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The Possibility of Disinterested Love

I’ve posted a few reflections on Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God in the last couple of weeks, and I alluded to some views of his which might find their way into a post at some time. Well that time is now. Rollins has some interesting ideas about how human beings are to love in response to God—ideas that I am having some difficulty going along with (I promise this will be my last post about this book, so maybe you can humour me for a while longer…).

After his discussion of truth-telling, Rollins begins to work out some of his ideas regarding the “prejudice of love” and how that love is to function in the life of faith. Briefly put, Rollins seems to aspire to a kind of radical detachment from self and others—to the point where we “let go of ourselves in such a manner that we become a dwelling-place in which God can reside and from which God can flow.” Ideally, according to Rollins, the perfect gift of love will be given with no desire for or expectation of a reward. He appeals to Derrida’s criteria for what would constitute a perfect gift—criteria which I found curious, to put it mildly:

  • 1) the receiver does not know he or she has been given a gift
  • 2) nothing is actually given
  • 3) the giver does not know he or she has given anything

Only if these three criteria are met can we be sure that the giver is totally free from self-interested motives (of course if these three criteria are met we may also wonder what, if anything, has even happened, or what the benefit of this state of blessed freedom from tainted motives is, but I digress…). Rollins links Derrida’s idea of a truly loving gift with Jesus’ notion of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is giving, and while he admits that these criteria may seem “impossible and ridiculous,” he goes on to affirm that this is the kind of love that Jesus wants his followers to exhibit:

For a love that is born from God is a love that gives with the same reflex as that which causes a bird to sing or the heart to beat… The love that arises from God is a love that loves anonymously, a love that acts without self-centred reflections, that gives without thought.

I am all for loving acts which are done without self-centred motives, but I just wonder if Rollins has perhaps gone a bit far here. Is love supposed to be a purely reflexive, unthinking response? Is it even possible or biblical for human beings to love with no regard for ourselves? It is difficult to make sense of the covenantal language of the Bible on Rollins’ view. In the Old Testament, God seems, on numerous occasions, to link obedience and faithfulness to the covenant with blessing. In the New Testament, perseverance in times of suffering, obedience, and faithfulness are all linked to winning a “prize” or obtaining some form of non-corruptible reward.

Throughout the Bible, human beings are exhorted to love as God does because this is what they were created to do, and because this is the way to life (certainly a human benefit, I would think). Peter’s response to Jesus, when the Twelve were asked if they wanted to desert him as many others had, seems to be one that would represent the sentiments of most followers of Jesus, and one that does not hide the fact that we follow our Lord because he has what we need: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Rollins’ views of detachment and disinterested love seem more reminiscent of some strains of Eastern philosophy or various forms of mysticism than of a commitment to the covenantal God of the Bible. I’m not sure that human beings even have the capacity to love or give in the manner that Rollins advocates. Even the attempt to attain this kind of disinterested love, or to surrender oneself sufficiently to God to allow it to flourish is motivated by something thought to be beneficial to human beings, whether it a desire to attain greater peace, live in a way that is more closely aligned with truth or some other thing.

And I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing. Our appetites and desires undoubtedly require constant reorientation and transformation, but at some level I think that we were created to want to participate in the sorts of things that bring goodness and benefit to others and ourselves. Our love for others was designed to be, I think, a joyful response of gratitude to a good God who makes good things not a reflexive response born out of individual detachment.

Okay, I’m done. I promise, no more about Rollins. I’m curious to hear what others think about this though… Is it possible for human beings to love in the way Rollins’ advocates here? Is it desirable? Is it biblical? Just wondering…

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think you make a valid point about the clear impossibility of ridding oursleves from self interest in the act of love. Derrida’s ‘perfect gift’ seems like no gift at all.
    I’m not sure if I could totally underscore your version of what love was meant to be though. At least not the way you’ve written it here. Although I do think I sense where you are headed…
    For me this questions starts with the main human flaw: selfishness. I think that selfishness prevents us from being able to love as we were intended to love – selflessly. I understand scripture to indicate that any benfit I should recieve from loving is residual and extemporaneous (msuch like what it seems rollins is advocating – although I admit I have not read as far as you have yet). If we attach some legitimacy to self interest as being a motivating or guiding idea behind our love. Can it actually be love?
    Where I think Rollin’s concepts fall short at least as you’ve described them is that if true love is completely unintentional as he would suggest (I THINK) it ceases to have any real power or merit. Who knows?
    Also are you sure you wanna keep the ‘joyful’ adverb in relation to what love is?

