Oct 15, 2022
This excerpt from the writings of St. Paul is among the best-known passages in Judeo-Christian scripture. But what does it really mean?
“Love is patient, love is kind…It does not seek its own interests… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophesies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing…So, faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13: 4 – 13)
When we think of faith, we think of belief in the existence of a benevolent God; but if we reduce faith to belief in God, we are putting the cart way in front of the horse.
First and foremost, faith is the belief that there are objective values, transcendent but nonetheless operative in the world: beauty, truth, justice, et al., values that roll up into our concept of ‘good.’ Faith is the belief that these values are universally normative. They would apply in any possible situation in any possible universe, no matter how alien from our own.
Faith is the belief that Being is rooted in value. These values are valid for our spatio-temporal world, but they transcend that world; they are eternal. They are the ‘non-negotiable demands’ of Being. Bumper sticker: “No Values, No Being.”
Second, faith is the belief that every actual entity that comprises our world exhibits these values, albeit in widely varying ways and to vastly different degrees. To be is to appropriate and reflect universal values. This aspect of faith underpins the allied virtues of hope and love.
Third, faith is much more than mere belief. To have faith is not just to give passive intellectual assent to a series of propositions, but rather, it is to live our lives as though these propositions were true. Faith, then, provides the measure by which we may, nay, must judge our own lives.
(Sidebar: This paragraph underscores the enormous chasm that exists between faith and belief. In our culture, I think it is quite common for someone’s faith and beliefs to be polar opposites.)
Faith is not contrary to doubt; it assumes it. We will always question our beliefs. After all, we are human. It is the nature of the human condition that we can never know with absolute certainty our existential fate, but from “the crucible of doubt” (Dostoevsky), we constantly recover and reaffirm our core beliefs (faith).
Faith does put us at odds with a host of modern thinkers – existentialists like Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre and analytics like Ayer and Wittgenstein. These thinkers directly challenge the core proposition itself. They deny the possibility of objective, transcendent values. What you see is what you get! Whatever exists, exists entirely in the actual entities and events that make up our world; there is no beyond!
No matter how much they may sugarcoat it, these thinkers place us firmly on the tongue of the abyss. A 20/21st century version of human sacrifice? It is hope that confronts this terrible abyss – the abyss of nothingness. We are born; we live our lives; we have experiences; we acquire knowledge; we make decisions; and then we die. Everything is wiped away, as if by a giant cosmic eraser. It is as if we had never been born. Whatever meaning we thought our lives might have had is gone.
Your life is like a pattern drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch. One good shake and it’s gone…forever. That’s life without hope. We are like characters in Shakespeare’s Tempest: “These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air; and—like the baseless fabric of this vision— the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherits, shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Marxists, positivists (logical or otherwise) and pragmatists find hope in the idea that our lives contribute to the up building of social structures, to the welfare of future generations, to ‘progress’ generally. Well and good, but science has shown that all social structures, every human generation, and even the cosmos itself will one day pass away. So, this sort of collective hope is ultimately just ‘bad faith,’ a futile attempt to find solace in what is merely a stay of execution.
Still others are content to say that we create our own meaning. Sounds cool, but what does it mean? ‘To mean,’ by definition, is to refer to something outside, something beyond. I write, “The asparagus was delicious.” I don’t mean that the nine letters from A to S were delicious. I am using asparagus to refer to something outside the elements of the sentence itself.
On the other hand, if there is nothing outside, nothing beyond this “mortal coil,” then our so-called ‘meaning’ can be nothing but make-believe. We can’t create meaning if meaning is not intrinsic to who we are.
Real hope accepts the truth of personal and cosmic mortality but does not despair. Hope resides in the conviction that there is something about this world that does not pass away. Hope asserts that there is an atemporal (eternal), negentropic dimension to Being.
Finally, we come to the ‘greatest’ of these virtues, love. Love stares into the most terrible abyss of all, the abyss of isolation. What if there is just me…and none beside me? What if I am the whole world…or worse, what if I am utterly alone in the world?
Love stares into the abyss of isolation…and finds ‘the other.’ The virtue of love affirms that there is at least one being other than me who is independent of me and who enjoys the same ontological status as I do. Love solves philosophy’s “other mind's problem.” Who in love doubts the reality of his lover?
In love, my recognition of ‘the Other’ as ‘real’ is at least as strong as my recognition of myself. Cogito ergo sum becomes Amo ergo est.
But love comes with a terrible price tag. If I love, I must love my neighbor as myself. Not like myself, but as myself! I can have no ontological priority over the other. I should even be prepared to lay down my life for the other if need be.
Suppose I’m not prepared to grant ontological equality to another. No problem! I just consign myself to live alone…for eternity. (So, that’s what they mean by Hell!) Note that my insistent hubris does not ‘kill’ the other; it just takes away its otherness for me.
