From the sublime to the utterly terrifying

The King James translation of the 13th Chapter of the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians must rank among the most sublime pieces of literature in the English language. Even in those clunky modern translations, Paul’s words are so inspiring they are frequently read at weddings.

That said, members of the Corinthian Church, to whom the epistle is addressed, would doubtless be utterly flummoxed by the notion of reading the passage at nuptials. The love exalted in it has nothing to do with erotic arousal or the affection that binds husband and wife together.

St Paul is actually talking about a different love altogether. The Greeks had many words for love—maternal love, fraternal love, paternal love, and the like. And the Greek word Paul chose to use for the love he is describing is agape—an all-embracing love of mankind.

The First Century Corinthians would be equally surprised at the passage being suitable for any sort of celebration. This is because it is not a cheery message, but rather a stern admonition against one of Corinthians’ principle failings—a lack of love for their fellow men, Christian and non-Christian.

In the Great Bible—which was in use in the Anglican Church until the adoption of the King James Bible in 1660—the word agape is loosely translated with the word “love.” Inexcusably, a vast majority of modern translations also use “love.”

I say “inexcusably” because the painstaking translators of the King James Bible eliminated the confusion caused by the word “love” some 400 years ago. They translated agape by using the one English word that precisely reflects the meaning of sort of love Paul is commending—the word “charity.”

The nature of the love Paul is extoling is not the only reason Corinthian Christians would have deemed the 13th Chapter of the Epistle inappropriate for reading at weddings. The passage is a stern admonition against one of the Corinthians’ principle failings—a lack of love for their fellow men, Christian and non-Christian.

Many today fail to grasp this. Thus they treat the epistle as simply an eloquent meditation on the centrality of love to the Christian message and the importance of love in the human experience.

It is hard, moreover, not to revel in its sumptuous imagery: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal …”

But far from being a comfort, there’s good reason to contend that the 13th Chapter of the Epistle to the Corinthians is one of the most terrifying passages in the Bible.

Our inability to recognize the frightening nature of the message contained in 13th Chapter of the epistle is probably a consequence of failing to actually read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest what we read.

The tendency today is to skim rather than read carefully. All too frequently we treat Bible as casually as the back of a cornflakes packet at the breakfast table. But when we pause and ponder, the things we read can frequently take on quite a different meaning.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in I Corinthians 13. To be sure, Paul is talking about the importance of Christian love, charity, but his message is by no means an anodyne First Century version of the Beatles’ song “Love is all you need.”

Paul’s purpose in this passage of the epistle is to expound on the consequences of not loving one’s fellow men in a Christian manner.

Bereft of this quality of charitable love, all of our other Christian virtues are utterly worthless. It does not matter, for example, how hard we work to spread the Gospel, if we are not acting in a spirit of love for our fellow men, our endeavors are useless. It doesn’t matter how great we are as preachers, teachers, singers and church builders. If we do have love towards our fellowmen are talents are valueless.

In other words, if there is one virtue we need above all to cultivate, it is the ability to love our fellow men, no matter how unlovely they might seem to be.

This is not an option. It is an obligation. Nothing else we have to offer can make up for its lack. It is a thought that should rightly terrify us whenever we find ourselves griping about other people, even truly horrible ones.

The problem today is that, for some reason, many folk seem to assume that the sort of charity Paul is talking about is a quality that would come naturally if only we would allow it. It is an assumption exemplified by a caller on a radio talk show who ventured to suggest that all would be right with American society if only people would love each other a bit more.

It’s hard to quarrel with that. Clearly, if drug dealers loved addicts a bit more they wouldn’t enslave them with narcotics. If muggers loved their victims just a bit more they wouldn’t rob and maim and kill them. If rioters loved their neighbors a bit more they wouldn’t burn their homes and pillage their property. And so ad infinitum. There is, however, nothing profound about this thought. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that loving each other a bit more is the answer to almost all society’s ills—at least those that aren’t occasioned by accident or infirmity.

But identifying the problem is far from being a solution. If that’s all there is to it, the Flower Children would have solved things back in the 1960s. Trouble is that despite the obvious truth that society would be very much better off if people loved each other more, the sad truth is that there not the slightest sign of an increase in charity towards one another. Indeed, these days it seems that we love each other an awful lot less.

Nor should we find this entirely surprising. There is nothing very natural about people loving other people in a generic sense—beyond our immediate relatives and, perhaps, the folks in our own social circle. As for the wider world, most of the people in it are definitely suspect.

So where does this notion that we should all love one another come from? The answer is that Jesus commanded his followers to love their fellow men as much as they love themselves.

But the fact that Jesus needed to command his followers to love their neighbors as they love themselves is a sure indication that loving people outside our immediate circle of family and friends does not come naturally or easily.

If it came naturally he wouldn’t have bothered to mention it. If it came easily, he wouldn’t have made such a big deal about it.

This states the nature of the problem as far as Christians are concerned, but the talk show caller was not a Christian. Indeed, she spoke disparagingly of Christians as she was making her point.

It is something of a paradox that so many non-Christians subscribe to the idea that it is natural for people to love one another. How could they possibly have gotten such a bizarre idea? After all, there is nothing, for example, in evolutionary theory to lead them to believe it to be so.

It certainly runs contrary to the course of human history and in particular the history of 20th century. Nor does the concept of altruistic love as a natural phenomenon square with a general rejection of moral absolutes or the adoption of “situation ethics.”

The notion that there are no moral absolutes and that ethics change according to the situation is actually a powerful rationale for treating some people less fairly than others. Actually, such thinking engenders feelings quite the opposite of charity in that it permits us to put our own interests far above those of others. How can it be, then, that so many non-Christians subscribe to the idea that it is natural for people to love one another when, in fact, such a concept runs counter to all they believe?

The answer, I guess, is that a vast majority of Americans once subscribed to the idea that the Judeo-Christian ethic of “do as you would be done by” was the right principle to live by. Judged, among other things, by the behavior of our leaders in Washington and the various state capitals, this is clearly less and less the situation. But, then, with Christianity driven further and further from the public square, nobody should be surprised that Jesus’ strictures about loving one’s neighbor are honored more in the breach than in observance.

Be that as it may, the character of our times does not absolve those of us who profess the Christian faith from the solemn obligation to show love towards our neighbors. Indeed, Paul points out in this terrifying passage that the consequences of failing to do so are baleful. GPH✠

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