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To Learn to Love Your Neighbour Must You Learn to Love Yourself?

August 29, 2011

I’ve been thinking and reading about Jesus’ two great commandments, one following the other, which say to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27). These commands are at the same time pretty straightforward and loaded with complexity. In the infamous case of the Rich Young Ruler, there was some question about “who is my neighbour,” and I think Jesus answer is pretty relevant to another one floating around in our day — What did he mean by “as yourself”?

Norman Rockwell - Golden Rule

[1] One of the ways this is commonly answered is to carry over the verb — i.e., “love your neighbour as you love yourself” — and then to construct a notion of appropriate self-love from which it can be gathered how to go about loving others. This is basically the “golden rule” interpretation: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Not a bad rule of thumb, especially if one wants to apply this for a non-believing public, but is it what Jesus meant? Even as a rule of thumb surely we can see how it falls short. I mean, how well do I know what’s best for me, let alone what’s best for others? What makes me think that what I want or need is actually wanted or needed by someone else? More on the nose from a theological point of view: Doesn’t this interpretation actually put self-love at the basis of the two commandments, thus undermining what they actually intend to say? In other words, to love God and neighbour do I first have to love myself? Doesn’t that prioritize self-help before the help of others? Doesn’t that put selfishness at the backbone of unselfishness?

Pablo Picasso - L'ascete

[2] An alternative explanation might be to overstate the interjection of “your neighbour” between “love” and “yourself” so that the one actually replaces the other. If the one interpretation banks ultimately on self-love, this banks on self-emptying. It is the stuff of altruistic stoicism and ascetic self-denial. But here we run into similar problems. If self-love presumes too much, so does self-negation. Why assume that love for God is always antithetical to concern for one’s own well-being? To learn to love your neighbour must you learn to hate yourself? There is no telling in advance whether love for the neighbour will coincide with or contradict our own desire or self-esteem, which is why neither the golden rule nor the principle of self-denial will suffice.  Theologically speaking, if my love for neighbour is informed or predicated upon the quality of my self-love (on one hand) or self-denial (on the other), does it also follow that in my love for God (heart, soul, mind and strength) I am turned back upon myself for the resources by which to obey the command? We might rally behind Psalm 139 for one reading and Philippians 2 for the other, but is either of these what Jesus meant?

[3] I want to put the compelling (if exegetically innovative) interpretation of Karl Barth on the table for our reflection. In Church Dogmatics I/2 Barth riffs on the second great commandment and the parable of the Good Samaritan and comes to the conclusion that to “love your neighbour as yourself” means love your neighbour as you yourself are loved. To be specific, when it comes to loving our neighbour, Barth says:

Self-love means, and must mean, to be alone with ourselves, to seek ourselves, to serve ourselves, to think of ourselves. Now it is true that we do this. It is true that we do it even when we love our neighbour…. But the commandment: Thou shalt love thy neighbour, is not a legitimation but a limitation of this reality. If I love my neighbour, that is the judgment on my self-love and not its indirect justification. When I love my neighbour I do not apply to him the same good thing as I do to myself when I love myself. Far from it. When I love my neighbour I confess that my self-love is not a good thing, that it is not love at all. I begin to love at all only when I love my neighbour.

The only positive meaning of ‘as thyself’ is, then, that we are commanded to love our neighbour as those who love themselves, i.e., as those who in reality do not love, as the sinners that we are. It is as those who in fact and absolutely and constantly seek themselves and serve themselves and think of themselves … that we are addressed and claimed by the revelation and commandment of God and therefore concretely by the commandment to love our neighbour…. When we do, we shall cease trying to hide from each other. There is nothing to hide: we can and should love our neighbour only as the people we are, and therefore ‘as ourselves’ (450-452).

I’d like to know if you think this is exegetically warranted or not, but you gotta admit it is an ingenious and illuminating bit of theological interpretation. In a way, Barth is basically carrying over the verb — i.e., “love your neighbour as you love yourself” — and then reckoning with the fact that you can only love yourself in spite of yourself — i.e., as part and parcel of your reception of God’s everyday mercy and correction. (Exegetical note: In Matthew it appears just this way, but in Luke the one reciting it actually uses the verb ἀποκριθεὶς (love) in the first commandment and it carries into the second by implication).

