Agape: Far More Than a Smile
Divine love is such a complex and demanding ideal that it can’t be reduced to an easy-listening sound bite.
By Mary Beth Crain
In A Birthday Party for Whores, SoMA’s recent excerpt from Rev. Lincoln Swain’s new book, “Dare to Defy: Conquering Fear With Active Faith,” Swain talks about “agape,” the Greek word for divine love. Swain’s example of agape is an exchange of smiles he had with a little girl sitting across from him in a restaurant, who was watching him enjoying his meal. “Agape makes the stranger familiar,” Swain writes. “One transcends oneself through tenderness, a sincere concern for the other. That little girl was watching me in appreciation of my delight. My delight was her delight and her smile broadcast that fellow feeling.”
It’s a nice story about a sweet moment. But it’s not agape. Like so many others catering to our limited-attention-span pop culture audience, Swain reduces a complex concept to an easy-listening sound bite. True agape is such a profound experience, demanding such an arduous commitment to moving beyond the self, that to water it down to an experience of smiling at somebody when they smile back at you, or even to doing nice things for other people, is grossly misleading. Kool Aid might taste good, but it’s not Dom Perignon.
The origins of agape are fascinating. Although it’s a Greek word, it did not appear in the language until the Gospels. Until the birth of Christianity, the Greeks didn’t even have the concept of divine love; the closest they could come to an idea of love that transcends the self was “Eros” in its higher incarnation. Although Eros is commonly thought to refer to sensual or erotic love, this, too, is a popular misconception. Plato distinguishes between “vulgar Eros”—the love that is bound by and to the object of one’s affections—and “heavenly Eros,” the love that transmutes physical/emotional desire into the realms of the supersensible. But even “heavenly Eros” is not agape. In his seminal 1932 treatise, “Agape and Eros,” the Rev. Anders Nygren, who was not only the esteemed Bishop of Lund but one of the most brilliant biblical scholars and theologians of our age, observes that the difference between “heavenly Eros” and “agape” is a dangerous one precisely because it is so subtle.
The heavenly Eros, in its most sublimated and spiritualised form, is the born rival of the idea of Agape. The mistake is commonly made of representing Agape as a higher and more spiritualised form of Eros, and of supposing that the sublimation of Eros is the way to reach Agape, But this is not the case. Heavenly Eros may be a sublimation of sensual love, but it is not itself capable of further sublimation. Agape stands alongside, not above, the heavenly Eros; the difference between them is not one of degree, but of kind. There is no way, not even that of sublimation, which leads over from Eros to Agape.
What, then, is agape? The most basic definition is the Christian idea of love, of which the primary component is “fellowship with God.” This notion was a radical departure from all previous ideas of spiritual love, both the Greek Eros and the commandment of the Old Testament, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” While Eros in its purest form could not move beyond the self, and the Old Testament conception of higher love was an order, not a suggestion, to love those with whom we have something in common—the Christian idea of fellowship with God went much further. In Christianity, we are encouraged not only to love our neighbors, but to love our enemies, and to pray for them, no less. While the Old Testament spoke of retributive justice toward the enemies of the Lord, the New Testament counsels the supreme act of selflessness: forgiving those who have wronged us. Now we move closer to the real essence of agape. But we’re not there yet.
True agape is really “divine love.” It is not just forgiving our enemies—it is loving them. And it’s not just loving them—it’s moving beyond the ego into a rarified realm where there is no judgment, no preconception; where love is spontaneous and unconditional, no matter what someone has done. This is the pure Christian ideal of love; to, as Jesus said, “call not the righteous, but sinners.” It is the parable of the Prodigal Son—God loves the bad boy as much as the good. Instead of abandoning those who have strayed from the path, God never loses hope in their redemptive capabilities, and welcomes them back into the fold not just with open arms, but with sincere joy.
If we’re truly in fellowship with God, we have moved beyond the self, beyond the ego, into a place of infinite compassion. We cease to think of ourselves in relation to “the other,” of “us” versus “them.” We are all One. Summarily, we ask nothing of love. We give it not only willingly but spontaneously, expecting nothing in return. While Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine maintained that all human love, even our love for God, is “acquisitive”—seeking to acquire something, i.e. happiness, in return—true fellowship with God is love in its purest, most “non-acquisitive” form. This is agape.
It is also the Bodhisattva path of Buddhism. Although we’ve often heard that the essential difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that the Buddhists don’t believe in God, this is merely semantics. The Bodhisattva Path—of complete compassion and service—is no different from agape. Anders Nygren describes agape as consisting of four basic elements: 1) it is “spontaneous and unmotivated,” i.e. it does not look for anything in man that could be adduced as motivation for it, and it is given freely, in the moment, without preconception or preconditions; 2) it is “indifferent to value,” placing no greater worth on one person than another; 3) it is “creative,” i.e. “it does not recognize value, but creates it”; and 4) it is the initiator of fellowship with God. There is really no way that man can come to God through his own volition—not by sacrifice, not by penitence. The only way for man to come to God is for him to experience agape—God’s love for him.
