Loving and Hating Life
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
April 2, 2006
Scriptures: Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it for eternal life” –John 12:25
It is startling to be told that we should hate life in this world. There is so much that is wonderful about it; love and beauty, fun and laughter, grace and gratitude, and much else. The fact that we cling to life so tenaciously, that loss of it is the ultimate loss, is a small indication of the huge significance our life has for us, and an index of the potential absurdity of being told to hate it. “Potential absurdity,” I say, because our saying for today is a paradox, and needs careful interpretation, if it is not to become an actual absurdity. So let me try to straighten out the curves of the paradox.
The key to understanding the saying is the qualification “in this world.” The life to be hated is life “in this world,” and the life to be desired is “eternal life.” Thus there are two kinds of life being compared, the one to be hated and the other desired, the one opposed to the other, as anti-matter and matter, canceling each other out. John is fond of these stark contrasts, which he sums up in the metaphor of light and darkness. Eternal life is light and life in this world is darkness.
Our Christian tradition of interpretation has understood the contrast in at least two ways, the ascetical and the evangelical, epitomized by St Anthony at one end of the spectrum and Martin Luther at the other. St Anthony is the traditional originator of the piety of the so-called “desert fathers.” The legend is that he heard the reading of the passage where Jesus says to the rich young man, “One thing you lack; Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me (Mark 10:21).” The rich young man in the narrative did not take Jesus’ advice, but St Anthony, another rich young man, did, and thus in the blazing deserts of Lower Egypt the piety of self-renunciation was born. In the late third century Anthony went out into the desert to live in caves and fight a solitary battle against temptation by the demons of “the world the flesh, and the devil.”
For this piety, the body, by its appetites, is the enemy of the soul, and any indulgence of bodily appetites jeopardizes the soul’s eternal life. Thus the contrast between light and darkness lodges at the center of the human person, dividing us down the middle and setting up a constant inner tension. When this inner division is dramatized further by the visions of heaven and hell, the resulting tension becomes a terror and we fall into a state of abiding anxiety and gnawing guilt. Since sexuality is up there with hunger and thirst as one of the body’s pre-eminent appetites, and since the surrounding pagan world at the time of Christian origins was almost as sex-saturated as ours, this piety’s partly reactionary attack on the world made not just aberrant sexuality but sexuality as such, a prime target. The simple act of sexual intercourse is spiritually dangerous, and God prefers celibate males and virgin females. Marriage is acceptable for those who cannot renounce intercourse but even within marriage intercourse it for procreation alone and not for pleasure and mutuality. We Christians have been paying the psychic price of this ascetic morality for centuries, even in the non-ascetic dimensions of our traditions.
Nevertheless, we believe ascetics receive extraordinary spiritual powers, and we have venerated and consulted them for their inspired wisdom and, in many cases, their miracle-working capacity. This sentiment lies behind the Roman demand for celibate priests; the priest is awarded powers not available to the lay Christian, because he does not compromise the soul’s domination of the body by submitting its self-controlled tranquility to the shattering and shaking of an orgasm. I do not judge those who are called to a celibate, asexual life, but I do note how signally unsuccessful such piety seems to be currently, and how unwarranted any suggestion that sexless ness is a way of life superior to a fully sexual one is. Sexually active people can be spiritually wise and powerful.
The ascetic end of our Christian spectrum, therefore, takes our text literally and shows its hatred for life in this world by withdrawing from the world into monasteries and convents. There is much to be said for occasional withdrawal; just try the benefits of a “news fast,” and see how it refreshes your soul; but of course it is only a vacation; we must return to our responsibility for this world and our action in it. (Please do not construe anything I say from here on as a criticism of the ascetic life lived today by those we call “the religious.” This text and time is too short to make the necessary qualifications so I ask you to take them as read. For instance, devotion to prayer is clearly a good way to serve the world; much of the time all I can think to do is pray). As soon as we return to the world in which we non-ascetics live we must have a modus vivendi, and that is what Martin Luther gave us.
Luther was a religious who found no lasting satisfaction in the life of prayer and renunciation. He left the monastery to face the question. “How can I live as a Christian in this world?” His answer was a basic principle of what came to be known as The Reformation, namely, that since there is no avoiding sin when living in this world we must trust in Christ’s work on our behalf to cover our sin and so live, simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneously justified and a sinner”). We must live in this world, there is no other, and consequently we must sin, there is no escaping, so God must be the justifier of sinners, and His relationship with us always one of the undeserved love that we call grace.
This is the way I live as a Christian and I am profoundly grateful to Luther for this insight, which sets me free from the anxiety and guilt of renunciation and enables me to live with and in my body joyously. My bodily appetites might not be free of sin but they are free of condemnation, and so guilt is unnecessary. This is good news because it allows me to love the world, all its beauty and goodness and truth, without condemnation.
Does this mean that there is no wrong at all in loving the world? No it simply means that although we are inevitably involved in the sin that suffuses the world we are not lost, but by God’s grace can struggle for integrity right here in the midst of it all. There is no need to withdraw; do our best and God does the rest.
So there are two ways of being in the world for those who refuse ascetic withdrawal from the world, two ways to love our life in this world. There is still the demand to be skeptical about the world, which might be called “hating the world,” in the sense that there are things going on here that are hateful, people acting here who are shameful, examples of the wrong kind of love for the world. When I read about the dying of scores of adults and children going on daily in Iraq I hate the world, specifically the world that the lying ambition of George W Bush and his accomplices has constructed. The saddest example I can remember of a man loving his life in this world so much that he would abandon his soul for it, is Colin Powell giving his tragic speech to the UN on the certainty of WMDS in Iraq. As I watched him my heart went out to him; I had never seen a man in the very act of destroying his moral self, dismantling his life’s integrity, thoroughly and pathetically, for the sake of being included in a depraved cabal of cynical liars and culpable incompetents, plus one lunatic. Powell stands for the myriads that make Faustian bargains with the world every day, staking their immortal souls in a game of power and prestige. I look forward to asking Condi Rice what it is like bearing so many murders on her conscience.
These are they who love their life in this world so much that they give their souls in exchange; the Faustian move. They are examples of what it is like to love this world in a fatal way. This is what the Gospel means when it says that those who love their life in this world will lose it. Our examples have already lost the world; they do not even now live in the world as it is, but rather in the world their lies have constructed, and that is a hell of nothingness. I believe that when they try to give account of their lives even just to themselves they will, if they are lucky, find that the foggy world of mendacity has nothing solid for an honest person to stand on.
So there is this fatal way to love the world; and there is also a good way to love, one where we do our best under the cover of the divine grace, rather than wreak havoc under the cover of the big lie. It is to the latter that the evangelist issues the warning that those who love life here will lose it, and those who hate the kind of life that lies to live, will find life for eternity. At stake in this world is nothing less than life and death, and mendacious love for this mendaciously constructed world is fatal. On the contrary, love for the truth in the lies, the grace in the sin is eternal life, and in any case, the final word of the Gospel is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son (John 3:16).”
So there is a world to love! The world God loves is the whole world, sinful and spotless, Powell and Rice’s world as well as the real world, not because God loves sin, but because He loves sinners. On the Cross, God draws us all to Himself, showing us that the deadly effects of our sinful self-deception break in torture upon the breast of God himself. He is dying daily in Iraq trying to get through to Bush and Rice and Cheney. He loves the real world and for its sake suffers the agony of the unreal world, he loves all people and for their sake reveals on the Cross the torture that the denizens of the unreal world of liars inflicts upon them.