With the words “thou shalt”, Barth sees in Jesus’ words a differentiation of the second great commandment from the golden rule. Love for neighbour is not summoned out of us (i.e., find it within yourself) but is commanded of us by the incarnate God. More precisely, love of neighbour is neither conjured up from a healthy self-esteem nor mustered up in resilient self-contradiction, but occurs as a miracle when our hearts, souls, minds and bodies are given to God (416). But what does that mean?

Dean Cornwell - Good Samaritan

To the question “who is my neighbour” Jesus’ answer was not only “the one who had mercy” but also “go and do likewise” (418-419; Luke 10:37). And so to the other question we might suggest the same answer: If you want to learn to “love yourself” you’ve got to learn to love your neighbour. The Neighbour is first the “Great Samaritan” Jesus Christ (426) and second everyone with whom He has come in solidarity (429-430). Thus to “love your neighbour as yourself” means, as Barth puts it, “to reconcile ourselves to the existence of the neighbour, to find ourselves in the fact that God wills us to exist as His children in this way and this alone” (430). If there is a way which we love ourselves it is by turning to one another and sharing the love that is ours in Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ command is not predicated on either self-esteem or self-negation — in fact it is not predicated on self at all. This love is neither self-promoting nor self-negating, but self-giving. It gives to the other because in the everyday mercy of God it has a self to give. And this self comes to be not simply in the form of privately experienced renewal or personally conjured up motive of compassion but in the publicly experienced interaction of the injured and the outcast, the priest and the worship leader, the celebrity and “the least of these” as they are brought together in the ministry of reconciliation that stems from the communion already accomplished for us in Jesus Christ.

That’s what I’m working on these days. I’d love your feedback on either the validity of the interpretation or the value of the application (or both!).

25 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2011 1:01 am

    At the least, the conclusion is that I am not a neighbor by reaction or default to the circumstances. To be a neighbor is an act of grace which demands a proactive response. I agree that this is not nurtured by self-esteem or self-denial. Only a transformation beyond myself can produce that result.

  2. August 30, 2011 4:51 am

    Thanks Jon, I really appreciate this. I think the dilemma between prioritising self-love and self-negation is a helpful way to set up the common interpretations. Barth’s exegesis I find, at first go, both surprisingly convincing and pastorally realistic. The last thing we need is to undo this passage by appeals to ‘healthy self-love.’ But we moderns are pretty good at burning ourselves out as well. Both are precisely too self-focused.

    I’ve been thinking about this a little since I just finished (!) a dissertation on Kierkegaard and he goes after self-love fiercely in Works of Love. For him, true love of the neighbour is to help him toward a relationship with God. God is the “middle term” in all our relations to other people. I wonder if you think it right to say this, and to go further in Kierkegaard in saying that only the love we each receive from God makes possible healthy and whole relations with others?

  3. margie permalink
    August 30, 2011 5:27 am

    “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)

  4. August 30, 2011 7:35 am

    I think Barth’s (of course) is a wonderfully distilled Trinitarian interpretation of The Great Commandment. It brings to mind, as well, Matthew 25 “and doing to the least of these” idea; I’ve always wondered what that has meant, since theologically I know that we are all naked and imprisoned and outcast.

    At the least, Barth’s interpretation remains consistent with a good theological exegetical practice; and in this instance provides a good way to think about what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. I think TF Torrance’s thinking on the vicarious humanity of Christ would also be instructive here.

  5. August 30, 2011 2:18 pm

    ‘This love is neither self-promoting nor self-negating, but self-giving. It gives to the other because in the everyday mercy of God it has a self to give.’ Brilliant. Thanks for the post!

  6. August 30, 2011 3:58 pm

    Hey Jon, Thanks for the post. I recently posted on the same thing asking a lot of the same questions. IF you get a chance check out my blog (and there is a sermon there too) I would love to hear what you have to say about my connections. Aug 8, 10, 15th. You can send me an email.

  7. August 30, 2011 4:00 pm

    @Steve: “God is the “middle term” in all our relations to other people. I wonder if you think it right to say this, and to go further [than] Kierkegaard in saying that only the love we each receive from God makes possible healthy and whole relations with others?”

    First of all, yeah, I think it is right to say that God is the middle term in our relationships with one another as long as we mean this not in an instrumental-occasional sense (like a mutual love of football or corn dogs might bring us together) but in the thickest possible sense of our reconciliation to God as a cosmos and as humanity within that cosmos due to the saving and healing intervention of God in Jesus Christ. So the self-giving love which we imitate and participate in is the actualization among us of the gift that was first given to us in Christ.

