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God’s Love as the Source of Morality

By P. Engelbert Recktenwald

The mystery of the Incarnation reveals the love of God and thereby places love at the center of morality. For most ethical approaches in philosophy, the fundamental concept is not love, but rather some form of justice. The Good is seen as the Ought, as that which is owed to our fellow man or to the common good. It is a matter of acknowledging human dignity, respecting rights and fulfilling duties.

In such law ethics, in the broadest sense, it is difficult to retroactively make space for a love which extends beyond the fulfillment of the demands of justice. A case in point is Immanuel Kant. He contrasts duty and inclination. We only act in a morally good manner when we act out of respect for the moral law, that is, out of duty. Respect is the singular moral feeling which he accepts as valid. Acting out of love, on the other hand, is in his view morally worthless, because it stems from inclination. This holds true for every love which extends beyond respect for the law. Such love is for him pathologically, that is, sensuously induced.

The preeminence of justice over love as the key term of ethics has a threefold reason:

Firstly, justice is an ethical base value, which as such is more easily evident even to a somewhat coarser conscience than more sublime values. Gross violations of justice, such as fraud, murder and exploitation, almost invariably register with our conscience, whereas the omission of acts of love which extend beyond mere justice tends to trouble our conscience much less or not at all. Not everyone is called to the heroic acts of charity of Mother Teresa of Kolkata, and they are therefore often misunderstood or at times even vilified as personal quirks. Indeed the possibility and morality of supererogatory actions is highly controversial in philosophy.

Secondly, justice as a criterion for correct conduct is a more manageable concept than love. When it is a matter of avoiding injustice and giving to each one what he deserves, it is much easier to draw up clear limits and guidelines for action than in the realm of love.

Thirdly, love, as opposed to justice, is an extremely colorful term. Is Mother Teresa’s practice of charity an act of inclination? When we speak of love as inclination, we tend to think of lovers, who out of affection never grow weary of doing good to the beloved. If, however, Mother Teresa acted in such a way as she did neither out of duty nor out of inclination, why then?

In the case of lovers, Kant appears to be right. Their behavior out of inclination serves to satisfy a need, similar to a thirsty person who quenches his thirst with a drink of water. The more sensual the love, the more obviously is this the case. The actions of a sex maniac can be not only amoral, but even criminal. Actions based on maternal love, on the other hand, are also actions out of inclination, out of natural empathy, but only very few people would deny their moral value. Various philosophers such as Hutcheson or Schopenhauer therefore even see the source of morality in feeling, especially in empathy. Kant, on the other hand, denies the moral value of an act of empathy just as he denies the moral value of the actions of the sex maniac. In his view, moral behavior is behavior based on reason, and he cannot but view feeling as merely a competing instance to reason.

Christianity elevates love to its proper place. In the statement that God created man out of love, the concept of love remains still somewhat vague. Only through God’s Incarnation and work of salvation does it receive its content and contours. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). This love, as illustrated for example by the parable of the Prodigal Son, is a love of profound mercy. It is a love which led to the institution of the Sacrament of the Altar, because it seeks closeness and union. It is a love which finds it most sublime expression in nuptial mysticism, which applies the words of Isaiah – directed to the people of Israel – to the individual soul: “…as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” When God redeemed us, he was neither acting out of duty nor was he following a mere calculation of reason, but rather he was following the characteristic of His being, which is love. And yet it was a sacred act. It was an act of the highest morality and at the same time of the most profound inclination. Its source was an overabundance of love. Against the backdrop of this image of God, it is not duty, but rather love which becomes the deepest source of morality.

Of crucial importance is another characteristic of this love: It is the source of happiness. The lover seeks the happiness of his beloved, because love is goodwill. At the same time, he finds therein his own happiness. He wants to make the beloved happy, because love is essentially benevolence. Bridal love, which seeks union, bestows upon the lover the bliss of delighting in the beloved, which finds its perfection in the union achieved. The lover of God finds in this love his moral as well as his eudaemonistic perfection. Moral life and successful life coincide, but not because morality is defined in such a way that its ideal is logically connected to the ideal of a happy life – such is an objection raised by Thomas Nagel against Aristotle – but rather because goodness and happiness have their common source in love, which is an extension of God’s being.