In Buddhism, the Bodhisattva Path, or the Open Way, is the path of agape—a living, active, infinite love for others that transcends the self. Like the four components of agape, the Bodhisattva Path consists of the Four Noble Truths: 1) The Truth of Suffering—that we are all in pain until we are one with the Divine Source; 2) The Truth of the Origin of Suffering—i.e. the ego; 3) The Truth of the Goal—i.e. “non-striving” or learning the secret of being in the moment; and 4) The Truth of the Path—meditation, which is the only way to liberate us from our selves—our egos—and lead us to the transcendent experience of oneness with God. The Bodhisattva—the enlightened man (or woman)—is the essence of compassion, which is actually communication, or sincere openness to others. But the others are not “others”—in fact, they are not even extensions of ourselves, in the sense that we love our neighbors as ourselves. By the time one has reached enlightenment, or the state of agape, one has ceased to think in terms of self or other—everyone and everything is a part of God.
Is this state of agape easy to attain—as easy as smiling at someone, or doing random acts of kindness? Hardly. To be a true messenger of agape is to be a warrior, doing years of battle in the jungles of the ego, fighting an enemy so invisible and elusive that just when we think we’ve attained true spiritual awareness, we’re back at the beginning—because that awareness, that smug moment of self-congratulation—has come from the ego, not the heart. George Carlin once observed, “If you think you know the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Summarily, if we think we’ve reached the state of agape, we are seriously self-deluded. Agape isn’t something that can be thought or realized or basked in—it is what we give without thinking, from the heart and soul, not the mind and ego.
What’s the hardest thing about attaining the state of agape? Relinquishing our egos, our need to be better than someone else. This involves our need to indulge in hatred, which can be a very exciting, even creatively motivating force, and our need to concentrate on our own desires for happiness, contentment, security. If we want to be true Bodhisattvas, true messengers of agape, we have to be willing to risk everything. We have to be willing to re-define our goals, to detach ourselves from material yearnings, to live not for ourselves but for others, and not for others but for God.
How far will most of us go in the pursuit of agape? Usually far enough to get our feet wet, but not far enough to risk drowning. We can all get accepted into Agape 101, the easy course where you stick your toe into the water of compassion. This is where we help old ladies across the street, sponsor a starving kid in Somalia, give the bum on the street a buck. It only takes a minute or two of our time, and it makes us feel good, even noble. What charitable beings we are! How easy it is to care about someone else!
But what happens when the old lady has no place to go, the kid in Somalia arrives on your doorstep, the bum follows you home? Now we’re suddenly enrolled in Agape 201. How far are we prepared to extend ourselves to another human being? This is where the fallout begins. Most of us don’t pass this course, because we can’t deal with any kind of gross intrusion on our space. The ego demands that we create boundaries, limits—on our time, our energy, our affections. It therefore takes very little time for generosity to show its dark side, irritation—for the object of our noble impulses to become a pain in the ass.
I have a nun friend who works ceaselessly for the unfortunate. She devotes herself to helping wrongly incarcerated juveniles, a generally thankless task in today’s punishment-oriented society. Her selflessness also extends to anyone in need. She will stay on the phone with somebody for hours, listening to their woes. Her door is always open, her smile always ready. No matter how obnoxious or selfish someone seems to me, this nun manages to find something good about them, something worthy of agape.
I, on the other hand, grow impatient with stupid, self-indulgent, narcissistic people. What’s the difference between me and my nun friend? Quite simply, I, like most of us, see the rest of humanity as “the other,” while she embraces it as part of herself—or rather, sees herself as inseparable from all humanity.
We’re constantly instructed to live according to the rules of agape. But rarely does anyone tell us how. Loving our enemies, giving up our lives to service, feeling a compassionate oneness with all sentient life isn’t something that we can be told to do. It has to come spontaneously, without thinking, from within. The Buddhists, Hindus, and Christian mystics are about the only ones who have the road map, which consists of one word: meditation. In meditation, one quiets the mind, the realm of the ego, eventually moving beyond thought, into that inscrutable Zen dimension of “no-thought,” which does not mean empty-headedness but rather liberation from preconception. This is no quick fix; as we all know, enlightenment takes years to attain, if you’re lucky. And when you finally “get it,” it’s amazing how simple the message is. Let go. Of attitudes, attachments, beliefs that have defined you and undermined those who don’t share them. Let go and be. In the moment. Let things unfold instead of seeing them through the distorted lenses of the past and the future. Let others be who they are, without judgment or expectation. This is true freedom. The Zen master T’ao-Shan said:
Give up yourself to others
True agape is a giving up of the self, the ego. It is the essence of Christian love, and, most ironically, the thing most lacking in the lives and hearts and rhetoric of too many of those who call themselves Christians. For any Christian who moralizes, who purports to have the sole key to salvation, who revels in hatred and retribution rather than love and forgiveness, is in actuality the anti-Christ—antithetical to everything Christ was and stood for. It’s so easy to preach, so damnably difficult to live in true imitation of Christ, in true agape. The supreme irony is that it’s only when we have succeeded in pointing inward rather than outward, in confronting and eradicating the evil within instead of castigating the evil without, that we may be fit to preach. But by then we’ll be so humble that we won’t even want to. Compassion will be our rod and our staff; we’ll be too busy feeling other people’s pain to cause it. And that’s agape.
Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain is also a writer for the L.A. Weekly, and is the author, most recently, of "A Widow, a Chihuahua and Harry Truman." She lives in Pasadena, CA. Her last piece for SoMA was DeLay-ed Reaction.
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