Posted February 3, 2013
St Paul had a very particular understanding of love. Most importantly: love is not, for St Paul, primarily a human activity. It is God’s own love poured out in our hearts. Our love for one another is God himself loving in the core of our freedom. That is why St Paul calls love ‘the way par excellence’, the way that is infinitely superior to all spiritual gifts and all religious accomplishments.
More particularly, St Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is really a description of Jesus. It portrays the self-giving of Jesus in his sufferings and his death. It is Jesus who ‘never seeks his own interests’, ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and never fails’. This love brings with it something of the warm glow of Jesus’ resurrection, to be sure; but mostly it is overshadowed by his cross. And just in case we imagined that love was a substitute for morality, as nowadays it is often taken to be, St Paul hastens to tell us that ‘love rejoices in the truth’ and ‘takes no pleasure in injustice’. Love is as big, and as demanding, and as truthful and as holy as God himself. We can well understand St Augustine’s reflection on this passage, when he says: ‘Where love is present what can be lacking? But where love is absent, what can be of any avail?’
Now the question arises: Granted that the love of which St Paul speaks is the reverberation of the love of Christ in our hearts, then what about Auntie Eileen? Yes, what about Auntie Eileen? Auntie Eileen, I should explain, was nobody’s aunt, as far as I know. We just knew her as Auntie Eileen. Young as we were, Auntie Eileen seemed to us to be entirely selfless. Not a do-gooder, or a busy-body, but a really humble and loving person. At great cost to herself, she would give of her time and meagre resources to help people in need, for many, many years, until she died. Auntie Eileen was not a religious person. She was just selfless; she thought only of others, and never asked for anything in return. And that makes her a theological problem for those of us who believe that all genuine love comes from God in Christ
One could think of more dramatic instances of selfless love than Auntie Eileen. Like the Jew in the concentration camp who gave his last inch of bread-crust to a starving man, not a relative but a stranger; not a fellow-Jew but a gentile. Or – less dramatic but equally selfless – the non-Christian wife in a difficult marriage who for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years gave everything without a thought of recognition or reward, which is just as well, for none was ever forthcoming. Can a person do that without Christ? And how does it all square with what I have said about genuine love being the love of God poured out in our hearts through Christ and the Holy Spirit? Does God pour out his love in the heart of an atheist?
You could say (and many Christians do say) that such love is not possible in a non-Christian; or that, if there is something that looks like it, it is not actually the kind of love that counts for salvation. It is not a genuinely selfless love. It is somehow counterfeit. Or you could say, instead, that there is genuine, selfless, redeeming love outside the visible boundaries of Christianity – that Christ does not confine his activity to people who profess faith in him; that he operates even outside the sacraments. Now I think you will need to say something like that if, on the one hand, you believe that Christ is sole and universal saviour and if, on the other hand, you refuse to believe that the vast majority of people are excluded from salvation.
The Second Vatican Council puts it like this:
Since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every person the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.
Some Christians have strongly objected to this idea of ‘anonymous Christians’ on the grounds that it is condescending. One distinguished Catholic theologian wrote: ‘It would be impossible to find anywhere in the world a sincere Jew, Moslem or atheist, who would not regard the assertion that he is an “anonymous Christian” as presumptuous.’ One sees the point. On the other hand, it depends on how tactlessly evangelical you want to be. Nobody is asking such people to deny their faith, or their lack of it, or to take pleasure in the suggestion that they are ‘anonymous Christians’. Every one should be free to see things according to their own light. But my light is Christ, and why should anyone deny me the freedom to see everything in that light? As long as I don’t compel someone to wear my spectacles, why should they object to my wearing them myself? I can’t see without them.
We Christians must recognize selfless, sacrificial love, wherever it occurs, and stand in awe of it, thank God for it, for it is Christ at work in humanity, in ways unknown to us. To acknowledge the presence of Christ in people who are not Christians will make us humble. Hopefully it will make us self-critical. Perhaps it will shame us. Perhaps it will make us understand what St Augustine meant when he remarked: ‘How many sheep there are outside! And how many wolves within!’ Perhaps it will help us to keep, or to regain, a sense of proportion about the various aspects of our own religious practice, and save us from self-deception. It will remind us about the essence of our own religion. And last but not least, it will help to make of our religion a unifying force in a world where religion only divides, when it is without love.
Fr Tom Deidun