    As for going further than Kierkegaard, I don’t know about that, but I do think there is a sense where the private relationship with God (which is what I assume you are referring to) does “make possible healthy and whole relations with others.” However, I’m not sure how much the private and public can be teased apart, nor whether I want to invest the “making possible” part into either sphere. Does my private piety enable my community life or vice versa? Maybe they are two parts of a complete whole or something like that.

    If I take no personal responsibility for my own will and actions, or for my contribution to the community, then what self am I really giving to that community except the self that is there to take or to benefit from that feeling of social solidarity? On the other hand, if I put the priority of spirituality on my personal piety I also turn the collective worship of the community into a commodity for the taking, since it is really only there to service my own walk with God. In this latter case if I bother with the church at all it is usually the church which meets my felt-needs or gives me the occasion to buttress my personal piety. In the former case if I bother with personal piety at all it might be only when the community is being over-indulgent and needs to be resistant.

    But that is just a rant on what happens when we tease them too far apart and prioritize as we see fit. Does the love each receives from God make possible the healthy relationships? I need to think about that. I don’t think it “makes it possible”, but without the personal reception I can’t see how the corporate communion can avoid becoming disingenuous. That said, if the measuring stick or the motivator is the private piety then I think the telos of the salvation is lost, causing the faith to become ingrown or to implode.

  8. August 30, 2011 4:12 pm

    @Brandon: Based on what I’m reading I think we’re much on the same page (I don’t have time to listen to the sermons right now). I think in addition to my comments to Steve above I might say that I find Barth’s construal of things really helpful: He does not deny the importance of individual reception of God’s love but embeds it in the the community that God has created and is creating in Christ. In this the individual finds the salvation/reconciliation to which Christ summons him/her, and without it the individual only ever receives, thus turning the shared mercy of Christ into something it isn’t (see Matthew 18!). On the other hand this community, if it does not respect and build up the individuals but is only focussed on the maintenance of itself as a corporation or a mission, can also short-circuit the whole thing basically by having a collective self-love of its own.

  9. August 30, 2011 6:12 pm

    @Jon: I find the “middle term” idea quite interesting. (Bonhoeffer also runs this line in Discipleship, if McGarry is floating around.) I wasn’t quite thinking about the private/public or individual/collective dichotomies with regard to this, although yes, they are hard to tease apart and dangerous if one-sided.

    My question about going further than Kierkegaard relates to how K. reads this section in Matthew/Luke in Works of Love. He attacks not only self-love in a way that seems like self-negation but even a neighbour love that would not have love of God as its goal. For K., true neighbour love is helping that person to love God.

    The whole tenor of Works of Love is highly demanding but without much reference to that fact that we love God because he first loved us. I’m sure that’s ingredient in relating to God immediately and to others only through God, but beyond this lovely little quote at the beginning, he doesn’t properly work it into his thought: “If there were no spring at the bottom, if God were not love, then there would be neither a little lake nor a man’s love. As the still waters begin obscurely in the deep spring, so a man’s love mysteriously begins in God’s love” (27).

    The public/private question is probably a good place to begin a critique of K., even if his context (Danish Christendom) meant that elevating the ‘private’ was the right place for him to begin. The notion of Abraham’s incommunicable “secret” in Fear and Trembling really highlights the private character of faith for him. And the same holds for the individual/collective. If everyone in your country is baptised as an infant and believes themselves to be Christians for this reason, then yes, you must push the ‘individual.’ But whether what we need with these dichotomies is ‘balance’ or ‘dialectic,’ I’m not sure.

  10. August 30, 2011 6:39 pm

    Well, I’m definitely not a fan of ‘balance’ as the answer to everything, so maybe I’ll go with dialectic — even though in the end I think it just helps to keep the whole thing together (i.e., I am part of a world God so loved). But the point is well made that sometimes you are in need of some push for the individual and sometimes for the communal. In Kierkegaard’s case perhaps the “mysterious” beginnings for neighbour love took place in a personal experience of God’s love, but I just don’t know how much that needs to be emphasized.

    I mean, couldn’t it just as much be the case the my awareness of God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself makes me want to be a part of it? Thus the desire for that community drives me to seek the personal relationship as well? Why prefer one over the other, or make one motivational, except when one has been forgotten or sidelined and needs to be brought out again, not just for health reasons but because of the nature of the gospel we or I claim to be receiving.

