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…