Love & Justice (1) – Kierkegaard: Works of Love

by Travis Pickell

One of the classes I am taking this fall is called Love & Justice in the Christian Tradition, with Professor Jim Childress. Over the course of the semester we will examine a number of different approaches to the relationship between Christian love (agape) and justice, a surprising difficult and complex topic. The first week is Kierkegaard (love and justice in sharp distinction).

In Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard draws a sharp distinction between erotic love (eros) and friendship (philia), on the one hand, and Christian love (agape) on the other. The latter is distinguished from the former insofar as it is non-discriminatory (universal and impartial), theocentric, a matter of inward conscience, and essentially self-sacrificial.

There are many aspects of SK’s account of Christian love that I find compelling. First, God is central here. In particular I find the idea that love’s hidden life, which springs from our inmost depths, is grounded in God’s own love within us (26-27), for God is love. This is exemplified in the life of Christ, whose love for humankind was “pure action” during every moment of his life. Second, while I am not sure what it is supposed to look like in practice, I do believe that the love commandment (“Love your neighbor”) is, at least potentially, universal in scope. Therefore, I am less worried than some people might be when SK states that Christian love “teaches love of all men, unconditionally all.” I recognize that SK, at times, comes close to making particular humans fungible—e.g. “Death itself cannot deprive you of your neighbor either, for if it takes one, life immediately give you another” (76). But, with Jamie Ferreira, I believe the claim that SK calls us to an overly-abstract love of neighbor easily misses the dialectical tension in Works of Love, as exemplified in the following quote: “equality appears in love’s humbly turning itself outwards, embracing all, yet loving everyone in particular but no one in partiality” (78, emphasis added). We are to guard against partiality only because it limits the scope of our love. Each and every person whom we are called to love is to be loved in particular. SK does not imagine a neighbor in abstracto; “At a distance one’s neighbor is only a figment of the imagination” (89, emphasis added). Finally, and there isn’t space to elaborate, but at least for now, I agree that love takes the form of a command, and therefore also the form of a duty. This does not mean, however, pace SK, that Christian love is only such insofar as we make it a matter of personal conscience, for I believe we can follow a command and fulfill a duty without knowing that we are doing so.

My main problem with SK’s account of Christian love is that it makes self-sacrifice essential to Christian love. For SK self-renunciation is “Christianity’s essential form” (68) and “Love is essentially sacrifice” (247, emphasis added).[1] What would it mean for agape love to be essentially self-sacrificial—as opposed, let us say, to being incidentally self-sacrifical? To say love is incidentally self-sacrificial is to suggest that love might require a renunciation of one’s own interests and desires. It could even suggest that love will likely require such sacrifice, but not because sacrifice is equal to love. When in love (agape) I focus on my neighbor’s welfare, I am called beyond my own interests (apart from my interest in love itself) in such a way that they become secondary to my neighbor’s interests. Insofar as I am focusing on her welfare (and her need) I am not at that time focusing on my own. There is an element of self-forgetfulness in such an other-focused love.  SK points to this element beautifully: “he who in love forgets himself, forgets his sufferings in order to think of another’s… such a person is not forgotten. There is one who thinks of him, god in heaven; or love thinks of him” (262). But notice, in this case, any self-sacrifice that occurs is derived from my focusing on the good of the neighbor, which is primary. Therefore, self-sacrifice is incidental, not essential, to this love. To make self-sacrifice essential to love is to say that it must be present any time love is present. But we can easily imagine acts of love, or relations of love, that are not marked at all times, by such self-sacrifice. To put it another way, to say that love is essentially self-sacrifice is to say that self-sacrifice is essentially loving. But this immediately strikes one as implausible. Self- sacrifice (and self-destruction) can be motivated by any number of factors, many completely unrelated to love. It is not the sacrifice of the self that makes Christian love what it is. Rather it is the focus on the welfare of the other that does so. While this will often entail self-sacrifice (e.g. when such love means putting the needs of the other first), it is not essential to such love (e.g. when there is no conflict between self-interest and the needs of the other).

[1] Incidentally, here is where we see the difference between love and justice. For justice gives to each his own; love seeks not one’s own (248). This seems to place love and justice in sharp antithesis. One question I am left with is this: does love seek another’s own? If this is so, is justice an instrument of love? Or, is love an instrument of justice?