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Love as the Key to Knowledge

P. Engelbert Recktenwald

Amongst those who take their convictions seriously, a person’s picture of God inevitably forms his picture of man and his own spirituality. For the ancient Greeks, wisdom was the highest ideal. According to Aristotle, God was the “thinking of thinking” and the perfection of man consisted in the “theoria”, the vision of truth. In Islam it is power which takes the key place among the divine attributes. For the devout Muslim, therefore, the concept of spreading his religion through the exercise of force presents no problem, whereas experiencing inferiority or defeat as in the case of the Crusades arouses a sense of offence which lasts for centuries. The thought that God, out of love, would relinquish his exercise of power, empty himself and become human, indeed become a child, rejecting every aura of power, preferring the manger to the throne and abandoning himself to bitter poverty – such a thought is met with horrified rejection as being incompatible with Allah’s dignity. And that is precisely what constitutes the core of the Christian concept of God: neither wisdom nor power, but rather love is the key characteristic for understanding God and his activity.

Through his incarnation, God has enabled us to place ourselves in a new relationship to him. The appropriate relationship to a God of power is one of submission and blind obedience. But when the relationship is defined by love, submission becomes friendship and blind obedience becomes conformity of sentiment resulting from the intimacy of being initiated into the loving will of God: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). Submission is characterized by fear; friendship, however, by love.

To be on good terms with a God of power is a wise choice made out of self-interest. Here one has not yet reached the level of moral behavior. Morally valuable behavior is only possible when one moves beyond the simple logic of astuteness and one’s self-interest is transformed by love into interest in the well-being of the beloved. But if God is absolutely perfect and completely self-sufficient, then having an interest in his welfare appears to be impossible or at least futile. It is precisely this problem which is remedied through the incarnation. By becoming human, God has put himself in a position to accept our love and consolation. This was most evident in Jesus’s relationship to his mother Mary. But that we also can assume a comparable relationship in the spiritual life, is this not implied in the tremendous saying: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mt 12:50)? Through our love we can please the Lord, “console” him over the sins which wound his heart and “help” him to save souls.

In order to not take offence at this humility of God’s, one must accept the hierarchical ordering of values resulting from the recognition of love as the supreme value. St. Therese of the Child Jesus accustomed herself to regarding all of God’s perfections through the lens of his boundless mercy (that form of love which devotes itself to the miserable and wretched). If power is the highest value, then a merciful love which empties itself appears to be a sign of weakness. If, however, love is acknowledged to be the supreme value, then, in light of this love, we can understand God’s mercy as being the utmost revelation of his omnipotence, as it is expressed in the Collect of the tenth Sunday after Pentecost: “Deus, qui omnipotentiam tuam parcendo maxime et miserando manifestas…” (O God, who dost manifest Thine almighty power mostly in sparing and showing mercy…”)

Through the mystery of Christmas, God thus shows himself to be a God who does not wish to subjugate and dominate man from the outside through his power, but rather to win his heart from within through his love. His glorification does not consist in spreading fear and terror, but rather in extending the tenderness and beauty of his love into the innermost core of our hearts. We do not kneel before him out of fear of his might, but rather out of thankfulness for his love. We make ourselves small, because he also became small for us. Love thus proves to be the only power which also reaches the heart. By God’s becoming small, his love became powerful.

“So plentiful are the lessons that shine forth from the grotto of Bethlehem! Oh how our hearts should be on fire with love for the one who with such tenderness was made flesh for our sakes! Let us ask this divine child to clothe us with humility, because only by means of this virtue can we taste the fulness of this mystery of divine tenderness”, writes St. Padre Pio. Here he draws our attention to another, philosophically relevant issue: It is only when we ourselves possess a loving heart that we are able to recognize the love of God and to comprehend the incarnation as a means of its revelation. A heart which is obsessed with power remains blind to this love and views the relinquishment of power only as folly and weakness. This means, expressed in more general terms: The understanding of a value is always preceded by a free act of acknowledgement, namely the acknowledgement of the value both in its claim and in its inner significance and worth, in this case particularly the acknowledgement of love as the supreme value.

Today a different ideal of knowledge is widespread, namely that of the exact sciences. Mathematics, logic and the natural sciences – to the extent that their methods are mathematically formed – offer findings which are capable of achieving a consensus, because they are based on laws of thinking. No one seriously discusses the question of whether three times three could actually perhaps be only 8.9. The further the results of the sciences are removed from these laws of thinking, the greater the room for alternative theories becomes and the more controversial they become. The knowledge of such results appears to be all the more certain, the more our freedom to embrace an alternative possibility of thought is removed.

In the realm of ethics it is precisely the other way around. No power in the world can deprive us of the freedom to choose to acknowledge love – or in more general terms, the moral good – as the supreme value. This acknowledgement is an act of free will. But it is only as a result of the free act that the morally good begins to shine and to open our eyes to its beauty, majesty and dignity. We are not forced through our knowledge to recognise the good, but rather it is only the recognition itself which opens up the way to a knowledge whose depth had not been hitherto possible. “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”, writes Blaise Pascal. This statement is true as long as we do not understand the heart to be something irrational but rather to be that part of our reason which puts us in touch with the world of moral values. And this contact can only lead to an inner understanding of values when we become conformed to its claim, when we open our hearts to its call. At a supernatural level we refer to this call as “grace”. In the measure in which we open ourselves to this grace, we reach that which St. Thomas Aquinas calls connaturality (knowledge through related natures): Only he who is himself good can perceive goodness; only the humble can grasp the value of humility; only he who loves can comprehend God’s love. And the knowledge of this love in turn increases our own love. This is the blessed spiral which leads us deeper and deeper into the mystery of God and which transforms us more and more according to the model of ideals revealed in the mystery of Christmas.

By means of this transformation we ourselves become such persons whose behavior can only be understood through love. This of course means that our behavior will be misjudged by those who do not believe in love, just as God’s action of the incarnation is misunderstood. Our knowledge of God and being misjudged go hand in hand. But the spiritual gain from this knowledge is so overabundant that even this being misunderstood appears to us as profitable, because through it we are made to resemble Christ and to share in his destiny. The more we immerse ourselves in that love which shines forth from the mystery of Christmas, the more firmly we can proclaim with St. Paul: “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil 3:8).


“Earthly things must be known to be loved; divine things must be loved to be known.”

Blaise Pascal


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