There’s this difficulty I—and apparently a lot of other secular folks—have with the New Testament’s “Greatest Commandment.” Three times—once each in Matthew, Mark, and Luke—we’re told that living a good life comes down to two things: loving your neighbor as you love yourself, and loving God above all else.
There’s no problem with that first bit. There’s something beautiful about it. When I first read it—not in the Bible, but in Augustine—it felt like he’d leapt from 5th century Algeria to my apartment. He wasn’t writing to console Christians as their empire fell; he was teaching me how to live. I had the same feeling years later, with Winthrop this time. No longer some obstinate theocrat in a long-ago Massachusetts, now he was a modern humanist, writing beautifully about equality and the brotherhood of man.
There’s something radical about the notion that we should love our neighbors like ourselves; something so radical it was still getting liberation theologists killed in the 1970s; something so radical it’s still getting people killed now.
But why the junk about having to love God above all else? Why would God care?
The most obvious answer is also the worst: that God is a “jealous God,” as in Exodus; that the being who created life, the universe, and everything is also so full of petty juvenile envy that he (he?) makes worshiping him the highest law of morality.
I know God’s not supposed to always make sense to people, but no God that ridiculous would be worth worshipping in the first place, whatever ineffable reasons there might be for it.
But if not for petty jealousy, what?
The best answer I’ve read is that to love God is to love the morality that comes from God—that is, above all, to love the commandment to love your neighbor.
Making sense of this requires a brief detour into some philosophical jargon. Loving your neighbor involves a particular sort of first-order relationship—a relationship directly between you and the neighbor. But we don’t just have direct relationships of this sort. We also have second-order relationships to the direct, first-order relationships we have with the world: you have a certain relationship with the neighbor, and you also relate to that relationship in a particular way. You feel x about the neighbor, and also feel y about feeling x.
The point’s perhaps most easily made with more everyday examples. So, for instance, in a first-order sense, I don’t like tomatoes. Whenever I try to eat one, I have an almost automatically negative response. But, at the same time, I have a deep countervailing second-order desire: I wish that I could like tomatoes. I see people enjoying them, standing in a field of vines with a salt-shaker, eating them straight from the vine, and I desperately wish that could be me. So, while I have a first-order distaste, I have a second-order desire to disavow my first-order distaste. I don’t like tomatoes, but I wish I did.
In other cases, our first- and second-order desires or preferences are better aligned. For example, I love Krista. It feels as easy and automatic to me as being disgusted by tomatoes. But it’s not just that I have this first-order relationship to her. I also love that I love her; I feel a second-order affection for my first-order affection. I take that first-order love to be an essential element of who I am, and an essential contributor to the value of my life. I love her, and affirm that love as my own, as an integral part of who I am.
On my favorite interpretation, loving God involves a similar sort of second-order affirmation. To love God on this view is to love our commitments to love the neighbor. It is to affirm the commitments as our own; not just as things we do because we have to, but as things that come from the inside. It is to love the neighbor, and to see that love as a crucial component of what makes our lives valuable.
Rocky Butte’s a squat prominence in eastern Portland, just south of the Columbia River. Its human history has been shaped by the older geology of its titular rock.
The most famous bit of that human history is probably a Catholic shrine to Mary in a shallow cave on the north side, formally “The National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother,” but ubiquitously “The Grotto.”
The story is that, in the late 19th century, Ambrose Mayer’s mother very nearly died in childbirth. As she lay ill with her new daughter, Mayer ran to his tiny parish church in eastern Canada to pray, promising that, if his mom and new sister lived, he’d dedicate his life to service.
They lived, and decades later, now in Portland, Mayer built a shrine to Mary, to the mother—one rather suspects, also to his mother—in honor of that schoolboy prayer.
Over the intervening century, the city has changed around the shrine: what had been farmland gradually grew; there was a prison next door, then a freeway; but the shrine’s stayed still through it all.
It’s raining there this morning, in that Portland spring way: it suns, then in rains, then it suns again.
The Grotto proper is closed for the pandemic, but someone has placed a few small food caches along the perimeter fence—cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and packets of ramen, instant oatmeal and half gallons of peanut butter, instant macaroni and cheese like we used to eat in college.
The woods between Rocky Bute and I205 are home to dozens of unhoused folks who’ve set up tents and makeshift communities on the dirt trail boulevards that curl off from the “official” route through the woods. And the residents are doing their grocery shopping at the caches, carefully laying tins of Hormel Chili beside slightly expired tortillas.
At the end of the road, I meet the people responsible for the caches: an awkward, quiet couple dressed in once-bright now-faded coats and patched, thrift store jeans. There are a few kids packed in the back seat of their rusty minivan.
I want to say something big, but I don’t know what, so I just ask: “Are you the ones who’ve been putting all this out?” I gesture insufficiently, then try to smile big enough to capture the enormity of the affection I have for what they’ve done. The woman looks down, and answers in a mousy voice ten years too young. “The shrine’s closed, but we wanted to pay our respects.” A long pause. “It’s our way of worshipping.” And she smiles broadly, they both do. I say “bless you,” sincerely hoping they don’t realize that their kindness is the only part of any of this I can believe in.
“It’s a blessing to be able to do it.”
Watching their ancient minivan lurch out over the potholes—city maintenance rarely makes it this far east or north—I think of Augustine and Winthrop, and of what a joy it can be to love the neighbor.
In the woods, the campers are feasting. A heartbreakingly young couple’s eating peanut butter mixed in with oatmeal, smiling and laughing like we do on leisurely mornings camped in the mountains. I think of breakfasts in the woods with my dad, oatmeal and canned pineapple.
Further up, a group of guys are eating instant mac and drinking malt liquor. They offer me some of each, and seem to relish the opportunity to be able to offer me some of each.
It starts to rain again, more intensely this time, and I scurry back home through the working-class neighborhoods that’ve grown up around Mayer’s shrine to Mary and mom.
On a street bordering the freeway, and young mom’s running with her son, racing. She’s clearly holding back, but they pass the chalk finish line at the end of the block together. The son celebrated. “We tied!” Mom corrects him: “We both won!”