The first letter of John in the New Testament has a very interesting undertone. There is very clearly a primary message to the entire letter, one of love. The author displays brilliant rhetorical skill by oscillating between the message of love and the message of confusion. Confusion, the author points out, is built on a foundation of lies and discord. The author makes an important juxtaposition between confusion and love, that confusion is of the devil, and that “God is love.” The author places himself within a spiritual lineage that has love as its central message, and asserts that he is both proclaiming a “commandment” that is “old,” and yet also proclaiming that which is “new,” thus placing himself within a spiritual lineage that is both “old” and “new.” Most relevant to this trajectory of thought is that the author eventually makes an equivalency: that between love and truth. The author uses multiple words synonymously: love, truth, God, light, and so on; and words that he places in stark opposition are also used synonymously: lies, confusion, antichrist, deceit, the world, pride, riches, the flesh, and so on. There seems to be, then, a main point to this letter: that God is love.
Philosophers and anti-theists have feasted their facile fangs of rationality on this principle: that God is agape. Nietzsche’s Übermensch was created in stark opposition to the God of agape, the God of selfless love. Nietzsche dreamt of an individual that developed in awareness enough to consciously reject any values that were instilled within them, to will a new set of values into being, and will these values into a state of power. It was the ambiguity of these beliefs that undermined their brilliance, an ambiguity that allowed this jacket of ideas to be tailor-fit to Adolf Hitler’s narrow shoulders and his gospel of darkness. What Nietzsche continuously willed to power in his writing was a schizoid and grandiose tempest that was deeply confused how a God that was selfless love could produce such horrendous suffering in this life. That emotional dissonance is clear in Nietzsche’s writing, a large body of work boiling with a miasma of intense, unresolved anger. He, and many after him, labeled this same agape that the author of John held as the highest truth not as agape, but pity disguised as selfless love. Nietzsche, it seems, one of the great champions of the Western philosophical tradition, was unwilling to explore the possibility of agape as the great assuager of suffering (another argument for another time).
Nietzsche, and anti-theists writing and thinking in the same vein since Nietzsche, have painted this Christian virtue of agape as pretentious, sheepish, idiotic, unaware, uneducated, unscientific, and so on. And it is the integrity of this very virtue that the Orthodox Church lays claim to having preserved. Yet, the Gospel is a story, a narrative. It is a story of unlimited agape. Stories provide a narrative of action, and the Gospel is a story about the action of unlimited agape. Regardless of what Nietzsche and other anti-theists believe, the Gospel is a story of absolute strength, unyielding integrity, and bottomless perseverance. Agape is not a good idea, nor is it a mere sentiment. Love is not an ideological construct, is not a dogma. Love is an action. Love is selfless service. Love empties the self unhesitatingly. Love desperately seeks understanding to express compassion. Love listens. Love moves. Love is an emotional reality that requires being given and received for the action of love to be complete. Then, the environment proclaiming agape as absolute in relevancy must provide a space that is filled with agape, both as plentifully given and plentifully received. This is the litmus test of authentic Christianity.
The purpose of theology, then, is not to preserve an intellectual construct; the purpose of theology is to put love into motion, and to preserve the integrity of that movement. More than that, the purpose of theology is to provide an environment or community with a safe space to practice love. Love can only find Christ-like perfection when it is practiced, because practice makes perfect. The relevancy of this truth has become lost within the dusty books of the post-Enlightenment, patriarchal, post-Colonial, Western university library, as well as within the insipid academic world that has successfully isolated itself from the existential realities of the collective. Within Orthodoxy specifically, what was once a fight among the Eastern Church Fathers to preserve the integrity of a message of unlimited agape has become a contemporary fight to preserve the jurisdictional authority of a political system that is both as much antiquated as it is emotionally toxic. The message of selfless love has been supplanted by a message of intellectual certitude and staunch adherence to the ancient past.
The early Christian communities worked hard to preserve the very principle upon which their communities were built: that of agape; and it was through their perseverance in a life of selfless love that their faith was tested, not only in the God of love that they confessed, but in the message of the Gospel. Furthermore, the early Christians understood that the presence of selfless love was the litmus test of a true community of Christ. The internal structure of the early Church painted by the writings of the New Testament is one of communities that got together in each other’s homes, of families that were tightly knit and supported each other, of intimate relationships, and of presbyters and bishops who were primarily concerned with the emotional state of the communities that they oversaw—because it was through their display of agape that they were chosen by the community to be presbyters and bishops, and not through the display of either their intellectual ability or their canonical qualification.
This is a common trope in the Orthodox Church today: a collective hypervigilance among the hierarchy to preserve the “Holy Tradition” rather than work to exude the Gospel, to incarnate in our bodies the message of the Gospel. The centuries following the early Church were centuries of dogmatic extraction. Yet, this dogmatic extraction was expressed through the lens of Classical philosophy: one in which knowledge is not something to be written about or spoken of, but to be acted upon to incarnate and thus understand its truth, thus exploring the breadth and limitations of the human condition. The Patristic witness to the Gospel was one of action and embodiment, not highfalutin certitude. The Orthodox Church, it seems, has lost sight of the one needful thing. We all need to get back to the basics; the Orthodox Church requires a collective, intimate resurgence of the quintessential message of the Gospel, and thus place itself back into the lineage that has love as its central message.
John Tzavelas is a graduate of both the Toronto Orthodox Theological Academy and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He is currently enrolled in studies for psychotherapy.