The person acting out of Christian love is acting out of inclination, but this inclination is not sensuous, rather it is the expression of the highest moral attitude. This inclination is not the source, but the fruit of love. It does not detract from the moral purity of the motivation, but rather it is the sign of the existence and prevalence of this love in the human character, a love which is itself in turn strengthened in a feedback effect through inclination. Kant’s struggle was against the contamination of the moral disposition through egocentric motives of action. His credit lies in freeing moral action from the subsumption under the pursuit of happiness and returning to it its own dignity. Happiness and being worthy of happiness were however pulled so far apart, that for him there only remained an outward intervention by a postulated God of righteous vengeance. The happiness, with which the person worthy of happiness is rewarded, remains external to his worthiness; it is subsequently added to it.

With the concept of love, however, an intrinsic transfer takes place. Love carries within it its own reward. To be sure, as a moral force it subsists on sacrifice and hence also on the ability to deny itself, that is, to forgo happiness for the sake of the beloved. But at the same time, as bridal love which seeks union, it carries the seed of perfect happiness within itself. It makes the lover both worthy of happiness and happy; the former ipso facto, in that it is the highest moral attitude and as such involves a participation in the holiness of God, the latter not always or in every phase of its operation, but certainly when seen as a whole, at the latest when the union with God which is already realized here becomes a completed experience in eternity.

Certainly in this life our happiness is normally also contingent on exterior factors, so that it can be affected by illness, poverty or misfortune. But the experience of a profound love lets us sense that without this love even the most favorable constellation of all exterior factors could never bestow such happiness on us. They are conditions, not sources of happiness. Furthermore, many saints have experienced how the bliss of love can break the power of even the most grievous threats to happiness. For example, the Vietnamese confessor Marcel Van, in the midst of agonizing prison conditions, wrote: “Love is my entire happiness, an indestructible happiness.” And Tolstoy sums it up: “You need only to love and all is joy.”

In other words: It is love which simultaneously sanctifies us and makes us blissfully happy. Bliss as the fruit of love is not – as Kant would claim – a motive which contaminates the moral disposition, but it is on the contrary the fruit of a love which, forgetting itself, is so enraptured by the love-worthiness of its object that it revolves solely around this object. It is sometimes experienced that the blissfulness of love does not set in intentionally, but rather that it takes one by surprise, as something unearned. Kant was also acquainted with a feeling brought about by the knowledge of reason, namely the feeling of respect for the law. It is this same “moral feeling” of respect, which turns into love, as soon as one recognizes that the absoluteness and sacredness of the moral law is not an abstraction, but rather a person, a divine Person. Whose sacredness exceeds beyond the sacredness experienceable in the moral law and reveals itself in the Incarnation as being a love which is at the same time merciful, relinquishing itself and giving itself to us. Thus the moral feeling of respect can change into a nuptial love without losing its morally valuable character.

The blissfulness of God’s love not only fails to lead to a contamination of moral motivation, but also to a disavowal of the moral claim, as philosophers such as Winfried Schröder allege. Rather, it overcomes a dilemma which is frequently discussed among philosophers, namely the dilemma of having to choose between a moral and a successful life. This follows from the allegation that moral claims can stand in the way of our true self-interests. In such cases the problem arises of whether and to what extent we can resist the impositions of morality in our own interest. We find this thought not only among moral nihilists such as Nietzsche, but also among ethicists such as Susan Wolf and Bernard Williams. As soon as morality is disconnected from love, it finds itself sooner or later in the role of a preventer of happiness. In order for it – as such - to not make man ill, It needs external correctives such as friendship, which serve to deliver man from being reduced to a moral being who is merely the overwhelmed recipient of moral imperatives. Then the watchword can only be to not overdo it with morality. Morality void of love becomes inhumane.

It is only when happiness and being worthy of happiness coincide in their root – that is, in love – and the absoluteness of the moral claim simultaneously turns out to be the self-giving love of a benevolent God, that the state of competition existing between the pursuit of holiness and of happiness; between morality and a successful life, resolves itself. The unconditional moral claim, in which God’s holiness manifests itself, is accessible to every person who has a conscience. The fact that this holiness, in addition, consists in love, is only discernable through revelation. Only through the Incarnation has the entire extent and the inner character of this love become evident, which in its beauty surpasses everything which man could possibly imagine or hope. And it is precisely by virtue of this beauty that it attains a motivating force, which makes man capable of a supernatural morality transcending any law or justice ethics.

Zum deutschen Original


Recktenwald: Love as the Key to Knowledge

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