What Is the Christian’s Moral Duty?

What seems a simple answer to the title question is confronted by a famous and sour observation by G. K. Chesterton.  “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and has been left untried.” Could it be possible that professed Christians are avoiding their moral responsibility (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’“)? That seems very doubtful until we consider Christianity as we would any other moral system without the sanctified adornments of tradition. Then a revision of Chesterton’s quote will reveal that Christians’ duty has been found wanting not because the faithful will not try it but because it cannot be found to be tried.

We know what its founders prescribed. We see in the Gospel of Matthew the Great Commandment that Jesus put at the very heart of Christian faith. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul and with all they mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.” So Christians are commanded by a double precept that seems very simple on its face. Further, it is reinforced by Jesus through parable, explicit instruction, and his living example, all of which stress the centrality of self-sacrifice in loving God and other. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus clearly surrendered his will to God the Father — “Not my will but Thine” — abandoning his desire to his duty, which he connected to the broader Christian charge through these words: “Greater love than this no man has that he lay down his life for his friends.” The duty thus imposed on Christians seems clear as day, and it clearly includes complete altruism, a duty to others that is a categorical command: “Love each other as I have loved you.” With such simple directives to guide them, how can Christians profess a faith while shunning its duties?

I wish to argue that they cannot understand the first duty commanded by the Great Commandment and that this failure to understand and thus to obey gives them the permission to fudge the second.

When adults try to do their duty, they begin by trying to comprehend its nature and scope. Only after grasping its essence and entailments can they commit to it as a duty they will fulfill. One limitation is the moral principle of “ought implies can.” It is futile to consider an option a moral duty if you cannot do what it requires. If you ask me to feed your cat, I might agree quickly until I discover it has run away and has not been seen in three weeks or requires the intervention of a veterinarian. For adults, meeting a duty must begin with knowing what it requires. For children, the process is different, for they are not allowed the rational agency to decide either if they ought to or how they might comply. Their capacity to oblige as well as their assent are assumed by the adult commanding the task, but that convenience is offset by the need to spell out the nature and scope of the duty for them, without which they lack not only the recourse to refuse but also the means to comply. Believers in the Bible are adults who assume a wide scope to interpret and commit to the moral duties they see there. They think they can understand the divine command and so they ought to oblige it. Their difficulty begins with configuring the scope and content of their moral duty. I will argue  that they cannot succeed unless they frame their duty in a way quite different from conventional interpretations. Congregants, defined as those who have surrendered their capacity to decide upon such things by a grant of trust to a religious authority in just the way children surrender to their parents’ wisdom, suffer from a different incapacity that is aggravated by contemporary mores. It involves less knowing the scope of their duty and more an inability to complete it.  I will use the term “believers” and “congregants” intentionally to distinguish those who consider themselves capable of discovering their Christian duty for themselves versus those who are asked to obey the interpretations of authority. In western societies, these broad distinctions characterize the Protestant and Roman Catholic positions respectively, at least in the ideal theology of both faiths.

We can see the problem sliced another way. The question of whether faith or works is the Christian’s duty dates to the letters of Paul and remains an intractable theological tangle. It remains significant not only because it constitutes a point of difference between Protestant and Catholics but also because it is echoed in the clearest distillation of Christian duty, the dual commands of the Great Commandment. For loving a God who is at best imperceptible and at worst seemingly absent requires “the evidence of things not seen.” Loving such a God must be the epitome of faith. And loving others as we love ourselves requires lots of hard work, to be sure. While faith and works do not align exactly with the two precepts of the Great Commandment, as will be shown, they do need to be kept in mind as theological positions with a long history of influencing Christians’ efforts to know and do their duty. It is more than a quibble to note that the faith/works argument nearly always hinges on reward and punishment, so the duties believers or congregants respond to are necessarily hypothetical rather than purely moral. The difference is significant and far easier for the believer to calculate than the congregant. The hypothetical imperative is always a calculation of utility. It is structured as an if/then sentence: if I wish to be saved, then I need to do such and such. But this approach is incompatible with either moral ends or the divine command believers seek in the Bible. Moral ends are not the means to other ends. They are final goals, not used to achieve something of a higher value. As ends in themselves, they are categorical rather than hypothetical. Taken as a whole, the Bible structures its divine commands as categorical duties, not hypothetical ones. The exemplars of Bible stories, Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus, do not get to choose their duties, nor or they incentivized by rewards. The commands that moved these paragons of faith to obedience are just the same as those that moved Jesus: they were purely categorical and therefore moral ends, ends in themselves. It must be noted that the ethical distinction between categorical morality and hypothetical utility is not honored consistently in Scripture, which layers threats and rewards as incentives to duties that it depicts in other framings as purely categorical (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts). So it comes as no surprise that those who believe in the Bible also smudge the distinction between hypothetical and categorical goals as they seek to discern their duty. My concern here only touches upon truly moral ends phrased as divine commands in the Bible unless I specifically identify them as hypothetically based since the power of divine commands lies in their categorical command to moral duty.

What all Christians agree on is that the Bible is the interface between the human and the divine and so whatever it commands, no matter how confusing, cannot be ignored. And in terms of Christian moral duty, the Great Commandment is said by Jesus to be the essence of the law. The first duty of believers must always be to understand these commands’ scope and nature.

The command to love God with one’s whole heart, mind, and strength seems straightforward enough. But before loving something we must know it, and we can be certain that we neither know God nor understand God’s sense of things. Christians will reject that claim, so allow me to anticipate the means by which they dispute it. These can be divided into three kinds of “knowledge”: reason, revelation, and authority.

Any attempt to know God by reason alone will surely be rebuffed. Analytic theology is incapable of grasping God’s nature, those qualities implicit in divinity. The mind simply bounces off of terms like infinity and eternity, omnipotence and omnipresence. Even thinking of God as a being sharing some categorical qualities with other beings is mistaken, for we can be sure that nothing else resembles the Godhead. This is taken as such a serious restriction in Orthodox Christianity that apophatic depictions attempt only to describe what God is not, rather than what God is. Western Christian sects see it differently and offer plenty of cataphatic, meaning positive, descriptions of God’s nature and will. The problem is that these descriptions are unclear, ambiguous, or contradictory because of our rational limitations both as tellers and believers. Consider, for example, God and timelessness. Is God eternal or outside of time altogether? A litany of mysteries present themselves as soon as we begin exploring the cataphatic descriptors in Scripture, these having to do with immanence, creation, perfection, omnipotence, transcendence, omniscience, and on and on. So how does one go about loving what she can have literally no conception of (see “Divine Justice”)?