Fortunately, the economy of Being allows us to revisit this decision at any time. We may endure solitary confinement for a period (‘time-out’); then, like a naughty child, we may rejoin the society of others when we’re ready.
Love is the greatest of these virtues because it puts faith and hope into action. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14: 15) And what are those commandments: “Love one another.” (John 13: 34)
It is love that lifts faith and hope out of the realm of the merely conceptual and gives them physical reality. There is no true faith or hope without love. In fact, love is the test of whether my faith is real.
Love enjoins us to act out the values that faith affirms; it is the realization of that which hope anticipates. If we love another, we must behave toward that other in accordance with the values we discover and adopt through faith. Likewise, the eternity that we discover in hope enjoins us to care for others with a full realization that what we do here now, we do everywhere and forever (Kant).
Faith allows us to know the Kingdom, hope allows us to anticipate its realization, but love empowers us to instantiate the Kingdom in our patch right now.
In Greek mythology, Cerebos, a three-headed dog, guards the gates of hell (Hades). For me, those ‘heads’ symbolize an unholy trinity: radical skepticism (vs. faith), nihilism (vs. hope) and solipsism (vs. love).
So, the spatio-temporal world is passing away. All that remains for us is our understanding of the Kingdom (faith), our expectation of the Kingdom (hope), and our realization of the Kingdom (love). When we truly love, the Kingdom has already “come.” Love is the in-breaking of the eternal into the spatio-temporal.
Faith, hope, and love are called the three ‘theological virtues,’ but so far, we have made no mention of God. How come?
In theory at least, one can believe in objective values without believing in God; one can believe that Being has an eternal dimension without believing in God; and one can love and be loved without believing in God.
Practice makes this a bit more difficult. We said earlier that every actual entity in our world exhibits objective values. According to British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, our world consists solely of ‘actual entities,’ including the qualities (values) they display and the relations (prehensions) that connect them.
For Whitehead, the universal objective values logically precede our actual world (and every possible world). However, these values cannot enter into an actual world and be operative there unless they are realized or reflected in an actual entity. Of course, an entity whose essence consists wholly and precisely of all the objective, transcendent values (‘eternal objects’) is what we call “God.”
Therefore, for Whitehead, God is ‘necessary.’ But he does not start off with ‘God’ as a premise. He deduces the existence of God from three more primordial notions: one, many, and creativity.
Whitehead invented TikTok. He throws down a challenge. Grant me just these three things (above), and I’ll show you that God is necessary. For Whitehead, “God exists” is a synthetic proposition that is necessarily true, given minimal assumptions.
The atemporal, eternal dimension of life, where we find the meaning of our lives, amounts to nothing more, or less, than an infinite present. According to the standard model of time, the present is an infinitesimal point. Actual entities, however, exist only in the present and their ‘presents’ must have real duration; they transcend the timeline and disprove the standard model.
Interestingly, no one is more closely associated with the standard model of time than Sir Isaac Newton. Few realize, however, that he fully understood the absurdity of his own model, extrapolated beyond its proper universe of discourse.
Ultimately, Newton invoked God: “He is Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from Eternity to Eternity; his presence from Infinity to Infinity… He is not Eternity and Infinity, but Eternal and Infinite; he is not Duration and Space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and, by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes Duration and Space.”
Likewise, according to Whitehead, an eternal present can only ‘be a thing’ if there is an actual entity that is ‘present’ to all other entities and for which all other actual entities are present. This, of course, is what we call “God.”
Finally, when we love, we discover the ‘other’ in our fellow human beings. Every human being is different but the ‘other’ we discover in each human being is always the same. Every other is other to us in exactly the same way!
In fact, the other is a reflection of the self…but NOT in the sense of Narcissus’s superficial reflection in the lake. What we see in others is a reflection of our ontological core. It was as if the surface of the lake revealed to Narcissus his own interior reality. Love confirms for us that the other we see in our fellows is just as real as we are and totally independent of us.
What is the origin of the ‘other?’ Judeo-Christian theology gives us a ready-made explanation. There is an archetypical Other whose “image and likeness” is found in every human being (and perhaps elsewhere as well), and that archetypical other is, once again, what we call ‘God.’
Now at last we can understand the deep meaning of the Great Commandment:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matt. 22: 35 – 40)
“Like unto it…” Exactly! They are one and the same commandment, expressed differently. We do not refer to the ‘Great Commandments’ but to the Great Commandment.
So, faith, hope, and love do not begin with a belief in God, nor do they require it, but they may lead to it. If so, they become the ways we experience God in the world. God is essentially good, and the objective values are how good manifests in our world.
God is the eternal present and the source of all meaning. To the extent that we experience the present and feel our lives have meaning, we experience the other, and God is the archetypical Other. When we encounter the other in fellow human beings, we encounter the image and likeness of God; and when we love the other in fellow human beings, we encounter God. For God is Love.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.