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An Education for Love

January 30th, 2023 | 5 min read

By Alex Sosler

Each Sunday, many churches throughout the world begin their service with “The Summary of the Law.” One of the first things Christians hear each week is Jesus’ words defining a good life. Here’s what he says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). These verses have come to be known as the “Great Commandment.” Jesus guides us into our priorities for life: we are to love God and our neighbor.

On this twin command, the ancient African bishop St. Augustine writes, “The aim of the command is love, a twofold love of God and of one’s neighbor. But if you understand by this your whole persons—mind and body—and your whole neighbor—that is, his mind and body, for a person consists of mind and body—no class of things to be loved is missing from these two commandments.”[1] In other words, all of life and all of one’s loves should be included under these two commands—including education. Everything we do involves loving God and loving neighbor. When you read a book, you are exercising loving attention. When you listen to a fellow student say something misguided or wrong, you can care by kindly correcting. When you write a paper or respond to a professor, love can and ought to be the motivating principle. The classroom does not operate by some set of alternative priorities.

After “The Summary of the Law,” the people pray, “Lord, have mercy.” After hearing the standard of life that Jesus invites us into, the only right response is, “Oh, crap.” Can any of us consistently hold to these standards? No way. Whenever these twin commands are not followed, restlessness ensues. We were meant to worship God, but we worship created things instead. Thus, one of St. Augustine’s most famous saying as he writes early in his class Confessions is, “Our souls are restless until they rest in You.”[2]

If you seek fulfillment or “rest” in your job, you’ll always be unhappy because there is always more work to do. If you put your happiness in your intellectual ability, you’ll always be disappointed because someone will always be smarter than you or get better grades. This is what David Foster Wallace says in his famous commencement address at Kenyon College. If we worship something other than “JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles,” then whatever else we choose to worship will “eat you alive.” However, when your love is rightly ordered, there can be harmony and rest, which is another way to say eternal, flourishing life. Happiness consists of loving God and loving one’s neighbor in God, and this pursuit should be central to your college years. Don’t you want a life that leads to joy in and after college?

More to the point, here’s what Augustine argues regarding education:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them in such a way that [his interpretation] does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand [the Scriptures] at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.[3]

Augustine’s application to the divine Scriptures is true for any educational endeavor. If any learning does not build the double love of God and neighbor, it is futile. As you’re learning various subjects in the years to come, you ought to be asking, “How can this class increase my love for God?” Or “How could I use this project to serve my neighbor?” Or “How do I think about my vocation in such a way that my job meets the needs of my neighbors in a loving way?” Or to bring Wallace back to the conversation, “How does the priority of love of God and neighbor change how I pay attention? How does it alter what I am conscious of? What is my default setting, and does it need to change?” Not every class that you take will adequately address these foundational questions, but they are questions you can bring to your education. They are relatively holistic questions—is there anything that cannot be applied to loving God and your neighbor?

Caring About What God Cares About

The priority of love does not neglect the other important questions or issues that a college should address—questions on the nature of knowledge, a meaningful career, or the necessity of loving critique. However, the idea of ordered love does organize these previous priorities and seeks to root those questions in a more robust framework. Baylor professor Alan Jacobs proposes, “Our goal… (is) to love as widely and as well as our limited selves will allow.”[4] Jacobs’ “widely” applies to every subject, every book, every academic pursuit, and every co-curricular activity. It is the colleges’ best aim to invite students to love widely and well. I define a good education as ordering and expanding our loves: helping loving the right things in the right way and giving us new things to love.

If we take the love-oriented direction of a Christian liberal arts college, then there’s nothing beyond our care. Think about it. If God made everything and if everything He made was good, then saying “I do not care” basically means saying, “I do not care about God.” That seems like a harsh way of saying things, but I think it’s true. It’s also why I think Christians should be the most interesting and interested people in a room. Taking God’s vision, we have the greatest capacity to care. Everyone you encounter, each subject you are learning, is an opportunity to know more (and love more) about the God behind it. Or, at the very least, learning about mundane or “boring” subjects is a way to exercise love for your neighbor who does care about such a subject. I do not care about operas but there are some people who do—and (I suppose) there are good reasons to like operas.

A Christian liberal arts education encourages such a holistic care. Since you cannot be reduced to a mind, a body, or your feelings, subjects across various disciplines and fields cultivate you in certain ways. To neglect mathematical precision is to be deformed in a particular capacity that God has given you. To think psychology is just for those “feelings people” is to neglect your own emotional development. Even to look down on trades or recreation studies as “the practical or servile arts” is to be inattentive to your body. Holistic formation requires that we care and pursue the broad way in which God created us. We need the liberal arts because we are complex beings. In our complexity, God invites us to a life of love. No other priority will bring us the rest we long for.

*This piece is an excerpt from Learning to Love: Christian Higher Education as Pilgrimage. Used with permission.

  1. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 20.
  2. Augustine, Confessions. Ed. and trans. Carolyn Hammond. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 1.
  3. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 30.
  4. Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 135.