    February 25, 2007
  2. jc #

    two quotes:

    “Love is the expression of one’s values, the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person, the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another.”

    “To say ‘I love you’ one must know first how to say the ‘I.'”

    February 25, 2007
  3. I just had a rather stimulating conversation about the nature of love. I think this is a wonderfully complex question. Here are some of the questions floating around in my mind:
    should we redefine love? If love cannot actually exist outside of self interest what does that mean for us in our understanding of who we are?
    Is our base composition as humans inherently flawed or inherently good?
    Could this mean that truth is compromised by and dependant on self-interest? If it is possible to say that self interest is a reliable motivation and quality of the existance of love, who gets to set the parameters for what type of self interest is good and what kind is bad?
    This topic is really exciting to discuss thanks for drawing attention to it.

    February 26, 2007
  4. Dale,

    You asked “if we attach some legitimacy to self interest as being a motivating or guiding idea behind our love. Can it actually be love?”

    I don’t think that self-interest can be ruled out by definition as a motivating factor for how human beings exercise love – as if it just simply is illegitimate to factor in our own interests in how we love. We are called to love God and love our neighbour, but we are called to do so as we love ourselves. There seems to be an assumption that obedience to God in this respect will be of benefit to God, to others, and to ourselves.

    Having said that, I think you’re quite right to point out that self-interest can’t be the only or even the primary motivating factor. We remain fallen creatures who are prone to distort our God-given faculties, and turn them loose in ways that they were never intended.

    The balance between living and loving as God intended us to do and reflecting what it means to be made in God’s image on the one hand, and needing to discipline and restrain our sinful tendencies on the other will always be a difficult one to negotiate I suspect. I think you point this out well in your second comment – who gets to decide when self-interest moves from a good and proper reflection of what God intended to a malicious and harmful form of idolatry? Let me know when you figure that one out… I think at the very least I would want to say that self-interest is not an illegitimate or a legitimate motivation by default. As usual, things are never quite that easy…

    February 26, 2007
  5. jc,

    Interesting quotes – I’m assuming those are from Rand? Just a guess.

    I’m curious, are you comfortable with love always and only being a ‘reward’ that is earned? I know that I am grateful that there are those who love me even when the ‘moral qualities’ I have achieved in my “character and person” have not merited their love.

    February 26, 2007
  6. jc #

    i am comfortable with love being a result of another person seeing value in me. if someone told me that they loved me and at the same time said that they also saw no value in my character then i would be a little suspicious of one of those statements. wouldn’t you? if it was possible to be the recipient of love given by someone who did not find value in your moral character would that love be of value to you? i think disinterested love is a contradiction. i think the confusion[maybe some self loathing] comes in when one feels they are commanded to give a disinterested love because they can’t figure out how it is logically possible to do so.

    February 26, 2007
  7. I, too, would be suspicious if someone claimed to love me yet also claimed to see no value in my moral character (at least on a human level – with God it’s a different story). And I’m inclined to think that disinterested love is a contradiction as well…

    But the quote you cited said that love is “the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person.” This isn’t exactly the same thing as saying that we love or are loved because we see value in or are valued by others. Value can be attached to moral performance, but it doesn’t have to be. Value could be seen as an intrinsic human quality – i.e., I loved and saw value in my children long before they had the capacity to earn my love by virtue of their moral character. The same thing would hold true for those with limited mental capacities, or any other factor which limited their rational or moral capacities. I’m not sure I’d want to make such a close connection between moral performance or virtue and the giving or withholding of love.

    February 26, 2007
  8. jc #

    The quote doesn’t necessarily connect love to moral performance… it connects it to values. One would love their children assuming they planned on bringing them into the world. First they may love them because they value the life that they chose to create through their decision to have children. They may in the future love them as a result of an evaluation of the character their child posseses. If the child becomes a serial killer, rapist, holocaust denier, or drives an SUV they may not continue to love their child. The reason I put Rand’s quotes up there was to point out the connection between love and values. For something to be of value then there must be a valuer. I would agree with the Objective theory that one does this through an objective process but you seem to suggest that one can know that something has intrinsic value. How does one come to the knowledge that something has intrinsic value? Intuition? Revelation?

