Love, obedience, and absurdity

“Whoever holds to my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me; and whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and reveal myself to him.” – John 14:21

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St. Augustine preached, “Love and do what you will.” Augustine’s meaning, however, can be misunderstood. He wasn’t saying that any action done with a feeling of affection or tenderness is by virtue of that motivation ipso facto “loving.” After all, this is the same Augustine who stated, “What is not loved in its own right is not loved,” making clear that love is “disinterested” and focused solely on the true good of the one loved. In fact, one of the main points in the sermon was that certain actions that appear unloving, like a parent disciplining his or her child, actually are expressions of love. And such actions may require doing things that are displeasing to the one loved and don’t make anyone feel very good at all.

In today’s culture, there are many misconceptions about what love is and about what is truly “loving.” One major misconception is that love is equated with feelings. A love that is reduced to feelings isn’t love at all, but descends into subjectivism. This is why love requires truth. Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity… Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word ‘love’ is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite” (Caritas in Veritate, n. 3).

Now, this doesn’t mean that love has nothing to do with feelings. In fact, in his pre-papal work Love and Responsibility, St. John Paul II states that feelings of love are based in attraction (to regard the other person as a good) and in desire (to long for the other person as a good which you lack). Attraction, desire, and the feelings to which they give rise are “essential aspects of love as a whole” and are “indeed love.” Yet, they are a love that is incomplete. As St. John Paul II wrote, “It is not enough to long for a person as a good for oneself, one must also, and above all, long for that person’s good.” This is the “purest form of love”: to will the good for a person and to desire their full flourishing. This is the only love that affirms a person’s dignity and inherent value as God’s beloved. Anything less is ultimately self-centered and egoistic, and poses a danger to love itself.

Clearly, knowing the truth about what is good is a prerequisite for willing it. Without reference to the truth about “the good,” love “falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions” and has little to do with the good of the person or human dignity or human rights for that matter. As far as ethics go, the truth about “the good” is inseparable from the truth about “the person.” You can only know what is truly good for a person (and love him or her by willing it) if you have a correct understanding of what the human person is.

One of St. John Paul II’s favorite lines from the pastoral constitution from Vatican II Gaudium et Spes is “Christ… fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear… He Who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man” (n. 22). The truth about the human person, his nature and vocation, is found in the humanity of Jesus Christ. And the truth about what is good for the person (and what isn’t) is revealed in Christ’s commandments. The one who loves is the one who holds to His commandments and keeps them (Jn. 14:21). And so, if we are going to love we must first obey Jesus’ word (Jn. 14:23).

The word “obedience” comes from the Latin ob audire, which means “to hear or listen to.” Obeying begins with hearing, with listening. Thus, obeying Jesus means listening to him who is the Beloved Son to learn how to be the beloved of God (see Mk. 9:7). Interestingly, the word “absurd” derives from the Latin surdus, which means deafness. The absurd person will not listen. The absurd person makes him or herself deaf. The absurd person will not obey. The Proto-Indo European root of surdus refers to “ringing.” Absurd people only hear themselves and the sound of their own point of view ringing in their heads, even if it makes no logical sense or defies common sense.

When we obey, we not only hear, but we see. We will see God, for Jesus will reveal himself to us: “Whoever holds to my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me… and I shall love him and reveal myself to him.” And it is only in Jesus, the Beloved Son, Love incarnate, who is the Truth, that we can know true love, learn what it means to be and to live as God’s beloved, and be set free from a life of absurdity.

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