***Note: I am precising Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics this week here at Mere-O. I hope you will work through the challenging and provocative theological ethic that O’Donovan articulates.***

Chapter 11: The Double Aspect of the Moral Life

As O’Donovan has asserted, it is love that is the unifying principle to the moral life. But Jesus’ command as Matthew records it is a twofold command: you shall love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Since Augustine first moved this command to the center of Christian ethical reflection, there has been an underlying anxiety: does the nature of the twofold command imply that there is some potential conflict between our loves for God and man?

This recurrent anxiety, however, is grounded in a covert Manicheism—the notion that there are two First Principles at work in the world. But this is not to dismiss the problems associated with characterizing the relationship between the “two loves.” After all, it is a single demand made by God, and as such the demand is unified. It is a demand that we love reality, but that reality is itself differentiated due to the fact of creation. Reality is itself twofold: “The secondary object [creation] is given by, and depends upon, the primary object. Just as God, in a certain sense, continues to be the sole reality, even though he has created a new reality apart from himself, so love for God continues to be, in exactly the same sense, the sole thing that is demanded of us…”

But how do the two loves, which are really unified, relate?

As O’Donovan writes, “In the first place, we are to love the neighbour because the neighbour is ordered to the love of God.”

In other words, self and neighbour are ontological equals—neither is an “end or an origin to the other.” But such a fact can only be acknowledged when both self and neighbour are understood in their teleological relationships to a common end—namely, God. The recognition of the common kind—man—implies a teleological ordering; “real kinds are defined in terms of real ends.” O’Donovan is here building on his first chapter.

While the fact of man’s teleological ordering to God has sometimes been ignored, loving our neighbour depends upon seeing him for who he is–“he, like ourselves, is a being whose end is in God.” It is impossible to love him without recognizing this fact.

On the other hand, while our love for our neighbour has its end in the love of God, it is truly a love for that which is not-God, “and therefore it is quite different from the love of God.”

The creation of the world involved not only the creation of a single soul apart from God, but of many souls. The plurality of the world is not a state of fallenness—the neo-Platonic quest to be alone before God is not Christian, “in that it refuses the communitarian character of redemption.” The Church has always had room for solitude as a private practice—it has even had individuals who devoted their entire lives to it. But in doing so, they were resolutely communal in that they devoted themselves to the task of intercessory prayer.

The fact that we have a love for that which is not-God entails that there are two distinct spheres of love. On the one hand, there must be “prayer and praise directed to God.” On the other, there must be “fellowship with the neighbour and service of his welfare which is not directed to God.” How are these two spheres of action one love?

Two inadequate proposals have been put forward:

  1. “Put God first, others next and yourself last.” This fails for two reasons. One, it depends upon arbitrating between God and man the way we arbitrate between the claims upon us made by other humans. While there is some truth to this, this conception also makes God’s claim one among many, while in reality, God’s claim “embraces the whole of our duty.” God may sometimes place our neighbour as most important, and sometimes even demand that we place our own interests at the forefront of the list. Two, this conception “obscures the fact that the neighbour’s good can be realized only when God is the object of his love.” By understanding the relationship between God and man as one of competing claims, this conception mischaracterizes the nature of love, which sometimes is compelled to decide against a neighbour in a conflict of interest.
  2. “Means to an end.” In this relationship, we love the neighbour “for God’s sake.” This idea was put forth by the early Augustine (who later, O’Donovan contends, rejected it) and famously repudiated by Kant. O’Donovan contends, however, that even if we disagree with Kant’s critique, there is still good reason to reject the position. “Means” and “ends” belong, as categories, to practical deliberation. That is, they belong to the “’deliberative’ rather than ‘natural order.’” But there is no need to impose ‘order’ on our love of our neighbour from the outside like this. Rather, “The neighbour’s being imposes the order upon love…We are to love him as a creature destined for his Creator’s fellowship, because that is what his nature demands of us.”

This last sentence highlights the third way of characterizing the relationship, which is more successful. It is “the free conformity of our agency to the order of things which is given in reality.” (The sentence perfectly encapsulates O’Donovan’s first and second sections of the book, wherein he articulated the order of reality and our free response to that reality). We love God as God, humans as humans. Titania’s love for Bottom is a perversion because it is a love without truth—he, though a monster, appeared to her as a beauty.

Hence, the twofold love that we are commanded to have “is not a matter of one love canceling the other out, nor of one being subjected to the other in a project of the loving subject; but it derives from the ordered and intelligible relations of its two objects, and presupposes that love is interpenetrated and shaped by the order of reality disclosed to the understanding.”

But what are the contents of that reality which we must love? The commandment draws our attention to only two aspects: God and neighbour. But “what kind of precedence do the two commands of love for God and neighbour have over other rules of moral obligation” anyway?

If we take a narrow view of our obligation (as Kant does), then we will see only ourselves and our neighbours as having status as “absolute reality.” On the other hand, for Augustine, if we get God and neighbour “right,” then all other loves will fall into place. The priority of the love-commands is not that of an inclusive generality, but rather a pedagogical priority which “arises from the ascetic measures necessary to correct man’s biased starting point.”

O’Donovan, it seems, doesn’t want to decide between these two answers, though it seems he leans toward Augustine. Rather, he writes, “We can do no more than hint at how these alternative answers unfold into sharply contrasting patterns of moral thought.” Regardless, if the two commands are the most “general statements of moral obligation,” then we are compelled to ask, “And who is my neighbour?” This, however, is a question the parable of the Good Samaritan does not answer. Rather, Jesus’ parable “defeats the presuppositions of the question as well as the supposed answer” by addressing applying the concept of neighbour to the agent, rather than the object of the act. What the parable highlights is the “contingency of the circumstances which can place us in an unlooked-for neighbourly relation with others.”

In other words, while some modern ethicists have argued that Jesus taught an “undifferentiated love to all,” such a conception misses the point of the parable, which “counters the limiting structures of racial and communal proximities precisely by challenging them with a proximity of a different sort, the contingent nearness which we constantly find ourselves thrown into with all sorts of people.”

O’Donovan argues that the pedagogical priority of the two commandments becomes clearer when they are brought together under the command that we should love Jesus. In Jesus, we not only love God, but we love Him as a neighbour, as one who has come near to us. O’Donovan elegantly concludes:

Love of Christ has priority over all other obligation because it is the love of Jesus as the Christ, the acceptance of him as the one whom the Father has sent. From it there follows that we are given to love the whole reality in due order: God, the neighbour, self and the world. And from it there follows obedience to the authoritative teaching and life which interpret what is given to us in reality; ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’. It is a love which springs from faith, and which therefore loves the universal in the particular, finding in Jesus the head in whom every neighbour is summoned to appear before God and in whom the non-human creation awaits its redemption. This brings us back to where we began, to the divine act by which God has designated Jesus as the Christ and has vindicated creation in him, his resurrection from the dead. In this act all Christian love, from the universal to the familiar, finds its spring.

Other posts in the series:

Series Intro
The Created Order
Eschatology and History
Knowledge in Christ
Freedom and Reality
Authority
The Authority of Christ
The Freedom of the Church and the Believer
The Moral Field
The Moral Subject

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.