    Not sure I’m adding anything here, so I’ll go to your question, which I wasn’t really thinking about but is very relevant. I’m a bit nervous about saying “true neighbour love is helping that person to love God” because it can so easily take on a manipulative or colonial air to it — just being self-love taking the form of self-projection. In other words, my loving people to God is just my philanthropic promotion of the kind of world that I can feel comfortable in. Who am I to “help someone to God”? How do I know that, as in the case of the samaritan and the least of these, by loving them I may actually be receiving help to love God myself?

    That said, I take the point, and Barth definitely agrees with it, that the true love of neighbour, if it really springs from faith in the God revealed in Christ, will not be able to separate love for neighbour from the desire to be reconciled with them, knowingly, in Christ. To the extent that Kierkegaard means that, I’m fully on board. Whether one prioritizes soul-winning over social gospel just seems like a false dilemma we create whenever we are too anxiously trying to avoid one or the other.

  11. September 1, 2011 2:24 pm

    Steve and Jon,

    Interesting conversation. I wonder, though, without (yet) having a (private) horse in the Kierkegaard race, if much of what you’ve said to each other does not still presuppose that the individual and the community are de facto in tension.

    I think the more fundamental question Barth raises, which it sounds to me like he’s presuming in this passage, is the very constitution of the “self” as a social entity. Or another way: it’s the question of where one’s “own” relation to God occurs. To my mind, there is a complex range of approaches and answers to this question that ultimately presumes each creature stands alone in their relation to God (e.g., it may be one that makes the drama of salvation hinge upon “the soul,” or some eternal reward/punishment scheme), and I think at some points Barth wades in these waters but at his best he’s swimming against this stream. Doesn’t Buber’s influence on Barth shine through here?

    In short, neighbor-love is only a process of dying to or “forgetting the self”, to use Luther’s phrase, if their existence is not merely another human but also the divine Word to me. The ultimate rationale of this position, it seems, is to risk that the Word is only ever spoken in the words, the Creator in the creature, etc — i.e., it’s a christological point. But once we realize this, I think, it overcomes the individual/community or private/public polarity, even while it still has much to say by way of specification about which aspects of our given lives represent the divine address and command to us, and which are all-too-human words that engender self-interested agendas in any (“private” or “public”) sphere.

    PS — Steve, if I’m looking to begin a longer-term romp through SK, what’s the best way in, you think?

  12. September 1, 2011 3:52 pm

    Scott, I’d definitely like to push (and thought I was pushing) for less of an individual/community polarity, but maybe, like Barth, I just don’t push enough for you. Maybe its my holiness movement roots (I grew up reading stuff like Pardington’s Crisis of the Deeper Life) but I continue to think that there is something about the “inner life” which is an important part of the Christian life. To cut it off from sociality or let it get ingrown is horrible, but it is basically the person recognizing that inasmuch as they have a personal mind, will and activity to be responsible for and to give to the neighbour/community then they are to seek to love the Lord God individually as well. What I like about Barth is that he wants to retain this, but subsumes it to the priority of communal existence which is enfolded in the Christological point you are making, I think. So that even any “personal devotion” or piety that is involved is done not for one’s own good but for the community the God is making.

  13. September 1, 2011 5:19 pm

    Yes, I’m not after some kind of pure “exteriority” that deprives the individual of their agency/responsibility. The “heart” is the seat of faith and love, biblically.

    I guess I mean to stress that there’s still a difference, however, between a view of “the heart” or the “soul” — whatever the seat of “personal agency” is — which says that it should be externally oriented upon God and/or neighbor — such that ultimately it is not how, but if the individual engages God/neighbor that determines the character of their self — and a view that says that every “heart” is de facto externally oriented, because it simply is our own personal engagement with and response to what we are not. The former view tends towards a picture of the individual person as one able to constitute themselves through their own will/agency, such that my character or salvation/damnation is determined by my choice of good — I can get on with my own pleasures, or be about the business of God or neighbor, etc. The latter view (the Buber I/thou view, I think) tends to see the person as a particular individual-in-response, and their own desire and choice and agency as elicited by agential forces outside themselves. On this view, the question is not if, but how to be engaged with the Other.

    So what I meant to say was, if “social engagement”, or being a part of the “community” God is forming in the image of Christ, is one option amidst other, more “self-“interested” options, then the question of neighbor-love and self-love is already poised in a certain key, with certain presuppositions. It is a different thing, I think, to hone in upon the notion that the Word that creates and sustains all things — including whatever “self” i have — does so in and through creaturely others, claiming us for our particular response to that Word in and as the particular neighbors we’re involved with, whom we didn’t “choose.”