    In your opinion, how does exactly the statement “the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person.” contradict “love is a response to values.”

    Anyways all this is to say that I disagree with Rollins theory of God being a disinterested lover.

    February 27, 2007
  9. “The quote doesn’t necessarily connect love to moral performance… it connects it to values.”

    Okay, maybe I’m being nit-picky, but I really don’t see how the following quote does not connect love to moral performance:

    “Love is the expression of one’s values, the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person”

    At the very least, Rand seems to see a pretty close link between what is valued and moral performance. Would it be fair to say that the amount one valued another would increase in proportion to better moral performance?

    “In your opinion, how does exactly the statement “the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person.” contradict “love is a response to values.”

    I don’t think that these two statements contradict each other, and I don’t recall suggesting that they do. I said that they’re not the same thing. I think there is definitely overlap between the two; however, I think that “value” is a broad category that includes more than just moral performance. As I said, people can and do “value” others for a whole combination of reasons – many of which are not connected with moral performance or rational capacity. I took care of a mentally challenged man for six years – someone who would, according to Rand, not have much of a chance of “achieving” what you or I might characterize as “virtue” – and I would certainly say that I “valued” him.

    I’m with you – I don’t think that human beings have the capacity to love in a disinterested manner – but I also don’t think love is just a rigid transaction based on a calculus of value.

    February 27, 2007
  10. jc #

    No you did not suggest that the two statements contradicted each other. I had the idea from some of what you wrote that you did but it appears I misunderstood you. Of course the mentally challanged man has value. Human life is of the greatest value. I am not sure where you are getting the idea that this person may have little value from what I have said. It is perfectly rational to care for and value such person. Maybe you value human life and maybe you think that a person who is mentally challenged ought to be treated with dignity and care and you respond by taking care of this person. I don’t know your motivations but I think you probably acted on certain values you have held as opposed just acting arbitrarily without reason.

    You are right that quote is not saying exactly the same thing but I think the underlying concept is that Love implies a value and valuer. It might be a great reward to have someone love because of your moral character but I am not sure the statement puts a restriction that implies one can only love people with a highly developed moral code.

    In your last comment you said “I also don’t think love is just a rigid transaction based on a calculus of value.” What would you add to this concept to make it more reflect what your idea of love is?

    By the way have your read ‘Proper Confidence’ by Leslie Newbigin? And if so, would you recommend it? I am curious if I should go to the trouble to try and pick it up somewhere.

    February 27, 2007
  11. jc,

    I suppose my concept of love would be something like this: seeking the best for others, and doing whatever is possible to facilitate their flourishing as an act of obedience, and a recognition of the intrinsic value of human beings who were made in the image of, and endowed with value by God. I’m sure there’s things I’m leaving out there, but it’s a start…

    I have read Proper Confidence, and I would highly recommend it. It was one of the first books that gave me a really compelling vision of what an intellectually responsible and biblically faithful epistemology might look like. You’re welcome to borrow it anytime.

    February 27, 2007
  12. jc #

    Ryan,
    I would actually like to borrow it from you if you don’t mind. I had a recent discussion with a guy I went to university with who recommended it to me after telling me that he wondered if “some of my epistemic standards were suspect in some way.”

    Do you think your definition of love would be more consistent if you left out the word intrinsic? If intrinsic “describes a characteristic or property of some thing or action which is essential and specific to that thing or action, and which is wholly independent of any other object, action or consequence[taken from the wikipedia]” Can it be that humans have independant value at the same time have value that is endowed by God?

    February 27, 2007
  13. I’m actually quite comfortable with the word “intrinsic” in there. I think that the reason human beings have independent value is because it is endowed by God. As far as I know, “intrinsic” doesn’t mean “arising out of one’s own means” or something like that. All I meant by the term was the idea of a property/value belonging to something simply by virtue of its existence.

    Re: the book. You can come by whenever you want if you would like it. It’s a pretty short book – only about 100 pages – so you can see how it impacts the status of your epistemic standards in relatively short order…

    February 28, 2007
  14. J #

    jc,

    I’ll vouch for “Proper Confidence” too. Assuming Newbigin grabs you, I’d also recommend his book, “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.”

    March 2, 2007

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