Posted by: gcarkner | February 10, 2013

What’s in a Word?

Power in a Word: Agape

We have spoken of the power of language to leverage the world in this blog. Is the ancient Greek word agape such a term? It has a long and noble history in the West. Perhaps too few of us know of its legacy. This post will act as a first response to the previous discussion on Quality of the Will. Transcendent agape love transforms the self, according to Charles Taylor, a love from above, transcendent of the human community, beyond mere human flourishing or survival of one’s tribe. He talks about this in terms of the possibility of a transcendent turn in philosophy to release late moderns from the burden of too much choice that leaves us morally frozen, and too much freedom of the wrong kind–freedom devoid of responsibility.

This is the constitutive good which can empower the moral self, a self that emerges most robustly within a community of mutuality. Trinitarian love offers the self a certain stance towards society; it sees something good in the human self, that is, the created (imago dei) image of God  (Taylor, 1999, p. 33). Perhaps we can discover a lost humanist heritage.

Our being in the image of God is also our standing among others in the stream of love, which is that facet of God’s life we try to grasp, very inadequately, in speaking of the Trinity. Now it makes a whole lot of difference whether you think this kind of love is a possibility for us humans. I think it is, but only to the extent that we open ourselves up to God, which means in fact, overstepping the limits set by Nietzsche and Foucault. (Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?, 1999, p. 35.)

It is ironic for him to suggest that Foucault, the philosopher of freedom, sets limits that stifle certain important alternatives for self-constitution, and deprives us of sources of the self that could empower us morally. Taylor pushes ahead to build the concept:

“The original Christian notion of agape love is of a love that God has for humans which is connected with their goodness as creatures (though we don’t have to decide whether they are loved because good or good because loved). Human beings participate through grace in this love. There is a divine affirmation of the creature, which is captured in the repeated phrase in Genesis 1 about each stage of the creation, “and God saw that it was good”. Agape is inseparable from such “seeing-good”. (Taylor, Sources of the Self, 1989, p. 516)

The individual self is elevated by this love, affirmed in its destiny. Agape informs and offers definition to the quality of the will; trinitarian goodness empowers, clarifies, and animates the human self. It acknowledges the value that each person gains from the recognition, mercy and affirmation of God. Within this paradigm, the self does not struggle to define itself alone, but engages this transforming love of the divine Other. Christians claim that this can be seen most clearly in the God-man Jesus Christ. The  Word made flesh underwrites all human words, all language. So affirms humanities scholar Jens Zimmerman in his recent book Incarnational Humanism Chapter 6. This is the exit that Kierkegaard talks about–exit from the burden and self-reflexive loop of despair (carrying the entire burden of meaning creation on our own shoulders). It is the marriage of the imagination and reason, the apprehended and the comprehended (Malcolm Guite). It is the reconciliation of a deep divide within academia (sciences and the humanities).

Divine trinitarian love creates the larger horizon for human loving, a love that issues from the power to love in spite of rejection, a sacrificial love. This goodness is a relational attribute in God; it exists and exhibits itself in the form of a communion of love: the relational, interpersonal, mutually supportive, loving relationship among the persons of the Trinity. Theologian Christoph Schwöbel (1992, p. 73) explains how human goodness is rooted in this divine transcendent love: “In a conception where goodness is understood as a divine attribute, rooted in God’s trinitarian agency, goodness has to be understood as an essentially relational attribute.” From this perspective, humans do not invent the good or invent love out of their individual passion, but discover it derivatively from God and in the context of community. It is a gift from God, a profound opening in the fabric of human society. Light shines through this word.

David Bentley Hart noted that historically Christians have been known for their concern for the poor, the weak and the infirmed and wishes to correct some popular, but misinformed, history. Over the centuries, Christians have made huge, significant contributions to the culture of the contemporary hospital, including the famous Knights of St. John in the twelfth century. Dr. Bert Cameron from UBC Nephrology gave a lecture on this history in the GFCF series a few years ago (

We suggest that this benevolent humanism emerged because they were inspired and empowered by agape love. They discovered this transcedent turn in their identity. Hart recalls by example:

There was … a long tradition of of Christian monastic hospitals for the destitute and the dying, going back to the time of Constantine and stretching from the Syrian and Byzantine East to the Western fringes of Christendom, a tradition that had no real precedent in pagan society. St Ephraim the Syrian (A.D 306-373), when the city of Edessa was ravaged by plague, established hospitals open to those who were afflicted. St. Basil the Great (A.D. 329-379) founded a hospital in Cappadocia with a ward set aside for the care of lepers, whom he did not disdain to nurse with his own hands. St Benedict of Nursia (A.D. 480-547) opened a free infirmary at Monte Cassino and made care of the sick a paramount duty of the monks…. During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines alone were responsible for more than two thousand hospitals  in Western Europe.  (David Bentley Hart, 2009, p. 30)

Indeed, there seems to be much power in this word agape to change hearts, move planeloads of food and aid, protect children, provide education, fight for justice and make a dramatic difference in society, to move the world in ways that we all admire. Could it be one of the hidden hypergoods that we are searching for in late modernity?

We finish with an insight Taylor got from Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky: (Sources of the Self, 1989, p. 452)

What will transform us is an ability to love the world and ourselves, to see it as good in spite of the wrong. But this will only come to us if we can accept being part of it, and that means accepting responsibility … Loving the world and ourselves is in a sense a miracle, in face of all the evil and degradation that it and we contain. But the miracle comes on us if we accept being part of it. Involved in this is our acceptance of love from others. We become capable of love through being loved; and over against the perverse apostolic succession [of terror and violence] is a grace-dispensing one. Dostoyevsky brings together here a central idea of the Christian tradition, especially evident in the Gospel of John, that people are transformed through being loved by God, a love that they mediate to one another, on the one hand, with the modern notion of a subject who can help to bring on transfiguration through the stance he takes to himself and the world, on the other … What he [Dostoyevsky] was opposing was that humans affirm their dignity in separation from the world.

~Gord Carkner PhD

See: Schwöbel, C. (1992). “God’s Goodness and Human Morality”. In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos.

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: a sociologist reconsiders history.

Jens Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism. 2012.

English: Statue of Benedict of Nursia, Monte C...

English: Statue of Benedict of Nursia, Monte Cassino Abey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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