where this happens, everything of Christianity is already there, since there is ultimately only one commandment, in the same way that there is for Christians only one God, namely the one who has become flesh in the eternal word and has dwelt among us and remains, not only yesterday and today, but through all eternity.
We know nothing about God unless we know of the human being, the one whom God has accepted as his own reality and in whom is contained the ultimate mystery, the ultimate essence of human nature. We can make the most essential observation about ourselves only when saying: We are the reality that God has been able to make and has made his very own. Only by saying that, by jumping from anthropology to theology, can we understand ourselves only by the act in which we alone can understand its motivation, the act by which we become loving ones, people who have lovingly found the other person, not on specially celebrated occasions but in the crass, ordinary, gray life of the everyday. It is there that we find God, and we are justified in saying that all prayer, all worship, all canon law, the entire institution of the church – all these serve only as a means to help us do one thing: to love God and neighbor, since it is impossible for us to love God unless we love God in our neighbor. Wherever we do so, we have truly fulfilled the law, have wrapped the band of perfection around our entire life, and have walked the path of perfection to which Paul referred. Only by realizing that there exists a truly ultimate union of love of God and love of neighbor do we understand Christianity and its divine simplicity. Of course, one needs to explain the divinely simple. Our entire catechism with its content is the true and authentic explanation, but it is the explanation, the articulation, the verbal expression of what we have actually already grasped when we love our neighbor.
In conclusion, I refer to what I tried to allude to at the beginning. How can we, as witnesses to the truth of the love of God, convince people that there truly exists what we confess in faith? God appears to be distant. But we can do one thing: we can love in a selfless way and try to say to people, “See, by what you are doing, you have already begun to love God.” We can live this out before people and show them the one convincing and possible point of departure for all of Christianity, namely: the love of our neighbor. When we do so, we have done what we are meant to do in our lives; we have given witness to the first and last basic testimony of Christianity. We will still have to say much else from the pulpit, in the classroom, and in other places about Christianity; but when this entire message does not begin with the witness of one’s deed and one’s own life that says that we have decided to love our neighbor in a selfless way, then the rest of our talk remains unintelligible, since the first key word is missing, the word that could convince people of today.
If we want to be messengers of God and of God’s love, then we might simply do this: love our neighbor in life, in caring, in patience, in forgiveness, in helping. Then we will not only have begun with authentic Christianity but we will have lived it from its essence and core; and then it can unfold from there in us and become a witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ for us, so that people will believe that God exists, since they have experienced his love in our neighborly love of God’s people.