Believers in the western traditions will likely respond that we can secure a true conception of God through a more oblique use of our reason. They argue that we can profit from figurative terms that capture some part of divine nature by analogy. This is Scripture’s workaround.  So God is like a father and Jesus is like a shepherd and the Holy Ghost is like a dove. But these suggested comparisons must prove not only incomplete but also impossible to comprehend. For figurative language to draw its comparison, the speaker must control both sides of the relationship, knowing how the two items are similar as expressed in the analogy but also how they differ, which is just as important to the truth of the effort. But this knowledge of both sides of the comparison is precisely what is lacking in Scriptural metaphor and what makes the use of the figurative language necessary in the first place. Believers will naturally cling to the part of the comparison they do understand. They cannot know how these comparisons illuminate what is divine. But they do know what a father, a shepherd, and a dove are, so they will most certainly constrict their vision to that part of the comparison they understand, even though it does nothing to illuminate what cannot be understood discursively. If I should tell you dark energy is like a water balloon, have you learned anything at all about dark energy unless you already understand what it is? Believers think the figurative language illustrative, but all it illustrates is what they already know. Figurative efforts to capture the divine are deeply misleading and not only blind us to the otherness of God but also to our incapacity to understand it (see “The Problem of Metaphor in Religion”). Their baneful effects go beyond questions of truth to those of goodness, for just as believers will shrug off their gauzy image of God communicated through metaphorical language, they will think themselves free to apply a similar laxity to the intent of the Great Commandment, particularly to its second command. And because Scripture provides both hypothetical and metaphorical reasons to commit, Christians often feel comfortable considering their own self-interest as they go about engaging what can only loosely be called their moral duties when engaged in this hypothetical manner.

Frustrated in realizing some positive knowledge of the divine, true believers will most likely zoom out to a more generalized conception based on what they see as the authority of Scripture that purports to be a revelation of God’s nature and will. But either their perspective must be a thirty thousand foot one, meaning composed of comforting bromides lacking useful moral guidance, or it must intentionally pick and choose what is congenial to the searcher, whether the prayerful believer or the obedient congregant. The nature of the God of the Bible varies by book and by testament and mandates conflicting duties, a view confirmed by the thousands of variants of the Christian faith and the most catastrophic proof of their incongruity: the Protestant Reformation (see “Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing”). The nature, motivations, and operation of the Biblical God are as transcendent to human understanding as the mystery of the Trinity, which after all forms the beating heart of the Christian faith. Loving God means reconciling the sum of all goodness with the problem of evil that confronts every moment of life. And since no unified response is provided by Scripture, exegesis must be imaginative indeed to paint a portrait from the pixelated depictions we get from a work that refuses to be taken discursively. The Bible draws pictures of a God of wrath or of love, of an omniscient God who changes His mind and expresses regrets, of a loving Father who also applies a strict justice to human weakness, of jealous vengeance and universal concern, a creator alternately as transcendent as the moment of creation and as immanent as a child’s prayer, a God older than time itself and yet born of a virgin two millennia ago. And Jesus is portrayed in similarly disjunctive terms: as a prophet of social justice and of Manichean withdrawal from the world, as a passive victim of history’s greatest wrong and the avenging spirit of the eschaton.  Only a highly selective process that ignores as much as it embraces, that blurs the ellipses between human and divine, can allow believers to think that Scripture hands them a neatly wrapped set of moral obligations. And they must discriminate to see any of it comprehensively, selecting from among the interpretations and imaginative constructions of two millennia of apologists. But if they have to use their own discrimination to judge, how can they think of Scripture as a coherent authority capable of claiming their trust, which must necessitate a surrender of their capacity to decide?

They will call their effort a surrender or submission to God’s will. They will see revelation as the interpretive voice of Scripture. What superior faculty can they provide as refutation of differing interpretations advanced with equal fervor and sourced in the same text with the same level of rational permissibility (see Knowledge, Trust and Belief”)? Where can Christians find the unambiguous means to love what they cannot know by some means they must construct for themselves? If they rely on the Bible for instruction, what will they sacrifice to please God and thus either earn or be freely granted his love? But he cannot be pleased (or moved to wrath, such expressions are somehow metaphorical), and He is not a him. What response is sufficient to satisfy their duties to love God wholly? Their thankfulness? Their obedience? To which commands? Believers will ignore all of these objections and warm their hopes by the heat of their desires, preferring “truths of the heart” that assemble a divine image from a collage of Biblical images, childhood nostalgia, and their own deep yearning, calling the composite the voice of God. Such desire is much to be admired as a spur to faith and much to be doubted as something more than a sensed immanence. Immanuel Kant offered two maxims of value on this issue. “The first is the principle of reasonable modesty in pronouncements regarding all that goes by the name of revelation.” The second derives from this principle. “…(T)rue religion is to consist not in the knowing or considering of what God does or has done for our salvation but what we must do to become worthy of it.” The comfort of God’s immanence cannot lull the believer into ignoring her moral duty, to which her efforts must always return her.

For if a true and discursive object of Christian love can be constructed from the poetry, parable, mystery, and authorial diversity of Scripture, it ought to be capable of being stated discursively as other moral systems do (see “Three Moral Systems”). Whatever product Christian believers set up to worship, it will differ according to their individual interests and desires, to the sense of God they derive from the combination of their experience and their understanding. In its monitory practices, this rational effort is the very opposite of trust. And in molding their duty to love the divinity they have constructed from their reason, experience, and hopes, what are the odds that they can abstain from completing their vision through their own desires? The divine is literally inconceivable, yet the hypothetical interests of believers are anything but. Such is the substance of things not seen and such is the temptation of things hoped for.

This variance helps explain the vast differences in the perceived duties of Christian believers as they attempt the good faith effort of knowing and loving God. Honesty will compel at least some of them to confess that the inner light that guides their understanding is of such a dim wattage that revelation is more constructed than discovered. And if they deny that and insist on either a literal or a figurative stab at certainty, they will still be faced with the wide variability of other witnesses to God’s intent, other believers in other sects, other fabrications of God’s nature and their duties. They will naturally dismiss disagreement of this sort, but the onus is on them to explain why their creative interpretation of what they think of as inerrant authority is more reliable than a differing inerrancy prompted by a different inner light. Believers simply cannot resolve this issue (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”).

Their difficulties in understanding are always magnified by the immensity of what they are trying to love: a Creator of all reality who inhabits every part of it yet also exists apart from it, whose presence can only be inferred as shadows to the sun. Given their difficulties in abstracting a conception of a Something outside of time, that suffuses all, yet somehow exists independently of it, that needs nothing from them and is unchanged by either their devotion or dismissal, just what is the Christian duty to this “first and greatest commandment”? What truths can guide them but “truths of the heart,” the whiff of awe that drifts from selected lines of sacred Scripture, an intimation so elusive that it cannot be conceptualized but can only be forced into language by the power of abject desire? And once it is elucidated, that shifting intuition must be loved for its amorphous Self above all others of Its creation. And once framed into thought, and idealized in worship, the Great Commandment forces a second conflict almost instantly. Even if believers knew what to love and how, how can they consistently love only that Divine Object with their whole being and still fulfill the second duty of the Great Commandment: to also love their neighbor?  Doesn’t that immediately challenge the language used to frame the duty to God? Are Christians to take this as more metaphorical fog or a real moral duty?

That discursive contradiction almost never arises because believers cannot know how to love God. But once they turn to the second duty in isolation from the first, believers face yet another enigma. The core difficulty of the first half of the Great Commandment is that we do not know what to do to obey it. The second half poses a different problem. We know what to do. But we cannot do it.

In seeking to obey the second command, we begin on firmer ground, for we know what loving another person involves. Even if we are not Christian, we know how to love our family and friends. That kind of love can be defined as a deep and sustained effort to enrich the life of its object. We cannot love God in this way, for God’s simplicity and perfection cannot be enriched. But we can love our neighbor. So when we seek to understand the Great Commandment, we find a necessary disjunction in the two orders to love, for we cannot love God as we love our fellow human beings. But that introduces yet another problem, for believers must also ask whether “love” used in the Christian sense of charity is somehow different from their ordinary conceptions of love for their intimates. What does “love your neighbor as yourself” mean? What does it require?

