Tuesday, December 30, 2008

When Did Self-Love Manage to Become the Same Thing as Love?

by Carsten Johnsen

I must here mention a phenomenon which I notice popping up in otherwise quite conservative Christian literature.[1] A given word may for ages have had a negative sense. And then suddenly it begins to mean something definitely positive. Is that a good sign?

There seems to be, in this age of skepticism and confusion, the strange idea that what is straight can, all by itself, suddenly turn crooked, and that the reason for this crookedness is already inherent in the original thing’s deepest nature.

The Bible seems to have a different idea. The Psalmist says that God has made all things straight. It is man, the creature, who takes many a crooked turn.

In our particular case, we may ask: Is God Himself unable to keep Agape and Eros apart? Expressed differently: Is love bound to intermingle with self-love? Can it even turn into self-love, and vice versa? This question is not an entirely irrelevant one at the present time. For some of our theologians have evidently drunk so deeply from the cisterns of wisdom of contemporary humanist psychology that they keep echoing a strange phrase, torn loose from all sensible contexts:

“In order to love others, man must first learn to love himself.” And Christian heralds of this idea even produce Bible texts in support of their statement: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Accordingly, it is entirely legitimate and good to love oneself. Yes, but the legitimacy and the goodness of this proposition depend entirely on one condition: You must have your context straight. You must have that context clear in your own mind, and you must make it thoroughly clear to those other ones whom you are exposing to a deadly danger if you simply say: “It is legitimate and good to love oneself,” without providing any desperately needed modification to go along with your sweeping statement. What your interlocutor gathers from your word of wisdom may be a useful truth that enhances life. It may also be a fatal falsehood that destroys his life.

The common trend of our humanistic environment is to leave those phrases dangling in the air like that, without any modifying addition whatsoever. Nothing could be more catastrophic to the clear distinction between Agape and Eros. Man’s most urgent need, however, is to know exactly in what sense, or under what circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate and perfectly beneficial to “love oneself.”

Most propounders of that fascinating idea seem to assume—probably because their humanist-inspired authority in the field of religious psychology has foolishly suggested it to them—that there is something, somewhere, in the deepest recesses of yourself that is still good, some basic fund on which you can draw for a gradual development toward the better. This “intuition” is the most satanic delusion that has ever haunted mankind. The Bible is radically opposed to humanist philosophy on that particular point. Did you ever hear some person state about a fellow man: “After all, he is good at the bottom.” That is probably a most well-meaning phrase on his part. But, on the devil’s part, it is the most insidious lie ever invented. Up to a certain point, Nygren[2] is perfectly right: Man, in himself, is absolutely valueless, or even a thousand times worse. He is through and through depraved, a real precipice of depravity, as Luther said. So, on that score there certainly is no intelligent reason for you and me to love ourselves, or to have such a profound respect for ourselves, as the humanist phrase goes.

No, no! Every time we are tempted to think along those lines, we must shake ourselves awake, realizing that there is something here which we have tragically failed to point out in the core of our thought and expression. To omit it is to forget it, and to suffer others to remain ignorant about it may be to the loss of their souls.

For nothing in the world must we make the terrible mistake of loving ourselves, what we have in ourselves apart from our God. It is in Him exclusively we have our values, every single one of them. The only intelligent reason according to which we are entitled to “love ourselves,” or “respect ourselves,” is the historic fact that the Lord has created us. That is a tremendous merit. But notice: it is not our merit; it is entirely Christ’s.

The conclusion—if you are intelligent enough to draw it—is a sobering one: Any Christian is—in himself—exactly as bad as the non-Christian. And the non-Christian is exactly as good as the Christian. By virtue of what fact? By virtue of the fact that he was created by Christ, exactly the same way the Christian was. It is the Spirit of God who is in the process of creating good things in both of them all the time.

By foolish men, this too is misunderstood as “inherent merit” on man’s part. That is another case of self-deception, sheer illusion. A cruel type of disillusion is bound to happen to that human being on the day Jesus has predicted, when the Holy Ghost is to be gradually withdrawn from the last (lost) generation. Then it will be discovered—by humanists and by any person who still possesses an ever so little bit of simple sense observation—what man really is, in himself. All “natural” goodness is gone, including motherliness, fatherliness, and brotherliness: “The brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death” (Mark 13:12).

It will then finally have to be admitted what that “basic human goodness” of previous ages really consisted in. It was, all the time, nothing but the miracle of God, a process of active creation on the part of His Holy Spirit, going out to the entire world with healing under His wings.

Do you see how prone we are to draw the false conclusions, conclusions of the humanist kind? Why? Because we are humanists; for no other reason. We have left out of our account the simple fact of a creating God. There seems to be some understandable reason, then, behind the fact that we are reminded in God’s Holy Word, not just once or twice, but an endless number of times, that He is the Creator; we are the created ones.

[1] This article is a chapter from the book, Agape and Eros (Yucaipa, Calif.: US Business Specialties, 1982), 106-110.

[2] Anders Nygren was a Swedish theologian who wrote the two-volume work Eros and Agape. This work was the prevailing treatise on the Christian understanding of Agape and Eros love, which is still a definitive source today among many theologians, pastors, and laypeople. Johnsen’s book was a rebuttal to many of Nygren’s claims.

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