  14. September 1, 2011 6:00 pm

    Oh yeah, that’s rich. Let me ponder it for a bit and see if I have some reservations worth hammering out here, but at the moment I feel like it says a lot of what I feel myself leaning towards.

  15. September 2, 2011 4:50 pm

    I guess my question, Scott, can be related by means of a personal illustration. I used to conceive of Christian life largely in individualistic categories (i.e., personal devotion as the telos of the rest), and yet in the last five or so years I’ve probably swung in the other direction, such that I am so who I am in virtue of my social embeddedness that — for all the strengths and truth of this — I begin to feel that something unhealthy happens when I look to the community to provide too much for me, even if what they provide me is the motive to engage personally and responsibly. I think there may be something to the focus on the ‘inner life’ which, though it makes sense only in its social embeddedness and community-telos, is not only biblical/theological but also practically important.

  16. September 5, 2011 9:20 am


    I think I get your anxieties, but it would probably take more conversation to unearth exactly where the trouble lies, for you. Because for me, I just don’t resonate with the tension between social and individual anymore — and it’s not because, as I mentioned earlier, I now thing Christianity is about a purely “exterior” human subjectivity, which has nothing to do with the “inner life”, what we personally feel, think, experience, etc.

    That’s part of what I was trying to suggest earlier — we need to be able to think a form of human subjectivity as at once personal and social, if who we are at root — what each God-given “self” is — is not something possessed in isolation but received, shared, responded to, etc. So there is no tension between he “individual” and the “community”, for me. The one doesn’t deny mean the abrogation of the other.

    Now, it is a different question to reckon with context and particularity — and I’d want to broach the issue this has to do with the fact that neither the creaturely “self” nor the eschatological “community” exist apart from God’s work in Christ. SO there is no “community” to be set over against the individual in his or her need, because what defines every communal context and personal life-history is the form of Jesus Christ, which is a personal life-history with a certain social form, which inhabits and establishes certain ways of being with- and for- God and neighbor.

    I guess one way I’d want to develop these questions is to stop thinking in terms of “community” and “individual” agency at all, and start re-thinking particular contexts, from the most “personal” to the most wide-ranging “global” issues, in terms of the social form of Christ’s new humanity.

  17. September 5, 2011 2:52 pm

    Hmm, well I just might be with you there on all that. I guess I’ve noticed that I might need to pay a bit more attention to the personal context of my participation in Christ’s new humanity more closely than I have, just not for the same reasons as before at all. Then it was sort of the telos of faith, the inner life, and now its something I need to take care of in service ultimately to Christ’s Kingdom, making sure I’ve got the best I can bring to it each day. That kind of thing.

    Curious, have you read Adam Kotsko’s The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation? I’m reading it right now and have a few hesitations but should probably finish it before I’m sure I still have them. Nonetheless it might be illustrative if I mention one of them (besides that Barth is not properly characterized in my view), which is that it feels like the individual and social can get too polarized (perhaps in order to correct a perceived imbalance) in the process — such that something of the strength of that new humanity might be weakened for a lack of concern for the personal rights and responsibilities of each member in it.

  18. September 5, 2011 4:03 pm

    I haven’t read Kotsko’s book yet, although I’m glad to know you’ve got it and are reading it. I do plan on reading it relatively soon, so hopefully we can have a proper chat about it then.

    From what I know, though, I’d probably agree with Kotsko’s desire to articulate a “social ontology”. I do think we need a foregrounding of the social context and conditions of human subjectivity in contemporary theology; I just think this sounds like it is a “denial” of necessary, more-personal concerns because of the modern backdrop to Western/Anglo-American Christianity, which is reflected through the basic quest for the autonomous “self.”

    I’m on Kotsko’s side, though, that the basic grammar of Christian theology should be to foreground the social/structural context of human agency and subjectivity (“selfhood”), but perhaps not for precisely the same reasons he wants this.

    Again, though — I’d have to hear more about why such a foregrounding of social context and conditions worries you. Like I said, for me, an account of each human self as always a “socially” constituted/contextualized self is by no means a denial of the personal role each person has to play — it’s just different from a modern approach that begins w/ the baseline assumption that salvation is about some a-contextualized relation between the individual and God.

