Monday, May 11, 2020

Tainted Love?

This is not a post about the early 1980s cover song by the English synth-pop group Soft Cell. Rather, it is about something I heard in a sermon on Mother’s Day which advanced the claim that the love of an earthly mother is great, but such love is tainted. Tainted by sin. The only untainted love is from God.

Is this right?

And if so, what exactly is supposed to be the insight? Can it be anything other than to remind the listener that they are only, at best, perpetually “snow-covered dunghills” (to borrow an analogy from Luther that has permeated post-16th-century Christian thought)? Another mere platitude? Can it be anything other than a pious affirmation from the pulpit that everything a human person does is spoiled and tainted by sin? Because we are born in sin, want to wallow in sin, and never escape sin until death frees us from the shackles of our rotten flesh. Because we are on the wrong side of glory, nothing we do is without some flaw or ulterior selfish motive. Or so the thought process goes.

This cannot be right.

First, we must ask how it is that a term like love can be understood to entail privation, lack, or defect. Love is best and most coherently understood as "willing the good of the other." It is sometimes helpfully expanded to "willing the good of the other, for the sake of the other." And good is typically understood as that which is intrinsically good for the other as such, which entails both temporal and eternal goods. In other words, that which is genuinely perfective of the other person as a body/soul unity. When we read the oft-quoted “love” chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, we see that love is patient, kind, not boastful, etc. All these actions are directed toward the good of the other and show the giving away of the self for the other. 

Thus, if we accept the Christian traditional and biblical definition of love, and there are many good reasons to do so, then love cannot be tainted. It cannot be tainted because a tainted love is not loving at all. It would fail to meet the criteria (it would not be willing the good of the other, selfless, kind, and so on.). So, we must either acknowledge that a mother can love, or she cannot love. If sin taints love, then the act is not love. Sin-tainted actions toward another are something else other than love. They might resemble love in many ways but will not be love.

Christians believe that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16); it is His essence. We believe that divine love can be participated in. To a finite degree, just like existence itself, rational creatures participate in the love that is God. Therefore, we should think of love in terms of degree rather than kind. When we love, if it is indeed love, we dip our toe into the infinite pool of the divine. Or we can dive in. We can swim forever. It is still the incomprehensible bliss of God in which we participate. Nothing about this pool can be tainted. The water is pure and warm.

In much of the Christian tradition, love is conceived as a divine gift. If this is in any way true, then it becomes even more improper to think it is tainted. It is a gift from the giver who has no limit or imperfection. The perfect giver cannot give what He does not have, and He does not have imperfection. What is more, we can pour out love to others without limit because love (God) is the infinite wellspring of goodness.  

When an earthly mother loves, she most definitely loves without blemish. She may not love all the time. There are times, perhaps many, when she is imperfect. But her selflessness, kindness, patience, and all she does for her children (or grandchildren, adopted children, foster children, sponsor children…) in love are glimmers of the divine light, splashes from the pool of blessedness. Sometimes the splash is larger, but the water is the same. The act of love, if it is love, is not something that admits of flaw. It may be a kernel, but it is there nonetheless. It will be lesser in magnitude than Love itself, but there is at least an analog, lest our understanding of love evaporates into the aether of equivocation and nothingness. We can love in a finite, participated way. Yet we love all the same, and with no reason to think acts of love are less because we are less than we will, in totality, one day be.