This posting is adapted from a response I posted to a pseudonymous atheist's question at TitusOneNine. It's long, so here's a summary:
• The Great Commandment — that we must love God and our neighbor — was Jesus' core message.
• But we can't will ourselves into emotional love; so how can we obey the Great Commandment?
• We can "love" God by humbly facing the facts ("it is what it is").
• We can "love" our neighbors by seeking the best for them: which goes hand in hand with trusting that all will be well.
• These forms of "love" are also sound evolutionary strategies.
• The Great Commandment is a powerful engine of the continuing creation.
The Great Commandment — Love God, Love
Your Neighbor — Was Jesus' Core Message
The heart of Christianity is Jesus’ emphasis on what became known as the Great Commandment. and Summary of the Law. I'll call it simply the Great Commandment here. In English, the Great Commandment is rendered: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said, do this and you will live eternally; and he put an important gloss on the latter part, in the parable of the Good Samaritan: Your neighbor is not just your kinsman or fellow tribesman, but anyone who happens to cross your path. [Luke 10.25-37]
FOOTNOTE: The underlying text of the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law are by no means uniquely Christian. They're also found in the Hebrew Bible. [Deut 6.5; Lev 19.18] That's hardly surprising: Jesus was first and foremost a Jewish prophet, that is, one who proclaimed what he believed God had directed him to say. Incidentally, in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is reported as putting it even more simply: Love one another as I have loved you. [John 15.12]
But We Can't Will Ourselves Into Emotional Love;
So How Can We Obey the Great Commandment?
There's a problem here. We commonly think of love as an emotional feeling, something we can't control. I feel in certain ways about myself, my wife, my family, my friends. No matter how much willpower I have, I can't force myself into feeling the same way about strangers on the street, nor even about God.
In this context, the word translated from the Greek as "love" has to mean something else. The word in question is agape, explained in a Wikipedia article as follows:
[QUOTE:] Christian writers have generally described agape, as expounded on by Jesus, as a form of love which is both unconditional and voluntary; that is, it is non-discriminating with no pre-conditions and is something that one decides to do.
Saint Paul described love as follows: "Love (agape) is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails." (FIrst Epistle to the Corinthians Chapter 13, verses 4-8a).
Tertullian, in his 2nd century defense of Christians remarks how Christian love attracted pagan notice: "What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness. 'Only look' they say, 'look how they love one another.'" (Apology 39).
[END QUOTE; extra paragraphing added, links omitted]
Unfortunately, that still doesn't seem to help much. So far as I know, it's simply not possible to just decide that you love someone, at least not in the emotional sense. We don't understand much about how emotional love works, but it seems pretty clear that it's either there or it's not; you can't produce it by force of will alone.
So the question remains: How can we obey the Great
Commandment if we don't happen to feel the required emotional love? Some
people simply don't, and never
will. One wonders whether they are automatically left out of Jesus'
declaration: do this, and you will have eternal life.
We Can "Love" God By Facing the Facts ("It Is What It Is")
There are some apophatic ways in which we can "love" God. We can face the facts ("it is what it is"), and not insist that things are other than the way they really are. We can live in the real world God actually brought into existence (however that may have happened), as opposed to living in the world we might wish he had wrought or hope that he will in the future.
Among the facts that need facing are those of our own limitations. We can humbly acknowledge that we don't know everything, that what we think we know could well turn out to be incomplete or even wrong. Acknowledging those limitations, we can make on-going efforts to try to compensate for them.
This may sound more like realism than religion. But nowhere is it written that religion must be divorced from reality. And the reality is that a lot of people simply won't be able to do more, in the way of loving God, than this.
FOOTNOTE: Jesus himself urged us to face the facts and to acknowledge our limitations: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. [Mt 4.17] Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. [Mt 24.42] The wise man builds on rock, not sand. [Mt 7.24-27]
We Can "Love" Our Neighbors By Seeking the Best for Them:
Which Goes Hand in Hand With Trusting That All Will Be Well
Now we have to figure out how to "love" our neighbors even if we don't feel emotional love for them. Somewhere I read that agape means seeking the best for others (again, as best as you can discern these things) just as you do for yourself and for your nearest and dearest. That's certainly consistent with Christian thinking about agape, summarized above.
Seeking the best for our neighbors isn't always easy. There's always a certain natural fearfulness involved: Fear of the unknown. Fear of rejection. Fear of being taken advantage of.
To follow the Great Commandment, we sometimes have to heed Andrew Jackson’s advice not to take counsel of our fears, which echo Jesus' admonitions not to worry [Mt 6.25-34]. Not taking counsel of our fears, in turn, entails having faith that all will be well, and acting accordingly, even when our fears are loudly saying otherwise. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul recounts that Abraham had this kind of faith-as-trust when he raised his the knife to sacrifice his son, and that so did Jesus when he voluntarily went to the Cross [Rom 4-5].
These Forms of "Love" Are Also Sound Evolutionary Strategies
From an evolutionary
perspective, there's much to be said both for facing the facts and for seeking the best for others. Think about people who don't face the facts; over time, they're going to be at a significant disadvantage in life. And evolutionary psychology suggests that, over time, groups whose members seek the best for each other (and for strangers, at least to start with; see tit for tat)
tend to be more successful at raising their offspring to reproductive age — and thus at propagating their genes and cultural practices into the future, via their children and grandchildren — than do selfish individualists.
FOOTNOTE: In Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright notes how Arctic peoples long ago learned that sharing, which often leads to reciprocal altruism, was a good survival strategy. After a successful whale hunt, villagers would have more meat than they could eat before it spoiled. They learned that a fine place to store the surplus was in the bellies of less-successful hunters and their families, who might otherwise go hungry — and who presumably would reciprocate someday when the roles were reversed. In effect, "love your neighbor" served as a insurance policy against poor hunts in the future, increasing the odds that your genes and your ways of living would survive. In The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark points out that in the early church, Christians were willing to look after one another, to feed the hungry, to nurse the sick. He argues that this made Christians — and their offspring — more likely to survive famine, epidemics, and other disasters. He says it also made the Christian subculture more attractive to converts, especially women who then might well influence their families.
Bottom line: The evidence suggests that the Great Commandment, which Jesus stressed as the way to eternal life, is also rooted firmly in the evolutionary reality of this world.
Whatever else you might or might not say about Jesus, he seems to have been extraordinarily insightful, and to have put his finger on something fundamental in our universe.
The Great Commandment is a Powerful
Engine of the Continuing Creation
You could even make this argument:
• Humans have brought far more order to our corner of the universe than it would otherwise have had. In the words of Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner puts it, we are created co-creators, playing a part in the on-going construction of the universe.
• Our progress has come about very largely through facing the facts and through collaboration. Collaboration is brought about by trust, and trust is brought about, to at least some degree, by people seeking the best for each other as they do for themselves.
• It therefore follows: Following the Great Commandment, by facing the facts and seeking the best for others, is an enormously powerful engine of the continuing creation.
[Addressing the atheist commenter:] If you can accept that following the Great Commandment is a reasonable life bet, then we’re halfway home to making a follower of Jesus out of you. (You won’t be a traditionalist Christian, but I can’t help you there.)
We would still need to persuade you that two other things are also a reasonable life bet:
- that the universe is likely to be the work product of a Creator [NOTE: See, e.g., Some Reasons to Think There's a Creator], and
- that things are likely to work out OK for us even after we die.
Let’s save that discussion for another day.