Because Christians are exhorted to love others as they love themselves, they can easily resolve the question about whether charity and ordinary conceptions of love are used univocally. It seems clear the Golden Rule is meant to command the same order and kind of love for neighbor, and it is generally understood to mean that one can derive what that looks like by comparing what one owes the neighbor to what one willingly gives oneself. But that rule only works if one actually knows how to love oneself so that one can love her neighbor in this same way. How could an egotist fulfill such a requirement? Leaving aside the manifold ways persons either overindulge or frustrate their own desires, how they want all kinds of things for themselves, one would have to question the Great Commandment’s duty to love oneself as inadequately defined without further guidance, particularly since believers are also charged as part of that duty to love others in that same unspecified way. I cannot simply interrogate my own moral system and then project it to others unless by doing so I can act without contradiction. So the commandment to love oneself anticipates the problem of how much care one ought give to oneself and others without resolving it.

By itself, this is not fatal, for Christians are given guidance by the example of Jesus. But Jesus did not love himself at all by even the most wholesome definitions of the term as we use it in the rest of our lives. Not only did he reject “the world,” but he also willingly gave up that most private of goods, his own will, in categorical obedience to his Father. And he explicitly ordered his followers to emulate that complete surrender.

His rejection of worldly pleasures includes what even the most devout Christians would consider true goods, ones they might be loath to forsake: marital love, a home, friendships among equals, modest material comforts, recreation, etc. Surely by the workings of the Golden Rule, I would have these goods delivered to myself and so value them to others. Yet in teaching Christians how to interpret the Great Commandment, Jesus exemplified a rejection of these goods. This is no small thing and it has moved Christianity ever since to seek to understand the proper relationship between the City of God and the City of Man, spiritual and earthly goods. The quest for the Christian’s duty in this pursuit has always proved contentious, not only because it seems difficult but even more because it seems unclear, as the manifold sects, religious orders, millennialist movements, and wars of religion illustrate. Does this world express God’s will or Satan’s? How much of its real goods should the Christian abjure in obeying the Great Commandment? It was left to the disciples, particularly Paul, and to later theologians to work out that puzzle so that Christians might understand their duty to others.

But if Jesus is the model, they will surely fail. Jesus’ ethic of total self-sacrifice went far beyond neglecting his own well-being, for he willingly gave up his own agency in obedience to God. Paul saw Jesus as the new Abraham, only Jesus had gone the founder of the Jewish people one better. Abraham had exhibited such perfect obedience to God that he was willing to sacrifice his own son. Jesus made clear he was willing to sacrifice something even more dear, and, unlike Abraham, Jesus had to go through with it. What is more, he made it quite clear that his obedience to God was reluctantly given, personifying the duty to the surrender of agency that is central to Christianity and at least putatively its core value despite all those appeals to hypotheticality and self-interest. But if Jesus is the model, surrender is only the beginning. Jesus did not only forego the goods of life. He also actively sought his own earthly unhappiness so that others might be saved. So if the Great Commandment obliges us to love ourselves as we love others, how can Jesus be seen as an exemplar? The implicit equity of the command is always contradicted by the duty to total self-sacrifice. Christianity commands believers’ duty to both love themselves and to take up their cross and deny themselves. If their yoke is easy and their burden light, then Jesus cannot be their model, for Christians rightly think his self-sacrifice an enormous one. Given these difficulties, Christians see this duty to take up their cross and follow Jesus less literally than might be expected. This seeming contradiction is frequently read so as to apply Christian ethics as the antidote to their valuing their own desires above others’. Surely the corrective to one error cannot be another. Can our duty be understood to deny ourselves in an imitation of Christ but in contradiction to the Great Commandment? Or is it to love ourselves in some unspecified way that includes limitless self-sacrifice? Christians are often condemned for choosing their desires over their duty. But perhaps their problem is a more basic one. Perhaps they are confused about what desires they should value and what duties to pursue.

The problem grows much more intractable when one turns from duties to self and toward duties to others. Again, the life of Jesus is the object lesson. The Parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear that Christians are obligated to consider strangers as “the dear neighbor.” The obligation to love all seems meant quite literally, to move Christians to love strangers as they love their own family, to treat all as family. The egotist who values self above all others cannot refrain from putting his loved one’s desires above his own at times. Christians in principle can never do that. Even as they must reject their own desires, they must value all others’ desires in denial of the instinct that moves them to prefer parents, children, or friends. Their clear duty is not only to sacrifice their own desires in deference to strangers but also their family’s, or at a minimum at least to value strangers to the same degree. “Love your brother” is only the beginning of the Christian’s duties, but she must not love her brother more than anyone else. When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor,” his answer was unequivocal. Add to this clear admonition Jesus’ own example of self-denial and we find a supposed duty of Christians to satisfy the desires of every living soul except themselves and to place the desires of strangers not only above their own but on the same level as those whom they most love. How can this be interpreted?

Let us first observe how quickly we seek interpretation for the simple reason that this duty is manifestly impossible. A few Christians have tried to live entirely for others, to seek out their desires and meet them at whatever cost to their own welfare.  Not many. It is not coincidental that the Christian ideal sees the unattached Christian giving all to all others. St. Paul’s blessing of marriage, “better to marry than to burn,” is hardly a ringing endorsement for matrimony, but the clergy abuse scandals of recent years may be. Still, Christians must always resist the instinctive tribalism that moves them to greater efforts on behalf of those they love, for their duty is said to be a universal rather than a tribal love. This seems the unvarnished intent of the second half of the Great Commandment. It is impossible for it to be obeyed if the Christian takes the first half seriously. It is equally impossible if she doesn’t.

It is little wonder then that Christians have spent so much effort attempting to interpret the duty to love others less broadly. Exegesis is a long trail of denial of Christ’s clear example.

It begins with Paul, the architect of the Christian faith, who teaches that “each one must give as he has decided in his heart, for God loves a cheerful giver.” But that might mean no giving at all in contradiction to Jesus’ example of total self-sacrifice, about which he seemed anything but cheerful. In his “Letter to the Romans,” Paul defines Christian love in more congenial terms. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Refraining from harm does not quite live up to Christ’s example, and in other writings, Paul seems to recognize a greater duty. “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” The “Acts of the Apostles” describes the success of Paul’s admonitions in terms few contemporary Christians would endorse.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had….and God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. From time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, bought the money from the sales and put it at the apostle’s fee, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

This radical communalism is rare in Christianity today and if described without its sanctimonious associations would differ in no real way from communism. Why do today’s Christians see their duty to neighbor in such pallid terms compared to the first converts? I can think of three factors that deeply moved the early Church but are no longer influential to today’s Christians.

First, one has to consider the kinds of communities Paul was addressing. The first generation of believers was figuring it out as they went along. They cut themselves off from the Hellenized culture around them, and they were considered a dangerous sect by the larger community. This separation strengthened their cultural bonds as Paul makes clear in his letters and put the group’s welfare into their own hands. That kind of community is still possible for isolated congregations of Christians and for the sects they spin off. But in countries where Christianity thrives, Christian cultures are far less encircled and hermetic today, and governments often provide the kind of public assistance that required a tithe from earlier believers.

