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He loves me ... he loves me not ... the most overrated chapter in the Bible.

If St. Paul had written nothing but the thirteen verses found in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, his name would be revered. The beauty of the text is beyond question, mesmerizing.., and troublesome.

Yes, troublesome. One cannot help but puzzle over this idea that if you do good, but don't have love, it means nothing. Paul says that even if you give away all your possessions to the poor but don't have love, it doesn't mean anything. This may be a case of hearing something so often we don't really hear it anymore and thereby miss its absurdity. Personally. I think that Paul is worrying about the wrong thing. The bigger problem is going to be to find that person willing to give away all their possessions!

In any event, I would have thought that "doing good" is what love is, or at least is so bound up in what love is as to be inseparable from it. But no, says Paul, love is not about what we see on the outside, it is not about doing good, it is not about what you do at all. So what is it about? He says love is about not being envious, not being resentful. It is about having patience and hope. In other words, it is about what you feel on the inside.

The problematic nature of this understanding of love is that it can set us up for endless self-doubt about the purity of our motives. And perhaps even more dangerous is the doubt it causes us to have about the motives of others. Feelings are slippery things. That Mr. X served me in a soup kitchen is an objective fact. That Mr. X did so, without any feelings of resentment about the time it was taking out of his day, is something that perhaps not even Mr. X can know.

There are those who suggest that Mother Teresa wasn't so saintly because her lifetime work helping the poor no doubt satisfied some need of her own. Of course it did. But so what? If that's selfishness, our world could stand a little more of it.

In their book, The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham relay the following parable:
  "Once upon a time, but not very long ago, in a kingdom
  both near and far away, there lived a canny scientist
  who longed for the love of a beautiful woman. Because
  his first love was not even science but his own
  knowledge, wise women were wary of the man, and so
  he lived a very lonely life.

  "One day the man decided to use his science to win love,
  and he set about to concoct a chemical that would cause
  the object of his affections to fall madly in love with him.
  Soon his research succeeded, he produced the chemical, and as
  luck would have it, at just that time he met a beautiful,
  talented and good woman--the ultimate woman of his dreams.

  "The scientist arranged for friends to introduce
  them, and at their first meeting, he poured his potion
  into her beverage. Lo and behold, his fantasy came true!
  The exquisite creature fell instantly and completely in love
  with him, and they soon married.

  "But was our hero happy? Alas, no. In
  a short time, he became gaunt from not eating, his
  work fell by the wayside, and eventually he could
  not even bring himself to touch his beloved, as he
  spent every waking moment torturing himself, trying
  to devise some kind of test to answer his agonized
  question: 'Would she love me if it were not for
  the chemical?'

"For our scientist did crave love, and love cannot be commanded."


Paul's words in 1 Corinthians are an unfortunate invitation to look for some sort of absoluteness or purity in our lives that doesn't exist. They encourage an obsessive and unhealthy inward focus. Paul's words also bring back to mind that wonderful story in the Hebrew Scriptures about Job.

That story begins as Satan comes to God and suggests that the righteous and faithful Job is only that way because his life has been smooth sailing. But trouble those waters a bit, God, and you'll see how quickly his love for you evaporates. That element of doubt having been introduced, God is persuaded to allow Satan to test Job to the breaking point. Perhaps all this will bring back to mind the classic old commercial in which a girl sits pulling petals off a flower while repeating the words, "He loves me ... he loves me not..."

But even with this "test," just how is it that God can ever know if Job's love is genuine? Even if Job stays faithful throughout the ordeal, what, at the end of the day, does that prove? After all, Job might have remained faithful hoping it would persuade God to end the awful test. Or maybe by remaining faithful he was trying to persuade God not to do anything worse (like the way in which some spouses tragically see no alternative but to put up with a certain level of abuse in the hope that it won't escalate).

The stain of doubt, once it's out there, is impossible to remove. The book of Job reveals the inherent unlikelihood of ever getting an answer to this question raised by God and Satan by any sort of test. Perhaps the test is misguided because the quest at the root of it, this quest to get at the absolute bottom of things, is itself misguided.

There is a story told about a young science teacher who was listening to his elderly grandmother explain that the world rested on the shoulders of a very large turtle. After listening patiently for quite a while, he tactfully cut in with his question: "But grandma, what do you suppose holds up the turtle?" "Oh Sonny," she quickly retorted, "don't even go there. It's turtles all the way down."

We probably all yearn at times to know the depth and sincerity of our beloved's love for us. And while we won't likely go as far as the team of God and Satan went, we no doubt do engage in our own little games and manipulations by which we try to ascertain the truth. We try to get underneath the turtles to find what is at the bottom. But it is unlikely that we are proud of those moments. In our most honest moments of self-reflection we surely are aware that our own love is never pure, never wholly free of the taint of self-serving motives. Do we even love children "purely," or do we love them because of the good feeling it produces within us?

The Jungian psychologist James Hollis writes in his book, Why Good People Do Bad Things, "It is my belief that the psychological and spiritual maturity of an individual, of a group, even of a nation, is found precisely in its capacity to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence, and the anxiety generated by both of them. It is the psychologically immature, the spiritually jejune that lusts for certainty..."

Love is a mystery whose depths, upon probing, yield only further depths. It's turtles all the way down! Love is one of those gifts that, if received with too critical an eye, is likely to slip through our fingers. I suspect that the desire to know with some absolute, objective certainty that she or he really loves me is a very human one, but not a very mature one.

This question of God's in the book of Job is the mirror reflection of the question Paul raises for us in 1 Corinthians. God's question asks, "Does the other person love me in some pure way, untainted by self-interest?" Paul's question asks, "Do I love the other person in some pure way, untainted by self-interest?"

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes was honest enough to face up to the reality of the situation. In explaining once why he gave money to a beggar, he said, "I was in pain to consider the miserable condition of the old man; and now my alms, giving some relief, do also ease me." We can never escape the sense of "I do it for myself," and yet we still long to. It hovers like a mirage on the horizon of our moral landscape. No one has given that quest greater poetic expression than the apostle Paul. But a mirage decked out in all the beauty of Paul's eloquence is still a mirage. There is no escape from self-interest.

As Hollis writes, "Disinterested caring' is perhaps a contradiction, certainly an oxymoron. Can we love one another without self-interest prevailing or at least infiltrating our motives? Probably not, but we can surely make the effort to sacrifice, or contain at least, our selfish needs on behalf of the well-being of the other. Can I rise above my own needs to recognize the wounded Other, and support him or her? I can certainly try, and that is the best love can ask of us."

Paul, I suspect, asks too much. The religious vision at its best should not pretend to escape the mysteries and vagaries of love and life. The religious vision should not pretend to find certainty when we know we must live with uncertainty. And the religious vision should not pretend to avoid the brokenness of our existence as biological creatures and find a purity about us that we know doesn't exist.

You can analyze your motives till you're blue in the face, but I doubt that you'll ever find as much satisfaction from that as you will from a single, random act of kindness. You can search forever for that elusive purity which beckons from the ever-receding horizon and you can dig forever through your motives seeking a foundation free of self-interest. Or you can agree with grandma that it's turtles all the way down and then get on with life. Your call.
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Author:Kershner, Phil
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2013
Words:1660
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