  19. September 6, 2011 1:20 pm

    Jon, I haven’t read Kotsko (except on blogs, and I have friends who interact with him), but I’d be very interested in you posting something about the book when you’re done with it.

  20. September 6, 2011 3:54 pm

    I’ll see how it goes, Brad, I’d like to hear what others think of it too. I kind of picked it up for a leisurely read at this point. Maybe if we can keep this up long enough I’ll finish it while we’re still here. ; )

    I don’t want to get in the habit of one chapter reviews, but I guess the thing that “worries” me so far, Scott, has to do with the fact that I’m still not sure exactly what his (and perhaps your) problem with Barth is on this score. Maybe its a matter of reading early v. late Barth but I feel like in CD IV he’s foregrounding community in ways that seem very good and right.

    More than that, I see him prioritizing the social in ways that seem to resonate a lot of what Kotsko (and you) are saying. And yet Kotsko wants to put him on one side and Bultmann on the other side as still working from an individualistic framework (i.e., it comes down to what the individual makes of it, Barth with revelation and Bultmann with relativisation). I could see that critique of Barth I suppose, but I think by and large he does the communal foregrounding that I think we’re looking for. So I’m confused if Kotsko (and you) disagree, and that leads me to wonder what I’m missing in that regard.

    I can see that its possible to be so stuck on the notion of an autonomous “self” that anything that pushes the social will feel like a denial of the personal, even when it only aims to be a reconfiguration. I think I’m aware of that though, so I don’t want to get TOO hermeneutic-of-suspicion on myself.

    I guess on the personal level I feel like I’m still looking for how the personal gets reconfigured because I feel pretty dependent on the social and am not sure what to do with the personal (but feel something needs doing). On the theological level, I wonder what that reconfiguration looks like too. Kotsko observes in chapter one that not many who push the social ontology thing have gone beyond describing it in formal terms, and (maybe its because names like Marx are in the air) that leads me to wonder if that’s because once you start doing that you end up getting hegemonic.

    So I guess I wonder what is the place of the “personal life” and “salvation” in this foregrounded social ontology. But also what is the form of this community in view. When the “many” are prioritized over the “one”, I wonder what keeps it from being totalitarian (politically) or fundamentalist/disciplinarian (ecclesiologically). Those are open questions when it comes to Kotsko’s text, since I’m only about a quarter into it, but they are my questions nonetheless. But they are the worries of one who resonates, not who balks completely.

  21. September 6, 2011 4:23 pm

    I guess my starting point is the question: can we think of idolatry and injustice as collective activities and social dispositions, rather than acts/conditions that characterize individual hearts or personal actions?

    I’m not sure Barth can say yes to this, because despite his foregrounding — as you mention — the eschatological promise and vocation of “the community” in his later work, I read this still as a claim more about where God’s self-revelation finds normative expression (the church) than a direct claim about the social form of human faith or dis/obedience in response to God’s Word.

    Another way to put the issue with Barth is that, in _The Xian Life_ fragments, he is still pivoting the issue of the ethical or social/political form of reconciliation around the thematic of knowlege/ignorance of God, which again seems to cast the fundamental site and operation of transformation as somehow “internal” . He is here still talking about Christ’s true humanity and prophetic presence as the “new Adam” in an individual sense — as centering and unfolding the proper eschatological/fulfilled relation between the creature and God — rather than talking more-explicitly and more-directly about Christ’s new humanity itself having an intrinsic or necessary social form (the new Jerusalem). So I’m still often left wondering, with Barth, whether this eschatological “community” is not still being conceived as in some sense the eternal/final by-product of historical reconciliation — it is what is being “built-up” through individual faith/obedience, as this gains its proper telos in neighbor-love and finds social expression — rather than this social body being the already-accomplished and indispensable form of every person’s reconcilation to God.

    As I said, I think in his better moments Barth has a kind of Buber and in some ways Lutheran theme of how the divine/human (I-Thou) relation is so constituted in Christ, that revelation is always coming through the existence of the creaturely neighbor/other in such a way that our relation and response to God is quite unequivocally our relation/response to the creaturely other. I think that’s there in Barth, and I think it gets at the question of the social constitution of human faith and fidelity in a more productive fashion than other more individualistic frameworks — I’m just not sure it’s the dominant framing of the issue in (even the later) Barth, despite a lot of talk about “the community.” That’s what I mean when I say the real issue isn’t whether one is using language of “communal” or “personal” need or sin or redemption (although this may be indicative of one’s deeper framework), but about how one is framing the most fundamental issues in terms of Christ’s own person and work, and how he is present/active in history as God’s judgment and as the reality/promise of things being made new.