A second factor radically increased the rejection of worldly goods in Christianity’s first century while driving believers even closer together. It seems clear that Paul took very seriously both the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic prophecies and Jesus’ explicit use of them to promise an imminent return. Early Christians fully expected Judgment Day to come in their own lifetimes with all the moral urgency that portended. Their renunciation of worldly goods and their intense communalism was a response to these eschatological prophecies that Paul, the first Christian theologian, seems to have fully endorsed. As the religion gained prominence and the generations passed without a Second Coming, the incentive for a radical altruism faded.

As no last judgment appeared, interpreters were forced to again reinterpret the second duty of the Great Commandment, and they produced an authoritative orthodoxy that succeeded in codifying the Christian’s duty that still carries sway. We can see the direction of that process in the writings of the two most famous theologians of pre-Reformation Christianity who were separated by nearly a thousand year span: Augustine and Aquinas. Augustine sought to paint the second half of the Great Commandment as far less demanding than Jesus had exemplified, and Aquinas attenuated it still further.

In “On the Doctrines of the Christian Religion,” Augustine denies the Manichean influence that views flesh and spirit as mortal enemies. To make this point, he also must make another: that self-interest is a legitimate concern for the Christian. He argues that the spirit ought to dominate worldly concerns in the interest of self-love that “only a fool would doubt.” So even a well-ordered degree of Christian temperance still seeks its own earthly goods, he says. Such “habits and affections of the soul” only mean that Christians are “taking care of their health.” He says, “For that man does love himself, and desire to do good to himself, nobody but a fool would doubt.” That contention might be a surprise to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Augustine defines the second half of the Great Commandment quite differently from Paul, at points limiting duty to others to “fellowship with us in the enjoyment of God.” Augustine says, “We ought to desire, however, that they should all join us in loving God, and all the assistance that we either give them or accept from them should tend to that end.” To draw our neighbor “toward the good which you are yourself pursuing” is the essence of Christian charity, Augustine claims. This can be summed up easily: “But the first thing to aim at is that we should be benevolent.” If this kind of passive good will is only one step up from doing no harm, it is also many steps below the efforts of the Good Samaritan and several flights below Jesus’ model of self-sacrifice. But in moderating the Christian’s duty to others, Augustine perpetuates the general moral inconsistency of Christianity on this point, for in other places, he asks for more. “He then who loves his neighbor endeavors all he can to procure him safety in body and in soul, making the health of the mind the standard in his treatment of the body.” This duty to the whole person is a more Christlike response than Augustine gives elsewhere, and, it must be noted, is stated as a universal duty. But just as he tempers Christ’s view of self-love, so too does Augustine limit the definition of “neighbor” in what is probably the most quoted summation of Christian duty to others: “But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.” In this sense, Augustine clearly wishes us to regard “neighbor” literally and in doing so, to narrow severely the beneficiaries of Christian activity while broadening its nature in tune with our ordinary thinking about love. To his credit, he sees the difficulty of activating the second half of the Great Commandment, and his final word on the subject rings through the centuries. “These things require more than mere good will (though he had in other places denied that) and can be done only by a high degree of thoughtfulness and prudence.” He concedes the topic to be “one, I think, of great difficulty.”

Thomas Aquinas evidently agreed with that assessment, for he limited Christian charity far beyond Augustine’s measure. First, he reasoned that “a man ought, out of charity, to love himself more than he loves any other person.” Therefore, “man…ought to love himself more than his neighbor.” Further, Aquinas argues for a specifically limited sort of love. “As regards beneficence (active assistance), we are bound to observe this inequality, because we cannot do good to all: but as regards benevolence (good will), love ought not to be thus unequal.” So again benevolence is claimed as the essence of Christian charity rather than the active duty to assist all who are in need. Aquinas limits beneficence to “those who are more nearly connected with us…. both because our love for them is more intense and because there are more reasons to love them.” If this sounds more like Aristotle than Jesus, it is because Aquinas, the greatest of Christian theologians, seems to regard Christian duty as little more than friendship, which Aristotle considered the deepest and most natural of loves. This hardly rises to a Christlike altruism. Aquinas seems to confirm this neutering of the Christian duty when he says, “Charity binds us, though not actually doing good to someone, to be prepared in mind to do good to anyone if we have time to spare.” It is fortunate that our burden is so light, for “we ought to be most beneficent toward those who are most closely connected with us.”  This certainly accords with all of our natural instincts. Like Augustine, Aquinas ends by thinking the subject a matter that “requires the judgment of a prudent man.” But is prudence an adjective one would use to characterize the life of Jesus?

Most Christians wish to see it prudentially and even hypothetically, disregarding the Gospel imperative in favor of a far lesser duty while paying lip service to a universal benevolence, a shallow good will, that differs not at all from secular society’s empty appeals to our concern for the downtrodden (see Empathy: A Moral Hazard”).  Unsurprisingly, we find nearly all Christians engaging in random acts of kindness when they feel the urge as they pursue their own desires and fulfill their own interests. Their own pursuits presumably are determined by some pragmatic or utilitarian ethic that honesty must admit is more directive of their concerns than the categorical duty of the Great Commandment they profess to obey. Perhaps this level of Christian duty manages to satisfy their generous impulses without too much inconvenience, but one may very easily leave out the word “Christian” in this sentence and thus invoke simple human decency. Nothing systematic or necessarily moral in this, for this sporadic charity seems more tied to one’s level of attention than one’s sense of duty, and the entire effort is moderated by hypothetical interests rather than a strict obedience to a divine command. Christianity seems an enormously difficult moral system, but its spectrum of duties from strict asceticism and monasticism to what Kierkegaard condemned as social comfort allows great latitude of behavior. Much of it is measured and rationed or subject to other prudential concerns. This kind of preference relies on judgments of utility, not morality, on the workings of belief, not surrender to divine will. Christians may think they are adhering to a demanding moral structure, but their ambiguous and wildly variable interpretations of the demands of the Great Commandment reduce most believers to a simple pragmatism whose hypothetical and self-interested goods must be made ambiguous to consciousness.

They respond to these objections in either of two ways.

The most common is a blasé refusal to engage the issue. The fog of proper Christian duty conveniently cloaks all manners and degrees of moral comportment. This is proved by any opinion survey of self-identified Christians, who fall across a spectrum of commitments seemingly independent of any sense of common duty. The genius of Christianity is that a believer anywhere on this spectrum may still consider herself devout while employing some other guiding principle of moral responsibility that might be entirely incompatible with the Great Commandment in both intention and consequence. Raw capitalism comes to mind, but a hyphenated Christianity may seek direction from almost any other moral schema under the sun to resolve the tension between duty and desire. So flaccid is Christian duty that tension between what might seem incompatible guiding principles may not rise to consciousness.

