"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Love and Unity: Part 1

Icon of the Trinity
Andrei Rublev (1410)

This is the first of a series of posts on the relation between love and unity, as I mentioned in early August that I intended to write. At a later time I hope to write about the relation between love and truth. But for now I want to focus on how and why love seeks unity with the beloved, and the way in which unity with the beloved constitutes love. I have written about this relation previously here and here. I was again prompted to write about this subject earlier this year, as I reflected on the nature of love, and also as I experienced the conjunctive dissonance of stated love and simultaneous contentment with disunity.

The experience was similar to the dissonance described in St. James 2:14-26 between the simultaneous presence of stated faith and the absence of charity. St. James calls such a faith "dead faith". Likewise, in reflecting on the nature of love I concluded that contentment with disunity, all other things being equal, is something like "dead love". True [living] love tirelessly seeks union with the beloved, and does not rest content with disunity. That pursuit of unity may take different forms, depending on various other factors. But if a man says that he has love for his brother, but is content with disunity, he is deceiving himself. If he says to his brother, "Go in peace, with all my love", but does not seek out reconciliation (St. Matthew 5:24) and resolution of the schism that divides him from his brother, he does not truly love. True love seeks both to reach over and break down the wall of separation, even if that activity involves immense sacrifice, suffering, rejection, and persecution -- even if it involves the cross.

If love by its very nature seeks unity with the beloved, what then is the cause of the widespread acceptance and seeming contentment among Christians with our present disunity? Have we become cold-hearted persons so gravely deficient in love that we can walk nonchalantly right by our present divisions the way the priest and Levite walked by the injured traveler on the road to Jericho? Over fifty years ago, J.B. Phillips wrote a book titled Your God is Too Small. The thesis of the book is that our conception of God is too small. Similarly, it seems to me that often what makes Christians content with disunity is an unawareness of the full nature of unity, and thus a blindness to our present disunity, its magnitude, and its evil. Having reduced our concept of unity to something quite entirely spiritual and invisible, we now tend not to see our disagreements about doctrine, sacraments and church government as divisions -- that was the point of my post titled "Dodos, Passenger Pigeons, and Schisms". They're just variations, or differences, all legitimate options within the big tent of mere Christianity.

This reductive reconception of unity as merely invisible or spiritual has as an effect the diminution of our capacity to love. We cannot love a good that we do not in some sense apprehend as good, and that is no less true of our apprehension of our union with the beloved. Aquinas writes that love "arises from a kind of apprehension of the oneness of the thing loved with the lover." (ST I-II Q.28 a.1) Hence if our conception of oneness is atrophied, and we apprehend (as a goal) only a weak or minimal unity with that which is loved, our capacity to love will be diminished. The more we perceive the fullness of the unity that is not only possible but desired by Christ for His people, the more we will love each other and thereby seek to bring about that full unity.

As an example, consider the scene in the movie WALL-E where humans accidentally rediscover the experience of touching each other. The conception of that type of unity (physical touch) had been lost, replaced by a mere virtual [de-materialized] unity through a technological medium. Rediscovering actual touch allowed a new and deeper dimension in which love could be actualized. Similarly, when we rediscover the three dimensions of unity, we begin to see how much deeper and richer is the unity that true love pursues. So one way of responding to the present contentment with disunity among Christians is to expand and deepen our understanding of unity in all its fullness so that we can see the present disunity for what it is, and thus see how to love, that is, see where true love takes us.

Another way to respond to the present contentment with disunity is to meditate together on the nature of love, and show how true love cannot possibly rest content with the present state of disunity. And that is what I wish to do in this series, drawing largely from St. Thomas Aquinas. I want to examine why love seeks unity with the beloved, and how love effects unity, and what sort of unity love produces.

1 comment:

Eric Telfer said...

I am reminded here of a family being united in terms of genes or 'blood' or name or geneology, but *not* sharing a table with one another, not praying with one another, not standing with one another publicly, not joining hands publicly, and not helping one another.

I am also reminded of a group of soldiers united in name, but not in code or not in training or not in deep loyalty to one another.

I am also reminded of a husband and wife united in marriage vows, but not speaking to one another, not sharing meals with one another, not praying with and for one another, not joining in conjugal love with and for one another, and not living with one another.

Each of these examples shows that there are degrees of unity. They also show how important richer forms of unity really are to a family, to a group of soldiers, and to a marriage. The same is true regarding Christian unity.

Followers of Christ have an obligation to pursue a richer form of unity with one another because we have an obligation to pursue a richer form of love with one another. Love necessarily includes or entails a richer and more real unity with God and neighbor.

Part of the way we love God is by worshiping God and loving our neighbors. Part of the way we love our neighbors, even our neighbors who are followers of Christ, is to be united with them, not just in some remote, abstract, vague 'floating' sense, but in very real, concrete, physical senses, i.e., spending time with, praying with, eating with, sharing a table with, joining hands with, sharing the same Church with, sharing the same sacraments with, sharing the same code with, and the rest.