  22. September 6, 2011 6:21 pm

    Okay, I get you. I definitely think (as we’ve discussed before) that it is there in Barth, and sometimes there in very terse and remarkable ways, but it may be that it ends up being implicitly backgrounded again by the time it has begun to cash out in the unfinished ethics. I’ll have to keep watching for that and thinking on it.

    But there are times, like in the Good Samaritan stuff from CD I and the agape stuff in IV/2, where it seems like the communion of mutual self-giving love is being radically foregrounded, like you are saying. But in these cases it seems to me that the object of the love and devotion is neither the self nor the community, per se, but this third Other, Jesus Christ, who provides for both. The idea is that JC is the Samaritan and the neighbour both, and it is He (rather than some ideal piety or some principled society) who supplies the communal as well as the personal identity — doing so precisely as the social takes form in adherence to His living word and the persons participate in that regard.

    Now, perhaps he doesn’t specify that social form with as much explicit detail as one might wish (I sense that you’d want him to push for more specificity than his “passive conservatism” in that regard). One thing I like about it, though, is it seems to put the demands on the community to listen to its members appropriately and to avoid hegemony in favour of constant reform.

    Barth definitely puts the emphasis on daily community-discernment of the precise shape which that just and loving society should take, and thus this probably often gets expressed or taken as coming down to the decisions of the individuals. But that’s not what he’s driving at, I don’t think. I think he really thinks the churches should be taking a certain shape even if the daily actions are not set in stone ahead of time, and he thinks that persons should submit themselves to this communion and activity (in part by being responsible for their part in it but also in large part by committing to the communion that transcends and informs their own personal roles and identities).

  23. Nate Wall permalink
    September 26, 2011 3:25 pm

    Jon, I a late-comer here. I suppose that’s what happens when you step away from blogdom for over a month. Fascinating conversation.

    Barth’s reading is interesting. It’s probably theologically true and helpful. I’m not sure it helps us read the ‘second’ part of the greatest commandment well, though. I think the command is pretty plain: make the measure of your automatic self-love the measure of your love for others. We see Paul working with the same enlarging of the self in Ephesians 5:

    “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.”

    This is the kind of self-love that Jesus assumes too; in the end, one way or another we’re after good things for ourselves. I don’t see a condemnation of that basic “self-love” in Jesus, Paul or anywhere else. I see it assumed, accepted as a rudimentary condition of creaturely life, and then worked with. So Jesus ties commands to reward and punishment. Even the paradoxical “the one who saves his life will lose it; the one who loses his life will save it” only works rhetorically if you want to save your life.

    Love your neighbour as though he were a part of your very self. Care for her/him unthinkingly, instinctively, as though she/he was a part of your own body.

  24. James Parker permalink
    September 30, 2011 9:11 pm

    If one holds that there is no love that is not supervenient to and determined by the first great commandment, that only the life that is properly ordered to God can be properly ordered to neighbour and self then, since the perfect ordering of our heart, soul, strength and mind is not to be realized this side of paradise, we must confess that as sinners there is no love in us. One would thus concur with Barth’s reading of the second great commandment as far as it goes: “The only positive meaning of ‘as thyself’ is, … as those who in reality do not love, as the sinners that we are.”

    But leaving off there seems to leave too much on the table.

    To be sure when it comes to love of neighbour humans bring nothing to the table. All talk of love must refer to the love of the triune God, revealed in Jesus Christ in whom we participate and to whom we bear witness. The love which we properly share with our neighbour (as sinners) can only be that love with which we properly love ourselves (as sinners): not our own love but the love of Christ working in us (2Cor. 5.14-15; 1Jn 4.7ff). God, one could say, is the first and last term of truly human relationships.

  25. Orinemia permalink
    April 3, 2014 2:41 pm

    I have been thinking about these verses critically in the last few days: I have come to believe that Jesus actually defined 3 subjects for attention- God, neighbor and the individual.
    If I were to rephrase that verse it would probably go “Love the Lord your God with all your mind, heart and strength; and love your neighbor as you also love yourself”.
    Another way of saying it would be “…take care of your neighbor as you also take care of yourself”. It do not believe that Jesus is saying that the love you have for your own self should be the standard for your neighbor; he is issuing 3 separate commands if you ask me. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself

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