But even if a completely compatible ethic could give direction and force to Christian behavior and could eliminate its grosser ambiguities, those attempting some synthesis face an intractable divergence of guiding axiom (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Directing moral choice by some alternative system of justification challenges the divine authority that Christians claim to revere as a guarantor of certain truth and goodness because it must engage the reason and moral agency of the congregant who must decide (see The Fragility of Religious Authority). It substitutes a situational and hypothetical reasoning for a certain and categorical divine command. Whether that reasoning sanctions a hedonistic pragmatism or a utility of furthest ends is irrelevant to the appeal to react to circumstance, and this cannot be reconciled with the total surrender that trust in divine authority requires. The moral fog of a combination value system is thickened by the believer’s conviction that she has not violated the categorical demands of the Great Commandment but is actually exercising the blind trust in categorical authority that anchors Scriptural moral prescription. But a reliance on trust that gives weight to Scripture  evaporates as soon as the believer activates a hybrid morality that engages her own agency. Given modernist and postmodernist rejection of institutional authority, and especially trust in religious authority, it is more likely that contemporary Christianity both requires and denies the option for the believer to engage the hypothetical self-interest and temptations of the desire that marks religious belief (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?). This paradox for believers can only be resolved by acknowledging their own creative capacity and thereby surrendering claims of inerrancy to a fideist leap of faith.

This difficulty is obviously rooted in attempting to understand and obey either rule of the Great Commandment. Believers are faced with such extreme difficulties of interpretation and application that they could hardly fail to try to figure it out for themselves. The Protestant Reformation enshrined this universal priesthood of believers and also gave them a language by which to obscure the impossible theological task they were attempting.

It may be that God speaks through the Bible, but the language used and the moral prescriptions written therein cannot be translated into discursive directions believers can follow. So the wide variance in their translations and the Reformation wars that ensued seem proof enough that no one can be sure to have gotten the message correct. The reformers were quite certain they could detect the sign of God’s favor in a changed heart, a reformed will. But changed to what duty?  When even the theologians cannot discursively determine what that reformation produces, is it any wonder that “a changed heart” can move the full spectrum of human responses by the power of the desire that directs belief? And when Scripture itself is so ready to resort to the hypothetical calculus of reward or punishment to prompt commitment, can believers be blamed for making God’s will only the means to their own salvation rather than a moral end in itself?

We must now change our focus in light of the difficulties belief faces in obeying the Great Commandment and ask if congregants can succeed where believers cannot. It is possible to extend trust if believers are willing to do what trust demands: surrender their capacity to judge to a single unifying authority, trusting its pronouncements as superior to their own (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). Given the inability of the most devout believers to satisfy the Great Commandment, perhaps an enlightened authority can make whole what belief cannot help but to splinter. Again history answers that hope negatively, which is what one might expect after inspecting two thousand years of heresy, sectarianism, chiliastic excess, and schism. Despite its missteps, in one sense authority proved more capable of cutting the Gordian knot of Christian duty than personal revelation for a simple reason. It could stipulate discursively what must be embraced and what ignored. For Christians it has been done most consistently in the Roman Catholic faith that assumes the capacity to interpret both the nature and will of God for congregants who accept the infallible interpretations of their high clergy on matters of faith and doctrine. But when we recall that it was just this authority that Protestantism ultimately rejected, we must admit that this kind of authoritative interpretation has failed historically (see “Premodern Authority) and is unlikely to be resurrected (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return.”). What must be said even in the face of its contemporary disarray is that trust is nothing like belief. Trust surrenders rational agency to an authority it considers more capable. Belief requires agency to give form to its desires. Trust grows from past confirmations, belief from future hopes. Most importantly for those seeking spiritual consensus, trust may power public claims to godly truth and goodness. I can no more define Christians’ moral duties than I can discern the deepest desire of any believing Christian which will direct those duties. I can, however, summarize what authority has decided is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. It obligates congregants to accept its interpretation on matters of faith and morals.

The explicit position of Roman Catholic doctrine is that revealed supernatural knowledge completes natural reasoning, but it comes as no surprise that this option is available only to Catholic prelates. This is the position expressed in Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical of 1998.  “…(B)eyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity.” This is, of course, just what has been missing and what is needed to discern the Christian’s duty. The pope clarifies the relation of this knowledge to the more ordinary kind.

There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. With regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known.

Nothing in this claim resolves the issue for Catholics any more than a subjective interpretation of the Bible can resolve it for Protestants and for the same reason: revelation privately decides what to embrace and what to leave alone. But an important difference in the reception of revelation allows a surrender of agency to Catholics that is denied to Protestants, as John Paul makes clear. “A prime consideration is that divine Truth proposed to us in the Sacred Scriptures and rightly interpreted by the Church’s teaching enjoys an innate intelligibility.” The nub of it is that only papal authority can locate the “innate intelligibility” in the Great Commandment, so if Christians trust that authority, their moral duty will be made clear to them. Belief will yield to trust which will unify and direct Christian duties.  Besides allowing Catholic authority to claim a public trust that allows it to define morality and law, we may assume that the long effort to reconcile the truths of Christianity into a coherent moral system has be accomplished by this same authority and therefore it can finally make clear to trusting congregants the “divinely revealed” moral truths they must categorically obey. Let us see what that looks like.

In Deus Caritas Est (2005), Pope Benedict XVI gives his authoritative seal to one meaning of Christian charity. “(L)ove now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking into the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved. It becomes renunciation and is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.” What is the nature of this sacrificial duty? “Love is therefore the service that the Church carries out in order to attend constantly to man’s sufferings and his needs, including material needs.” Benedict further details the nature of these needs as follows: “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.” That et cetera opens a large field to Christian duty, not that what precedes it doesn’t.  Here at last is the clear articulation of Christian moral duty, one fully in alignment with the example of Jesus. Unfortunately, in the tradition of Catholicism’s greatest theologians, Benedict finds it necessary to lessen its scope. “So then, as we have an opportunity, let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Why draw the distinction between those in the Church and others? Perhaps for the same reason earlier theologians did: to spare Christians the crushing burden of trying to live in imitation of Christ. In his muddle of benevolence and beneficence for all persons and for Christians particularly, Benedict proves himself the heir to the tradition of Augustine and Paul, though perhaps less so to the example of Jesus.

Though muddled by equivocation, Roman Catholic authority seemingly has returned its members to the range of duties embraced by the earliest Christian communities, but without the incentive of external persecutions and an imminent Second Coming. It cannot be surprising that Roman Catholics reach for the same attenuations as Christianity’s greatest thinkers have. And this duty faces the obvious truth that we are living in a much bigger world, so that the obligation to “attend constantly to man’s sufferings and his needs” must in today’s world present itself with an oppressive constancy easily capable of denying Christians the capacity to love themselves, their intimates, and God as they attempt the social justice goals Catholicism has endorsed. How do today’s Roman Catholics respond to the call?

We know the answer. One strains to differentiate the inheritors of this duty from Protestants in moral terms, though some individuals and congregations from both traditions continue to perform impressive acts of service that respond to at least some of Pope Benedict’s call. But the Pharisee’s question must always ring out in a world where the sufferings of strangers is only a click away from our attention: who is our neighbor? How can we love all as we love ourselves and our family and how can do that and love God with our whole strength? How ought we to show our Christian love? What is the Christian’s duty? Think for a moment about the irony of having to pose that question after fifteen centuries of Christian institutional  dominance in the West.

But pose it we must. Even after thousands of pages and centuries of exegesis, we are left with five necessary questions central to Christian duty as expressed in the Great Commandment.

1.How do we love a God we cannot know?

2 If Jesus is not the model of Christian duty, who or what is?

3. If “Christian love” is the invariant Christian duty, is it different in kind or degree from our ordinary conceptions of love?

4.If Christianity alone cannot comprise a moral system, can it be hybridized with another system to produce one that remains true to some Christian ideal while remaining a system of moral ends?

5.If it can, what necessity of morality does Christianity add?

Let us attempt to answer each of these questions in turn.

The entire problem depends on how we answer the first question, for if we can figure out how to love God, we might know enough about God’s nature to respond to the complete divine command. Jesus called the first half of the Great Commandment “the first and greatest” of Christian duties, and given the richness of Christian apologetics, we might hope to troll through exegesis to find an answer.  Analytic theology does offer a working if controversial answer to the question of how we can love a God we cannot know, but it clearly does not involve doing as Christ did. It respects the mystery of the Trinity but is in some ways inconsistent with Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the answer is coherent, largely achievable, and even connects the two duties of the Great Commandment. Not coincidentally, it also completes our human nature. I cannot overemphasize how important this last feature is, for though we can only believe in our Christian duty, we can know, and even know publicly, what our human nature dictates and therefore can test our beliefs indirectly by their consistency with that knowledge (see “Can Religious Belief be Knowledge?“).

Our felt preferential freedom moves us to seek out whatever goods the world offers by whatever means we choose to define them (see “Our Freedom Fetish“). This freedom is entirely natural and universal. It is every person’s primary pursuit. Christianity gives us a very strong moral incentive to choose certain goods, though it phases on univocally defining those goods and their means of satisfaction. Though we are commanded categorically to seek the greatest of all goods, defined as love of God and other, we cannot do it, as has been shown. Recognizing that impossibility is a necessary act, at least if the Christian wishes to avoid surrendering Christian’s duty to the temptations of complacency and hypotheticality. We can be certain that the Great Commandment is a categorical duty, not a hypothetical one. But though it is categorical, it cannot be swallowed whole on a Biblical authority that refuses to define it discursively and also mixes it with purely self-interested and hypothetical incentives. Perhaps establishing this distinction explains Scripture’s strange and contradictory injunction to “hate the world” even though we are also told that God looked upon that world “and it was good.” Why hate what we are made for? The world is the stage for our hypothetical choosing of whatever goods we value, but Christ makes clear that whatever real goods we might chose are not the goods we ought to value. But if we cannot identify or procure the goods the Great Commandment does command us to seek, what is left but hypothetical choosing with all of its temptations to self-interest and utility, the kind of choosing we do endlessly in our ordinary preferences?

Epistemologically, what seems a contradiction may be merely an antinomy: a narrow path between opposites. It is significant that the same experience which reveals its existence also allows us to find the way out and through. If we believe our preferential freedom is a God-given gift even in the face of a deterministic creation, we may see our felt preferential freedom as synonymous with the human soul (see “The Determinism Problem“). Its very existence in a deterministic reality is a miracle, a pointer to divine intrusion into creation. Not only are we the only things in the universe that we know feels free to choose, but the very determinism that governs literally everything else allows us the intelligibility to make those choices with some hope of getting what we desire. And we seem made to desire only a narrow range of options, the things we call “good.” In all of our preferences, we tend toward our own version of the good as our natural freedom identifies it to preference. But for our spiritual duties, alone among the apparent goods we might desire, reason cannot see the good clearly. And despite our desperate yearnings, we are not given univocal guidance in that pursuit by authority or revelation. What else can we do but be thrown back upon other, lesser goods? We cannot know God in this world, but we can and must incessantly choose the best from among lesser goods. As we grow in competence at separating what is truly good from what we desire in the thousands of hypothetical preferences we exercise every day, we begin quite naturally to conceptualize a sense of categorical goodness. This begins in issues of simple utility as we improve choosing in ordinary experience (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“). We all begin in pragmatism, choosing casually and willfully as the moment and our immaturity dictate (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). This convenience is more than offset by its frustrations and stupidities as we persist in mistaking what we desire for what is truly desirable. We begin to see that some preferences are more preferable, though figuring out what they are and why they are more worthy of preference is a lifetime effort. We begin by finding these to be more useful or useful over a longer time frame (see “The Utility of Furthest Ends“). This is an improvement of means to our own ends. It is in essence only an improved utility, a difference of degree over the immediate utility of pragmatic choice. But in time we may begin to value some of these quite achievable goods as ends rather than means, bringing our own preferences into alignment with their pursuit, valuing them as goods for their own sake (see “Needs Anchor Morality”). At some indefinable point in that progression, our preference for these goods evolves from a hypothetical to a categorical pursuit of higher goods. That means in a nutshell that we value them as ends in themselves rather than as means to some further end we have chosen. They become moral ends, categorical rather than hypothetical. If integrity connotes a unified character, one of its aspects must be a growing love for goodness itself, a self-subsistent goal (see “Is Goodness Real?“). This admiration of goodness itself, goodness for its own sake, can only mature through the bitterness of experience, though I find some persons far more intuitive in recognizing it than others, so perhaps their process is made easier by their salutary instincts. None of this necessarily involves God, at least initially. Ultimately and necessarily, God enters our considerations as the Author of all true goods. We sense that being sated by mere goods of utility is stultifying and limiting, but the narrow path forward must progress through abstracting a categorical sense of goodness from created goods, all as signs of their Creator, from yearning for preferences that serve good ends to yearning for the Good that is the End of all yearning. Theology tells us that revelation and grace may assist this progress, but as helpful as these might be, their influence is always subject to temptations of hypotheticality, which may explain why Scripture warns us to guard against the temptations of the world and its goods. To my mind, the worst of the temptations of faith is that of premature closure, the mistaken clutch for finality in a progression toward a knowledge of God that an eternity could not satisfy and that this life must frustrate. So while the desire inherent in belief moves us always forward despite so many obstacles, it also tempts us always to believe what we desire rather than what is true, to claim the power that knowing God must confer and that Jesus so clearly represents. C.S. Lewis expresses this polarity problem well in The Four Loves. ““The humblest in us, in a state of Grace, can has some ‘knowledge-by-acquaintance (connaitre), some ‘tasting’ of love Himself, but man even at his highest sanctity and intelligence has no direct ‘knowledge about’ (savoir) the ultimate Being — only analogies.” I have discussed the temptations of those analogies above and elsewhere as the tug of premature closure and hypotheticality, so I wish to argue that only by recognizing and pursuing true goods in the world can we begin to conceptualize an essential love for goodness as a moral end. This may prove an entree to a God we can neither conceptualize nor love in essence in this life.

We can see in the life of Jesus an aspect of the issue that will prove productive, and it will continue to provide at least some guidance as we attempt to answer the other questions that turn upon our answer to this first and most important directive of the Great Commandment. Theologians have run the gamut, but what strikes me as a valuable clue is the grammatical structure of the Great Commandment itself, with its repetition of the duty to love in both obligations. It is likely that the question of how to love God is unanswerable without resorting to the second half of the Great Commandment. For it is only by linking our love for God with our love for other persons that we can even hope to sense the meaning of loving God. Augustine says, “We can think of no surer step toward the love of God than the love of man to man,” and “our love of neighbor is a sort of cradle of our love to God.” What is the connection? Augustine thinks the love of God and neighbor to be intimately related in a kind of spiraling ascent. “But there is a sense in which these rise together to fullness and perfection, for while the love of God is first in beginning, the love of neighbor is first in coming to perfection.” How can this ascent be understood? Augustine sees it as an ultimately moral attraction to the good. In this, he is joined by the other great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who is even more direct. “Now the aspect under which our neighbor to be loved is God, since what we ought to love in our neighbor is that he may be in God. Hence it is clear that it is specifically the same act whereby we love God, and whereby we love our neighbor.” In drawing the two parts of the Great Commandment into one effort, Aquinas shifts our attention from loving what we cannot know to loving what we know all too well. But in what way do we see God in our neighbor?

In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates asks this question: “Are the laws good because the gods command them, or do the gods command them because they are good?” It is a trick question. If laws are only good because the gods command them, then the gods could command their opposite and that would have to be defined as good. This resonates in the Book of Job wherein God says clearly that He has created — and presumably defined — both good and evil. Theologians tend to deny the clear discursive meaning of this claim because it denies God’s total goodness. They wish to ascribe some greater good to God’s declaration to Job, supposing that evil must mysteriously work to some hidden but deeper good. That view affirms the other possibility Socrates raises: that even the gods must be bound to some conceptual good (and therefore cannot be omnipotent). Thomas Aquinas counters either horn of the Euthyphro dilemma by seeing the Christian God as tautologically good: the terms “God” and “good” signify the same thing.

Now in itself the very order of things is such, that God is knowable and lovable for Himself, since He is essentially truth and goodness itself, whereby other things are known and loved: but with regard to us, since our knowledge is derived through the senses, those things are knowable first which are nearer our senses, and the last term of knowledge is that which is most remote from our senses.

Aquinas sees God as the source of all intelligible goodness and its unifying element, and in doing so gives us something to value that we can understand. Every true good is therefore a sign pointing toward the God who is “essentially truth and goodness itself,” who created it as an outpouring of creative love. Our duty is to discern and prefer these good things “nearer our senses” in our hypothetical choosing not only because they are good in themselves but because they are hints of godliness.  We gradually come to categorize the true goods we see around us. For Christians, this can only occur through the love of other persons, which are the created thing we encounter that is made most nearly in the image of God. Aquinas says, “For, since our neighbor is more visible to us, he is the first lovable object we meet with…. Hence it can be argued that if any man loves not his neighbor, neither does he love God, not because his neighbor is more lovable, but because he is the first thing to demand our love.” He most clearly connects the two duties of the Great Commandment in this same section of the Summa.

Since to love God is something greater than to know Him, especially in this state of life, it follows that the love of God presupposes knowledge of God. And because this knowledge does not rest in creatures, but through them tends to something else, love begins there, and thence goes on to other things by a circular movement so to speak; for knowledge begins from creatures, tends to God, and love begins with God as the last end, and passes on to creatures.

This “circular movement, so to speak” hints at a closed loop: God’s love suffuses creation, which, as it were, shines with the reflective light of God’s goodness. We are drawn to that light and are able to magnify it by our beneficence to other creatures in our hypothetical preferences. Their common quality is all we can know of God, “goodness itself.” This process ought not surprise us, for it comports with all our conceptual understanding. We learn what justice is not from a dictionary but from manifold illustrations in undistilled experience. Each of these is contextual and distinct and in a nominalist sense teaches us only of its own circumstance. Yet over time and seemingly without conscious attention, we begin to draw together the common elements of varied experiences. Only time and repetition allow us to build the categorical conception that we come to know as “justice.” This process reflects the essential nature of expertise and competence, for it relies on repeated exposures that accumulate to build a distinct categorical object of thought (see “Expertise”). It is an entirely natural and rational process that derives from hypothetical preferences. Can it be that this same process might allow us to construct some partial but categorical understanding of God as the accumulated true goods of experience? Is this the God we are told to love in the first half of the Great Commandment? I strain to make this connection because it so clearly closes Aquinas’ “circular motion,” but in the end I must I doubt it. The otherness of God is complete, and whatever aspect of God’s nature it is that goodness reflects must be only an infinitesimal bit of an infinite whole. If the hybrid nature of Jesus brings him closer to our understanding, the mystery of the Trinity cannot bring him close enough to make Jesus our model. What our conceptualization gives us is more yearning than knowledge. We want more goodness than earthly life can offer us, and the intensity of that desire is reflected both in the practices of mystics and our own experience of awe (see “Awe”). Even more commonly, yearning saturates all religious belief. That yearning is most productively nourished through activating the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And that brings us to the second and third questions. How can we do that? It must be clear that this “circular movement” is an act of reasoning on experience rather than knowledge by revelation or authority. So we must act as believers and not congregants in determining how faith must move us to acts, though we can glean some insights from those most intuitively capable of positive movement. Can we find an exemplar or model upon which to order our response? I doubt it. Christian theology’s beating heart is the doctrine of the Trinity, which is an absolute mystery closed to human inquiry, though reason can open us to its deep complexities (see “C.S. Lewis, Religious Knowledge, and Belief). It is only by eliding the absolute otherness of God and therefore the uniqueness of the nature of Christ that we can think him to be the exemplar of human moral duty. When Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he could only refer to the kind of love his disciples could comprehend, not the profound love that moved God to create and exnihilate all that will ever exist, a love marked by a constancy beyond human imagining and a depth beyond our understanding. If we can draw lessons from the depictions of Jesus we see in Scripture, they cannot be lessons we can emulate since the distance between Jesus’ love and our own must be as infinite as God’s presence. Is Jesus then an ideal to venerate, an apotheosis? If the Christian mystery of the Trinity is true, the answer must be “no.” When the Christian service asks us to imitate a person “like us in every way, excepting sin,” it is asking us to imitate something we can never know and do something no human ever can.  Jesus’ composite nature makes him the epitome of perfect love, not the exemplar for Christian duty. But having no working model of that duty also has implications for belief and authority. Authority can only operate through trust that surrenders active agency to a categorical command that congregants can follow with a minimal investment of hypothetical agency. But if Scripture contains sufficient diversity of moral instruction to require our active interpretation and gives us no model of Christian love that authority can use to guide our preferential freedom, then we are doubly incited to exercise our reason: first to investigate the many and often contradictory nodes of Biblical instruction and second to act creatively in actualizing some construct of our Christian duty. It is our reason that alone can conceptualize the goodness that our preferential freedom discovers in experience and it is our reason that must instruct our will, even to overrule our hypothetical self-obsessions  (see “The Tyranny of Rationality“). I

This brings us to the third question on the central Christian duty: what does it mean to practice Christian love? It cannot mean satisfying the Bible’s injunction to universal love for all strangers or the impossible task of an ethic of complete self-denial. The Great Commandment makes clear that the central Christian duty is to love, but if Jesus is not its exemplar, we must ask if we understand what duty charity entails, particularly given the many meanings theology assigns it. Is Christian love somehow different from the love we all know and show to family and friends? If so, what is the difference? It seems clear that no doctrinal authority can answer this question, for theology offers definitions of Christian love ranging from passive benevolence to “fellowship in Christ” to total beneficence indistinguishable from the deepest affection we feel for our intimates. If we seek clarity, we bump into the example of Jesus, which, if followed, must directly deny mere affection in favor of an active response anywhere there is need. This is the duty still demanded of Roman Catholics by papal authority. It is a nonsensical command and can only be bruited when no one expects it to be taken seriously. But when we seek guidance from Jesus’ behavior in the Gospels, we find that he did take it seriously. Christ’s love was self-sacrificial, to be sure. No quality of his character is more transparent than this one. But a duty to universal beneficence is one only a martyr could satisfy, and based on the lengths that apologists go to soften it, Christianity has very few of those, just as Chesterton observed. But upon further examination, a secondary quality emerges in Jesus’ encounters with other people. They are highly personalized. The Gospel stories are full of accounts of strangers appealing to his charity and of his healing love in response. These are not cardboard templates but real persons. They and their families are named. Their hometowns are noted. Their needs are the kind we all face: illness, paralysis, want, despair, and death. We are not capable of Christ’s kind of response because we cannot cure all ills by dint of miracles or respond to all needs with equal charity. Neither can we perform the overriding miracle of universal love. If we cannot love all persons, by the moral principle of “ought implies can,” we ought not to hold it up as an ideal that we feel free to obey ‘if we have time.”

I wish at this point to reject explicitly the typified response often provided by Christians at this point. It goes like this: “I cannot do all Christ did, but I can do something, so I am duty-bound to do what I can.” This is the starfish saver’s dilemma in the contemporary parable. He finds innumerable dying starfish thrown upon the beach by a storm. He begins throwing them back, only to be reprimanded by a fellow beachcomber who reminds him of his limits.  Because he cannot save them all, his efforts hardly matter, for dying starfish dot the beach as far as eye can see. The starfish savior responds as he throws a starfish into the surf, “It matters to this one.” This is meant to idealize the kind of gestures to charity that Christians perform. Perhaps his critic might have asked a follow-up question: “What about that one?” When our duty is open-ended enough to allow any effort to satisfy it, it can barely be called a duty at all. If Jesus is the model, the starfish saver will remain on that beach until his bones bleach along with all the starfish he cannot save. This likely explains Thomas Aquinas’s waffling qualification of the Christian’s duty to others, something undertaken if “he has the time.”

It would be hard to imagine a morality better set up for failure than an ethic of heroic self-sacrifice or one more flaccid than one that fully embraces all failures to live up to it. But if we ought not even attempt to sacrifice everything as Christ did, we still can successfully emulate another moral duty he also exemplified. Jesus was fully open to encounters with individuals. The Gospels take care to say that strangers who came into his presence could never again be anonymous. When he encountered them, Jesus responded directly and beneficently, responding not by his own moral compass but by others’ expressed needs. Scripture tells us they were changed by that personal encounter, filled with faith, moved to love of God. Jesus seems rarely to have performed generic miracles. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows a directed and personal beneficence, not a universal charity. Jesus expressed love in all its responsiveness to individuals he encountered. Persons of faith believe Jesus could snap his fingers and eliminate poverty, but instead he reminded his admirers that the poor as a class would always exist. When he met individual poor persons, he responded generously. I believe that we learn from the Gospels to do just as Augustine advises. We ought not proclaim some pious yet hollow benevolence toward strangers dependent on our attention or mood. That is a recipe for half-hearted conviction, for excuses dependent on our attention and mood. It sustains hypothetical self-interest and so cannot be a moral end. Instead, we ought to be embrace another demanding Christian duty:  to open ourselves to the categorical duty to transform strangers into friends, with all the implications for generosity of spirit that entails. By this I mean friendship in the classical sense, exactly in the sense we all know. Friends are the family we get to choose. The Christian duty, I believe, is to offer friendship to acquaintances and strangers. After all, the Gospel tells us that Jesus called his disciples his friends in his final days, and Paul professed the same friendship for the earliest Christian communities. The most salient quality of strangers is their interchangeability, their anonymity. What distinguishes those we love is their personalism. We know them and can only love them because we do. And because of what love requires, we cannot love everyone in that way. Why pretend to?  So I believe that Christian love is not different in kind from the love we all know and practice with our intimates. But just because it is the same kind of love we all know, it must be different in degree. Christian love imposes the duty to be open to friendship to those strangers and acquaintances who come into our presence.

But if this changes the Christian responsibility by closing us off to the vast needs of those strangers we do not directly encounter, to all those anonymous starfish all along that endless beach, then either Christianity denies any duty to strangers or its personalized duty must be combined with some moral system that delineates one. I propose functional natural law theory as the system (see “Functional Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”) that can best link to Christianity because it clearly draws the lines of our moral responsibility to strangers, completing our duties to the outer rings of the moral bullseye (see “The Moral Bullseye”). For those interchangeable strangers on the horizon of our anonymous encounters in cultures and states, functional natural law proposes not love but justice as the essential duty. And it considers that duty to be as pressing and specific as the duty of Christian love to those in our own orbit. But it is quite different. Our duty to justice is a correspondence judgment justifiable to public analysis and attainable by civil society while the Christian duty I have explained here is my private belief that is merely permissible to reason and so remains a private task appropriate to life’s private spheres, those of belief and of love (see “What Counts as Justification?”).

I leave it to practicing Christians to answer whether the duty to friendship increases or lessens the Christian moral responsibility. Frankly, the view of Christian duty I offer here is challenged by statements in the New Testament as well as specifically Christian versions of natural law that attempt to impose the impossible duty to universal love even of strangers as a kind of “civic friendship” (see “Natural and Political Rights). Either this view envisions a very small state or very small duties of friendship. Love of strangers is a non-sequitur, an empty injunction, despite some readings of the New Testament. But as I have shown here, any interpretation of Christian duty is subject to challenge by other passages in Scripture. Interpreting charity as friendship is a permissible belief whose plausibility is increased by its neat fit with the parallel duty to treat the aggregate of strangers with justice.

A closer examination reveals a connection between charity and justice that I believe is profound. In terms of their warrants as well as their objects and methods, the mandates of justice and love are entirely different. That being said, they seem also to be mutually supportive and even interwoven in some respects. Law is necessarily blind to love. And Christian duty implies mercy, not justice. These are disconnected spheres of human concern, yet both are necessary moral duties for all persons. The morality of justice is self-evident and is rooted in simple equity. It is an end in itself. Christ specifically endorsed it in the Sermon on the Mount as an end worthy of our desire. From a Christian perspective, justice is a holy thing, though foreign to the workings of love. But it is no more necessary. As contemporary cultures have discovered, justice cannot procure for citizens all social goods, particularly those that can only be met through subsidiarity, the love of our intimates. So subsidiarity, the special duty to love, is a moral end also and one justice must endorse, though one it cannot address. These two moral duties addressing different spheres of moral action each recognize the other’s necessity. Both seek true goods appropriate to their concerns and combined define the entirety of our duties to self, intimates, and strangers. But their value is not apparent to us when we first consider them. We begin by thinking of them as shopworn and empty generalities, meaningless bromides easily mocked in this postmodern era. Over time, experience provides us with instantiations of both that spur our curiosity as we begin to abstract their nature and reveal the harm their absence produces. Both gradually stimulate an unquenchable yearning, a desire for more of the qualities we are beginning to conceptualize, an understanding of their centrality to human happiness. I believe this quite common set of experiences reveals both the intent and the divine wisdom of the Great Commandment. For our deep yearning for charity and justice as worthy moral ends — meaning terminal goods sought for their own sake — paradoxically stimulates a yet deeper yearning for some good still higher. Can this be anything other than the “circular movement” by which we begin our eternal ascent to knowledge of the Highest Good?